On Looking the Other Way

It’s 3:00 PM, the first day of the year 2006. And I have already observed the following:

1. At my neighborhood cafe, a man and a woman break out into a fight. The man shrieks that he’s a peace-loving person, but he’s getting a “bad vibe” and this is somehow motivating the violence. Peace for this gentleman essentially means screaming at the top of his lungs something about doing time for 14 years and about how the woman, whom he claims is his sister, won’t speak to him. He is also overturning random objects outside, apparently to further what he describes as “peaceful intent.” The woman, who claims she has not invited any of this on, proceeds to continuously egg on this disturbed gentleman with cutting insults, walking to the doorway separating the Haight Street nomads from the neighborhood dwellers ensconced inside and continuously chiding him, letting loose all manner of violence to this guy’s face (punches, slaps, the like). The following cycle occurs about three times: After a short burst of this pugilism, the woman then says, to the great bafflement of workers and the customers who have not fled the premises (apparently, just me by round three) that she claims she has done nothing. This after she has proceeded to bust the man’s chops. And then the man enters the doorway. Various people (including me) separate the two from inflicting further physical violence on each other, which is not as easy as it looks because these two are quite determined to hate, this enmity being established, strangely enough, as a peaceful demeanor. The woman leaves only because she is asked to by the establishment. And by the end of this all, I am the only customer who remains. Although the coffeehouse fills up to capacity again within twenty minutes.

2. While on a daily walking constitutional (a New Year’s resolution of sorts), I observe a car, traveling at what appears to be a stellar velocity (at least 45 mph) down Oak, attempting to brake before a red light and completely losing control, weaving in a dangerous curlicue onto the sidewalk before the light, just missing a pedestrian trying to fire up a smoke (with the pedestrian completely unaware of this caroming vehicle until the inevitable CRASH! tinkle reverberates across some six square blocks) and collide into a parked black Saab. I freeze for ten seconds. It seems like something out of a movie. But after this ten second period has passed, I run across the street to make sure nobody’s hurt. Amazingly, despite the car’s bisected Gaussian curve into what might have been a house had not the Saab been there, not so much as a soul is injured. A crowd of fifteen or twenty have congregated around the crash. Cell phones have been whipped out. There are impassioned pleas to 911. And I don’t think the smoker guy realizes he could have been killed or that the driver and passenger of the car knows how lucky they are to be alive. The authorities have been called. A svelte jogger who is easily half my weight and I pick up abandoned newspapers and attempt to staunch the gas, oil and greenish fluids that are now oozing their way into the gutter marked “WARNING: THIS FLOWS INTO NATURAL WATERS,” and I begin to imagine the sea life and fish that might be harmed or killed because of this driver’s failure to proceed down Oak Street at a safe velocity and/or keep tires aligned. In fact, the driver and passenger of this car seem generally amused by this all. They seem ripe and ready to laugh over the transformation of their vehicle into toxic detrius and perhaps slap the officer writing up the collision report some high fives. I am unable to find the owner of the parked Saab in the crowd. But I don’t think s/he’ll be so amused or conclude that this is the best time to apply a Louisville slugger to a piñata. When it is clear that everyone is all right and that there are plenty of witnesses to the accident, I take my leave.

It is said that things happen in threes (although I have never known a shady usurer to be audited three times in a row). While I neither believe in a god nor am particularly superstitious, there is a small part of me obsessed with patterns that wants to believe that Terrible Incident #3 will occur if I leave the house again. Even though every rational fiber in my being knows that this is wrong. There is a groping here for some kind of meaning or order. Never mind that this is probably all coincidence, that these things happen all the time, irrespective of my existence or where I wander, and that these two terrible things just happened to happen as I walked by. It could have been five terrible things or none at all. But while I am glad that there was no loss of life in either incident, I’m still asking myself why there’s some compunction inside me that believes that (don’t laugh) I am partially responsible. I’m thirty-one. Didn’t I shed these scutes a while back? Is it guilt? Is it some residue of agnosticism that I packed away decades ago? Is it a simple desire to ascribe meaning to everything? Or is it my imagination getting the better of me? Do I want to be persecuted? Is that what this is all about? Do I feel too much for the world around me?

The fact that any thinking person with even the slightest ethical compunction can’t be completely at ease with the idea of people who are alone on Xmas, possibly starving, or that people are being tortured in inhuman ways in order to loosen lips for this so-called “war on terrorism,” or wars that are called “conflicts” are permitted to go on with great loss of life and no exit strategy and no end in sight. And people are dying and they don’t really have to. And how can anyone really sit back and watch an episode of My Name is Earl while all this is going on? How can anyone bitch about something as picayune as the co-worker accidentally swiping the wrong brown bag in the fridge and remain completely ignorant about the current political situation?

The gist I’m getting at here: How can any of us completely turn our backs on this stuff? Whether local incidents of violence or faraway ones? I understand the need to avoid unnecessary conflicts or volatile scenarios, but what the hell is it in the damn atmosphere that causes people to remain so blissfully unaware and unassuming, walking (as I saw people walk past both Terrible Incident #1 and Terrible Incident #2) as if it involved two people whispering or a stick falling to the ground? A mere pittance! Not even so much as a head turn or an “Is everything alright?” Are people so scared shitless of the world around them? Are they so unwillingly to accept the reality that this cannot be a zero risk world? It seems that combatting the risks themselves has taken on cartoonish proportions: melodramatic Amber Alerts (aka The Kids Who Cried Wolf; see here) and the stripping of civil liberties without public debate. But is it possible that basic human decency, that kind of nascent concern for one’s fellow beings, has been occluded by the current atmosphere that insists that the largely unseen DOJ/NSA entities (whose scope of authority and invasions into privacy we can really only speculate upon) will somehow take care of this mess? The same “Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out” mentality that provokes people to look the other way at the dangers of Hubbert’s Peak or a car accident? If that’s the case, frankly the willfully ignorant, those who would sacrifice all passion and integrity in this social contract quid pro quo scam the boys at 1600 Penn have got going on right now, strike me as the wussiest scoundrels I’ve seen since Richard Nixon.

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