[Note: section two of this post has been edited since I first put it up this morning.]
[Note 2: and it’s been edited a second time.]
So the exercise plan that I came up with on Tuesday was to start rising at five a.m. daily. On the first day I would go to the gym and lift weights for arms and chest, then use the gerbil stepper. On the next day, I would go to the gym and lift weights for back and shoulders, then go for a run. On the third day, I would go to the gym and lift weights for legs and abdominal muscles, then use the gerbil stepper. On the fourth day, the pattern would start over.
But the Y, I discovered Wednesday morning after heaving myself out of bed, still exhausted after a rather poor night’s sleep and hung over from a bedtime Benadryl, doesn’t open until 5:30. (I can’t escape the feeling that there is something wrong with you when you are getting going earlier than the Y, but I never claimed to be completely sane, especially not under the current circumstances.) So I went for a run (otherwise it would have been a gerbil stepper day) even though I had also run on Tuesday. Just as well, because I was eager to try out the new shoes I purchased on Tuesday, which I also figured would save me from a little of the strain that two days of running in a row would put on my semi-untrained muscles and joints. And the shoes (some variety of New Balance) were, um, great (not sure what to say about shoes, really). By the time I was done, the Y was open and I nipped in for said arms and chest exercises, and life was back on track.
Over breakfast I read of the first of the funerals for the victims of last week’s rowhouse fire. Authorities are saying that the fire seems to have been caused by someone falling asleep while smoking on the living-room couch used as a bed. I have always heard that a couch can be a real fire-bomb, especially because of the way an ember can sink into the foam and smolder even after it looks like you’ve brushed it off. In fact, if you ever do drop an ember of any kind on a couch, and there is any chance that this may have happened (i.e., the couch cover has a hole burned in it), I’ve heard that you should put the affected cushion outside overnight just to be on the safe side.
Meanwhile, smoking in bed? Who does that? Maybe the problem is that, with fewer and fewer people smoking, the public safety messages these days all tell us simply not to smoke, as opposed to the little reminders they used to tuck into movie previews and radio announcements and even songs specifically warning against or at least alluding to the dangers of smoking in bed. The concept was drilled into me at about the age of eight or nine when an apartment in our complex burned and my father explained that this had been the cause. He of course grew up in the era of omnipresent cigarettes and so had been pretty well trained concerning this danger himself. The smoker in this case died, I think, or I assumed he did, and the blackened hole of his apartment was a daily reminder of the risk. So don’t smoke, but if you must, never do it unless you have at least one foot on the floor. Or is that the rule for how teenagers have to sit on the couch in the basement with their dates?
All joking aside, the article about the funeral was devastating. Apparently, all but one of the fire’s victims were related, and that one was essentially an adopted member of this free-form, self-defined family of a type that is so typical of America’s urban poor, carrying on traditions of self-sufficiency and survival against terrible odds that began during slave times (so don’t believe this nonsense about there being no functioning families in the ghetto, it’s society that isn’t functioning, at least at this level). The family had hoped to bury all seven victims at once, but they must first wait until each victim, most of them apparently charred beyond recognition, has been identified. (You know, so they’ll know which one is in which grave.)
But identifying each victim is taking longer than expected because no dental records are available.
Because not a single one had ever been to a dentist.
Tuesday’s funeral was for seven-year-old MarQuis Ellis, known as a friendly, smiling child who enjoyed riding his bike and playing tag and who met his end like the rest of them, alone and afraid in a hellstorm of smoke and fire. It’s almost more than I can bear to think about this and keep typing, but I wanted to mention the strange and disturbing eulogy given by Reverend H. Walden Wilson II, of Israel Baptist, who seems to have essentially taken the tack of telling the mourners to be glad the boy died.
The good reverend, as quoted in the Sun:
“No Christian would want to live… in this life, in this city, in these neighborhoods, with all of the imperfections. Who wants to live here forever?
“I can speak on behalf of MarQuis… he will never experience any childhood diseases. He will never encounter any gang violence. He will never experience cruel and evil speech. He will never experience drug activity… A young boy. Seven years old. Already experienced victory.”
The reporter paraphrased the reverend further:
“Marquis’s death, said Wilson, is a victory for a boy who will never have to ride his bike down dangerous streets again or worry about his mother braiding his hair.”
I guess this is the style of a certain kind of religious outlook, “the world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through” (a song about which I agree with Woodie Guthrie). And I know that the reverend intended only to console. But I found myself reading his words with a growing sense of anger that I can’t quite explain. Maybe it’s anger at the hopelessness expressed in this view, the way this view helps people accept the injustices done to them, as if the more injustice you can bear, the godlier you are, which may be, but it also coincidentally benefits the people actually responsible for the injustice. (Which, not to bring you down or anything, is pretty much all of us who can sleep at night while the MarQuises of the world bed down in dilapidated firetraps and reach the age of seven without once receiving some of the most basic medical care.) Or maybe it’s anger that some members of this so-called society experience so much injustice that they need this outlook just to get through each day.
But also, think of the attitude toward life you would need to have to find comfort in such words. I won’t be so arrogant as to claim that I can speak for MarQuis, but I’m guessing that, if we could have asked him, he might have been willing to endure some of the travails the reverend described if it also meant he could have experienced his first kiss, seen the sun rise over the ocean, gone to college (unlikely, in a city where less than a third of African-American adults even have a high school diploma, but you never know), maybe gotten married, maybe dropped off MarQuis, Jr. for his first day of school, maybe cured cancer. You just never know.
MarQuis seems to have struck a chord, at least: hundreds of friends, family and strangers attended his funeral, including preachers from both the west and east sides, which means a lot in this divided city.
Back at work, back to the grind. The end is in sight but quite far off, really, which leads to what I’ll call some perception problems, as if I’m constantly switching back and forth between a telescope and a microscope. At lunchtime I walked to Safeway for a new jug of water. This Safeway has recently gone “upscale,” meaning fake hardwood floors in the produce section (like Whole Foods, I guess), special tilted display shelves at the ends of the aisles, tons more managerial-looking employees who lunge at you and ask how you’re doing every time you turn around, and unappealing little seating areas inside and outside the store that it’s hard to believe they really want anyone using. And who wants to sit and eat either in a converted aisle under flourescent lights, nowhere near a window, or outside next to the parking lot where you will be hassled by all of the people who want to sell you their food stamps?
Another innovation: small little European-style carts with two little cargo baskets, not much bigger than hand baskets, stacked atop each other, with no seat for kids. I was entering the store behind one woman who was slowly wrestling one of these into the store with one hand while she held a cell phone to her ear with the other, trailed by a toddler clutching her pants leg. The toddler appeared barely able to walk upright without support; she came up to maybe the woman’s knee. As the woman made her glacial way into the store, the toddler realized that she was not going to get to ride in the cart and began bawling.
“You hear her?” the woman chuckled into her phone. “She pulling on me and yelling.”
Finally, I saw a small opening and plunged past them.
“Yeah, well, she can’t always get what she wants,” I heard the woman continue into her phone. “She got to learn some day.”
I could hear the screaming and increasingly hoarse child the entire time I was in the store.