There is a scene in Sons of Anarchy where Henry Rollins, playing an Aryan Brotherhood lieutenant, gripes about having to pull his son out of school when he discovers that all the children are receiving the same trophies, regardless of how they perform at sports. It’s a clever bit of writing: Rollins is playing a scumbag racist, but you want to agree with him here: the ‘everyone gets a trophy’ phenomenon is close to the root of the way our modern generations of soft-skinned entitlement fail to measure up to the beach-storming, self-possessed ‘Greatest Generation.’ Watching the scene, I immediate started nodding. My wife, who also agrees with the sentiment, and also loves Rollins, is smarter than me, and poked me in side, saying, ‘baby, stop agreeing with the neo-Nazi.’ Rollins follows up his trophy rant with the line, ‘teaching everyone that they’re the same is dangerous.’ The line is tinged with racial menace, of course, and then you can see the slippery slope between a pragmatic dismissal of our modern ‘everybody is a special snowflake’ culture and the sick miasma of racial logic.
But it is dangerous, to tell everyone they’re the same. Not because of any perverted racial ideology.
Everyone’s reach should exceed their grasp, but not everyone’s reach is the same.
Two years ago, I met a young man; let’s call him T-Bone. T-Bone came onboard the new restaurant – the one I recently departed – along with an astonishingly strong crew of cooks and a great chef. I’ve spit up some purple prose about how good they were, and I won’t do that again here, but it’s important to mention that T-Bone was not a member of this group. He had washed out of training for most of the hot-line stations and ended up as a fry cook. For the first six or seven months, he was frequently high on crystal meth – sporadic bursts of incredible and useless energy followed by deep, frustrating troughs of listless indifference – and was less reliable than your standard-issue kitchen drunk.
But T-Bone had potential, he had a fire. When he was a teenager, he’d had a disagreement with his parents. Rather than go on the petulant warpath, or try to keep his discontent submerged, T-Bone simply left. And moved into the woods. For a year.
Did we mock this wild move? Yes. But who amongst us had the fucking stomach for that kind of commitment? Thoreau lived in Emerson’s backyard. T-Bone lived in the woods. It may have been an overreaction, it may have been plain stupid, but it was bold as hell. You were hard pressed not to admire that.
About six or seven months into our tour together, the restaurant hired a cook named Chelsea, my sister from another mister (we may actually be distantly related; more on this another time). Chelsea was attractive, talented, and funny – and twice T-Bone’s age. He fell in love immediately. And, immediately, T-Bone blew it on the line in epic style. On one of Chelsea’s first few days, T-Bone – drunk on cooking wine and high on meth – crashed and burned. Forty-five minutes behind on fried Calamari. (If you’ve never worked a line, or seen a cooking show: that’s really goddamn behind.)
But, again, you had to admire T-Bone, because the next day he got his shit together and kicked the meth.
It didn’t matter that Chelsea had a boyfriend – who was a sous chef at one of our sister restaurants – she was fixing to marry. T-Bone was in love, and love is meth, smack, and coke all rolled into one.
T-Bone was also in love with the sous chefs at our restaurant. Let’s call them the Copelands (because that’s their name). The Copelands were brothers from Tennessee, by way of a lot of other places. Self-taught and self-styled, the Copelands were larger than life kind of guys: fast, smart, outspoken, foul-mouthed. They also sang like church boys (because they were church boys). The Copelands drank, smoke, and did drugs, and were better on the kitchen line than anyone else around. They paid very little attention to rules except for the ones they had made for themselves (which they adhered to fairly rigidly). If this was a story about living in an insane asylum – and, in a lot of ways, it is – the story would end with them getting lobotomized, if you get what I’m saying.
I wish to the gods I’d made them up. But life is better – stranger and stronger stuff than fiction – and so you’ll have to excuse that they sound like clichéd characters from a war movie.
They were real, and T-Bone loved them. Let’s not get nit picky about kinds of love, or where – exactly – the boundaries of homosocial behavior are. It was love. T-Bone wanted to talk like they did – machine-gun comic riffs, complete with musical numbers, arcane references, and theological musings – and he wanted to cook like them, to be so good at his job that he could flout rules and nominative authority figures.
And, bit by bit, day by day, T-Bone began to improve. He developed the confidence to do things the way he thought they should be done, not they way they’d always been done, or they way some old, grease-stained recipe book demanded. He showed up earlier, stayed later, worked harder. Not for the money, but because it was the right way to do things.
And, when that extraordinary season came, when the whole line was working together, when each of us loved and trusted the other, when we tore through holiday madness and plus-five-hundred-cover nights, T-Bone was with us. A real boy.
It was around this time that our singer invited T-Bone to come play with our band. Why not? He’d come so far, in such a short period of time, all he’d needed was exposure to the right kind of people, the right mind-set.
Time passed: the restaurant endured Tobin, and Brian, and Frank. Eventually things came to a head: T-Bone quit, then the Copelands got fired; I quit and then got fired. We all ended up at a new place, a co-op, a smaller and more intimate kitchen, happier and saner, making good food for people. The pay was less, and we all coped in our own ways. T-Bone got a second job, a place out by the beach with good seafood and terrible cooks. After two years of trying to live up to our standards, T-Bone was the strongest cook there, by an order of magnitude or two.
Shit yeah, we were proud of him.
Finally, T-Bone came to one of our practices. But he seemed a little overwhelmed. We don’t play particularly complicated music (an unspoken rule: the songs have to be good, but we have to be able to play them reasonably well after three beers and some whiskey). After that practice, we didn’t hear much from him. He seemed confused about how to ‘jump in,’ about how to write bass parts. Weeks went by, and we didn’t jam again.
Meanwhile, T-Bone’s performance at work started to ebb and wane. When he’d arrived at the co-op, he’d immediately been one of the stronger cooks, but with the Copelands there, he had fallen back down the totem pole. Inevitably, the stress of two jobs, and – one suspects – the absence of Chelsea to shame him out it, T-Bone started using meth again. He was drinking at work, earlier and heavier than he could handle. He showed up late, missed a day, lobbed a few slapdash bullshit excuses, slow and underhand, knowing we’d forgive him.
And we did.
We’d seen T-Bone be good. We’d seen him aim for great.
T-Bone’s reach exceeded his grasp. It happens. It should happen. But T-Bone was imitating, not creating. He could adopt the Copelands’ work ethic, copy my guitar part, but it wasn’t coming from him. In the end, we got a different bassist, one who kept up with our jokes and our riffs and who dove in head first to our weird little tribe. We changed the schedule around at the co-op, to take some responsibility off of T-Bone’s shoulders. We’ll be holding an intervention to get him off the meth. Maybe we’ll invite Chelsea.
The point is not that T-Bone failed. He’s playing with some guys from our old job: lead guitar, not bass. He’s making changes – good changes, thoughtful changes – at his other job. T-Bone is not in our league, but that’s okay. He’s the best in his own league.
The point is: don’t have fucking heroes. They aren’t gods. They’re scumbags, monstrously flawed human beings, dragging a ten-ton boulder of mistakes and regrets. They just happen to be a lot better at something than you are. Not everyone is equal. It’s dangerous to believe that, dangerous to try and make it true.
Do something different, or do it your own way. Don’t try and be a Copeland.
To someone out there, you are a Copeland. A hero, a god.
Just, lay off the fucking meth.