What is a miracle? Anything that reminds us that what we can't see is more important than what we can. Who can say where and when miracles happen? In an alley beside the tracks? In a parking lot on the other side of a fence? On a sidewalk in the middle of a block? What matters is that they have happened before and will happen again wherever tears flow and blood boils and men are lonely and broken, outside and in.
"Son-of-a-bitch" he snarled; saliva sprayed the dash as his hands slammed the steering wheel. Traffic was heavy. The foreman took him aside right before it was time to punch out. He wasn't fired--not "fired, fired"--just let go, again. "Things are slow all over." "Maybe it’ll pick up after the holidays.” “Other guys have been here longer.” “Some freaking Christmas this'll be.” “How long can one check last?” Pulling out of the lot, he saw Tonya sitting in Ricky's car--now that hurt. Ricky was supposed to be his friend. Used to be, anyway. Ricky still had a job. Tonya was Tonya. “Can’t afford her now anyway,” he muttered. Traffic was moving again. He was headed God knows where. To the liquor store. To nowhere in particular. To sit in the basement with his cousin Eddie. Eddie liked to drink. Got his disability check on the third, and he was good to go. Eddie collected things, girlie mags mostly, guns too. Sometimes when Eddie had a lot to drink, he would let you look at his guns, hold them, pretend they were yours. New Year’s Eve was always a blast with Eddie. Pop off a few in the alley ‘til the neighbors complained and called the cops. He looked up to Eddie, more than either one knew. He noticed a girl in tight jeans and a short jacket standing at the bus stop; he thought about Tonya. “Better cruise around the block and check that one out again.” “What the…” he groaned, missing the entrance to the parking lot between Foremost Liquors and the Currency Exchange. He went around the corner to the alley beside the “L” tracks. “One Way.” “Do Not Enter.” “Aww, Christ!” He hesitated. “Screw it.” Tires squealing, he sped down the alley heading for the entrance at the rear of the parking lot. Just then a squad car turned into the alley from the block ahead, facing his way. “Jeeze” he moaned. “Maybe he’s gonna back out.” The squad continued forward. “Think, you moron!” He saw an opening in the fence to his left and took it. An empty parking lot. Clean. Peaceful. Someone had swept up the litter and painted over the graffiti on the walls. Even the dumpster's lids were closed. He saw the squad pass in the rear view mirror and let out a sign of relief.
He sat in the car for a moment. “Something ain’t right.” He stared at the building but didn't get out. He felt something different--a tug, a push--something he didn't recognize. Moments earlier he felt crushed, humiliated. Then he felt, what? Relieved? His mood was still bitter, but its momentum was broken. He'd often wondered if there was something else, something that was supposed to matter, something that was supposed to last, but he couldn't imagine what it would look like or where it might be found. He slowly pulled out into traffic; his eyes caught a sign on the lawn as he turned his head. “Hurting? God Can Help." ”How come I never saw that before?” He'd lived around this neighborhood for years and driven down these streets more times than he could count.
A week passed, then two. He had a hangover on Sunday morning. He felt sick to his stomach. He didn't know much about church to tell the truth. Once he saw a funeral procession leave a church parking lot, tying up traffic for ten minutes. “Caddies and Lincolns! Those folks had it made.” He remembered when his uncle passed and how hardly anyone even called. Once he saw a wedding party taking photos on the church steps. “Church is for other people,” he muttered. “I wouldn't know what to do. I would feel stupid.” He remembered how mom took him to a church once, when he was little. It was summertime, too hot to be playing in the hall or on the stairs. The porch was off limits. Three stories up. Kids got hurt doing crazy things, climbing around like Spider-man, trying to fly. Besides, you could peek in the window of the back bedroom. That pissed off mom big time. Sometimes the kids opened the hydrant at the corner. Mom used to shout, “You're gonna get run over!” He chuckled--back then he thought “What's wrong with getting run over? You get to ride in the ambulance!” Church that night wasn't so bad. He got to run around inside, in the air conditioning. Other kids from the block were there too. Mom disappeared after a few minutes. Came back three hours later, and her kisses tasted like beer. “What a trip,” he recalled. “Fat guy with a funny hat singing songs and clapping. People who acted like they cared, like they wanted me around. Nobody hit me when I misbehaved. They gave me something to eat." This went on three nights in a row. The kids were supposed to get a poster or something, but mom forgot to take him back for that.
Another week went by. One day his aunt called. Said, “Your papa's sick, yellow, not gonna make it.” Papa left when he was four. Mom had a parade of men after that. “Time for them, never for me.” Some used to beat her. He remembered Carlos. “Yeah, he was nice. Drove a bus. Used to give me a handful of quarters to get out of the apartment. Then his old lady came and picked a fight with mom. He never came around after that.” He took the quarters to the laundromat on the corner to play the video game, but the big kids took the quarters and shoved him away. He tried to tell mom and Carlos, but they wouldn’t open the door. Get out and stay out. That was the deal. Nothing makes the anger go away. The empty feeling in his chest, the sick feeling in his gut. He still hasn't found a job. Wednesday afternoon comes, and he takes a walk. “Need some fresh air,” he says to himself “and a pack of smokes.” There's a Cut Rate on the corner. He crosses the street. “Just a walk,” he says. “Never know what you might find.” A block. Two. Cars pass. Loud stereos blasting from windows cracked open to let out the steam. “Freaking Mexicans,” he thinks. Papa was a Mexican. “Nobody wants me. Nobody needs me.” Not the boss. Not Tonya. Not even Eddie who passed out on the couch last night. It stings as much today as it did when he was five. For no reason that he can discern, he finds himself in the middle of a block. "Templo de Alabanza" says a hand painted sign above a door. "Servicios: Miercoles 7:30 PM." The door is slightly ajar even on a cold day. Music streams out to the street. “What the hell? Might be good for a few laughs. After all, what can these bozos have to say that I haven’t heard already?”
He walks in and sits in the back where nobody will see. He can leave quickly if he has to.
Twenty years ago strangers made a little boy feel welcome, wanted, like he belonged, if only for a little while, strangers acting out of foolishness or kindness or love. Tonight a man comes in from the cold, wondering if there is something more than broken things and hurt feelings, wondering if there is anything else to be found and if he is in the right place to find it.
The sweat clung to Christy's back as she pushed the stroller against the curb and on to the sidewalk. She and Angel were in a hurry; today was the day the man in the store said to call about the job. They had gotten up early, but it made no difference. The air outside their first floor apartment was as thick and still as the air inside. The pavement they just crossed felt sticky and soft. Before they left, Christy went through every pocket in every pair of jeans and the bottom of her purse—even her coat in the closet—but she was short on solid quarters. Thank God her neighbor Teena could spare a few—Teena always came through, at least she always did what she could. Christy put the quarters into a little sack and wrapped it tightly with a rubber band. She slid the sack into the front pocket of her shorts where it made an uncomfortable lump, but she didn’t care. All that mattered was that she had enough to use the pay phone and wash Angel's clothes; he was on his last clean tee shirt. He grew out of things so quickly now. “We’ll go to the Thrift Shop next time mama gets her check,” she told Angel. She called the second hand her “unique boutique”. Most everything she owned came from there—clothes and toys especially. They sold furniture too, but she had no way to carry that home.
Angel was too big for the stroller, but Christy couldn't tug him along and carry the laundry at the same time. She squeezed him into the seat and let him hold the bottle of detergent on his lap. Pillowcases made good laundry bags she discovered; they didn't tear like the plastic bags the stores gave out, and you could put one in the basket underneath the stroller’s seat and another behind the seat where there was space to store stuff. You could even tie one to the bar that ran between the handles of the stroller. Angel giggled and smiled and waved at the trucks that rumbled past. He liked trucks more than anything—he told his mama that he was going to buy her a truck when he was big, so they didn’t have to walk everywhere. To tell the truth, the trucks scared Christy. A woman and her kids got hit in the crosswalk a few months ago. The paper said a church was asking for donations to help the family send the bodies back to Mexico.
Highland Avenue was the main drag on this end of town; it even had a bus that passed every hour on the hour. Eight blocks west stood a strip mall at the intersection of Route 21, the highway that led south, past the cement plant and out to Combi-brands where they made bacon and hot dogs. A girl who worked there told Christy “you come home at night with bits of meat and grease in your hair.” “A job was a job,” Christy thought. “Besides,” she had heard, “if you worked there, you could take stuff home from time to time.” Lever Brothers had a plant on this side of town as well. If the wind was right, you could smell it a mile away.
