When People Are Grizzlies

My last post ended with an assertion that what truly matters isn’t what we say, but where the words come from. I suspect that those readers who happen to be Quakers recognized this as an allusion to a well-known bit of Quaker history.

A man named John Woolman lived in Haddonfield, NJ, near Philadelphia, in the 1700’s. He left behind a personal journal, and is remembered as a role-model of Quaker simplicity and piety. (He was also among the first, and most dedicated, abolitionists.)

At one point, he felt led to travel into the wilderness to the west of Philadelphia, and visit the Indians (that is the word that was used then) to see if they might, in some way, be helped forward by me following the motions of love among them. (I am quoting from memory.) During his visit, he was sitting quietly with the elders of a remote  village. Feeling led to speak, as might happen during a Quaker meeting for worship, Woolman stood, and began to pray aloud. His translator began to stand so as to translate, but Woolman motioned to him to remain seated and quiet.  Afterward, one of the village elders said to the translator, I love to feel where the words come from.

Where the words come from … Indeed. I also referred to people who are so fearful and so defensive that they are insensible to where the words come from, and compared them to rodents. This may have been a mistake; it seems that some readers thought I was thinking of rodent vermin, such as mice and rats, when I actually had in mind the very nervous squirrels and chipmunks I encountered on the walks I described. All the same, this comparison may have fallen short; people who are so fearful and defensive that they aren’t aware of where the words come from are more like grizzlies than squirrels, responding to perceived and imagined threats with great violence.

I learned about grizzlies when I was quite young, back in 1977, right after I began working as a railroad cop. I was working as a trainee at Croxton Yard, a big freight yard in Jersey City. Another young trainee was there also, and we were working with two old-time railroad bulls (cops) both of whom, as I recall, were named Tom. Tom Duffy, was an old man, skinny, nervous, and cranky. The other Tom (whose second name I have long ago forgotten) was not so old, but he was big, ignorant, and impressed with his own toughness. When he told stories about intimidating or physically bullying others, Tom Duffy would say, You’re a hard man, Tom. I always thought I heard sarcasm and contempt when he said it.

One day, the other trainee told us he had had to take a taxi to work, because his car wouldn’t start. He said he had flagged a cab, shown his police badge, and made the guy take him for free. Tom and Tom thought that was just fine.

Our sergeant was a guy named Roger. He was a regular kind of guy, practical and reasonable, seemingly honest and sincere. I told him what I had heard, and asked him to talk to the other kid and straighten him out before he got himself in real trouble. Roger later told me he had taken the kid aside privately and done just that.

Tough Tom took me aside and told me I had better learn to mind my own fucking business, or I would wake up one morning in an empty boxcar going west, with only the worst headache ever to keep me company.

About a year later, I started another assignment at the other end of Jersey City. When I met my new captain, he started chatting, and said that there were plenty of people in prison who had killed people for twenty dollars, in robberies, disputes, or whatever. He said that he was paid about twenty thousand dollars a year, and wondered if anyone would doubt what he would do for that much money if his job was jeopardized.

I have always wondered if he had that conversation with everyone who came to work for him, or if it was because of something he had heard about me. I have never wondered where his words came from.

 Returning violence for violence only multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.                                        — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Let us then try what love will do, for if people did once see we love them we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but love gains.                                        – William Penn (1693)

Now, about that young cop who extorted the taxi driver. In 1979, I left the railroad police, having been hired by the Bergen County Police. A short time later, I heard a television news story about a railroad cop having been shot while patrolling Croxton Yard, and having survived with minor injury because he was wearing a bullet-proof vest, which was new and novel then. It was him, that same guy! He was interviewed on-camera, and became a hero.

The next evening, the news had changed. The cop’s story had been inconsistent, and he had confessed to shooting himself and making up the story for attention and glory. His police career was now over, and he was facing criminal charges brought by Jersey City Police.

Two years earlier, he had listened to the wrong words, had put his faith in the wrong place for words to come from.

One response to “When People Are Grizzlies

  1. Alice Coulombe

    Good piece, Paul — reminds me of the various people I know, and how I must try to respond to them. I think of students, being a teacher, but in all interactions we are modeling and influencing the world in that one little way. I’m enjoying your blog — thank you! — Alice

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