Like the variety of chocolate that was once manufactured there by the Whitman’s Chocolate Company for their famous Whitman’s Sampler, I have bittersweet memories of Camden, New Jersey. I think that it’s safe to say that New Jersey is the most politically corrupt state in the nation and that Camden has always been the most politically corrupt city in the state. According to a knowledgeable source that grew up in Camden during the time of its hay-day and became the head coach of the Rutgers University Camden basketball team, it was this corruption that lead to Camden’s ultimate demise. That being said, I can only say that my own personal knowledge is less than extensive in regard to this subject in spite of my own egocentric need to show myself as some sort of “connected” type guy. That might have been kind of a half truth at one point in my life but it is hardly the case today. I live here in the Sunshine State safe and secure in the knowledge that I did the right thing at the right time and never ever got any kind of an “attaboy” for doing the right thing. As a matter of fact my own personal life experience has pretty much taught me the truism inherent in the tautology that “no good deed goes unpunished” sometimes. That, of course, has never been a real deterrent to many which begs the question relative to the needs of the human soul as opposed to those merely of the flesh.
My own drug related gangsterism while working and living in Camden had been noticed and noted by not only the various local PDs that felt thusly impacted but by the feds as well. I was tipped off to this fact in part owing to the need of one local Collingswood cop to do a little bit of horse trading in regard to a particular warrantless search of my mother’s house on Wesley Avenue in exchange for information related to the undercover rat in midst of my pot empire. That was back in the days before the militarization of local police departments/agencies all across America when it was possible to have something of an Andy of Mayberry relationship with these authority figures that had yet to decide that they could in fact become gods and a law unto themselves. It was a different era and being a part of the corruption did not mean that I could not be negatively impacted by it. Indeed the screw had begun to turn for me at that point in my social service career when I began to see and sense that I could actually do some good for people. My position as a caseworker with the Camden County Welfare Board was my first real introduction to mass poverty on a scale that I could never have realized existed from the serenity and security of my safe suburbanite cocoon. Collingswood, New Jersey the town that I grew up in right outside of Camden was a thoroughly segregated place. It was kept segregated through the kind of unofficial official doctrine of Jim Crow up North that only the barons of real estate knew anything about. They got the job done and that was all that mattered.
Most of the desperately poor people on county assistance who were my clients were actually white however the insinuation has always been otherwise. Once again reality and the facts were never in sync with the usual self-serving myths that a thoroughly corrupt and venal political class continually exploited to serve their own evil corrupt ends. Suffice it to say that my thoughts and my deeds were with and on behalf of my clients as I began to see the real need that existed amongst these people. One of the greatest joys of my life was that I was truly able to help perhaps more than just a few desperate people even if I had to bend the rules to do so. Providing welfare assistance to the poor and needy was a complicated business back in the 1970s. It involved three levels of governmental funding; county, state, and federal with the feds picking up the biggest portion of the bill for the AFDC program that I worked in and administered. AFDC stood for Aid for Families with Dependent Children and the families were for the most part (90%) single parent families headed up by the mother of the dependent children. There was a plethora (relatively speaking of course) of financial and social services that were available to these families so that they did not have to fall into such an abject state of absolute poverty as one heard about in places such as India and the poorest parts of Africa. Most people who lived in poverty in Camden as well as elsewhere in Camden County were not at all well informed about the full range of services that were available to the needy. It was part and parcel of the unofficial county policy not to inform people in regard to this as a way of helping to discourage the needy from applying for these services that were funded largely by the federal government. Welfare Rights was an organization started by welfare clients to help inform others in need of their rights in regard to gaining assistance. This organization was thoroughly hated by the administration, the supervisory staff, as well as many client unfriendly caseworkers. Barbara B. the outspoken no nonsense head of the local Welfare Rights organization was one of my clients. We got along quite well.
