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Homes for Wayward Boys: A look back at the evolution of Greaser youth and culture

Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York by Eric C. Schneider
Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York by Eric C. Schneider

For a number of young men coming of age in America in the middle of the 20th century, school represented an almost direct inversion of their desired dynamic. At school, teachers — usually female — demanded obedience, compromise, and submission. To these teen boys, this was an affront to the masculinity they were so eager to assert. Instead, they wanted to vie for dominance over other young men out in the street, violently defending their self-appointed territory, not yet with guns, but with baseball bats, switchblades, and fists.

“Young men who rejected the demands of these principal sites of adolescent socialization, found in street gangs the opportunity to win power, prestige, female adulation, and masculine identity,” wrote Eric C. Schneider in his 1999 book, Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York.

In New York during the early 1940s, the ethnic makeup of neighborhoods was constantly shifting, and a post-war population surge squeezed residents ever closer to people they may have otherwise wanted to avoid, gangs often formed around racial identity, but could form around a single street, making bitter rivals of even their closest neighbors. West Side Story (1961) the Academy Award-winning filmic version of the hit musical, famously depicts these tensions with the Sharks (a gang made up of Puerto Rican youths) and the Jets (a gang made up of white youths). Originally intended to depict an Irish-American and a Jewish-American gang, the film shows the youths battling for a shrinking turf, which was being devoured by the construction of what would become Lincoln Center.

Fiction didn’t provide much of a refuge for young men — neither as characters nor readers— either, according to writer S.E. Hinton. “Girls will read boys’ books, but boys won’t read girls’ books,” she told The New Yorker in 2014. Hinton began writing because she herself had grown tired of reading plots which seemed only to involve girls who befriended horses or who got to date the quarterback of the football team. “Boys have fewer books written about them.”

At just 17 years old, she published her debut novel which was inspired by gangs at her Tulsa, Oklahoma high school, whose rivalry was so bitter that each gang had to enter the school building through respective entrances. A book, influenced in part by West Side Story, about a group of rough boys who don’t belong anywhere except with each other.

“Greasers are almost like hoods,” 14-year-old Ponyboy, the book’s narrator, explains in its opening pages. “We steal things and drive old souped up cars and hold up gas stations and have a gang fight once in a while.” He’s quick to explain that actually, he himself doesn’t participate in much of all that, but he does, like most greasers, “wear (my) hair long and dress in blue jeans and T-shirts…and leather jackets.”

This gang of greasers, so-called for the way they style their hair, centers around the Curtis brothers: Ponyboy and his brothers Darry and Sodapop. Darry, the oldest, has had to forgo college and take two jobs to raise his two younger brothers. Sodapop has dropped out of high school because he’s “dumb.” While Ponyboy is a thriving student, his good friend — sensitive Johnny — probably suffers, based on Ponyboy’s description, from some form of processing disorder that wouldn’t have been recognized in that era. As a result he is labeled stupid by his teachers. Another member, Two-Bit, “famous for shoplifting and his black-handled switch-blade,” remains in the 11th grade despite being nearly 19. Steve can “lift a hubcap quicker and more quietly than anyone in the neighborhood.” Dallas, “the real character of the gang,” is a hardened criminal who left a violent, murderous past behind in New York. They defend each other and their turf, the rough side of town, from their upper class rivals, the Socs (pronounced “sosh,” as in social).

Their rough manner and appearance make them objects of ridicule and ostracization in their hometown. But Ponyboy is sweet, observant and loyal. He gives the reader insight into the inner lives of his brothers and friends, and is by turns indignant and embarrassed by the way he and the people he loves are viewed by the majority of the people they encounter. He bristles at the hypocrisy that, despite causing as much trouble as his gang does, the Socs somehow get written up in the local paper as model citizens. The sight of the sun rising over a valley makes him quote the entirety of a Robert Frost poem, and he dreams of moving out into the country, away from the unrelenting drama and misfortune in his life. His feelings of longing, of being misunderstood and mistreated, of wanting to belong, are universal. Hinton aptly named her book, published in 1967, The Outsiders.

It was almost called The Leather Jackets, so identifiable was that single item of clothing with greaser culture, gang culture, and youthful rebellion in general. Marlon Brando (1924-2004) wore a Perfecto One Star leather jacket for his starring role as Johnny Strabler in The Wild One (1953), a movie credited for introducing the idea of greaser culture to the masses. Johnny Strabler is the head of an outlaw gang called the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who tussles with a rival motorcycle gang in the middle of a California town before peeling back out onto the highway. Motorcyclists wore this short cropped jacket to protect themselves from the elements while riding and avoiding major abrasions when they fell off their motorcycles at high speed. Brando made it a symbol of freedom and rebellion. “What are you rebelling against Johnny?” one character asks him. He famously replies: “What do you got?”

James Dean (1931-1955) in a cropped leather jacket, or in a white t-shirt with the jacket slung over his shoulder is arguably the most enduring and ready reference to youth and cool in the American mind. Yet, in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) the role that made him an avatar of teenage revolt (and another influence on Hinton as she was writing The Outsiders), he is wearing a red Harrington jacket made of nylon. Perhaps this is because his character Jim Stark is a middle class suburban kid, not, like many greasers, from a working class or lower class background.

