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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Mark of the Squealer

BY THE TIME I saw the movie “Dead End,” wherein a thuggish street gang marvels at the significance of a hoodlum’s knife-slash wound, I’d already had a poignant taste of the squealer business.

“Dead End” is the 1937 Humphrey Bogart picture that introduced young actors Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and the others who would go on to be featured in classics like “Angels with Dirty Faces” and an increasingly disappointing series of comedies in which they were billed as “The East Side Kids” and “The Bowery Boys,” among other “Dead End”-avoiding monikers. They offered an image of fraternity that I (briefly) convinced myself was not unlike my own group of high-school friends – at least insofar as avoiding the “mark of the squealer” was concerned.

"Th' mahhk of th' squee-lah!" (Dead End, 1937)
I earned it, inadvertently, I’d like to think, while in elementary school. An aggressively underachieving student, I was summoned before a succession of psychological counselors and subjected to the tests du jour, which included such cinema classics as Rorschach images and word-association games. Although I rarely complained of anything to my parents, whom I feared would overreact, I confessed to a counselor that I tended to feel left out, neglected by my classmates. “At lunchtime,” I told him, “all they do is play cards, and nobody asks me to play.”

A game called Setback had become a sudden craze, and each of cafeteria’s refectory tables had several kid-clusters inside which flashed the blue or red backs of Bicycle decks. Shortly after my confession, an edict was announced: No more card-playing in school. The anger of my fellow students only intensified my silent guilt at being the cause of this proscription. Why else would it have happened?

At least in this case I was an anonymous squealer. As a Boy Scout, in my early teens, I was subjected to that classic paramilitary discipline approach of threatening to punish an entire patrol if the unknown perpetrator of an infraction failed to identify himself. The indignity of it was made worse by the fact that we all knew who it was who committed any offense – a loutish blonde-haired kid named Guy who took any opportunity during campout or meeting to loudly holler for Mike Hunt.

In high school, after I’d left the Scouts (just shy of Eagle, which my cynical then-self deemed dorky), my film-buff friends and I joined the ’70s Bogart rediscovery bandwagon, and “Dead End” inspired a counter to the persistent “confess-or-everybody-gets-punished” approach to discipline. We would confess en masse. Even though none of us did whatever it was. Nobody in authority believed us, so no punishment was imposed, and our lack of respect for the system helped, I hope, to erode it.

But the Squealer continues to enjoy an ambiguous reputation. In the pursuit of honesty, health, and safety, the squealer is termed Whistleblower, and the moral good a Whistleblower can do exists in proportion to the amount of money and effort a government or corporation will expend in the Whistleblower’s vilification and squelching.

More insidious is the grey area we’re asked to inhabit in the surveillance of friends and neighbors. Certainly one wants to thwart evilmongers, but the fear has been built up far out of proportion to actual threat – and ours is an economy that thrives on the fearful, as the deafening bleating of gun-worshipers proves.

But you may need to wear the Mark of the Squealer to obtain or hang onto a job, as I learned 30 years ago when I was broke and unemployed and my most immediate prospect was as a salesclerk at the GNC store in a (now-razed) Schenectady mall. I had to take a “personality test” as a prerequisite, and I dutifully answered it as I believed its inflictors would wish – except for a couple of questions (actually the same one, recurring) about how I’d handle the knowledge that a fellow employee was stealing stuff.

I chose the “I’d say nothing” option. I met with the manager a couple of days later to learn my fate. “They didn’t want me to hire you,” she said. “Something about the test you took. It looked fine to me, but they didn’t like something about it. I told them you were good and I was going to hire you anyway.”

As with the Setback setback, I knew it was about me as a squealer. I thanked the manager for hiring me and accepted the job, a large part of which consisted of standing at what’s termed the “lease line,” just in front of the store entrance, entreating passersby to sample high-profit chewable Vitamin C tablets. I lasted four days on the job before fleeing. There’s no telling, is there?

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