Every expense that went into maintaining a household had to be itemized and accounted for by the caseworker in charge and signed off on by the various levels of management that oversaw the entire operation that was nothing so much as a testimonial to the mass depravity of capitalism and its inability to function as a social system that provided adequately for all people. Capitalism did however make some folks enormously rich and it was always this idea of getting the required initial accumulation to become a capitalist that drove many enterprising people into a life of crime. I will always be grateful to my Lucky Stars that the Better Angels of my nature won out at a critical point in my life when things could have turned out quite otherwise for me. It was at that point in my life that I did start to develop and grow this curiously strange thing called a social conscience that is based entirely upon something that I would call social consciousness. That was the real beginning for whatever level of mental, emotional, and spiritual health that I have been able to bring into my life irregardless of such indications to the contrary that a one month stay in the Camden County Psychiatric Hospital in Lakeland, New Jersey would seem to indicate! (Because of the intensity of the many interpersonal relationships that one built up and experienced in this field burnout was a common but usually poorly understood occupational hazard. )
Just the mention of that one word-Lakeland in casual conversation was enough to throw terror into the bodies, minds, and souls of all and everyone which was at one time the real and only purpose that the system of “psychiatric justice” served in the first place! Creating complete and absolute conformity to the will of “anonymous authority” has always been what capitalism does best and the real strength of the system with the anonymous nature of authority as opposed to the outright visible authority of kings, queens, and popes who can not hide behind this veil of absolute anonymity and denial is something that the system feeds on.
My writing career is all that is left to me at this point in my life and is the only way perhaps that I can make sense of things to myself. Its not an exercise in self aggrandizement as one malevolent force in my life suggested to himself that it was; it is rather the need to tell a story because stories are the things we use to make sense of the world around us. It is a therapeutic adventure that can await anyone brave enough (or perhaps like Parsifal foolish enough) to set out on “the Quest.” The greatest and most important struggle that any of us will ever face according to such founders of existential psychology as Victor Frankel and others is to make sense of our own lives. The personal narratives that we chose to live by can either be empowering or disabling. Its this realization alone that has bought me to the point in my life were I chose to share some of the intimate details of my life with others whom I don’t know and will never meet as well as those who think (often mistakenly) that they know me best. This labor of love has not gone unpunished. That however will not deter me in regard to this mission.
I have every reason to believe irrespective of my psychiatric diagnosis, that one of my principle work friends of that era may have in fact been an FBI type undercover operative working for the US Attorney’s Office whose jurisdiction included Camden and parts of South Jersey. Janet R. was a young woman with a troubled past who became a caseworker in the same unit that I worked in shortly after the arrival of Tom W. who became my one and only real contact to the drug underworld that existed in Northeast Philly and that part of the Philly PD that used to be called the narcotics or vice squad. Janet and I became close and almost intimate friends. I shared much personal information with her about a whole range of subjects related to my own troubled life at that point. She seemed, however to know a whole lot more than I had ever told her regarding my relationship with Tom W. and it was in part the queasy sense of unease that this gave me that played such a major part in my personal decision to ditch the drug trade and reform my life. Janet became a source of information regarding a whole range of office gossip and news. My trust in her grew when I learned that she had been a friend of my mother’s youngest sister, Kathy Ann when my aunt was a member of The Royaliers Drum and Bugle Corp from Haddonfield, New Jersey. Janet was attractive and athletic and in spite of casually sleeping with her one night in Germantown (part of Philadelphia); she never let me fuck her in spite of my desire to do so. She left the area after a major FBI/Justice Department sting operation that sent certain Welfare supervisors off to federal prison. I left the Camden County Welfare Board prior to the shit hitting the fan. Janet gave me by way of an excuse that the reason why she would not fuck me was that she was still loyal to her boyfriend “Mercle.” It was only later that I learned that this was the last name of the US Attorney for the Eastern District of PA and South Jersey. I never got a chance to thank you Janet for being a positive force in my life. I have always remembered you quite fondly however. Give my regards to Mercle if you are still in contact with him.
Note-This piece was originally posted to Open Salon on 01-19-2014