Crime and Prestige

A Cautionary Tale


prison4.jpg (14084 bytes)

prison4.jpg (14084 bytes)

by Robert Winter

Why can’t we ever seem to make much of a dent in crime?  Criminologists can use "recidivism" and various other polysyllabic concoctions, but the image I keep returning to involves a visit back to my home town.

In a local night spot, I ran across a former teammate from the track squad.  We found that we were both doing fairly well for young men:  I’d made what I thought was a pretty good start in a journalistic career;  he not only had his own business, but had been run for Congress.   (Although the bid wasn’t successful, he’d made a more than respectable showing, given the party alignment of the district.)

Then another face from the past appeared.

I’ll call this other character Rocco.  From somewhere about the fourth grade on, Rocco had picked up a reputation as a "hood."  I’m not sure what he actually did to make him all that much of a desperado.  It seemed to be mainly a matter of dressing in a certain way, sneaking cigarettes in the boys’ room, hanging out with a certain crowd, and maybe talking just a bit more crudely than the rest of us, who were actually also anxious to show off our command of what we perceived to be "adult" words.

My relationship with Rocco, who lived on the next block, had been as a sort of "friendly enemy."  We had often tussled in the schoolyard.  I considered myself tougher than him—although the ongoing nature of our scuffles probably reflected a contradictory opinion on his part.   Anyway, what we got into usually involved at least some sense of a game.

Now, years later, a glance at Rocco as he entered the bar was enough to tell me he hadn’t outgrown his earlier reputation.  Far from it.  He was doing his best to look baaad.  He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and he was wearing what in those days we called a "pimp hat."  Mainly, though, the image projection was a matter of kinetic style.  His movements were a study in calculated indolence and menace.

"Bad" or not, he was somebody from the old days who I hadn’t seen in years.  I worked my way through the crowd, and stopped him within a few feet of the door.

There was a smile on his face;   he was genuinely glad to see me.  But we didn’t talk for very long before he began to look uncomfortable.  The next thing I knew, he was excusing himself and moving on.

As I watched him disappear back toward the dance floor, I was struck by the way that people in the packed, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd managed to get out of his way.

I returned to my friend the Congressional candidate, and was immediately chided for my behavior.  I had failed, it seems, to show proper deference to Rocco.

"What are you talking about?" I said.  "That’s just Rocco.  We grew up together.   I used to beat him up on the playground."

"No, man, you don’t understand," my friend said.  "You don’t mess with Rocco now."

He leaned over closer.   "Rocco’s gotten to be a pretty bad character," he said.   "He’s been to prison."


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