Sometimes, knowing how and why doesn’t do jack for anyone

Fishing boats tied up in New Bedford/Fairhaven harbor. Photo by me.

I tried reading a book by Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead, but I couldn’t finish it because it got me thinking about Max Weber, economic theory, and Donny, a boy I used to play with when I was little.

Demon Copperhead is about a modern day boy, orphaned, lost in the system, constantly getting screwed by adults, other kids, and an uncaring bureaucracy, constantly pushed down, told and shown that he’s worth nothing. The writing is spectacular and the scenarios are vivid and believable.

And that’s what got me thinking about Donny.

Donny, not his real name, lived next door to my grandparents in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. As it is now, that part of Fairhaven was a working class neighborhood, where most of the residents work in the harbor or on fishing boats that go out for days or weeks at a time. Donny’s dad was a scallop boat man, which when we were younger, was a tremendous point of pride for him.

Every summer I’d spend two summer weeks at my grandparents’ house, and from the time I was five or six, Donny and I were thick as thieves. He was a year younger than me, but it didn’t matter, because most of what we did was race around on bikes, or try to climb trees, dodge neighborhood dogs, or play games in my grandparents’ basement. 

I almost never went into his house, because his dad was usually sleeping. If I ever saw his mom, it was just her head, poking out the window, red faced and yelling, “Donny! Time to come home now!”

Always, Donny ignored her the first time. Then, she’d yell again, and probably my grandmother would say, “Your mother’s calling you, Donny.” And then he’d reluctantly get up and walk home next door.

He had an older brother and an older sister. If we were maybe eight and seven – Donny was a year younger than me – his brother was fifteen, hanging out with the high school kids, wearing muscle shirts and getting picked up by a Cutlass or maybe a TransAm. His brother had nothing to say to me, except maybe, “Get out of my way,” like big teens do to annoying little kids. 

His sister, maybe five years older than us, was nicer. She’d sometimes talk to us, but never to say more than a few sentences. She seemed to watch out for Donny, saying things like, “Make sure you don’t get in any trouble, and listen to Mr. Fourcher,” which was how the kids in the neighborhood addressed my grandfather.

My grandfather attracted a certain level of respect on the block. By 1980, he’d been there more than 45 years, and had seen waves of kids come and go, sometimes getting to know the kids of kids he’d once watched over in the neighborhood. Retired since the late 70’s, he was a tinkerer, with a legendary basement workshop, which he used to fix neighborhood electronics and often build things. Of legend was the wooden go-kart he built for me (see the picture at top of this blog), a giant homemade kite, as well as a sail car we zipped across empty parking lots.

Because of this, my grandfather attracted a pretty steady following among the neighborhood boys. In the warmer months, he and my grandmother would sit on their porch, and the kids would run up to him and ask, “Are you building anything, Mr. Fourcher?” Every summer I visited, inevitably he’d be finishing something up, and then I’d get to be part of the big reveal. A wind-powered mini-tower of lights, a giant kite made of garbage bags, the sail car, the go-kart.

All the kids would come by to check it out, ask to try – my grandfather made sure they always got a chance to enjoy it for themselves – then just stand and gaze at the contraption. 

Donny, because he and I were tight, would sometimes get to go to the basement workshop to see how the gizmos came together, and would get extra time with them. But I was the grandson, so I got the most time and the most attention from my grandparents, especially because when mealtime came, Donny had to go home and I stayed inside.

Maybe it was easier when we were younger, or maybe I didn’t notice what things were really like. But as the years went on, Donny and I hung out less and less. His mother wasn’t around as much, or often during the day we had to be quiet outside because she was sleeping. His brother had moved out, and his sister was now the one getting picked up in cars. 

Donny’s sister always nice anymore either. She began yelling at Donny the way her mom did, and Donny would yell back. Once, when were eleven or twelve, she was yelling at him for something or other as she headed out with some friends, and Donny screamed back, “you’re a fucking whore”, which just leveled me. She yelled back, “Shut up, you idiot,” and sped away with her friends, cackling as they went.

I remember the silence hanging in the air in the minutes after that. The sad, defeated look on his face. It was the first time I really began to see a divide between us. I don’t know what we did after that, but I’m pretty sure the rest of the day sucked.

The go-kart was an especially big deal that lasted for years. My grandparents lived on a hilly street, so the kids and I was roll it up to the top of the hill, then careen down the street – or more likely the sidewalk, pulling on the handbrake until it came to a stop just before the cross street at the bottom of the hill. Every kid wanted a turn, and then another. We’d go as many times as my grandmother would let us, as she insisted on standing on the porch to make sure nobody wiped out. We never did.

