If you’re an ‘80’s teenager, you probably remember certain people in your neighborhood who didn’t fit in- the village idiot, the town whore, the ne’er do well family, the spinster, the drug-addict, the wino- anyone others saw as different, or an oddball.
Maybe the person was the childless woman, the lifelong bachelor, or the quiet guy who didn’t speak much. The unlucky individual might have had a mental disability- a Vietnam combat veteran who suffered PTSD, perhaps.
Whatever it was about the person, they had ways about them, which seemed “off.”
Although people nowadays don’t pay as much attention to any oddities in certain people, back in the eighties, it was a big deal, especially in a rural, Southern town like Oakley, Tennessee.
For instance, if you had a gay couple living next door back then, it would cause a huge stink in town, whereas today, it’s accepted. And a person thought to be mentally imbalanced was frowned upon worse than if he’d been a rapist or murderer.
I remember a guy everyone referred to as “Smiley.” He was a poor, widowed, older man who we’d see out early every morning with a trash bag in his hand, picking up tin cans. He always had a smile on his face. But because he always looked bedraggled, people looked down on him.
They would conjure up wild stories about the man only because he was so poor that he couldn’t afford any decent clothes and wore old, dirty attire full of holes. Kids and teens would misinterpret a genuine smile and wave from Smiley as a flirt and that he was trying to come on to them.
Young boys would run around telling everyone who would listen that the man was gay, and the girls would accuse him of being a perv.
Some would spread rumors that Smiley was some crazy released from the state mental hospital or a serial killer who’d gotten out of prison. Other tales went around about the man as well, one which was that he had AIDS because he was so frail and skinny.
He was a freak
He was just plain gross
He was a pervert
He looked nasty
He didn’t take baths.
Those were things I’d often hear. People didn’t accept Smiley nor want him around. It was heartbreaking.
These rumors would spread to the parents and other adults in the neighborhood, and they’d tell their children to keep away from him. Some of the adults would see him walking up the street and come outside, screaming obscenities at the poor guy.
The adults would also ask around about Smiley- Had anyone “seen anything suspicious or peculiar out of him?”
People like Smiley were prime targets for vandalism and physical assault. People would throw rocks through their windows, key their cars, or spray-paint the word “FREAK” in big black letters on the side of their houses. Eventually, people like him got severely beaten or worse. Or maybe they’d have no choice but to move away.
We’d like to think that eventually, bullies grow up and get lives of their own, but the reality is that most of them only get worse as they get older.
Sadly, the same stuff happens today. Innocent people- good people are accused of some of the most unspeakable deeds- all because they’re different somehow. And most of the time, there’s no truth in any of it.
If the rumors are proven to be false, many people will still hold negative views of the person. They will reject any evidence that he’s innocent- even if the evidence is undeniable. Understand that most bullies (and most people) will believe what’s most familiar to them and what feels right. And no amount of evidence to the contrary will change their minds.
If you ever find yourself a target of such people and such rumors, lies, and gossip (mainly for several years), you must focus on taking care of yourself. Focus on you! That’s what Smiley did.
He didn’t worry about what others were saying. Smiley looked out for himself. He focused on his wants, needs, goals, and the few people in town who treated him well. Eventually, he moved away to be near his five children, who loved and took care of him until he died.
So, do what’s best for you. And sometimes, what’s best is to get out of the environment altogether. If you have to pack up and move, do it! Go where you can be happy, be yourself, and be free of such negativity. Go where you are loved, uplifted, and celebrated.
Your safety, peace, and happiness should be a top priority!