Dean wore his hair in a pompadour, or elephant trunk, the next most recognizable element of a greaser’s signature look. In his 2014 book Confessions of a Greaser, Bobby Darrell White explains how he and his friends in Kentucky used generous amounts of Brylcreem hair pomade to keep their hair slicked back, carrying a comb in their pockets at all times to smooth stray strands back into place. White and his friends were not gang members, or juvenile delinquents (JDs). But they followed Brando and Dean’s every move. They also loved rock n roll, a genre that was born and evolved alongside them, and particularly Elvis, who also famously wore his hair in a pompadour. This is because pop culture, especially music, formed a symbiotic relationship with youth gang culture.

The exaggerated way a gang member walked to signal to people to stay out of his way (while wearing a leather or sometimes a satin jacket), like the one Ponyboy had to unlearn to seem less conspicuous when he and Johnny were hiding from the law, was known as “bopping.” A “be-bop” was a “muscle man,” who carried out hits on members of rival gangs, sometimes using a zip gun, which consisted of a metal tube, with a nail in it and a spring to launch it forward. The music industry caught on and released music by acts like The Big Bopper and The Bop Chords, which youth gangs then danced along to just like countless other teens across America.

Other explanations for the word greaser are less than generous. It first emerged in the 19th-century as a derogatory way to describe Mexicans, or even those of Mexican appearance, in California and the American Southwest. In his 2003 book Greasers and Gringos: Latinos, Law, and the American Imagination, Steven Bender explains the word references, among other things, the way laborers would grease their backs to more easily slide cargo they were shipping down their bodies, as well as the perception of unclean skin or hair. In 1855, an anti-vagrancy act known as The Greaser Act, was introduced to keep Mexicans, who often could only find work greasing the axles of wagon wheels, from freely moving through California. Early Hollywood depictions of greasers made them out to be hyper-sexual villains, dishonest and violent. The spending power of Mexican movie-goers eventually ensured an end to this unflattering depiction, but by the time the term reemerged mid-century, it was familiar enough to help usher in the more romanticized “bad boy” image of the 1950s and 1960s.

If gang members felt out of place at school, they didn’t feel much more comfortable at home. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the 1960s was one of four major time periods in American history in which juvenile gangs were a high profile problem, and a major reason for it was lack of parental presence and guidance. For some, a father figure was missing, or one or both parents were addicted to alcohol or drugs. For others, their fathers worked jobs that the teens felt were demeaning, or which led to a dead end of poverty. Sometimes, their fathers’ and mothers’ jobs were simply too “straight.” The Curtis boys’ parents had both been killed in a car accident. Johnny’s parents were verbally and physically abusive, so that he preferred sleeping on the ground in the field near his house rather than under their roof. Jim Stark, in Rebel Without a Cause had a stable two-parent home, but acted out in response to his father’s overly passive and submissive attitude toward Jim’s mother, whom Jim felt henpecked and nagged his father too much.

Hinton’s own father was dying of brain cancer while she wrote the book, and he passed away just before she graduated from high school. A major element of The Outsiders, and many of her books thereafter, is that the characters live in a world largely devoid of adult supervision.

However much gang members rejected, or felt rejected, by the school environment, Hinton’s gang found a home there. In fact, had English teachers and librarians across the country not demanded the book be incorporated into the curriculum in place of texts that were failing to engage students, it may have been forgotten altogether.

Students embraced it to the point that it’s often credited as shaping the Young Adult genre as we know it today. In 1980, a group of students in California loved the book so much they demanded that it be made into a film and that Francis Ford Coppola direct it. The teacher wrote a letter to Coppola and attached the student’s petition. Coppola agreed to direct The Outsiders (1983), with Hinton co-writing the script, and he would go on to direct the film version of her book Rumble Fish, published in 1975, with similar themes, as well.

The movie proved to be as beloved as the book, partly, Hinton says, because the young men cast, including then-unknown names like Ralph Macchio, Matt Dillon and Emilio Estevez, were very close in age to their characters. And in a case of life imitating art, the actors were left to film on location in Tulsa without any parental supervision. Hinton, who remained on set for much of the filming and even has a cameo in the movie, stepped in to act as a self-described “greaser den mother,” like a Wendy to the Lost Boys.

Like Wendy, Hinton admits she has moved out of the teenage realm, perhaps permanently, having not written a young adult book since 1988’s Taming of the Star Runner. Still, she sees that the original void that motivated her writing choices in the first place, hasn’t really been filled: there are still so few places for young men to find refuge, and representation, in young adult fiction. “I do feel that boys are being left out,” she has said.

Her own book, however, remains popular with young readers who have only a fleeting understanding of greaser culture, because she didn’t identify the greasers by their problems, like the rest of the world did, instead she told their story. “The names of the groups change, the uniforms change, but the emotions remain the same. If you’ve got ten kids in a school, they’re going to divide into the “in” group and the “out” group,” she says. By making those who were overlooked feel seen, Hinton brought the outsiders in.


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