Duds-N-Suds was the nearest laundromat to the Windmere Village apartments where she and Angel lived. The apartments had a laundry room, but she avoided it—the machines were mostly broken, and Teena had been robbed there. Teena said they shoved her around too like they wanted more than just the money. She said they laughed when she started crying and they saw how scared she was. Eight blocks turned into six, then four. She made a game out of the obstacles that cluttered the sidewalk—telephone poles, fire hydrants, newspaper boxes, signposts. She weaved around them like a police car on a chase; Angel said, “faster mama, faster” as he pretended to steer. This side of town didn’t have those little dips in the curb at the cross streets, so every corner meant the same routine—look out for traffic, get the stroller off the curb without tipping over, cross the street, get the stroller on the next curb without tipping over, and keep going. Christy hadn't forgotten the time she was crossing the street when Angel was little. It was rush hour and had started raining. The bottom fell out of a shopping bag. The groceries fell in a heap at her feet; cans rolled in all directions. She tried to hold on to her son and pick it all up at the same time, but when the light turned, the traffic started coming. They just drove right around her, laughing and honking and calling her names. “Nobody ever gives a damn,” she concluded. “Nobody gives you a break.”
Halfway there, she stopped to catch her breath. Angel was squirming in his seat. She really wanted this job; she could pay Teena to watch Angel. They'd done that before, and it worked. Teena had three of her own at home and never went anywhere. She started pushing the stroller again. She passed a liquor store, then “Break Out Now Bail Bonds—Open 24 Hours”, then “XXX Books and Novelties.” She hated walking past that—it made her skin crawl. Paco’s Tacos came next. That’s where she met Angel’s dad. It seemed so long ago—Angel was nearly four now. She had stopped going to school the summer before she got pregnant and was just hanging out. So much had changed so quickly. Still, she didn’t feel like giving up. Angel was the best thing that ever happened to her, and she knew it. For once she had somebody who really loved her.
She crossed a parking lot littered with bits of broken glass that crackled and crunched under her feet. Someone had smashed a quart bottle, maybe two. “Why did people have to be so crazy?” Someone else had dumped the ashtray from a car right there on the ground. Crumpled paper bags sat by the curb and flattened empty cigarette packs dotted the asphalt. The smell of sour milk came from behind the Mini Mart where the plastic crates were piled high next to the back door and the dumpster overflowed. The occasional wad of fresh chewing gum competed with a multitude of blotches that stained the sidewalk separating the parking spaces from the storefronts. A piece of cardboard from a package of Ding-Dongs attracted a colony of ants; a half finished Slurpee lay on its side beneath a sign that read “Put Litter In Its Place.” Variety King was vacant now, but the kiddie ride remained outside the door. Rocket-To-The-Moon it was called. The last time they tried, it took the quarters but wouldn't move. Angel had started crying, but there was nothing she could do. Now, it looked like someone had vandalized the coin box and cut the cord. Angel said nothing as they walked past.
The front doors to the coin laundry were open wide, one held in place against the wall by a garbage can, the other by an ashtray on a stand. “Shoot, no AC,” she said. Angel looked up. “Mama… milky, milky.” He giggled and rubbed his belly. Through the large windows she saw orange and yellow plastic chairs—those molded kind that were bolted together in a row. She could see Mrs. Flores sitting on a chair in the back near the TV. The door to the alley was open, but an iron gate with three huge padlocks prevented anyone from getting in. You had to ask Mrs. Flores for the key to the bathroom; if she didn’t know you, she pretended not to understand English. Mrs. Flores made sure no one stole anything, at least not while she was there. She always treated Christy nicely—called her “mi hija”—and made a fuss over Angel. “Papacito, ven con tu abuela,” she said. Angel never acted up around Mrs. Flores. He had known her forever.
Recessed into the walls, Loadstar dryers lined both sides of the store; most were missing the knob at the end of the lever that set the heat. Back to back, two rows of yellow Speed Queen washers ran along the middle. A few avocado-colored ones sat in a corner beneath the sign ”WORK CLOTHES ONLY”. The change machine had duct tape covering the slot for dollar bills and “out of order” scrawled in black marker across the front. From the looks of it, someone had tried to jimmy it open one time too many. The ceiling had seen better days; water stains and warped panels surrounded light fixtures that hummed and flickered. The tiles on the floor were worn and mismatched; a faded path led down each of the aisles and back to the starting point. Tired looking signs appeared in several places. “NO DYEING.” “DO NOT SIT ON TABLES.” “NO RUBBER OR PLASTIC ITEMS IN DRYERS.” “DO NOT LEAVE CHILDREN UNATTENDED.” Lint collected in corners and along the baseboard, even in the cracks in the paneling. An old vending machine—the kind with the knobs that pull to release the product—was turned against the wall. The air smelled like cigarettes and “Fresh Breeze” laundry detergent. Chairs were sticky. Linoleum peeled from the sides of the tables; cigarette burns marred the edges. Christy learned the hard way—wipe the table before you set anything on it. Someone drew a picture in the dust on the counter; someone else wrote his name. Flies circled a half-full pail of empty cans. Printed announcements and handwritten messages covered each other on the bulletin board. “Work From Home—No Experience Necessary.” ”Make $$Money$$ In Your Spare Time.” “Furniture for sale.” “Babysitting.” In large letters a sign above the bulletin board read, “Visit our other locations! Suds-ville. Laundry Town.” That sign cracked Christy up. “If they're anything like this, why bother?”
In one corner, an oscillating fan on a pole blew hot humid air across the room, competing with the noise from the traffic outside and the washers and dryers in use. In the other corner, the TV blared. “¡Ahorre, ahorre, ahorre! South Blvd Flea Market. A precios bajos—la mejor calidad. Abierto sábado y domingo. Venga a South Blvd Flea Market donde usted encontrará lo que más necesita. Ropa nueva y usada, botas y botines, herramienta, discos de sus grupos favoritos, cosas de interés para toda la familia, y mucho, mucho mas. South Blvd Flea Market—donde su dinero alcanzará!” Christy busied herself unloading the dirty laundry into two machines near the back of the store in sight of Mrs. Flores. She felt safer that way. Angel liked to push the stroller around; only when mom gave him a look did he settle down or find something else to do. He used to like it when she put him in one of the laundry carts and pushed him around the store, but lately he had outgrown that; he wanted to be the one doing all the pushing. She was afraid he would wander outside; he did that once and made it down to the Rocket ride before she caught up to him. He was becoming more independent, and that scared her. He was supposed to go to preschool in the fall. Just the thought of that made Christy feel uncertain and lonely.
The washers loaded and running, Christy started thinking about what she was going to say when she called about the job. Those kinds of things made her nervous, and she was afraid she would sound stupid or silly. She checked the number of quarters remaining. Just enough to make a call and dry the clothes. There won't be any treats today. There wasn't enough for that.
Christy figured it would be better that Mrs. Flores watched Angel for a moment than to take him along while she used the phone. Sometimes Mrs. Flores would let him pretend to sweep the floor. She usually had something to play with in the pockets of her smock, sometimes even a sucker or some of that Mexican candy that was so sweet it made your teeth hurt. Mrs. Flores was one of the few people Christy trusted. Another was Teena. Besides that there was a gym teacher back in junior high who had really been good to her, who listened and made her see that she could accomplish things if she tried, but that was years ago. Sometimes she wished Mrs. Flores were her mom.
The pay phone in the laundry had been removed ages ago; the paint underneath was a different color. There was a perfect outline of a phone around a hole in the wall with wires sticking out. Christy knew there was a phone at the Mini-Mart and another across the street where the McCrory used to be. “They can't both be jammed or broken, can they?” Christy had worked at the McCrory until they folded. The job was a life saver. Mom threw her out when she found out Christy was pregnant and found out who the father was. Christy moved in with Angel's dad, but that didn't work. The manager at the McCrory eventually made her a cashier, but she preferred working in the basement where they had the artificial flowers and the toys, the fish and canaries and parakeets. She knew there was no going back, but if there was, that was the job she would like to have most. It was quiet and peaceful and fun.
Christy led Angel over to Mrs. Flores. “Be good, Little Man,” she told him. “Do everything she tells you while mama goes and uses the phone.” Angel found a toy truck and started playing with it, rolling it across the floor, making stops to pick up cargo and get gas. “Vroom,” the truck rolled across the floor. “Vroom, vroom,” it made a wide arc and collided with the wall. “Vroom, vroom, vroom,” he gunned the engine and let it fly. It disappeared down the aisle and out of sight.
