Saturday, July 19, 2008

Biting the Hand that Feeds Him....and Kissing it Thereafter

Down the Shore these days, everything may not be alright. Apparently the residents of the Borough of Staten Island who migrate to the town of Belmar every summer are quite upset with Belmar Mayor Ken Pringle. It seems Mayor Pringle used a recent issue of the Town's newsletter to take issue with some of the less-than-sterling behavior that goes on out in the streets of Belmar every summer. The newsletter's stated purpose, as per Hizzoner, is to let summer renters know that Belmar is going to enforce its noise ordinances and other town ordinances aimed at curbing the type of idiotic, alcohol-fueled behavior that ends up on Girls Gone Wild!, Cops or both.

'Twas not the Mayor's message that struck an angry chord with his town's visitors from the other side of the reservoir - or more precisely the Fresh Kills landfill - it was his language. He had the gumption to call folks - among other things - "guidos" and "Bennys" - in the narrative of his recitation of events that he apparently did not make up - but rather took from the police blotter. The newsletter was a somewhat botched satirical discussion of the Borough's statistics re: summonses for noise complaints, arrests for disorderly conduct, etc. His "sin" is not that he made it up - it is that he called people out for it. I'd say "he named names" but I do not want to be faced with my own Staten Island embargo.

Did Mayor Pringle shoot himself in the foot by saying what he said in the manner in which he said it? He certainly did. Is the hue and cry really proportionate to the alleged affront? Not even close. It remains one of my favorite characteristics of human behavior that the response to anyone, especially an "outsider" (I'm guessing here that Ken Pringle is not an Italian-American and I read in the newspaper that he was born and raised in Belmar), commenting upon the type of inane, "look at me!" behavior that reinforces stereotypes, is to attack the commentator as opposed to challenging the members of the community who are perpetuating the stereotype to change their behavior.

One needs to look no further than today's New York Post and its "YO GUIDO, I'M SORRY, AWRIGHT" piece to see evidence of this phenomenon. There are several residents of Staten Island quoted in the article, all of whom express their outrage at the Mayor for what he said. None of them - not a one - is quoted as to the veracity of what he said. That's been the tenor of the response thus far. Not "Hey how dare he say those things about some of the people who rent summer places in his town, it's untrue, that's not how we act!". Rather it is, "Hey how dare he say those things. I resemble that remark! And what's it to you?" In America in the 21st Century, how dare you tell me when I'm behaving badly. I live in the Nation of "Entitlement without Accomplishment", the Land of "I Can't be Responsible for How I Behave" and within the geographical boundaries of what is fast dissolving into a Banana Republic - (man, I hope they have the cargo shorts in my size at the Bridgewater store).

The searing light of self-examination eludes us from time to time, I suppose. Perhaps that's why the reaction to what Hizzoner wrote has been what it has been - and it has been angry enough and swift enough that he has issued an apology in the latest edition of the newsletter. Perhaps it is also due in part to the fact that Hizzoner wrote what to his ear sounded like humor - and for what it's worth significant portions of it sounded damn funny to this man's ear as well - and was not received that way. The thin line that separates love and hate has an equally gaunt cousin who forms the often ambiguous border between biting satire and meanness.

Ken Pringle may or may not take solace in the fact that criticism of the type of behavior - of a few - that tends to reinforce negative stereotypes about the community - as a whole - is not any better received by the community when it comes from "an insider". Do not take my word for it, ask Bill Cosby.

Will all end well on the streets, boardwalks and beaches of Belmar? I suspect it shall. I suspect that in spite of her threatened exploration of another place to spend a week in August, Samantha DiGiodanni and her fellow 18 y/o Staten Islanders will be there - hanging out on the beach and playing beer pong in someones front yard. Here's to hoping all ends well for the warring factions.

But here's to hoping that anyone who descends on anyone else's town for their summer vacation remembers that while you're just stopping by, there are folks who live there. Your "right to have fun" and their right to the quiet enjoyment of their town - which by the way is one of the reasons (whether consciously or sub-consciously) that you choose to spend a bit of your life there every year - are not, and should never be viewed as, mutually exclusive goals. Would it have been less of an affront to the world if Mayor Pringle had simply written that Belmar is going to post a sign at its boundary lines:

"WELCOME VISITORS AND GUESTS TO OUR TOWN. WE HOPE YOU ENJOY YOUR STAY. WE THANK YOU FOR COMING. WE ASK ONLY THAT YOU DO NOT BEHAVE LIKE IMBECILES WHILE YOU ARE HERE."

Even if they use really fancy type-face it has to cost less to produce than that damned newsletter, don't you think?

-AK

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