So I have a friend. His name is Dave. He is the husband of a very good friend of mine, Jane. We have known each other since my son was three or four months old, not long before her son was born. They are very much a part of my family's life. I was at the hospital when their second and third children were born. I am the godmother of their daughter. We play together, make crafts together, even travel together on occasion. Our boys construct alternate universes together, places where ancient pre-dinosaurs and friendly alien visitors inhabit.
Dave is a middle school teacher in one of the most dangerous, impoverished areas of Chicago, which abuts our town. Our town is very affluent in comparison, though neither of our families is wealthy: we just sort of sneaked in and did a land grab under the radar. Needless to say, our communities pushed up against each other like they are, it is an occasionally uneasy proximity, a tense juxtaposition. Garages are broken into regularly, really a pretty innocuous occurrence compared to the muggings, home burglaries, and carjackings that find their way into the police blotter. One is grateful when her garage is broken into, as though that somehow takes her off the List Of Unfortunate Occurrences, like dues has been collected and duly noted. I have come to learn that in the great Karmic scale, a garage broken into does not exempt one from the myriad other violations committed against one's person or property.
One thing that I noticed right away about our town after moving here nearly five years ago is how much the energy shifts in just a few short blocks from this dangerous neighborhood to our town. It is almost palpable. We live just two blocks from the border, and, without exaggeration, driving down North Avenue, there are car alarms wailing, teenagers getting patted down against police cars with their fingers laced behind their heads, empty potato chip bags and Jack Daniels bottles everywhere. You cross the border into our town, though, suddenly and inexplicably you're transported to an idyllic, almost Eisenhower-era landscape. Bunnies frolic and cavort with cardinals on every impossibly perfect lawn. Neighbors are rosy-cheeked and wave hello to strangers from wrap-around porches. Stray potato chip bags never tumble in the breeze, but the heady scent of lilac does. (The fact that our town's Pleasantville-esque demeanor conceals that it's little more than a Hollywood set is another story for another day.)
So Dave was biking west on Augusta last Thursday as he does every day after teaching when some random stranger with a green bandanna covering the lower half of his face walked up to him, stopped at a red light, and socked him right there, apropos of nothing. One wallop from a dude in a green bandanna and Dave has three broken bones in his face (the zygomatic arch, lateral orbit and maxillary sinus in case you were wondering, on the cheek, up near the ear) and is anticipating reconstructive surgery and metal plates in his head when the swelling diminishes. There is numbness and the possibility of nerve damage. Clearly a long road of recovery is stretched out in front of Dave and his family. Oh, I almost forgot. The family is going to China for three years in a few months to teach English and they need to rent, pack up their home and tackle all the various odds-and-ends one needs to do for such a challenging uprooting. Let's ignore all that for now lest my temporal lobe explode at the thought of it and I require some sort of cranial stint. There is far too much delicate surgery going around these days about the head.
I happened to be at Dave's house the day he was punched in the face by the guy in the green bandanna. Thursday afternoons, we have a standing play date with our children after school. They were playing on the porch as it was the first nice day since, oh, probably October and dropping a rope down, around which I would tie various weeds and branches for them to lift up. Jane was inside, having changed a diaper and now slicing carrots. The boys were giggling wildly at their rope discoveries and as Dave rode by the house, I waved. (Remember? We wave from porches in our town.) He waved back quickly and rode down the driveway. I didn't think much of it. A few minutes later, the boys raced on tricycle, training wheel bike and foot to the back of the house, and I was trying to untie the same rope from around the three-year-old's wheel when Dave came out of the house and called my name. I looked up.
I have to go to the hospital, he said. Some kid hit me.
I thought he meant that someone hit him with a car. Oh, no. Did you get the license? Did he stop?
Dave pointed to the side of his head and got in the car. It looked grayish-blue. Was that a giant bruise? I realized that his head was dented in: that the "bruise" was actually a concave part of his face. Oh my god... Sometimes, you have nothing productive you can share. This was one of those times.
I was standing there, the rope still in my hand, processing, processing, and the children remained blissfully unaware as they raced down the drive way again, when the door to the house slammed shut, jolting me out of my stupor, and Jane rushed to the car, holding her baby daughter.