Angel peered around the last washer in the row. He had the aisle to himself except for a fat lady wearing slippers and a housedress who was sitting by the window, smoking and reading a magazine. The sound of rushing water started and stopped like when mama filled the tub at home, and it was time for a bath. Machines whirred and hummed; one shook back and forth violently as if trying to rid itself of something that had snuck up and grabbed it from behind. Angel spied where the toy truck had rolled. It was resting near the foot of the oscillating fan. The pole that held the fan wobbled and shook as the machine atop it turned, the blades colliding with the wire housing and emitting a shrill rasp of metal on metal as the mechanism reached the end of each arc. Angel liked things that moved and made noise. The fan was taller than Angel and seemed to grow as he approached it; the machine behaved as if it had a will of its own. Suddenly, Angel heard something that caused him to stop what he was doing. Someone, somewhere told Angel “Don't touch that” and Angel obeyed. Angel wasn't sure if he heard it in his head or in his heart. He hadn't heard this voice before, or, if he had, it hadn't been in ages. It was a voice he vaguely remembered if he remembered it at all, a voice from before Angel entered the world of things to touch or taste or pick up and carry home, a voice from before there was an Angel, yet he found it familiar and reassuring and compelling all the same. “Come here.” The voice from nowhere returned, neither loud nor angry nor impatient. Just insistent. He retrieved his truck and retreated down the aisle, driving his truck along the tops of the washers as he went.
Halfway down the aisle, he stopped, truck in hand, beside the obsolete vending machine facing the wall. Cobwebs stretched from one foot to the other. He heard the sound of metal creaking and scraping followed by several thumps and the crackle of something crisp. “Take, eat,” the voice intoned. Curious, he reached into the space between the front of the machine and the wall it faced and found the tray near the bottom. In it was a bag of cheese puffs, Angel's favorite. The bag was open; he squealed with delight. An old saw written in a dusty book gained new meaning. “He rained down manna for the people to eat, he gave them the grain of heaven. Men ate the bread of angels, he sent them all the food they could eat.”
Angel carried the truck in one hand and the snack in the other and climbed up on a plastic chair. He feasted, and his belly was filled. The empty bag fell to the floor behind him. On the counter within reach, a little cardboard stand displayed church tracts printed on pastel shades of paper. Pink. Blue. Yellow. Green. More curious than contrary, Angel grabbed a handful just as his mom reappeared, a look of frustration on her face and a tone of discouragement in her voice. “Put those back. How many times...” Christy's voice trailed off. The titles caught her attention as she took them from his hands. “Where Will You Spend Eternity?” “Probably right here,” she chuckled. “A Love Like No Other.” “Sounds like one of those Harlequin’s.” The Thrift Shop had boxes and boxes of them, ten cents each, mostly with the covers torn off. She liked to read them for fun. Life, she realized, wasn’t really like that. Not even close. “God Wants You To Stay Married.” “What a joke! You have to get married first for that to even be a possibility.” “In Case You Have An Appointment To Keep.” She carefully put the tracts back in the box, all but that last one. That one she folded and put in her pocket.
Christy was glad that Angel seemed content and hadn't gotten into trouble while she was gone. Mrs. Flores took good care of him. Angel had his moments, and it would be lying if she said that she didn't get overwhelmed. She had learned a lot in the last four years. She was glad he was here. She wouldn't have it any other way. She wouldn't change that for the world. The orange powder on his face and fingers puzzled her though. Mrs. Flores must have given him something. For that she was grateful, but she felt let down about something else. The man in the store wasn't in today like he said he would be; they told her to call back another day. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after. Nobody could say for sure. Just call back another day. Another day like today. Every day was turning into a day like today. Different in little ways but not by very much. What was left of the quarters Christy used for the dryers; she folded the laundry when it was done and neatly filled the pillowcases. With a clean washcloth, she wiped Angel's fingers and mouth. She squeezed Angel back into his seat and loaded the stroller. She looked back at Mrs. Flores to wave good-bye and thank her for taking care of Angel, but Mrs. Flores was no longer there, and the TV was strangely silent. Christy shrugged her shoulders and started out the door. She had her Angel, and it was going to be a long walk home.
“¡Mírame coño!” Marisol's feet were soaked, even though she wore two pairs of socks. With the money Luis had given her, she bought a cute pair of boots at la segunda. Ejército de Salvación—the store with the big red letters out front. If you got there early enough, you could find stuff piled by the door. Either way, nobody followed you around inside like they did in the Korean stores. They didn't sus you just for walking in. The boots leaked, but they served the purpose. Guys knew what they meant; one after another honked as he sped by. It had been bitter for days on end, but today it was warmer, today of all days. Snow and ice were melting; rivers and lakes of slush appeared where the curbs and potholes used to be.
Marisol looked around. Airport Parking--Free Shuttle. Midnight Blue Gentleman's Club. Midwest Plumbing Supply Co. She usually stood a few yards back from the corner, in a doorway set back from the brick wall of the building. Elgin Machine Works--faded letters pocked with rust on a door that hadn't opened in years. Taggers had nearly covered it, the dumpster by the alley too. Broken glass, fast food wrappers, and cigarette butts mingled in a puddle on the cement, out of the wind. The stench of urine was unmistakable even on a cold day.
Mannheim road was something else; rush hour lasted all day. Luis usually dropped her off around one and went to the Sports Bar or just drove around and checked on business, as he called it. Around three was usually the busiest; one shift was letting out, another was arriving. A squad car slowed as it passed. “¡Puñeta! These suburban cops--they liked to follow you and sit across the street and watch.” On Cicero and Roosevelt the cops never hassled her, but that was the City, and things were different.
Tucked in between the plants and rail yards and storage facilities were a string of down-on-your-luck motels, defunct showrooms, and the doze-but-never-close restaurants that truckers liked. There used to be a Denny's; now it was boarded up. Once a trick offered to take her there, afterwards. The lonely type. She almost agreed, but she knew they wouldn't wait on her, not even coffee to go. She bought that from the lunch wagon. The guys there would tease her, except on Fridays when they got paid. El viejo who owned it told her she could work for him, cooking and cleaning, but he only paid twenty dollars a day. “What was he thinking? Only the mojados worked for that!” At least he would let her stand there and try to warm up. Anything was better than the Fuel-Man Mini-Mart. It was there a prieto tried to grab her chain, the one with her name that Luis had given her on her birthday. She put it in her pocket after that. Ese prieto never knew what hit him when Luis caught up with him a few nights later.
A van slowed and turned the corner. She stepped out from the doorway, but the driver just looked at her and didn't stop. “¡Que jodienda!” she thought. The van turned around at the end of the block. Vans were not cool--vans and back seats. Those guys wanted more than what they paid for, and you couldn't get past them. Timmy slowed down again, but changed his mind and passed Marisol as she faked a smile. She stepped back but not soon enough; freezing water sprayed her legs as the van's tires plowed through a puddle of slush. “¡Maricón!” she shouted.
Timmy had left work early. He wanted to get a few drinks on board before it was too late, and he had to show up at home. “Don't want a repeat of what happened last year.” Last year he had gone to the bar after work. “What’s wrong with that? A guy has a right to relax. People just don't understand.” He had too much to drink, and got home pretty lit. “Three sheets to the wind,” as his dad used to say. He doesn't remember much after that, but he woke up late the next morning on the couch. There was a note from his wife. “Thanks for a great freakin' Christmas.” He was sick 'til the afternoon but made it to mom's by four. “What more do they want?” He vowed not to let that happen again. Too much hell to pay; leaving work early seemed like a good solution. Still have time for a few drinks and get home on time.
He pulled into a parking lot that only got plowed halfheartedly when somebody called in a favor. Mounds of filthy snow guarded both sides of the entrance and covered the guardrail separating the lot from the alley behind it; slush-filled ruts crisscrossed patches of packed and frozen snow. Ice cracked and popped as he walked across it. Strictly Business was Timmy's favorite bar, and Mark was his favorite bartender. Mark greeted him as he sat at the bar. “Get down to business is right,” he thought. Vodka and OJ in a beer stein, no ice--makes it quicker to get lit. Mark handed him an envelope. “You hit the squares.” Timmy smiled. He always played the pools. Parlay cards too. Won sometimes. “The old lady will like that,” he thought. “Get off my case for a while.” He finished another drink. Finally, it started kicking in. He felt good for the first time today, relaxed. Guys he knew were coming in. He waved them over. “Round's on me,” he bellowed. He always felt good to be with the guys. The lucky ones had old ladies who understood, let them stay out, didn't nag. “He just left.” That was Mark's standard answer when the phone rang and “wifey” was on the line. Nobody fell for it, but it bought time. “Screw ‘em if they can't take a joke!” Everybody grinned when he said stuff like that, even though they'd heard it a hundred times before. He liked it when they laughed at his jokes. Made him feel like he fit in, like he belonged, like he wasn't being judged all the time.
