Perverse Exceptionalism: Some Scattered Impressions of the NoMCO Forum (Part II)

The NoMCO forum began with its current president, John Yi, thanking the Maywood Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club for sponsoring the forum, and extending an open invitation for any Maywoodian in attendance to join. It was a moment freighted with elision, marked by the absence of those now-taboo realities that the present’s forward march is supposed to have trampled. Forty-three years ago, NoMCO was an acronym for North Maywood Community Organization—exclusion was implicated in its very name, a typical case of how much more sophisticated these things were up here than down there (remember when King came strolling heroically into North Lawndale, the first Mayor Daley welcomed him with a sheepish smile and, with style and grace, sent the bewildered preacher and his demands packing, on a flight in the other direction).

Now, times having changed, Yi said that the organization is growing fastest among members who live in central and south Maywood. But anyone who mistakes this name change for a happy ending will find it impossible to explicate from the proceedings anything approaching an answer to the questions on full display—‘Why is Maywood in the shape that it’s in and what can we do about it?’

The riddle’s solution is not in reviving the past—hard, yet bygone, realities like redlining and housing covenants and racist neighbors are not sufficient answers to why Maywood is embarrassingly behind in completing basic fiscal audits required by the state. However, a discussion focused solely on pragmatic issues like the failure of management or the lack of a strategic economic development plan won’t get us anywhere near explaining the charged current that powers what I might call the perverse exceptionalism of so many of Maywood’s residents, even those who’ve been here their whole lives.

“Time-out—she’s not here!” one woman, sitting behind me, shouted at the stage. “Who is this lady talking?” said another, joining the small, but vocal chorus of attendees who were angered by the fact that one candidate, Mary ‘May’ Larry, had been allowed to do the miraculous—Larry was there on the stage in spirit, but absent in the flesh. She’d assigned another woman to read a campaign statement on her behalf.

John Yi, who was moderating, assured the audience that NoMCO had pre-approved Larry’s decision to be there and yet not there. But this wasn’t enough to quell the communal sense of frustration and outrage that was felt around the room. The people’s grunts and sighs and curses and swiveled heads aroused a sum of energy that, if channeled, could’ve powered the entire Parish. After the woman read her candidate’s statement, she briskly left the premises. Mary and her double were gone, but they weren’t.

And then, they appeared, like mist from a rumbling fall—those words I’ve heard over and over again, from the mouths of friends and neighbors and family and foes alike, so much so that they’ve become local icons. They were spoken by the same woman who had been among the first in the audience to shout out her disapproval. “You can’t sit…nowhere and run for office and not be there…that don’t happen nowhere in the United States except in Maywood!!”

Only in Maywood. I might explain ‘perverse exceptionalism’ in the following way—people associated with failure long enough and prominently enough tend to take pride in the prominence itself, neglecting the fact that what got them to that point of prominence is having failed over and over again. First you fear the roaches and are embarrassed, then you fight them, then you grow tired and simply adjust to their ubiquity—but for some, they become pets whose presence you wear like a badge of honor, a boast of having overcome, even though, in truth, you simply got used to defeat.

I could tell by the sound of her voice (and the fact that she was there) that the woman in the audience had grown tired with Maywood to the point of exasperation, but she didn’t sound like she was ready to get comfortable, relax and blithely accept that her Village is what it is. Nor did she convey any sort of perverse pride in ignoble defeat. The old grow resigned. I know an old lady who’s lived so long with roaches that she now calls them her friends. The young, however, grow dumb. It’s become popular for some of the kids who come from Maywood to beat their chests about their hometown of “Murderwood,” a trope that’s the equivalent of bragging about having lots of roaches. I’ve seen baseball caps and t-shirts and rap albums into which the name has been etched in triumph, as if to say, ‘We may kill each other, but at least we do it so much that we’re known for it and it makes us tougher.” If you can’t have safe streets and an adequate number of local businesses and parks, at least you’re merely surviving in style, I guess.

The problem of Maywood’s perverse exceptionalism is one that neither a historical excavation of the past nor a technical, managerial evaluation of the present state of the Village can adequately explain. Perhaps there is no perfect explanation. But regardless of its origins and the source of its dynamics, there have to be ways to deal with it. It’s to those solutions that were either discussed by candidates at NoMCO or, I believe, should’ve been to which I’ll turn next.

The last part in this 3-part series will be published next week.

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