The following is from a series of musings on trauma, memory, community, and place. The introduction to the series and beginning essay [link] explains the purpose of this month of entries.
I remember these past months the car bombings taking place in the southern suburbs of Beirut and in Tripoli.
There is a local paradox in which people at such scenes seem to end up encumbering relief efforts.
Until you realize that collectively this is the relief effort.
The image we might hold in our heads–of firefighters and police clearing the streets, of desperate people waiting for help to arrive, of ladder trucks rescuing people flailing for attention from upper floors of buildings–this is almost comical to me now.
That is, when you see residents jeopardizing their own existence setting up their own ladder chains going from balcony to balcony to aid those escaping a burning building.
With dozens of arms coming out of nowhere to hold the ladders fast.
We might say that certain cultures individualize trauma and then third-party out the response thereto.
We might further say that a certain type of mentality takes advantage of this situation to its own benefit.
I recall when there was a fire in my building on the Upper West Side.
The neighbors and I waited for the firefighters to arrive to help point out who might still be in the building.
One couple, new to the building, was in the apartment line of the fire, and the firefighters ended up breaking in their door with a fireaxe.
I left a note on their door to explain what happened.
I didn’t really know them that well.
But it was the neighborly thing to do.
They seemed to be thankful for my presence at times.
Usually on Friday evening when I would push the elevator button for them.
My father performed the same duty when he was a boy.
The tradition of the Shabbos goy, as it were.
The neighbor showed up the next day to thank me.
She said: “As soon as we smelled smoke, we got out as quickly as we could.”
Her words, verbatim.
I thought: “On your way out, you passed six apartment doors, including that of the elderly couple that the rest of us were so worried about–and who, mind you, moved to New York City after having escaped the Nazi genocide–and you couldn’t be bothered to stop and alert any of us. Meanwhile, we stayed behind to make sure you were okay.”
I just stared at her in disbelief.
I imagine this “neighbor” still lives in her corner apartment.
I recently saw my former place listed at $4,000-a-month rent.
I recently saw the Levitt-built house across the street from where I grew up listed at half a million dollars.
Needless to say, I could not afford to live in either place even if I wanted to.
Similar to how my parents could not afford to stay in their house once they had paid off the mortgage.
In a battle between the individual and the communal, the individual will literally always “win”.
You might call this: “the weak link in the chain”.
You might call this: “a history of the world”.
Giving in to such behavior thus has exponential consequences.
Reverberating outward, communally speaking.
We do not live in a vacuum of disconnected objective scientific reality.
In terms of New York City, this is the “syndrome” made famous by Kitty Genovese.
It occurs in places where trauma is not shared.
It occurs in places that lack empathy.
It occurs in places where the Self is supreme.
It occurs in places where succor comes from distantly removed third parties.
It occurs in places where help is hierarchized, made Outsider, performed by Others.
Who, in fact, are seen as catering to such Selves.
As opposed to a communal caring; an egalitarian lending of hand.
This does not alleviate, but only exacerbates said trauma.
A reverse pyramid of cascading ill-being.
A Ponzi scheme of misery.
Image: Firetrucks on the Upper West Side | Date: 2003 | Place: Amsterdam Avenue and West 92nd Street | Credit: Bruce Campbell | Caption: I remember my sister stressing out that we were all hanging out in the hallway talking instead of leaving the building. “At least put some shoes on!” she yelled at me.