From “The Swamps of Jersey.”
Howard Newton, a former mayor of Ironton, N.J. explains corruption to reporter Jimmy Dawson:
“It’s what we learned, Jimmy.” The voice came from a smoky distance. “What our grandfathers learned to survive. They were all working for the big boss who owned that mansion on Blackwell with the five turrets, the wide porch and thirty fancy windows. They worked fifteen hours a day in dirty overheated buildings handling hot metal with no protection. They got burned, lost hands, arms, got crushed by a load of iron, branded by the dripping slag, and if they faltered, the shift bosses ground them into the dirt. If they were lucky, they lived to be fifty.
“They’d walk past that house behind the iron gates – made with iron they had forged – and knew that it was their labor in that hot, stinking iron mill that had made the man rich. And he was going to keep it all.
“So they set up an alternative way of doing business, because, hell, they had no money, but mostly they knew they could not trust the mill owners or the bosses or the bankers, the landlords or anyone who had control over their lives. So we all did favors, and some of the favors got big. It was how we fought back against a system that was killing us, one in which if we played by the rules, we had no chance to succeed.”
The old man stood up and put his hands in his pants pockets.
“Did that make us corrupt? Don’t think so. Made us traders. Trade something, get a little extra for it when you trade it again. It was all so small time. But you know what? People didn’t lose their homes to the banks. If they got behind somehow it was made right. And when they got hurt on the job and the factory boss threw them out, their kids got fed, and the house got fixed. Then they did a little work for you. Look at that flood last week. Those people will be paying off those repairs for years because the insurance companies who sold them home insurance didn’t tell them that it didn’t cover water damage. What the fuck did they think a flood was anyway?”
Dawson stood and walked to the edge of the patio. “The crooks are wearing the suits, Jimmy, sitting on city councils,” Newton said. “Seems so innocuous. They write an ordinance to tear down a building so only their friend’s company could qualify, look the other way when their brother’s kid wants to be a cop or stack the land-use board with their golf partners. They twist the law into knots to justify anything they want. That’s who the Attorney General caught. For them it’s like breathing. They don’t think anyone notices. Then there’s the guys with three cell phones and nine hundred dollar suits. Listen to them. They sell so much bullshit, they forget who they sold it to.”
“But when that something you traded wasn’t really yours, isn’t that corrupt?” Dawson asked.
The old man turned, his mouth working.
“You tell me, Jimmy. You tell me.” The raspy voice had an edge, the lips drawn tight. “What’s it mean when a lobbyist for the oil business sits in a committee room and helps a Congressman write a bill about oil regulations? Or when the bankers cook the books in a way that even other bankers can’t figure it out? The U.S. Supreme Court gave human rights to corporations and said that money is free speech; said big companies can cheat women out of equal pay. The big stores pay so little or schedule employees so they work a little less than full time so they have to get health insurance from the government. That’s corruption, Jimmy. Big time, in your face, stop us if you can corruption and they have the money, the lawyers and the rules to make it stand up.
“They make rule after rule to shut that door of opportunity for the little guy. Get their hands around the throats of the middle class and squeeze. They make deals that only benefit themselves and their money men. They cut taxes for the rich and screw the poor. Remember that congressman who wanted to get rid of Medicare and let the insurance companies run it? That would put old folks out of their homes, take food from their mouths. These assholes act like the Great Depression happened to somebody else.
“They won’t be happy till they grind everyone else under their wheels, the grinning bastards. Eisenhower said fear the military-industrial complex. These guys make the military-industrial complex look like a carnival, such is their immeasurable greed.”
“And you’re worried about me buying an old lady’s home so she can get out from under a monthly mortgage payment that’s more than what her immigrant parents earned in a year? Bah.”
Newton returned to his chair and shut off the television.
“There’s a lot of people exercising their free speech these days, I’d say. And that holier-than-thou U.S. Attorney has a list of friends as long as your arm and they’re all going to come calling one day.”