Did you see Dave's face? she asked, pointing to the side of her face where her husband's was now dented. She got her daughter in her car seat. Listen, can you...?
I'll watch them. I'll take care of them. Don't worry. Go.
I told the boys that Dave had gotten hurt on his bike, that he would be okay but that he had to go to see a doctor. The afternoon started turning cool and I ushered the three reluctant ones indoors. Inside, the boys made spaceships with Legos and ate the carrot sticks Jane was cutting when her husband burst in the door a short time earlier. The boys played, fought, forgave or forgot, laughed, wondered about more snacks. It was amazing to me how oblivious they were, perfectly easy in their transition to a new, unexpected turn of events to their day. There would be no piano lessons, no typical Thursday routines in our separate homes: there would be pizza and ice cream instead, a birthday party meal, a partial merger of our two families. They went with the flow perfectly, and aside from my son occasionally asking "Dave will be okay, right?" ("Yes, he will"), they embraced the fun adventure aspect of their unusual night fully. We managed to shield the children from talk about the violence for the most part, referring to it as an accident, and they seemed to gracefully accept it: that, the go-with-the-flow, live-in-the-moment approach to life, is one of the most admirable aspects of being a child.
Luckily, my son was in the self-absorbed bubble of toddlerhood four years ago when my husband had his brush with a random act of senseless violence. John was taking the Green Line train home on a Sunday afternoon (this line is the one with the most violent crime, from what I understand, going through pretty dicey west-side neighborhoods on its way to our comparatively pastoral community) and there was a rowdy group of teens in his car, pushing each other in the aisles, shouting. The car was mostly empty. As the group prepared to exit, one boy turned at the last moment and kicked my husband in the face and chest - one big kick - then ran off the train. John was wearing glasses as he had been reading, and they smashed around his eye, thankfully, not in his eye, but he had little cuts around the top of his cheekbone and his brow bone. He also had pain in his ribcage, the place where the gym shoe hit on it's way down (or was it up?) and it hurt for weeks. He called me from the train, as arranged, to pick him up.
"Someone just kicked me," he said, incredulous and in shock, as people almost invariably are after being assaulted. We revert back to being children, wondering what on earth we could have done to provoke such a mean thing. I could hear the muffled recording on the train over the phone, Next stop is Central. Exit on the left at Central. Again, as I was with Dave, I could barely respond. "What? Why?" My sweet husband, the six-foot-plus Viking from Minnesota, looked so vulnerable standing there at the train station waiting for me to pick him up, his face bruised and cut, I felt like his mother for a moment. I just wanted to shield him from the bullies, call their mothers in a mama bear inspired rage.
There is an obvious connection between poverty and violence. I don't claim to be an expert on the subject, but it doesn't make a cultural anthropologist to see that the cycle of poverty, one generation after the next, is staggeringly cruel and self-perpetuating: limited opportunities (or at least the perception and reinforcement of this), leads to poverty, which can lead to low self-esteem, drugs, alcohol abuse, crime. Whole neighborhoods can get stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of the symptoms of poverty: generations of a family are fairly doomed when children are born of crack-addicted mothers or with fetal-alcohol poisoning, so much at a disadvantage already at birth. It is not easy to talk about this as a privileged Caucasian person without sounding like some bleeding-heart, patronizing liberal: I have the personal experience to know that cycles of substance abuse and violence occur everywhere even, yes, in verdant, wealthy suburbs. It's just that poverty almost seems to be an inevitable component, one that can singlehandedly spin the whole cycle into existence, the warm air moving into the cold in a tornado.
Given all that, does that change my loathing of violence? No. Never. People decide every day not to perpetuate the violent behaviors they grew up witnessing. Those who grew up in homes with alcoholics, abusers and addicts are often the ones leading the way down a different path, the beacons of hope and courage. If we just assume that everyone growing up in poverty is destined to a life of drugs and violence, isn't that negating the power we have inside to move toward a positive direction, to think independently? It seems to me that way. Still, poverty is a huge, tough hurdle.
I'm not sure where I was going with all this...Maybe just that violence sucks? I don't know what more to say, really, than that.