"I had to learn the hard way of what it means to be a good person … "

Justice, morals, order, law — we’ve heard these and other synonyms a lot in the past several months. What most everyone agrees on is that they're real. What any of them mean is an entirely different story.

My formative years were all spent in the ‘90s. Outside of anyone’s own immediate bubble, communication with the rest of the world was rare then. It’s not like we were carving battle plans into stone walls or anything, the public just didn’t care to know what was going on around the other side of the planet, except of course what large news organizations fed us.

As teenagers, some of us religiously listened to punk rock and hung upside down American flags in our bedrooms to protest authority. We’d also smoke dirt weed and pocket 40s from the local liquor store on the weekends — real aggressive shit, you know?. There was a thriving middle-class, and racism was “non-existent” in the eyes of the suburbs. By all accounts (at least for me) it was a pretty peaceful time to be alive.

Out of sight — out of mind — kind of a thing.

I didn’t have very strict guidelines to go by, either. My parents went through a toxic divorce when I was 8 years old, and after that never saw the need to punish me the way kids need. I was the last of 3 children in one family, and an outcast in my other — I kind of slid by without having to be raised at all. I just did me, for better or worse.

So my role models growing up were few and far between. Sure, Tim Armstrong and Bob Burnquist were doing things I would have liked to do as an adult, but they were never out teaching kids ethics. They just were who they were and made a great living doing it.

I had to learn the hard way of what it means to be a good person.

Most of my lessons eventually came from criminals, people most others wouldn’t sit down to dinner with let alone guide their moral compass. This happened because I, too, became a criminal. It was my crew, my inner circle. Some of them were my age; many of them were older, having lived a reject’s lifestyle for multiple decades. It just kind of happened this way as I devolved into the street life as opposed to a more studious one like my peers. Theirs was a path towards a four-year degree; mine was studying in the school of hard knocks.

Johnny showed me where to buy drugs from the Internet, and how to scam the dealers without being traced.
Lance made sure I didn't bring anything home from jail, it's bad luck, and means you'll probably go back.
Chance had guns, and knew how to get rid of them.

Another guy I hustled with was named Dozer. He was a normal person, like frighteningly so. For whatever reason, he had no defining characteristics about him. His hair wasn’t styled any particular way, he wore nothing that could be considered fashionable or out-of-date, he spoke neither loud nor soft, and when people met him, they’d completely forget he ever existed seconds later. When we got high together, we’d laugh about how that was his superpower, to be completely off the radar.

It wasn’t far from the truth.

He got away with a lot. Looking back, it probably had everything to do with the fact he didn’t look like a criminal, whatever that means by today’s standards. He had a bunch of money, because he sold ecstasy, and had a few lawyer friends that would hook him up with defense every so often if he needed it. He was brilliant, too. Read a lot of Rand, Marx, Kerouac, Machiavelli — anything really.

He also hated America. Hated the police. Hated his parents. Hated McRibs.

I always asked him: “Who the fuck hates McRibs?”

“I’m the only one,” he’d always quietly respond. It was like his character tagline.

The best part about knowing Dozer was that he liked to look at things differently. By challenging himself, he challenged those around him — something completely out of the norm when talking about street level dealers in Colorado. He was concrete about it too, never allowing emotion to get in the way of logic. His realistic perspective kept him grounded, he’d say. It also kept him single. Dozer was a hard dude to get along with.

But he liked me, and I liked him. We could trust one another and weren’t stupid when it came to taking risks. It’s why we spent a bunch of time listening to oldies and musing about the universe in his dingy-ass apartment drinking whiskey. We spoke of a lot of things, but most particularly of what it meant to be right, and if anyone had ever been wrong at any time in history.

Which is fucking crazy to think about. Dictators the world over have led groups into atrocities, murderers rip apart families every day and petty thieves ruin afternoons all the time. A negativity-fueled schism of society exists, absolutely. But Dozer never felt any of it was particularly “wrong” — because wrong, to him, didn’t even make sense.

He could probably be best described as an ethical nihilist, or someone who doesn’t think anything is naturally moral or immoral. He based this off of the idea that humans created both value systems. Also, because there are too many unanswered questions if you go looking for them:

Is it okay to murder someone if they’re attacking your daughter?
Should you steal from the market if you’re dying of hunger?
What’s the difference between finding a dollar on the ground and in someone’s pocket?
In fact, what does ‘possession’ even mean? And why is money so important?

By comparison, we weren’t asking ourselves technically advanced philosophical questions. This is 101 type stuff, what community colleges pride themselves upon. Dozer never had any answers to any of it, though, but I think that was the point. He didn’t want to find answers, because answers would mean that there is a right one. And, inevitably, a wrong one.

He’d argue with himself just to subvert a conclusion. It was fun to watch.

After growing up and out of that phase of my life, I took plenty of lessons with me. For one, petty crime doesn’t really pay. Stealing things is for shitty people and dealing drugs has too many hang-ups for it to really be a stable career. Two, I had no idea what it meant to be a good person. Dozer did. He taught it to me, whether he was trying to or not.

See, guys and girls on the streets right now aren’t doing so because they want to. Hardly. There are myriad reasons why they’re stuck in a street hustle and not in some swanky office in the Denver Tech Center or in Boulder, Colo. wearing pantsuits and driving a leased SUV. Some of them deal with addiction, others with opportunity. Just badly dealt cards, really. They do what’s necessary to survive. That’s reality.

It’s hard to admit people exist outside of your own comfort theory. To you, taking something that isn’t yours is wrong, but to Dozer — and thousands like him on the streets right now — it’s about survival, the right thing to do. “Just because something is illegal doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” he’d always say. There’s something deeper in the world than control via legislation. He knew that.

I still wonder what his idea of a perfect world would have been. He tried to explain it a few times, but never really could because he’d spend the next fifteen minutes arguing away his own logic. I’m not sure he ever really built one, because his Utopia would likely be something incomprehensible to anyone, even himself. Outside of understanding right now.

But he knew what being right was and what it wasn’t. It has no concrete value structure attached to it, like we’re taught from the time we’re toddlers. There is no good, and there is no bad. There just is. No, he didn’t use that as an excuse to kill, or offend, or rape, or blast through stoplights. That’s not what he did. He used it to live free, outside of convention. He saw people for what they were, as situations.

So when I see another tragedy unfold on the news or hear about another unsavory character crossing social lines in the sand, I try not to immediately judge who they are based off of mob intention. We all live in different worlds with powerful perceptions driving every move everywhere.

I try to understand.
I try to learn.

That’s probably as close to being “right” as anyone will ever get.

photo: Brian L. Frank