Except in politics. It is a curious creation, that. We rally together to bind ourselves to the tyranny of office. We debate, discuss, and sometimes die in the name of a system intrinsically designed to take resources from our personal lives on what amounts to a soft promise to give it back, transmuted from lead to gold, in the form of some service that we alone could not provide and at some later date… unless the other guy is elected and then all is for naught. Maybe this is selfish – I do, after all, trust the fire department to arrive without them first calling to confirm my bank account balance. That’s good. People care more when they’re both personally invested and need whatever the thing is. Maybe it’s altruistic – I do, after all, happily give up a portion of my income to pay the current medical bills of past generations. A bit of that is a wink and a nod to my own future but mostly, I’m paying for the folks alive today. I work to never need the benefit that I will pay into all my life. Government is weird.
I try to find the value in it. Surely, if such a feature persists through the millennia of humanity, it must have value. Is it the fight-or-flight response? No, because that is a poor description. Panicked people do not often fight. Often, they do not even flee. They mostly collapse in on themselves in a babbling, dazed, unthinking, unfeeling, incapable ghost of a person. They stop being a person. They stop being, at all. Is it the reversion to a primal instinct that preserves, if no one else’s, then at least their own life?
This isn’t the thought that lingers. After the excitement, the congratulations, the calls and texts to parents, what lingers is not the little wonder growing inside her but the little wonder that I caught in my hands as my wife bounded down an aisle. It’s small, no larger than a postcard, heavier by a bit but hardly heavy, and it connects me to everything. We were buying beer when the phone rang. Faces appeared. We were instantly beside them as they shared their news.
As I read the lines I don’t always remember writing, lines I put away for days and weeks and sometimes months between work sessions, I see things that I didn’t know snuck their way in. I see hitchhikers. I see viruses. I see ideas unremembered for 18 years. I see memories I would have sworn were my own vibrant original content. Oh, no, that’s a converted memory from middle school. There’s something I remembered cooking up during college. Here’s something, no I swear to you that’s brand new and I made it up right here in this moment I remember so clearly, but no, wait, it’s a version, made writ, of a familiar where and when. I know that smell. I know that feeling. Dammit. There it is. Something new.
I talk with my new friends in our new home about Atlanta. Their eyes light up. What a place to go! What a place to be! Oh, the food you will eat and the drinks you will drink. They laugh about the choking traffic because for folks who never lived there, it’s a punchline. For those of us who did or still do, it is a special tax all its own. We spent one more hour to drive back from from Atlanta than to cross Atlanta from our old house to a friend’s apartment. It’s just not funny.
I thought it silly the first time I read it. Why wouldn’t they turn? In what possible world would prisoners stare only at the dull gray features cast ahead of them and never wonder about the wider details beyond? How could any reader believe that a group of humans would simply accept the world in front of them and wonder no more? Humans are inquisitive, intelligent creatures almost wholly unique in our capacity to compound and share knowledge. Why should we accept this story where people behave just the opposite of humankind, at their own terrible expense?
Solomon Northup’s account is difficult to accept. I don’t want to believe people are so easily capable of such evil. It is easier to believe universally of humanity, as Mr. Northup does for Master Ford, that such people are products of a system but are otherwise whole and good. He knows better than I ever will. But he takes great care, despite all the injustice and rage he must have felt every day from his capture through the end of his life, to highlight those who enjoy harm and see themselves as superior. That their harm is justified, even incumbent to, their superiority. That you can do awful things to human beings not because of anything they’ve done but because of how they, and you, were born.
Each walk is pleasant in its own way. One carries me down dank, 1930’s-era stairs through the main building to a psychiatric hospital where curly-headed doctors wielding horn-rimmed glasses and bow ties confer in corners. They make me smile because they’re almost tropes of themselves. Another walk takes me through the ultra-modern cancer center, across a parking deck, and into the outpatient clinic where people urgently await treatment that does not meet the threshold of “inpatient”. Ambulatory, we call them, because hey, at least you can walk out of here today.
There are high fences there now, but when I was little the chainlink only reached a foot above my head. My dad would pick me up and we would gaze at the manmade waterfall in awe. I never feared falling into those depths since I wanted to badly to explore them. When I was a teenager I scooted under the fence and wandered along above the falls and under the road but not too far as it’s a busy road and a small enough town that someone would have recognized me and call my parents, my pastor, or both.
By night’s end I encountered someone special who I’ll never see again. I’d tell you her name but I never knew it. That’s okay. She barely knew mine and may never remember it. Chances are our paths will never cross again. She gave me a gift that night, though, and I am grateful.