Conversations came and went. Familiar faces and voices ran together in a blur. Just the way he liked it. This was the only part of the day that made sense. He felt more at home here than, well, anywhere. Timmy glanced at his watch. “Son-of-a...” his voice trailed off. “Eight fifteen already and a 40-minute ride home. Time to hit it. Mark! One for the road.” He thought better of it. “Just give me a go cup.” He filled the empty cup with what was left of his last drink. Was this six? Or seven? “More like eight or ten,” he chuckled. He slid off the stool and felt the floor sway beneath his feet. Sponge met rubber, and he reached for the bar to steady himself. “Come on. Pull it together.” He struggled to get his coat on, frustration returning. “Where had everybody gone?” Most of the stools were vacant; whatever mood he had sought and found a few hours earlier had vanished too, and something familiar had taken its place, something gray and cold, a combination of loneliness and shame that nothing ever really took away. Not his getting loaded or his gambling, not his making himself the center of attention, not his after hours prowls down side streets with twenty dollars crumpled up in his hand and his wallet hidden beneath the seat. Nothing he had ever tried made the stuff he couldn't stand about his life go away more than momentarily, before it came back in spades.
He made his way to the door, clutching the go cup, fishing for his keys, and patting the wad of twenties in the envelope he had stuffed in his pocket a few hours earlier. “Get home in one piece. Done it before. Do it again. She'll calm down when she sees what I won.” “Temperature's dropped,” said Mark who had just finished stocking the cooler as Timmy passed. “Stay safe.” Timmy started through the door out into the cold. “Merry Christmas,” Mark shouted. “Merry Christmas,” Timmy mumbled as the door closed behind him.
Keys in hand, Timmy stumbled across the lot toward his van, wondering if he should have had another drink anyway. “One for the ditch” he muttered, but no one was there to laugh. He slipped as he neared the van and caught himself on the door handle, the contents of the go cup ejected as he gripped the Styrofoam too tightly. He let the cup fall to the ground in disgust. Distracted, he failed to notice what else ended up in the snow beneath his feet. He climbed in the van and started the motor. Overly cautious, he eased it out of the lot, heading south toward the expressway ramp. One by one Mark pulled the chains that shut off the neon beer signs in the front windows. The large G. Heileman's Old Style sign hanging outside the building above the front door would stay lit for as long as it took someone to get to the back room where the breaker box was. Closing time came early tonight. No one noticed the lone figure of a shivering young woman in too thin and too short a jacket gingerly making her way across the parking lot from the alley, avoiding the puddles that had refrozen into patches of ice, looking for a warm place to pee.
“To anyone who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he seems to have will be taken away.” Words spoken long ago--a riddle that has puzzled men for ages and even to the present day. Some kind of out-of-this-world compensation scheme that kicks in for some when they go too far and for others when they haven't come far enough. No one can say for sure what Marisol is going to do with the two hundred dollars she found. Even she doesn't know yet, but it's one hell of a rush just thinking about it. Maybe she'll give it to Luis--he's been paying too much attention to that prieta he brought home. “Now he'll pay attention to me,” she figures. Maybe she'll give it to her sister to pay some bills, so Com-Ed doesn't threaten to turn off the gas again. Maybe she'll give it to her mom to buy something for the little boy she's raising for Marisol--he's lived with his abuela for four years now, even calls her “mom”, thinks Marisol is his sister. Maybe she'll smoke a blunt--the biggest one she can find. Paco's Liquors has pints of 151 behind the register, on the top shelf. “¡Que chévere! Party time! Wake up when it's over.” But whatever she does, one thing is certain. Marisol has the first real smile on her face in ages. For Marisol, it's already become the best freakin' Christmas ever.
Several years ago, one of my patients, a women in her sixties, told me of an experience she had many years before, on the occasion of a terrible tragedy that befell her family. Her son was in his late teens. The youngest of seven children, he was a good student who dreamed of going to college or joining the Air Force—anything that would take him out of a small town in Southwest Oklahoma, the kind of place where those who can get out usually do, and those who can't usually don't. Jobs were few and hard to come by; trouble was just the reverse. The Rock Island Railroad once served this town along with the MKT; both were memories now. The occasional iron spike turned up along the abandoned right of way. Half the stores around the square were vacant; most that remained had limited hours. Getting on at the Brick Plant was about the only thing to hope for, and that only happened when somebody died or got fired for drinking and not coming in.
Late on a summer day, when the shadows were long and the sun was low in the western sky, he and three friends from school were in an old Buick leisurely driving home. They had been swimming, or hiking, or just riding around--the things that kids do on a summer day when there is nothing else to do and they are feeling free, feeling the pull of adulthood, and the passing of time that won't come back. The driver of the truck that hit them said, "They just pulled out in front of me, like they couldn't see me or something." The High School held a memorial assembly when the semester commenced two weeks after the accident. There was a minute of silence before the kickoff of the first home football game later that fall.
My patient remembers that everything seemed like a blur for a while. She remembers seeing the Sheriff at the door. Her pastor came by minutes later and spent most of the night. Family and friends and strangers--in this town hardly anyone qualified as a stranger--came and cried and brought food and said how "sorry" they were. "He was a good boy. He had his whole life ahead of him." Finally the visits slowed, and then they stopped. Life returned to its accustomed pace, except for a few grieving families for whom its sense and order were broken and crushed, like the piles of dust and fragments behind the Brick Plant.
She remembers sitting in her room the evening of the day of the funeral. There was company in the parlor, but she had excused herself. She wanted--she needed--a moment alone. She hadn't slept in days. "It isn't right. It can't be right,” she pleaded. Tears returned--they rarely left. Was he really gone? Was that all there was to it? Was that all there was to say? Without fanfare, she heard a voice in the room, this room with its door closed and carefully pressed curtains and bedspread and dustless dresser top. A man's voice, low and clear and somehow soothing, like when her father would scoop her up in his arms when she was little after she tripped on the roots in the backyard and skinned her knee. Her father always told her it was going to be all right; he made her feel safe at home no matter what happened in the backyard.
Unmistakably, calmly, with the strength of the beams that supported the old house, with the serenity of the oak tree that covered half the yard with its shade, the voice said, "Your son is with my son."
I received a call at lunch today. The husband of a patient who I hadn't seen in months wanted to speak with me. This is uncommon and usually means something bad has happened. I first met this family when the wife was in the ICU after an accidental overdose of prescribed pain pills. She had been having back problems, was recovering from surgery, but was unable to return to work. In her frustration and disgust she got carried away with her medication and began to lose hope and control of her senses and purpose. In time her body and mind healed. She was able to return to work, and at our last visit, she seemed at peace with herself and all that had tormented her in the preceding year or two.
"Doc, I'm calling to cancel the appointment," he started. His voice seemed drained, weak, on edge. "I'm sorry I didn't call sooner," he continued. "I haven't slept in three days. We buried her yesterday afternoon. I just wanted you to know... so someone else could have the appointment... so it isn't wasted." It may be a cliché to say that one sinks in one's chair on the arrival of certain kinds of news, but it happens anyway. He told me the details. He had spoken with her by phone several times on the day she died. They didn't argue; there was nothing to argue about. The couple had become closer after his own job related injury put him out of work for several months. He had recovered and like his wife was back at work and putting the past behind him. They were planning to buy a house and had found one to their liking and that they could afford. Their nine-year-old son was doing well in school. When my patient's husband got home, he found the front door locked and bolted. She didn't answer his knock or shouts or rattling on the window. He had to break in. He searched the rooms fruitlessly. The bathroom door was locked from the inside. He broke it down and found her just as she described in the note she left on the kitchen table.
The note explained everything and nothing. Her handwriting was usually neat, but this time it was shaky and hurried. She told of receiving a call on her cell phone not long after they last spoke. She heard on the line--she thought she heard--she said she thought she heard--how many ways are there to put this? She heard a voice tell her "do it in the shower where it won't make a mess." She had wrapped her head in a towel. Her eyes were still open. There was very little mess.
The dispatcher didn't send an ambulance after the husband called and reported what he found. The Sheriff came out and offered his condolences. While the Sheriff was examining the scene, the nine-year-old son told his dad "I have to pee" and entered the room while the Sheriff had his back turned. "He wanted to see his mom,” my patient's husband explained, his voice cracking and trailing off.
