I don’t think I am alone in saying that this country has gone to shit. It is pointless for me to mention all the areas that we, as a people, are screwing up; ask anyone and they will give you their own gripe-list to which you must listen intently and not disagree. Everyone in this country is an expert on where we came from, where we are, and where we are headed; every opinionated person out there thinks they have the answers and should have their own radio show so as to open the eyes of those addle-minded fools whose opinions differ from their own. People will tell you our issues stem from a lack of family values, or the media, or the education system, or the government, or some other weird and twisted source that is corrupting America not unlike a rotting apple.
However, I feel that the source is much less divisive than these others. I can’t honestly believe that the sad state of this country in so many areas is dependent on such a specific subject. I don’t think liberals are the downfall of this country; I can’t think that, since I am one, and the idea of being the source of all our problems tends to rub me the wrong way. I don’t think it is the government ruining this country. I just can’t abide the fact that education alone is the key to our return to supremacy. The media bandwagon, I can almost jump on that, but I prefer to point the finger at an impressionable public, easily swayed and influenced by the entertainment and news industry; they have no power if we think and question and are not easily influenced by their wares. No, the source of our fall from grace as a powerful nation is simply the lack of a driving force behind what made us great; ambition.
Ambition is what made this country what it is and literally carved out the constitution, declaration of independence, and the bill of rights. It was an ambitious endeavor to overthrow the imperial powerhouse of England and the Queen. It was ambitious to pursue Manifest Destiny, and so on and so on. We have lost this ambition, I think, in these days of difficulty. It may be a lack of ingenuity or a simple feeling of being crestfallen and disenchanted with an increasingly complicated and cynical world. It seems that the drive to rise up, overcome, and make a place in the world for ourselves and future generations has fallen by the wayside as many live paycheck to paycheck and dodge collection agency phone calls. This is now going to take a strange turn as I flip the beginning of this piece to get to the heart of my idea. I think when there is a lack of ambition, the vacuum it leaves behind is filled with a very dangerous attribute, complacency; and nowhere is this more apparent than in the criminal element in America.
America used to be number one with a bullet, literally, back in the roaring 40’s. I would go back further to the old west, but I feel the criminal element then was not as sophisticated as it became from the 30’s to the 60’s. In this time period you had an incredibly capable, powerful, and organized group of criminals operating simultaneously in a frame of time that held the likes of “Baby Face” Nelson, Bonny & Clyde, and the foremost criminal mastermind Al Capone. This is the last era we had in this country of truly great criminals with empires and laundering schemes that make Bernie Madoff look like a third rate pill-pusher from Beverly Hills. These were men with ambition and goals which made them millions of dollars, ownership of police forces and government, and infamous figures in a time of great growth in this country. This is the kind of criminal element we lack today.
The ambition of America has moved to other countries in other forms. Where as the likes of Al Capone squeezed protection money, bought judges, and smuggled whiskey, Mexican drug lords are moving just that, drugs, on a massive scale. Acres of poppy fields in Afghanistan funds the likes of Al Quaeda on a mythical proportion. The closest thing to organized crime has to be the Yakuza, started in the 17th century, and today still lives on. This is where we have come to, we outsource everything to Japan, including organized crime. As far as I can tell the rest of the world has gotten better, and more involved in illicitly illegal crimes while we, as a nation, have stopped turning out masterminds of any kind. You now see corruption in corporate America, not in outright criminals on the streets. Today we here of Ponzi schemes and insider trading instead of shootouts in New York between rival gangs, or bootleggers gunned down crossing the border from Canada. The headlines aren’t exciting and intense, they have become truly scary and horrifying, but for very white-collar reason. This is a result of complacency in the common criminal and a lack of good role models.
Case in point. About a month ago, when the idea of this piece came to me, I was in a Von’s grocery store grabbing some food and I got a six-pack of beer. When I was looking over the beer selection I noticed a tall man, disheveled and shifty-eyed, looking over the beer as well. I really thought nothing of it; in Ventura it is not uncommon to see a clearly homeless person deciding between Mickey’s and Foster’s 40’s by the pair to get them through the evening. I bought my groceries and made my way to my car in the parking lot, thinking about nothing at all, when I heard a woman holler from the direction of the store. Whipping around instinctively, I spied the same man from the beer section moments ago, walking briskly out of the store with a 24-pack of Natural Ice with two female employees in a jogging pursuit.
“Sir! Sir! Come back here, you didn’t pay for that! Sir!” The portly female cashier shrilly hollered after the man who continued speedily down the sidewalk paying no attention to the voice, never casting his gaze anywhere but straight ahead and down. As the second, willowy woman, came up behind the first, she made contact and with an outstretched arm, grabbed at the built-in handle on the beer case, and spun the man around. Oddly, on-lookers in very close proximity did absolutely nothing as two, short women faced off with a petty thief. It was no scuffle though, and it lasted about two seconds as the man spun, tugged very gently with his grip on the beer, and then seemingly just gave up. He let go, pulled a 180, and continued on his way, silent, and quickly disappearing in the direction of Seaward and the beach, as the jolly-looking cashier took the beer back inside.
Now there is much that is surprising in this situation. I have to say that the two glaring, lesser topics that stand out are the fact that the man was pursued out of the store, by two women no less, and the fact that no one did anything at all to assist the women, or apprehend the man. First off I have always been told to NEVER pursue anyone out of an establishment that I worked at. Do not be a hero, because there is no telling what could occur when you are out of your turf, and you never know who you are dealing with. Secondly, that no one came to the aid of these women of diminutive stature as they went head to head with a tree of a man is kind of shocking. From memory I can count about six men and women in immediate proximity to the occurrence that did little more than watch and actually back away. Chivalry clearly was incapacitated that day.
