Most Baby Boomers will remember a TV show called “The Mod Squad” that ran in the late 60s. On that show three rebels with criminal pasts, a blond hippie chick, a black revolutionist and an angry young white man, were drafted into a tight-knit undercover crime fighting squad where they could use their smarts and street cred to bust bad guys. The black guy, played by Clarence Williams III, used to whip off his sunglasses, shake his head with its large afro, and defiantly pronounce his name: Leeen-KAHN! during the opening of each show. Lincoln “Linc” Hayes, what a cool guy he was.
Around this time the NYC Board of Education launched its own Mod Squad. They had the blonde hippie chick, a member of MENSA who played guitar and sang protest songs in a high, pure voice. They had a couple of angryish Black men and women and a few Hispanics who talked like their hermanos from the streets. There was a young Italian guy named Phil Trombino, very funny, a former minor league ballplayer. There was a big Jew with longish hair and bushy “mutton chop” sideburns, who always said exactly what was on his mind, who had your back, no matter what, and who was regarded by the rest of the Mod Squad as a no-bullshit character.
The big Jew quickly became the leader of the sensitivity and role playing sessions the outfit conducted with troubled high school gang leaders. His plain-spoken style, understanding of the underlying issues and quick wit facilitated dialogue. He was a fan and skilled practitioner of the old Black game he called “the Dozens”– cutting contests in which the participants made fun of each other brutally and personally and the winner was the guy who got the biggest laugh from his put down. “If you grin, you’re in,” he explained. Laugh and you’re next, fair game, let’s see what you got.
He was quick to spot bullshit during the training sessions he ran, and when he did, he wouldn’t hesitate to call it. “Dass some shit,” he’d say, with a sneer. He’d come home at night, after a few days with the rumbling “brothers”, and the other “bad actors” he’d worked with, and bring the street to the table with him.
“Dass some shit,” he’d say, when I pushed away the plate of whatever it was my mother was trying to make me eat. He’d quiz my sister and me about the meaning of the street lingo he’d picked up at these sessions. We generally had no idea what these bizarre phrases could be referring to. “As they say in the street,” was often added to the things our father said at the table.
“The language they speak in the ghetto is a constantly evolving insider language, it changes very fast, so that you have to run the streets, with an ear to what’s happening right now, to have any idea what the insiders are talking about. It’s a hipster language designed to exclude squares and act as a code to bedevil The Man,” he hipped us.
I could see that. “The only power they have, most of these kids, is the power to create their own style, to create a sub-culture. The underclass always creates what’s hip, then it gets co-opted by the retail establishment and used to sell product.” Soon enough we began to notice this all over. McDonald’s, purveyors of death to millions and destroyers of the lungs of the planet in the Amazon, was called Mickey D’s on the streets of many poor neighborhoods. It wasn’t long until Mickey D picked up on it, called themselves Mickey D, to show they were hip, you know, down with the niggas in the hood, you understand, bringing and slinging that delicious shit. The advertising motto that helped them sell a few billion more burgers and fries was a slightly more marketable version of “I be loving me that shit all up in here, yo.”
I don’t know how long the Board of Ed Mod Squad was in business. I was just a kid, at an impressionable age, and it made a big impression on me. Here was an honest, no-bullshit approach that seemed like it could work to really change the world for the better. Have kids from groups who were fighting each other meet in a neutral setting where adults, who were not squeamish about telling an asshole kid to sit the fuck down and listen to your colleague, or discuss the origins of the word “motherfucker”, could, with humor, understanding and frankness, get them to see that they had much more in common with each other than they had reason to fight. If this was ever done on a large scale, all poor people would realize the folks they should be organizing to fight were not other poor people, but folks like the powerful folks who could unblinkingly say on TV, “frankly, we tortured some folks.”
Like all human institutions, and many of our more noble experiments, this short-lived Board of Ed innovation appeared, in retrospect, to have been doomed from the start. The violence escalated year after year, as these gang members fought each other before being drafted into a senseless, endless war thousands of miles away. American society itself was increasingly violent, it didn’t really give a rat’s rump about what poor people needed, young people, anybody. The government sent the military against protesters, continued putting people to death, incarcerated them in larger and larger numbers for smaller offenses, sent them to be maimed in wars that made sense only to the industries and individuals who directly profited from them. The poor were subjected to this violence disproportionately, but that’s always the case.
“During the Civil War, if you had the cash, you could get out of serving in the Union Army by paying $300,” my father informed us. “You could also hire a substitute to serve in your place, some poor bastard who had no other options. Do you think the sons of the rich were rushing off to die in trenches during the worst carnage of that war, once it became clear what the nature of it was? A few, maybe, at the start, seeking glory, but most of them? Their lives were far too valuable to throw away charging up some muddy slope in Georgia.”
It has always been so. One last thing about this Mod Squad for now: my father, who was at one time best friends with the blond haired Marxist WASP with the beautiful singing voice, came to truly hate her after a couple of years. She actually left New York City in the aftermath of their falling out, which she saw as a traumatic betrayal. The Human Relations Unit, and its Office of Intergroup Relations, (for which my father was Coordinator of Pupil Programs) soon went the way of the Dodo bird and ten thousand other unique and cool species since.