Family and friends, coworkers, the folks from church filled the hall for the memorial. "Five pastors came," stated the husband, his voice renewed in strength. "I know she loved the Lord," he added. "They told me she is in Heaven. They all agreed, “It wasn't her who did this. She didn't choose this. Something took over. Something she couldn't stop." He paused. "Satan will stop at nothing to destroy the faithful and the faith of those left behind.” I nodded silently.
The family listened to the message on the cell phone. Over and over they played it for themselves and others. "Just static, road noise," the patient's husband stated, "like somebody was driving and dialed by accident. There was nothing else there. There was nothing there."
There was something there.
They never were much good those instant photos that came out of the machine at the mall. Two dollars. Four poses. Ready in minutes. You retrieved them from the chute, damp and sticky, even after the blower switched off. Forced smiles. Awkward, made-up expressions. It was hard not to blink. The features were always blurred, the colors dark and run together or washed out when the chemicals needed changing. Call them a keepsake, a memento, a souvenir. They went home in a pocket to be set aside, forgotten like dreams and other things you bought. Then one day you discover them in a drawer of inconsequential items and marvel at who you once were, and who you've become, and how the time has passed.
If the jihadists were smart, they would recognize the obvious. To win their war against the West, against America in particular, they need not detonate anything; they can prevail without firing a shot. Ordinary Americans have been destroying the nation from within for decades now, and while the process is hardly complete, it is far enough along that the jihadists and their targets might live long enough to see the outcome. All everyone has to do is just sit back and wait.
It has been said that great civilizations decay from within long before they are subdued from without, the internal decay weakening structures on which stability depends long before legions from afar appear, making their arrival largely moot. While today’s terrorism threatens the public's physical safety and emotional security, America's eventual destruction will be brought about by modern, mainstream Americans whose attitudes and behaviors have shepherded in a new age of profound dysfunction. Time and numbers are on their side. This is not a problem of political extremism or religious fanaticism; such trends are little more than a sideshow to the main event. Our demise is not about conquest by others but our own surrender, slippage on a slope that has always beckoned and seduced, a slope that we no longer define as threatening but tragically embrace.
How is this happening? Consider the following.
What happens to a nation when the generation that learned nothing becomes the teachers, and the generation that never grew up becomes the parents?
What happens to a nation when everybody wants to live on Easy Street, but nobody wants to do the work necessary to get there? What happens when people no longer believe that great sacrifices are required to accomplish things of value, things that last? What happens when people can't give up today's comfort and convenience for a greater reward tomorrow, convinced that self-denial is never called for? Perhaps we can only "have it all, right now" when "it" is very hollow, fleeting, and pointless.
What happens to a nation when the primary ethic becomes "Get as much as you can for as little as you can get away with"? What happens when the prevailing approach toward accomplishment becomes "Give me the trophy, and then I'll run the race. Better yet, just give me the damn trophy!" And the trophy is a degree, a promotion, a luxury car, an over-sized house in a new development on the edge of town. What happens to achievement and productivity when people believe that something valuable, meaningful, and lasting can be had for little or no effort, for just showing up and going through the motions. What happens when deserving replaces earning?
What happens to a nation that makes immediate happiness the goal of all activity and demands instant satisfaction in order to make an effort? What happens when the ability to delay gratification—the defining quality of adulthood—is largely lost, and this loss is not even mourned? What happened to patience, perseverance, resilience, and putting things in perspective, things like distress and discomfort? A pain free life is one without challenge; a life without challenge is one without growth; a life without growth is one without freedom, possibilities, or hope.
What happens to a nation when children understand parents to be "the strangers who pick us up from day care at 6 PM"? What happens to a nation when dads spend more time on the Xbox—and moms in the chat rooms—than with their own kids? Are today's youth virtual orphans, plugged in, logged on, but never really connected? Have genuine adults capable of parenting become extinct, or are they merely on the endangered species list?
What happens to a nation when its children and adolescents believe that anything worth doing must be made fun? We have a generation that will only start a task if it is fun, that will only stick with a task as long as it is fun, and for whom the greatest sin is neither pride nor gluttony but boredom.
What happens to a nation that sees conscience as an anachronism and self-restraint as oppressive and unnatural? What happens when parents can't set any limits on their kids, because the parents themselves no longer believe that limits exist or need to be set? What happens when parental self-esteem hinges on getting the approval of their children, and parents are more intent on being their kids' friends than providing the structure, support, and supervision that enable the kids to mature into responsible adults? Of all the lessons learned in childhood, none summarizes the definition of maturity more succinctly than this. Sometimes in life one has to take "no" for an answer—and be "OK" with that—without tantrums, fits, or meltdowns. What happens to a nation where good parenting has been declared obsolete and where bad behavior is deemed evidence that a child's "meds aren't working"?
What happens to a nation when transient relationships and insecure emotional attachments are the only kind ever known? What will become of the kids who hear "mommy and daddy can't get along" and "you can visit daddy every other weekend" and "this is mommy's new friend..." two or three times before their teens are over? Will they become adults capable of the sound judgment and self control that make for a stable marriage? Or will they become adults who say "I've never loved anyone like I love you—lately" and "Marry me—for a few years until I find someone else in the thrill parade."
What happens to a nation where the rules of grammar are considered oppressive or obsolete, where substandard speech laced with profanity signifies trendiness, and where a high school graduate can't write an expository essay to save his own skin, but even grammar school kids have the latest hand held electronic gadgets? What happens when thinking and writing skills are no longer considered valuable and the effort to acquire them worthwhile? Who seriously believed that using calculators in math class would enable kids to learn more, not less? What future do our children have now that leisure has replaced learning and diversion has replaced dedication and devotion?
What happens to a nation when its largest chain of toy stores stocks one short aisle of books and creative supplies amid a dozen aisles of mostly branded merchandise with movie tie-ins and endless accessories? What future do our children have now that play has been replaced by showing off and getting on the wheel in a cage of endless wanting, getting, having, and throwing away? Did childhood get tossed out with the torn wrappings and boxes on Christmas morning?
What happens to a nation that overly sexualizes its young in advertising, apparel, and entertainment while preaching feel-good slogans about saving the children? Perhaps it needs to save them from itself.
What happens to a nation that prefers excuse-like slogans to straight talk about child rearing and accountability? Raising the kids can't be outsourced any more than it can be automated. It takes more than "quality time"; it takes being there through thick and thin. It doesn't take "a village"; it takes a family.
What happens to a nation where obscenity becomes the driving force of an industry? The video revolution of the eighties brought smut into everyone’s neighborhood. The Internet revolution of the nineties brought it into everyone's home. We now live in a masturbation nation. With gigabytes of pornography at everyone's fingertips, it's a wonder that anyone gets married anymore.
What happens to a nation that asks, "What is permitted?" and answers "Anything you can get away with"? Speed limits? Optional. Taxes? Final exams? Extramarital affairs? "As long as I don't get caught." What happens to a nation where the public believes that for enough of a fee one can avoid the consequences of any behavior, where hired-gun "experts" and strategies to suppress evidence and influence perception carry more weight than the facts of a case, and where deep pockets, the media's thirst for sensation, and whether the DA is up for reelection trump justice for all?
What happens to a nation that looks to "experts" and ever widening notions of infirmity and disability to explain the frustration and discouragement its citizens feel? Have we become so gullible that the notion of mental illness is more appealing than honestly admitting that purpose and meaning, dignity and fulfillment require more than charge cards, shopping malls, tract housing, Starbuck's, SUVs, MTV, and Prozac?
What happens to a nation where economy replaces durability? Costs cannot be escaped, just deferred or shifted. When the concrete and steel comes crashing down around us, we will pay dearly indeed.
What happens to a nation when its greatest industrial products, the products for which the world holds it in high esteem, are high-tech military hardware and Hollywood blockbusters? And nothing else.
What happens to hope in a nation of minimum wage service workers up to their necks in debt while shopping at the nation's largest retailer where shelves are stocked with imported products of dubious quality and safety? What happens when a minimum wage job won't allow one to keep his head above water, and even two breadwinners struggle to earn enough to live on a safe block?
What happens to a nation that ignores the largest elephant that ever made its way into a living room—the simple question, "Where have all the jobs gone?"—preferring the smoke and mirrors of toxic debt and make-believe mortgages as means to keep up and get ahead? Eight dollar an hour Wal-Mart jobs cannot provide the same purchasing power—or access to stability—as twenty-five dollar an hour autoworker or steel worker jobs. If next to nothing is going to be "Made in the USA", where are folks with high school educations or less going to work? How can one survive in a so-called service economy when even those jobs, generally low paying at best, are outsourced overseas? A neighborhood only needs so many convenience store clerks, dollar store cashiers, and laundromat attendants. Not everyone can get on disability. Who seriously believes that a stable, safe, prosperous America can be had without jobs and plenty of them?