Late one afternoon, another kid on the block, Gio, also not his name, asked me, “So, Mr. Fourcher is your grandfather?” 

“Yeah, he is.”

“And does he make stuff like this all the time?”

“I guess so.”

Gio and Donny looked at each other, and Gio said, “Man, I wish he was my grandfather.”

“Me too,” whispered Donny. 

Each year, there seemed to be more and more yelling in Donny’s house. At the end of the day, we’d hang out in my grandparents’ basement, where it was harder to hear the yelling – or the calls for him to come home. My grandparents would ask him to stay for dinner and my grandfather would give him tasks around the house to keep him busy. 

Once, I was in the driveway between our houses. There was a lot of screaming and banging in his house. Then: A high pitched, guttural scream from Donny. He came flying out the front porch door, shirt messed up, maybe torn. He ran around the side of the house, saw me and ran into my grandparents’ back yard, sat down in a heap under the old apple tree, and bawled.

We were maybe nine or ten then. I went over, sat next to him, his face smeared with dirt and tears. He gradually stopped, instead pulling grass out of the ground, throwing it toward the tree trunk. We sat there, and eventually I suggested some things we could do. Donny said no to everything. 

Eventually he got up, “I gotta go.” And he left and went on a long walk, “Going to the school,” he said. I didn’t know where that was, and stayed in the yard.

By the time I was in high school, I didn’t see Donny around much. I knocked on his door, but he was always gone. Once, when we were both around fifteen, I saw him during my summer visit and we had an awkward conversation. I’m sure I was dressed like the preppie I was, and Donny was in a muscle shirt, just like his older brother used to wear. 

I don’t remember the conversation well, but I remember neither one of us had much to say, and as soon as I started talking, I knew it wasn’t going well. I think we both ended on a, “see you around,” and I later saw him climb into someone else’s car, and that was it. 

Much later, when I was in college. I was hanging out on the driveway when this guy came up and said, “Michael?”

It was Donny. He’d graduated high school and gone to work on a fishing boat and lived in the town next door. He was stopping by to visit his sister, who still lived at home with their mom. His dad had moved out and moved away long ago.

We exchanged a few words, told a bit about our lives. I didn’t tell him I was going to live in Washington, D.C. to work in politics, and I’m sure there was a lot he didn’t tell me about working on a boat. The distance between us seemed so vast, and even then I wished I could have kept the connection.

“See ya around.” 

“Yeah. See you later.”

And that was it.

Was Donny’s life so bad? I’m not sure. But I know he didn’t have it as good as I did.

And that got me thinking about economic theory. For instance, let’s say you and I each get $100, and we each can bet up to half of what we have on a coin flip. Let’s say I win and you lose, so you have $50, and I have $150. Then I win and you lose again. I now have $225 and you have $25. Then we both lose, so I now have $112 and you have $37. Even if you win two more times, you’ll still only have $83, less than what you started with.

But if I managed to have a string of say, six wins, I’d have $1,139. A few losses versus a few wins early on makes all the difference in how far you get ahead over all.

Max Weber, the guy who basically created sociology, also talked about the idea of “life chances”, or the opportunities a person has in their life to obtain a better well being. He surmised that you’re more likely to get more life chances based on your socioeconomic standing. Connecting the idea of life chances with the $100 coin flip example, you can see how maybe some people are set up from the very beginning to not get far.

Over the years, I’ve kept Donny in my thoughts quite a bit. And not just him. There’s the kid who used to run away from his alcoholic mother and always end up at our house. The kid in church daycare that always seemed to wear the same clothes every day, never had toys, always ate the free dinner and was always the last to be picked up, long after it was dark outside.

A big chunk of my career was about wanting to make a difference for kids like Donny. And now, looking back, I feel ashamed that the preppie guy with a big education hasn’t been able to do more for them. Yeah, I live a pretty comfortable life, so that stuff has served me well, but the coin flips just end up doing what they do, no matter what. And I benefited from a few more winning coin flips and life chances.

For days I’ve been thinking about this. It’s been tumbling around in my head, pounding to get out, onto a piece of paper, a screen. I was hoping that writing this all down would give me some rest. 

But instead I only feel worse. I guess Demon Copperhead really got to me, even if I didn’t finish it.