Monday, October 2, 2017
Tragedy in the Tropics
The boundary of the Puerto Rican community on the Upper West Side of Manhattan began a few feet east of my front door off Broadway, extending all the way to Central Park and along Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues, not yet gentrified. I somehow learned not to walk on those streets, past the bodegas and the places that sold cuchifritos, except in a literary emergency if I had to go to the library on 81st street. No one taught me that lesson. I learned indirectly through gestures, through facial expressions, to be afraid of Otherness, of loud dance music blaring out of transistor radios in the street, of men playing dominoes out on the stoops. In school, classrooms were as segregated as the ones in Little Rock. A handful were reserved for Us, the well-fed, whiteskinned children of the professional and business classes. The remainder of the building consisted of rooms full of Them, children being told not to speak their native Spanish. Recently, in a sorry attempt to make amends, I experimented with a reversal of fortune, trying to study Spanish at seventysomething. No dice. There is no space left in my aging brain that can accommodate verbs in the conditional. It is painful when you can't express yourself. It is painful when people don't understand you. The sisters, cousins, children and grandchildren of the people I went to school with, trapped on a tropical island dismembered by nature run amok, are hungry now and will be literally powerless for six months. I try to take it in, this bankrupting, this third-worlding of a part of America. And while I'm trying to digest it, feeling increasingly lightheaded with despair, the man reputedly in charge is tweeting away, accusing Puerto Ricans of expecting too much, of not being willing to help themselves. The catastrophe in Puerto Rico has vacuumed up all the other issues crowding my awareness. The nuclear threat is still, praise God, an abstraction, though that luxury could be shortlived. The machinations of Congress are like a drone bass, always underlying the melody no matter what music is playing. I've learned to tune it out to a degree. But these people in Ponce and Arecibo, always, of course, real to themselves, are now real to me. Fear kept me from hearing them when I was a child, but I hear them now and they are crying out for help.
All lives are finite, but now the finitude of my own life is more apparent to me than it was even ten years ago. The only way to get from today to tomorrow in one piece is by making some decisions about what's most important, performing some kind of reluctant triage. This witness demands that I filter out much of the other incoming noise, the brass band of the political circus blaring oompah music at a deafening volume, the lion tamer cracking his whip. We all need to take care of ourselves, stay connected and stay healthy. But the extent of my concern for the people around me has narrowed, even as it has deepened. I can't allow everyone in. Sometimes, mea culpa, I turn into the dogfood aisle, even though I don't have a dog, just to avoid talking to a perfectly good person I recognize in the cereal aisle. I have to work with my anxiety about the state of the world so it doesn't keep me awake at night. As a lifelong insomniac, I have several strategies for dealing with sleeplessness. Lately, I've been playing a game where I try to allow my mind to focus on two completely unrelated words or names, with the idea that the two are so incompatible that no third line of thought can possibly arise from them so you might as well go to sleep. The last time I tried it, I came up with Stalin and crackerjacks. This incongruity sent me into dreamland. But once I got there, I found that it was covered with hurricane debris and fallen coconut palms. Puerto Rico had not gone away.
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