What happens to a nation that treats a popular candidate for its highest office like a comic book superhero and an unpopular incumbent like an arch villain, where citizens prefer—and media deliver—slogans and sound bites over depth and detail, and where packaging and personality garner more interest than principles or policies? How did the election of the president turn into a popularity contest between Starbuck's and Dunkin' Donuts? How hollow does a democracy become if voters refuse to ask tough questions or consider tough answers, especially those that implicate their own values and behavior, content instead to consume a brand? What future does American democracy have if all voters want is to feel good today?
What happens to a nation when its churches first doubt—then deny—the divinity of the one they're named after, no longer extolling obedience to God but exalting and celebrating self? What happens when those entrusted as religious leaders discard articles of faith handed down across the centuries for trendy assurances that nothing is so very wrong with folks that therapy, technology, and public policy can't fix? What happens when neither the shepherds nor the sheep care much for notions of eternity and just want to feel good today? What happens when theologians append the word "story" to key elements of scripture, brazenly admitting that they no longer believe "as little children"? What happens when men and women, eager to deceive themselves as to their true nature, project the unacceptable awareness of their own inadequacy onto a world that—like the God who created it—disappoints them? Perhaps the only blasphemy left, the only heresy still possible, is to assert that man, left to his own devices, lacks the capacity to fully know what is true and do what is right, and that he is neither alone nor in charge despite fervently insisting otherwise. What if it isn't the world that is broken but merely we who inhabit it?
While we may nod and smile smugly on seeing others in the profiles above, can we see ourselves? Or is the uncrossable line reached when it comes to recognizing how our own values and choices undermine the future? We think we get it until it gets to us. Please, someone, throw the first stone.
What does it mean when many Americans have trouble believing in God, but find it easy to believe in UFOs, get rich quick schemes featured on late night TV spots, and chemical imbalances championed by pharmaceutical company advertising? The mainstream infotainment media won't ask these questions; it serves largely to convince us that they don't exist. No candidate dares bring them up. Problems, to be acknowledged, must be simple and blamed on somebody or something else, a lame duck president, a madman in a foreign land, a brain disease. Solutions, to be considered, must be comfortable, convenient, and, above all, cost-free, or at least the cost must be paid by someone who doesn't vote or hasn't been born yet. No one dares criticize the Emperor's new clothes; after all, it is we who clothed him. By way of the values goes the culture; by way of the culture goes the country. Who can honestly say that the tipping point has not been reached? Can the current generation of kids, teens, twenty and thirty somethings with today's values and attitudes run the country in twenty years? In forty? Would you like to be here when they try?
At the dawn of the 21st century, the rules by which mainstream Americans live go largely unspoken, unexamined, and unchallenged.
Nothing is supposed to hurt very much.
Nothing is supposed to take very long.
Nothing should require much effort.
Nothing should bother us more than momentarily (not longer than it takes to find the remote or take a pill).
And nothing, bar nothing, should stand in the way between wanting something and having it.
Taken for granted, these values define what we now call normal, what we expect "life" and "the world" to offer. Anything less is unacceptable. Anything less is an injustice for which laws must be passed and policies changed. Anything less is an insult for which apologies must be made. Anything less is an injury for which damages must be awarded. Anything less is a disorder for which meds must be adjusted. But what happens when we put these principles into practice on a mass scale? What happens when we apply these principles to raising and educating the next generation? What happens when we apply these principles to the struggle to find a mate, hold a family together, be productive in the workplace, or find meaning and purpose to life itself? What happens when no one will save, no one will struggle, no one will sacrifice, no one will tolerate discomfort or discontent, no one will resist temptation, no one will take responsibility, no one will plan for the long run, no one will tell the kids "no, not now" for certain things and "no, not ever" for others, and no one will take no for an answer? The operating assumptions of contemporary Americans are inconsistent with, even contrary to, what it takes to sustain the level of development to which folks are accustomed. The night can get very long and cold. What will it take for us to rediscover self-denial, savings, sacrifice, a willingness to delay gratification, a thirst for service, a belief in and commitment to something greater than ourselves, and an appreciation of honesty as rules to live by? A sustained economic downturn? A world war? Short of a calamity of this nature, is there anything that will cause us to pause, even briefly, and look askance at what we are doing, what we have become, even if it means to wince or feel nauseated by what we see?
Can we make these questions as important as the latest celebrity scandal or American Idol contestant? Do we have the courage to ask "What kind of values sustain civilization?' and "What kind of culture is best for ourselves and our children?" Do we have the conviction to answer "Not these values" and "Not this culture"? If we don't, who will?
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, I walked to Newark Penn Station from my apartment at the Hallmark House, 10 Hill Street, a high-rise that sat diagonally across from City Hall and at the south end of the Broad Street shopping district. As a fourth year psychiatry resident, I had elected to spend several months in outpatient "primary care" psychiatry at the Philips Ambulatory Care Center, a satellite of Beth Israel Medical Center, located on the east side of Union Square in Manhattan. This rotation was more relaxed than others; one arrived, coffee in hand, feeling more like a commuter than a harried and exhausted fourth year resident. The temperature was balmy, and the sky was blue and cloudless, but it was clear that something was gravely wrong as soon as I hit the street. Sirens were seemingly everywhere and emergency vehicles raced along Broad Street and Macarthur and Raymond Boulevards. Yet at the train station, it was business as usual. I boarded a PATH train to World Trade Center.
The commute from New Jersey to the hospital--a distance of eleven miles--could be made by more than one route, and, with walking to the station, waiting for a train, changing trains, and walking to the destination, took about an hour door to door. This was the trade-off I made that saved about six hundred dollars a month in rent and nearly doubled my living space compared to hospital subsidized housing, a trade-off that enabled me to get my first-ever new car and the off-street parking, gas, and insurance to go with it. The usual plan was to change at Journal Square in Jersey City for a 33rd Street train which would take me to 14th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, a few long blocks from the outpatient clinic. Other options included changing trains at World Trade for the Seventh Avenue subway or the R train to 14th Street and Union Square. On the morning in question, I never made it past Journal Square.
On the train, the mood was tense but subdued. Details were still sketchy. I remember distinctly muttering "Yeah, right..." when hearing that a plane had hit one of the towers. There was no official announcement or confirmation. The train was taken out of service; all riders were required to exit the train, platform area, and concourse itself. There was no return service. Commuters were already queuing up around the block for buses. There were no cabs in sight. I set off on foot back to Newark. A stranger in a black pickup pulled over and offered me a lift to downtown Newark. I walked a few blocks to what had become a regular haunt since moving to Newark, the Chateau of Spain Restaurant. Chateau of Spain sat directly across from Police Headquarters; I sat at the bar and ordered a beer. By that time, the only channel broadcasting was Univision; it used an antenna atop the Empire State Building. On the small screen, images of airplanes penetrating buildings and the buildings collapse--their floor-by-floor disintegration--were repeated endlessly but seemed so distant. The plume of volcano-like smoke over lower Manhattan caught everyone’s attention, however, and could not be denied.
Later that day I sent emails to family and friends who knew I was in New York to let them know I was all right. I managed to speak by phone to peers in the program who lived in Manhattan. Many of the residents had set up a triage station in Stuyvesant Square Park across from Beth Israel waiting for casualties that never came. The island was quarantined for a period with no bridge or tunnel access to the public. Of the events of Wednesday I have little recall; no doubt I spent it alternately at home glued to the TV and internet and at Chateau of Spain. Access to Manhattan was restored by Thursday morning, and I made my way in by train. At the point where tracks diverged toward World Trade, a fine gray dust was visible in the tunnel. Walking along 14th Street across Fifth Avenue, I glanced to the right. Eight blocks south sat Washington Square and the arch through which the Towers were a familiar sight. Now they were gone. That image, the gray hazy void that others have called a "hole in the sky", struck me more than all the TV news footage. My supervisor, Dr. Quentzel, was in the office dressed in soot-stained dungarees and a tee shirt. He had been at the Pile all night. He talked about seeing body parts that didn't match and blood stained shreds of clothing. We talked about how this may be a watershed event in people's lives, in the community's life, how this may be a wake up call for narcissistic New York, how folks may be compelled to permanently change how they see themselves and each other, how a sense of instant community through grief had developed--was developing--in front of our eyes with makeshift vigils, impromptu poetry in chalk on the sidewalk and on loose-leaf pages taped to light posts and building walls. We agreed that people could never go back to their ordinary lives, though I recall remarking more cynically something like "They're sure going to try..."