The greatest shock to me, the cynic that I am, was more about the possible decision making process of the assailant; this is where the ambition comes in to play on a very specific and case by case basis. In this case I see a total lack of ambition on his part. IF you are going to steal beer, and possibly go to jail for the crime, there are two things you need to keep in mind. First is that you need to pick a location where you can make a speedy get away or you can disappear quickly in to a crowd. Secondly, and most importantly, is if you are going down possibly, then you had better swipe some decent beer for your trouble. For God-sake, if I was going to steal I would rather get pinched for a 12-pack of Sam Adams than a 24-pack of Natty Ice; take me in to the station for piss flavored beer and I would be thoroughly embarrassed.
A lack of ambition and a self-defeating mentality is what leads to stealing shitty beer. It would stand to reason, for any one I may ask, that they would rather steal good beer than cheap, but this poor man decided very specifically that he wanted to swipe this beer. There was a process in his mind, that he wanted, nay, deserved, this Natural Ice, and not a finer well-crafted expensive beer. His mindset is that he did not consider the quality of the product he was stealing. A more ambitious man would look to the top shelf, get a good beer, or forget the beer entirely and try to hide a bottle of Wild Turkey or something in his shirt to get his drunk on. If he isn’t thinking quality, as he was not with his beer-run selection, then it must have been about just getting drunk, and a bottle of devil’s juice is much more effective than 24 crap-tastic beers. What led to this choice was a lack of ambition, and to a lesser extent, a negative self-image.
When compared to the criminals of the past; bootlegging and transporting illegal brew, gunning down the competition, and strong-arming entire neighborhoods, the man at Von’s is pretty pathetic. Where might he fall on the education ladder? Maybe he finished high school, maybe only part of high school, or maybe he never even got there. Where did Al Capone fall on the education ladder? A mastermind of his level must have gone to Harvard…I doubt it. I am betting that he did not even have a high school diploma, I’ll look this up later. I am betting that besides the odd accountant and lawyer at his disposal, the ilk of Al Capone’s actual organization probably did not have a very high IQ, and were not college grads. So how did they get to where they got, on par educationally as the common thief, and yet they took over America and drew international attention as great criminals? Again I say ambition.
The men of the times of Capone, Dillinger, and Nelson, were thieves and criminals. They knocked over banks, scared city councilmen, police chiefs, judges, et al., and all while running amok in public and being very well known. Capone was like a celebrity, interviewed often, a public face and a household name, and the man was a wild villain for Christ’s sake! Yet all of these men had an eye for the big time, and sights set on riches and success outside the reach of the long arm of the law. They worked their way up from common street thugs and small timers to heavy weights of celebrity while being unequivocally guilty of unspeakable crimes most of the time. These men built themselves up from nothing with little education, initial means, and some street savvy that they applied to quickly rise through the ranks of great American criminals.
This is an ambition that is hard to come by today. It cannot go without saying that it has become more difficult to rise to a power like Capone inside the borders of America with the complicated and tireless, 24/7 work ethic of national and international agencies. Today there are more people watching you with more authority, resources, and dedication, than ever in our history. So I do concede that it is very difficult to become a great criminal, and robbing banks is just about impossible, so a modern day Dillinger is out, too. But it does not mean that you can’t, as a common criminal, raise your sights higher so as to achieve something greater than a small score, like a fucking 24-pack of liquid crap. The long con, the hustle, the schemes, laundering, and the possibilities for thievery are still very live today. There is a great vacuum yet to be filled by the bygone gangsters of the past, and there is no reason that a high school grad with barely a penny in his pocket can’t commit himself completely to starting a company, or criminal organization, from the ground up.
This is the key that is missing, besides ambition; organization. It is time that we stop looking out for ourselves and our immediate needs and begin to organize. The Mob is the greatest pyramid scheme ever devised, and if Amway is still fucking advertising on TV, then there is no reason that the Mob can’t make a comeback on an epic level. I am sure it is very complicated, expensive, and treacherous business, but if the lender’s can get a bailout after fucking up as bad as they did, then I think a decent criminal can keep an illegitimate business going like the good old days. Think about the power of coming together and the deniability that comes from a large organization set on one goal of controlling an area and market. After a little elbow grease and blood spilled, I am sure you can get a legit butcher shop, an accountant, a lawyer, a couple of judges and cops, and then start laundering dirty cash and become a pillar in your community. Today we are looking for heroes, no reason you can’t fill those shoes. All it takes is a little commitment to something greater than yourself.
To be clear, I am no criminal, I may be dodging creditors and surviving paycheck to paycheck, but I’m a decent guy trying to make a living. I see myself as ambitious, and I think this is the quality we are missing on a whole, a hunger for something more, and the willingness to go after it, even take it, if we must. Ambition is what we all need, and I think it can work at all levels, even in the gutters and the dregs of the criminal element in this country. Capone was probably no more educated or wealthy when he was starting out than the homeless man at Von’s, but Capone had something in his criminal mind that yearned for more, and never settled for Natty Ice; Capone swiped Moet, and then sold it at 3/4 price to turn a profit, he was a businessman. He, and the men of his time, saw opportunity and had the wear with all to feel that it was in their grasp and they could do it, with less smarts than I have, and it is still possible today if you are only willing to allow yourself to dream…of being Al Capone. I am not advocating crime or criminal unionizing, but if you’re gonna do it, look to our forefathers and Dillinger for some inspiration on how to set your sights high and be ambitious; or at least steal some decent fucking beer for Christ’s sake, it’s embarrassing.