It’s the expressions. Some stare vacantly with that deer-in-the-headlights look, some glower defiantly, others hold the steady downwards gaze of the already-defeated and always-defeated, the type of people who look like they could use a small victory in their lives and haven’t had one for many a moon. Surprisingly, many even smile, which might after all be the greatest form of resistance to what is happening to them.
Welcome to “Hard Times,” Huntsville’s weekly collection of mug shots from the county jail – (there’s also one for nearby Muscle Shoals) – with details of the alleged crimes listed below, part of the great American “name and shame,” a tradition of publicly humiliating transgressors that dates back to the stocks and pillories of colonial yore and weaves though Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter.” And later, the practice of making Southern chain gangs sweating in the sun as their stolen labor built the infrastructure that powered the New South – its roads, its canals, its bridges — wear black and white stripes.
If there wasn’t enough of this convict labor available, no problem: the foreman or boss would go to the local sheriff, tell a sympathetic ear of their labor shortage and soon enough, the requisite number of men, mostly poor Blacks (and more than a few poor whites) would be rounded up under bogus vagrancy charges and sentenced by complicit judges to work the fields, the factories and constructions sites, thus discharging their accumulated debts to society – and hefty imposed fines that could only be worked off in small increments.
Now, thanks to the internet and printing technology, what used to be confined to whispers and secret knowledge privileged for a few can be made widely available. The anonymous staff behind “Hard Times” every week sifts through and downloads mug shots along with arresting information, probably justifying it all in the name of the public interest. But everyone knows this is a fig-leaf, a failed effort to give themselves a propriety they don’t deserve – and shouldn’t aspire to.
“Hard Times” carries the whiff of ill-repute and it’s impossible to get in respectable outlets like Walmart and Walgreens. Instead, it gets distributed through a network of Mini-Marts, Jet-Peps and the like: faintly down-at-the-heel convenience stores and gas stations, the type of places where you have to carefully count your change afterwards, the bathrooms smell of latrine deodorizer and have old gum stuck to the floor, and the coffee’s been on just a little too long. All are immigrant owned; in North Alabama, it’s Jordanians, Pakistanis and Indians.
These immigrant-owned stores pay a uniquely positive role the big chains will never play: they extend informal credit to the low-waged, the poor and even to the homeless. If you are a single mother in the Butler Terrace projects, for instance, and facing “more month than money,” the convenience stores will extend you credit to make it to the first. In their own way, they do infinitely more for the poor than the official charity agencies that require reams of paperwork and documentation before they extend a helping hand and aren’t set up for the sudden emergencies and crises poor and low-income workers have to regularly deal with that can’t wait for three case manager appointments to address.
Opening “Hard Times,” you immediately see how the crimes are grouped by category beneath mocking, “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” subheads. Those charged with theft are under the “Sticky Fingers” subhead, those charged with public intoxication under “The Drunk Tank,” drug-related offenses appear under “Just Say No” and so forth. In-between are a jokes column (sample joke: “Instead of ‘the John,’ I call my toilet “the Jim.” That way it sounds better when I say I go to “the Jim” first thing in the morning.”) and hand-picked quotes by “Wyatt Earp,” the anonymous editor, such as “Lead us not into temptation. Just tell it where it is; we’ll find it.”
While “Wyatt Earp,” it’s safe to say, has not read “Discipline and Punish,” what he does with his paper is set up a reverse panopticon to Foucault’s, where instead of one watching many, many watch one. As a small-fry arbiter appropriating and dispensing shame for public consumption, “Hard Times” draws a line between the “respectable” working class and the not-so “respectable” working class.
But one can easily slip from one to the other, especially under the unforgiving gaze of Alabama law; a legal system where if you are charged with murder and the charges later dropped, you will still appear in background checks, making you virtually unemployable. Because the State of Alabama, in its infinite wisdom, only accepts trials with official not-guilty verdicts as a valid cause to take your name out of the database used by employers and landlords. After all, who’s to say that you really DID murder someone and the D.A. was forced to drop charges only because of insufficient evidence? Again, that “Scarlet Letter” crops up, in new shapes, in new forms. . . .
In the end, “Hard Times” serves as yet another example of the de-solidarizing pushed so much in American society where you are conditioned not to feel connected to or sympathize with others a rung or two down the class scale – or even in the same boat as you.
So who reads “Hard Times?” “Respectable” working class people who buy it weekly to see if there’s anyone they know in it. A neighbor of mine, a waitress at a chain restaurant in a strip mall, once whispered conspiratorially to me when I ran into her, “You know, the maintenance man’s son was in ‘Hard Times’ last week?” But the other audience, paradoxically, are young drug dealers and the like. To them, racking up a string of mug shots in “Hard Times” bestows street cred, proving on the streets you are a “hard rock gangsta’.” Instead of invoking shame, it’s embraced as a sign of pride and accomplishment, a prime example of the law of unintended consequences where so much in the scattered and tattered social fabric of America ends having the very opposite result from what was intended.