When I got to my office I began calling my patients to offer reassurance and assistance. I had patients from as close as Alphabet City, the projects on Avenue D, the Lower East Side, to as far away as an hour's ride on the subway in Brooklyn and Queens. New Jersey too. Most of my patients had known me since the beginning of my third year of residency; I ran a busy Saturday clinic in addition to my weekday and evening duties. I had patients who lived near Ground Zero who were without telephone service and from whom I did not hear for weeks. I called my Moslem patients--cabdrivers, nurses, shopkeepers--all of whom were alarmed. None were dancing in the streets. Once the media revealed footage and names of the perpetrators of Tuesday's event, some of my patients had been threatened and were afraid to go out.
The reaction of patients varied widely and seemed to depend on their principle pathologies and coping skills. The schizophrenics were sure that somehow "they" had caused the towers to fall. One told me so. The personality disorders were offended that something could steal their spotlight and divert so much attention from their crises, their needs, their pain. One told me that she was angry because the tragedy meant that she could "not focus on getting back into" therapy. Mostly, the anxious and depressed folk were able to be appropriately concerned about the welfare of so many others, neighbors, strangers, and put their own trauma into perspective. The tragedy brought out the best in many people for a while, weeks certainly, months perhaps. I determined that I did not lose a patient directly in the attack (though the crash of American Airlines 587 was a different matter.) One of my mentors, Dr. Markewitz, lost one. There were many flowers and candles on stoops and in doorways signifying lives lost--someone lived here. Someone went to work and didn't return that evening or any other. One of the flight attendants on the flight out of Newark lived in my building where many airline employees found accommodations. Fellow flight attendants held a memorial service not long afterward. A simple notice was taped to the lobby wall. Union Square became an enormous outdoor altar until the City Parks Department later washed it all away with fire hoses. Did it last a month? Or two? I don't know, but seeing it washed away was itself shocking. The posters of the "missing"--posters hastily written by hand with snapshots from weddings, graduations, trips to the beach--gradually disappeared from walls and lampposts. There was once a whole wall of them outside the entrance to the ER. The missing became the lost.
For weeks it was painful to look at an airplane in the sky. I avoided it, consciously turning my head. Soon fall and winter enveloped the city. I started interviewing for the job I would accept on graduating residency. I flew; I distinctly remember how uncomfortable the first take off was. My rotation at PACC ended, and I returned to 8 Bernstein as the senior resident. 8B was considered by most the toughest rotation--acute inpatient, dual diagnosis, high census, rapid turnover. I kept the Saturday clinic going to the very end. Everyday life tried to reassert itself, and nobody knew what to do. It dawned on me after I finished residency and left the area that I had not ventured south of Canal Street--Chinatown--in the remainder of my time there. Even after that part of the city was made accessible again. Even for the long walks to which I was accustomed--along the East River to Battery Park and up the west side--the walks were what I enjoyed most about living in New York City. The city was no longer "an amusement park for grown-ups" as I had jokingly considered it. It was a morgue.
A few weeks before September 11th, I spent the day sightseeing with some friends. It was their first time in New York City. We took the train to Exchange Place and boarded the ferry to lower Manhattan. We went to the observation deck on the 110th floor of Tower Two. That afternoon we took the Circle Line cruise that circumnavigates Manhattan island. We took pictures, lots of pictures. Touristy pictures on a hazy New York summer's day. Had we known what was to happen, we would have lingered longer, perhaps taken better pictures, certainly offered a prayer.
From time to time I have dreams related to the events of that time. In one I am standing by the perimeter fence of an airfield. A passenger plane comes in much too low, short of the runway. Off screen, a thunderous roar is heard. I am then walking across the wide driveway of a fire station. The doors are open. Some equipment is missing; I can see through the open door to the airport beyond, as if the station had no back wall. I am then on a side street in an urban neighborhood walking into businesses looking for a pay phone to call a friend of mine--Blanca--with whom I worked closely at BI in NYC. I think to myself--and say audibly--"I better call Blanca, because she will understand." In the dream I never find the phone and do not make the call.
There is an age-old question, unfortunately always new, that accompanies every tragedy whether it occurs outside our window, in real time via satellite from across the globe, or in grainy photos in a museum exhibit or history book.
Where was God that day?
It's easy to make maudlin comments like "He was right there in that smoky stairwell" and "on the lips of those who jumped" and "in the sweat and tears of the rescuers", comments which no doubt are true but have as much to do with where we want Him to be as where He chooses to be.
I once heard an Episcopal priest jest that God spends the better part of His time "God-ding about the universe". Though humorous this reveals a fundamental conceit: God is busy, out there, and no one knows His real job description or day to day duties. Perhaps He has OCD and collects matchbook covers or checks locks all day long. Perhaps He visits time-share resorts. Perhaps this priest's sentiment reflects a projection of his and his audience's own need for distance from the divine, a safe, comfortable distance that protects feelings and doesn't challenge one to grow or change. Perhaps it simply rationalizes his and his audience's own near abandonment of interest in and knowledge of God right here, right now in their lives. Perhaps we're afraid to know what God is really up to, in case it involves us.
I suspect God was in the same place that day as every other day, neither perched in some lofty abode nor lurking or loitering in televised drama and trauma, but steadfast and stalwart in the hearts and minds of those who know and love Him, available to those who don't but suddenly understand they need to, and present in some way--in His way--in the lives of unbelievers and those who deny Him.
As I've grown older it has struck me that there are very few genuinely new problems in our lives or in the world at large; there are just new generations of people who discover that the oldest questions in the book are as fresh as today's headlines. Why do the innocent suffer? Why does evil seem to triumph? Where is mercy when we need it the most? And the oldest answers--the ones we scoff at and deny--are ultimately the only ones that suffice. The challenge is not to find a God that is out there somewhere, incognito or just going about His business in the cosmos but to admit that He is already right here, and that we are His business. The problem is not that we don't see enough of Him or see Him often enough, but that we don't like what we do see, and that we're especially offended by that wickedly simple question He asked--Who do you say that I am?--the one with the answer that changes everything. That contemporary, educated, mainstream western society has to humble itself is largely unthinkable to its members and apologists. Perhaps that is the only blasphemy or sacrilege left, to say we don't have the right answer, that we haven't got a clue.
I once saw a sign in a store window that admonished passers-by this way. "If God seems far away" it said, "ask yourself 'Who moved?'" We might also ask ourselves how we came to let go of God so easily. Was it the modern conveniences, the leisure time, or just because we could get away with it? What does it take, nowadays, to move us? We are no longer moved by His majesty. That much is clear. A lion roars in the wild. We yawn and turn the channel. A beautiful sunrise is a screen saver that dissolves without protest when it gets in our way. Do you feel small and insignificant, alone and afraid? Your meds need adjusted. To the man of the millennium, silence is extinct, conscience an anachronism, and God is a fuzzy do-gooder if he does anything at all. Perhaps it wasn't a virtual lion that roared that day but a real one. Perhaps we needed an image on our screens that we could not turn off or easily forget. Perhaps more than our meds needs adjusted. God humbled a generation on September 11th, 2001. A generation saw God and lived. A generation learned that what is given can be taken away. The illusions of stability, tranquility, prosperity, and safety--the illusion that power and control rests in the hands of men--all that was taken away.
Perhaps the oldest answers in the book, the ones that make us uncomfortable, the ones we've done so much to erase from our lives, are pertinent after all. Perhaps they are there for a reason; perhaps generation after generation valued them, not because those generations were ill informed but because the answers were valuable in their own right, and each generation was keenly aware of this. Many in our era profess that God is a crutch for those lacking the courage to face life. I sense that the reverse is true, that modern man goes to great lengths to avoid facing God, for he fears what he will find.
With sadness and regret, I announce the conclusion of my medical practice in this community. I have been blessed by the opportunity to be a part of your lives, to share your hopes and fears, laughter and tears, and to support and encourage your search for dignity, strength, and peace. I have tried to offer meaningful and compassionate care to all who have entered my office. I thank you for your trust and good will. May I share with you something that I discovered along the way?
