Friday, December 09, 2011
It may not be seasonably appropriate, but I cannot get that Pepper Spray Cop out of my mind. What is it about that stolid guy that stuck so fast in the public imagination? Was it his Kevlar-cool, his flat-line affect, as he methodically shook the mixing marble in his pepper can and strolled down the row of earnestly Occupying college students, training the toxic spray right in their faces at a distance we reserve for loved ones and dental hygienists?
That juxtaposition – the intimate proximity and neutral brutality, the arm stretched out not to touch but to maim – will stand for many of us a low mark on the barometer of compassion. I have my book-slam ugly moments, sure, but I’d never unhook from humanity enough to do that.
This smug conclusion drummed its fingers on my conscience when I attended the Dismas House Forgiveness Breakfast, in the new Community Corrections and DuComb Center—an expanded halfway house that provides work release, stability, safety, and a web of friendship for ex-felons as they get their footing back in a community that rarely greets them with open arms.
That morning, the atmosphere in the Center was buoyant; people in suits – or the sweater-and-scarf academic equivalent – took in the dining room’s freshly painted, if institutional, concrete walls, and listened to several residents tell their stories with quiet composure, stories that were both harrowing … and familiar. A divorce, a layoff from work, a family tragedy, a dip into addiction, and then a bad snap decision – one any of us could make – and then, incarceration.
The cracked-open humility in those stories of growth reminded me, uneasily, that I’d risked little of myself that morning. I’d shown up to sit with colleagues, I listened, I wrote a check, and after an hour I stood up with most of the rest of the room --pleased, absolutely, to have attended, but already mentally rehearsing the day’s campus appointments as I felt in my book bag for my car keys. I’d taken notes on the fact that anyone can prepare a supper once a week for Dismas residents – not just to drop off the food, but to sit down, and actually share the meal. Would I do this? I’m no pepper-spray cop, but I can hold at arm’s length situations that deserve better.
The generous vulnerability of the Dismas residents stayed with me, though, and loosened a sharp childhood memory that hadn’t risen to the surface in a while.
When I was nine, a mid-week suburban evening that had been humming along suddenly went dark and terrible. I was in my bedroom, rereading a favorite book by the radiator, my folks were catching up after work in our paneled Seventies kitchen. My older sister was outside … or had been, until there was a fumble at the back screen door and my sister staggered into the house, dark blood running from her ear down her neck, and so not my sister, but possessed, a crazy person, raving, eyes rolling. ~ Dad’s running to dial the phone, my mom’s trying to capture my sister’s flailing arms in her own, and I’m bawling and breathless, tearing outside at the first sirens I hear winding down out front – police cars? I shook my small arms, channeling grade-school outrage and yelled: “We need DOCTORS, not the police, stupids! Doctors for my sister!” I ran back inside, trembling with terror. But then I went still as I tracked the cop’s practiced glance around the house, realizing that his deliberate sizing-up of the scene meant something even worse was unfolding. I saw our house through his wary eyes—the bloody, raving child fighting the arms of a parent, an after-work beer on the counter—and realized that my house, and my scared, heroic parents, were under suspicion. I’ve never felt less safe, less sure who was on my side.
I ran back outside … and in the chaos of flashing lights and gawkers, I saw a still and open figure ten feet away. Mr. Lundquist from next door, a towering, sharp-angled man whose booming voice usually scared me. But now he was transformed, kneeling low and quiet. He looked me full in the face, eyes soft, and spread his arms wide. I ran right into them.
Inside the house, the misinterpretation quickly passed; the EMTs figured that my sister had fallen off our backyard jungle-gym. It was serious: a concussion that soon bloomed into a coma, followed by a long recovery … but mercifully, a full one.
I, on the other hand, haven’t recovered, mercifully, from learning the bravery it takes to throw open your arms to another person … and the equal measure of bravery it takes to rush in.
Maybe this is a holiday story, after all.