I’ve been sick. About two hours before the beginnings of Hurricane Irene touched our area on Saturday, my body decided I needed a fever. There were no other symptoms; just a nasty fever that seemed to spike when and where it liked. I spent the day popping Tylenol and (after we ran out) Ibuprofen to take the symptoms away. I hate taking pills of any kind. I constantly tested the edges of my fever, not liking to take a tablet to control the thing until I was sure I had a high temperature—”Maybe it is gone now,” I kept thinking to myself. Myself kept being incorrect.
I stayed home on Monday, the last Ibuprofen swallowed around 3 PM that day. The fever seems to be a distant memory now. As a result, I was unable to blog that day, nor on Tuesday. I just didn’t have the energy. I sat at my desk like a paperweight yesterday, only a paperweight is more high-performing than I managed.
So today, I blog.
I really haven’t much of import to say.
A woman at my office gives me cucumbers. I chuckle in dismay every time I walk into my office and a cucumber is sitting on my keyboard. It’s not a come-on—mind out of the gutter, folks! It’s an artifact of an earlier time, harkening to the days when we didn’t lock our car doors to keep thieves out of the car, but to keep our neighbors from filling it with zucchini when we were at church. To the same effect, a friend of mine told me an elderly man handed out bags of beets at her church recently. Ah, the humble beet. Nature’s angriest turnip. What wouldn’t you give for a gunny sack full of beets?
It made me start reminiscing about societal controls, and the effects of growing up in small towns. The first recollection was handicapped parking. I couldn’t remember when, if ever, there was such a thing in Gold Beach when I was young. I can imagine a scenario of how the idea started. It was definitely a small town thing, I bet, hearkening from when Cousin Bob lost a leg in a farming accident. We all know and like cousin Bob, so the day we saw him and his crutch having to hoof it all the way up the lot at the hardware store, we thought, “He’s a good guy. Always pays his bills on time. Let’s give him a special spot to park in, right up front, to make his life easier.”
Cousin Bob didn’t ask for any favors, but he was a contributing citizen of the town. So the hardware store made an extra wide spot. Bob could fling the door wide open on his pickup, and climb out. They marked the space with a sign: “No Parking, Unless You’re Cousin Bob.” It feels good to give. Soon other stores in town did the same thing. “Cousin Bob’s Parking Spot” soon appeared at The Easy Egg Diner, and at the feed lot, and even the local grocery store. The community smiled and clapped themselves on the back.
Now a stranger moved into town. He was in a wheelchair. Could he use Bob’s spot as well? Well, it’s not like Bob was using his special-access spaces every hour of every day of the year. Sure. Let the stranger use them. He’s not hurting anybody. Wheelchair Eddie began parking in that spot as well. He liked it. Special access, and not wheeling in from the back of a lot in the rain? Who wouldn’t enjoy that kind of treatment?
But Eddie complained bitterly to the city council when he couldn’t get into the grocery store one day. Someone had run into the store to get a gallon of milk, and had the audacity to park in Cousin Bob’s spot. They weren’t even otherly-abled! The council agreed, nodding amongst themselves, and decreed that every business in town should allocate one spot, near the front of their establishment, for the handicapped and infirm, or feel the wrath of the gendarmerie.
The community reacted in furor. We don’t know this Wheelchair Eddie. Why should we do anything for him? “What about The Sewing Circle?” Sister Nettie complained. “He never comes into the Sewing Circle and buys yards of fabric or spools of thread. Do I need a space too?” “What about “Hole In the Wall”?” exclaimed the drywall guy. “We only have street parking.” Yes, the Council said. You do. Both of you do.
And those who don’t are fined. And people who run in for a half-gallon of milk, and leave their car idling, find their cars towed when they return, children confused and screaming in the back seat. And businesses must add wheelchair access bathrooms. And wide-access aisles in your stores and libraries. And access ramps and wheel-on curbs. A gift from the old community had become a sharp division.
Now I think we’d all agree that wheelchair access, and ramps and the like, are good things. We are used to it these days, but there was a time, I’m betting, when it was a grassroots thing. The community was pleased to give things to Cousin Bob. They knew Bob. They were less certain about Wheelchair Eddie, but agreed. They didn’t know Eddie as well. But when a few special folks began to expect it, the whole idea became suspicious, and even repulsive.
I am not making a social critique, or even choosing sides. I will note, however, that once a good idea becomes institutionalized, or bureaucratized, it becomes substantially more difficult to swallow for a large segment of the population.
We are happy when a community helps themselves. The Cousin Bob analogy is all right for most people. We are comfortable, but a bit suspicious, when a community helps other people who are less known. Do good ideas become less good because society itself has changed? We no longer have the “Utopian” Mayberry communities of yesteryear. Perhaps they never existed at all.
People are more mobile today. Judi and I have lived in our building for three years. We hardly know our neighbors. An ambulance arrived at our unit a few weeks ago, lights flashing. A cop car soon followed. We noted it, and went on with our business.Now, I consider myself a fairly nice guy, and a good person. I was ashamed, not only because I didn’t know the person who was being hauled into the ambulance (although they only lived a hundred yards away), but because at the time, I hardly noted it, and hardly cared. Am I a good person? I doubt it. I should just wait for the law to come down from congress that says “When your neighbor is taken away in the ambulance, you should bake the family a casserole, even if you don’t know them.”
“You can’t know everybody. You can’t help everyone,” people might object. “Society is different.” You’re right. Society is different: we are more selfish and insulated. Even church. Case in point: friends of mine have been begging their church (of maybe 200 people—probably far less) to help fix their roof—They have organized several workdays. They live in the Pacific Northwest. It rains there. This has been going on for many weeks now, and the weather is threatening. The church isn’t responding. They told me, at the last workday, two people agreed to showed up. This is a normal response, not an “inconvenient day to ask favors” thing. Maybe a law needs to be instituted: “If you go to this church, you help fix your neighbor’s leaky damn roof.”
But, and I’m sighing here, that wouldn’t work. As soon as we have to assist those who aren’t part of our immediate circle, our propensity to casually and cruelly turn aside from our neighbors becomes far stronger. Why spend our money, and waste our time, on others? we think. We hardly have enough hours in our day of our own. Or, I am thinking, maybe we do, and we’ve just forgotten how to make a community anymore. Remember: community starts with a cucumber left on a keyboard. Or a sack full of beets. Or maybe feeding a neighbor for a night. It’s time to remake ours.