There's a lot of talk in the media about "brain illnesses" and "chemical imbalances". Some of this is advertising; some is meant to be educational. Whatever the purpose, these accounts oversimplify a complex and controversial area. But who can argue with "the experts"? Human beings and the world we live in are wonderful creations filled with depth, detail, and paradox. We may find it appealing to hear that a "chemical imbalance" lies behind how we feel and behave, because this seems to relieve us of accountability for our choices and consequences. This interpretation is deceptive and self-defeating. Has the psychiatric industry lost sight of the obvious? Or is it that we, as consumers, just don"t want to see? For most patients--for most people--feelings and behavior are about much more than molecules. How we feel and act has a lot to do with what we value, believe in, and aspire to. Values, beliefs, and ideals decide how we solve problems, respond to opportunities, and cope with obstacles. Values, beliefs, and ideals lift us up or let us down, bring us closer or drive us further apart, lead us forward or hold us back. Values, beliefs, and ideals enable us to make a difference or make excuses, make amends or blame those we've injured, change our ways or continue the path of despair and destruction. Do we preoccupy ourselves with notions of brain chemistry in order to avoid questions of freedom, responsibility, ethics, and faith--themes that mankind has struggled with throughout the ages, tough questions bereft of easy answers, the very stuff that makes us human?
There's something else the psychiatric industry seems to have forgotten. How our children turn out has a lot to do with how we raise them. As parents, the greatest gift we can give our children is our own maturity, our ability to act like adults, our willingness to grow up, our capacity to cope meaningfully and constructively with the challenges of life. When the adults act like kids, the kids have no way to become adults. Nothing else jeopardizes our children's future, our nation's future, like the immaturity of today's parents. As parents, our choices create situations that either work for or against our kids. Situations work for them when they learn to control themselves, accept responsibility, delay gratification, and make choices that have consequences everyone can live with. Situations work against them when they learn to act recklessly, blame others, care only about the moment, and think only about themselves. Maturity is more than molecules; character is more than chemistry.
My message is this. The possibilities of our lives have a lot to do with qualities that cannot be reduced to chemistry--qualities like ambition, compassion, conscience, conviction, courage, discipline, determination, faith, forgiveness, fortitude, generosity, magnanimity, mercy, motivation, respect, sincerity, and more. None of these is available by prescription; none come easily or without a cost. But each has the potential to make a difference in the life of an individual, a family, a community. We may convince ourselves that we and our children are at the mercy of our chemistry or heredity. We may convince ourselves that conscience, conviction, self-discipline, and good parenting no longer count. But will we be better off? Does the psychiatric industry have a monopoly on truth? Or do we have choices when we consider how and why we become who we are and what it takes to change? Perhaps the most important choice we make in our lives is choosing what to believe in, for our answers determine what we do with this gift called life. Do we choose hype or hope? Comforting self-deceit or the challenge to grow? We can argue with "the experts". The good news is that these choices will always be part of what it means to be human; they are ours to make anytime we are ready.
"Sometimes you have to talk out loud before you can truly hear yourself."
This project sprang from a brief but remarkable exchange in my office a few years ago. A woman in her early thirties was reflecting on her life. The story was familiar—I had heard it from many who sat in the opposite chair. Three kids, sometimes more. No college, often not even a high school diploma. Little work history, or none at all. The particulars differed, but the principle was always the same. Regret. Remorse. Longing.
"I wish I had taken high school more seriously."
"I wish I had met more people before getting married."
"I wish I had waited to have kids."
"I wish I had grown up more, gotten myself together, learned to handle things better, developed some skills, found some confidence."
"I wish I hadn't settled for an easy way out that turned into the hardest thing ever."
She blurted out candidly, "It's like what you do from age 15 to 25 pretty much decides what you're going to do from 25 to 65."
After a moment of silence, she sighed and said in a quiet voice, "I wish I had seen that. I wish somebody had told me."
What if somebody had? Would things have turned out differently?
What you do from age 15 to 25 pretty much decides what you're going to do from 25 to 65.
What does this message have to look like, sound like to be persuasive, meaningful, convincing, heard? How can it be presented to those who need to hear it so that they will pause and ponder even for a little while?
How can we encapsulate wisdom in order to impart it to an audience that lacks experience, is preoccupied with the moment, and has been taught that everything revolves around them?
Can the credibility of a contrary view be rooted in candidness, honesty, frankness? Can reflection and self examination be inspired by provocative talk that engages the listener, that challenges her to confront stark questions of purpose and intent? What would make the questions "What am I trying to accomplish?" and "Can I really live with the results?" relevant to a young person at a defining moment of her life, before it's too late?
What kind of things would it help to know in mid and late adolescence that would improve the odds of achieving a stable, secure, satisfying adulthood?
What makes life more livable in the short AND long run and how can we illustrate the differences to those for whom they are not obvious, those at risk?
Is there an art to getting by, getting ahead without hurting self and others, without throwing valuable things away before really making something of them? If there is, can we teach it or at least make it part of the conversation?
There is no Power Point presentation to life, but if there were, it might look something like this.
We're up against something monumental here. It's personal and cultural. It's about human nature and the exploitation of that nature by a remarkably toxic culture. But consider this. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube reach people every moment of every day, pandering to their needs with quips and quotes, silliness, sales pitches, the profound and the profane, and everything else that means something to those who create it and those who consume it. The trivial and the profane are now the staples of everyday life. Millions are spent each year reaching people, promoting brand awareness, manipulating outcomes, and not without results. But a thoughtful, insightful, ultimately positive message of hope—there's no audience for that? There's no room, no demand, no market for something disarmingly frank that gets under the skin, that provokes in ways that are not easily ignored or forgotten, the moves the visitor to see self and others differently, to value options, to appreciate maturity and change her approach accordingly?
Call it therapy as theatre and theatre as therapy.
"If it means something, you'll read on. If it moves you, you'll be back."
Call it Lot C Media.
There is no Power Point presentation to life, but if there were, it might look something like this.
Some choices in life are trivial; little is at stake. Others are fateful; they change everything.
What makes a choice trivial or fateful? Consequences. How much they hurt. How long they last.
Consequences aren't always what you expect, what you were led to believe, what you saw upfront, what you bargained for.
There are consequences you can live with. There are consequences you CAN'T live with, but you do anyway, because you have no other choice.
Fateful choices take you places (or keep you trapped in places) you don't want to spend much time in let alone the rest of your life, even though the choice seems right—appeals to you—at the time you make it.
The choice is always just the beginning—the first step; the consequence is the long road ahead. The demands. The pressure. The pain. The disappointment. The grief. The regret. The bitterness. The profound sense of loss.
Just because something seems exciting or makes you feel good this minute doesn't mean you're going to enjoy what comes along with it once the enthusiasm, the satisfaction wears off. Demands, costs, limits, obstacles linger long past the starting point. They can last a lifetime even. They become your life, though you'll swear you never saw it coming.
The price you pay for doing something is found in what you aren't able to do later, what isn't permitted, isn't possible.
The true cost of something is measured by the opportunities you give up.
The true cost of something isn't obvious until time passes, and by the time it's obvious it's harder than ever to change, too late even.
Fateful choices remove options, erect barriers, reduce resources, forfeit opportunities.
Fateful choices limit, contain, and restrain the one who makes them. They hold you down. They hold you back. They're side tracks, dead ends, literally. You can see the path you should have chosen and where it leads, but you can't get there from where you ended up.
Fateful choices are exclusive—they rule things out. You can have one thing or the other, but not both. Not now. Not ever.
Fateful choices are a trade off. For everything you get, you give up something else, usually a lot of things. For everything you've got coming, there are things you'll never see see again.
Nothing can ever be truly undone. There is no starting over. Not really.
Consequences are forever. You can struggle to get out of them, but you can never get back to the starting point. It vanishes over your shoulder, along with many of the possibilities that once lay ahead. One recedes; the others disappear as if someone pulled a plug. They're taken off the table! You're left standing, struggling in the present, longing to do the impossible, to start over, to go back in order to get it right, to fix things that would enable you to move forward. But you can't. No one can.
You can get a divorce, if you married the wrong person, but don't think that won't be traumatic, even under the best of circumstances.
You can go back to school, if dropping out once seemed like the answer to some question that never really got asked.
You can get clean and sober, if that's how you've ruined your life, and try to mend the scars and rebuild the trust you trashed along the way.
You can do many things, but you can never really get back the life that you would have had otherwise, because you never created it in the first place. You created something else instead.
There's a bottom line to all this, and it isn't pretty. You can never get back the time wasted.
The most precious things you have going for you when you are young are enthusiasm, innocence, potential. Each decision you make dips into that well. Those are the qualities you throw away with the choices you make. That's what you're going to miss. That's what you're going to regret later.
Return to The Story Behind the Stories.