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Promotin’ the General Welfare

Summertime Blues

There is a point at which the brain shuts down upon hearing news of another murder, gunshot victim, kidnapping, carjacking, or drug overdose. It is necessary to block out the madness, the sadness, the grim prospects that stand in opposition to those principles which comprise the “good life” we cherish thanks to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


Growing up in New Orleans, you always knew the end of the school year was the beginning of troubles for some of us. My grandmothers were fond of saying, “An idle mind is the devil’s playground,” and our mothers made sure we were hardly idle. By the time your vacation was done, you were ready to go back to school.


One summer, somehow things didn’t work out with a program in which I was enrolled, and the prospect of a couple weeks off in August seemed possible for a brief second. Plans were being made as to which friends I’d be visiting or places I’d like to go. “Blerd” that I was, I was just heading to the record stores or bookshops and making like Speed Racer on my ten-speed bicycle, dweebing out to the sounds from the nearest stereo I could find.


My mother had other plans and arranged for me to assist my Uncle William each day for a week. Uncle William was from Alabama, “the country” as we called it. He was an artist who also worked in a big building in the CBD and did not suffer foolishness, laziness, or worse, whining. This didn’t mean he lacked a sense of humor. On the contrary, like many of the men in my family, they had a heightened sense of humor in light of the circumstances they’d endured.


The task at hand? Building a shed in his backyard, and this wasn’t some prefab puzzle piece we were going to glue together. This required hanging sheetrock, painting: the works — in the middle of a New Orleans’ August.


Each day, I was dropped off around 6AM. We’d work until it was too hot, stop for lunch, then resume when things cooled off. While we weren’t suffering through putting the shed together, there were other tasks to be done. All the while, I could hear the sounds from the street where other kids were playing. I could easily imagine myself joining them. I could also imagine myself punished and enduring a more difficult, homespun penance.  

While we worked, we talked. I did a lot of listening and glistening from all that sweat. There was not enough water and ice in the world during that week. Needless to say, each night, I was done: ready for bed, no problem. I think we finished the shed, but my commitment of a week was complete with some valuable lessons learned along the way.


When I saw my grandmothers that Sunday, they said they were happy to hear I had been hard at work and not hanging in the streets, not that we were ever allowed to hang in the streets. This city is small, like a glorified big town. Everybody knows somebody. If they don’t know you directly, they know somebody who knows your family. Sure, there were those who hung in the streets, but it better not be you.


Why? Because worse than being caught breaking that rule was the thought of you being a victim of a senseless crime, and since you were reminded that they’d raise you to use your common sense, exactly why would you find yourself in such a predicament? And why would you want to break their hearts?  


“Bad news” didn’t have to happen your family specifically for it to impact the community. “Bad news” was something shared, the shock or worse, the logic of it: if he or she hadn’t been doing this or that, who knows? The burden of bad news was something assumed by all in a community with a shared culture.


But what is our shared culture anymore as Americans? Do we have a shared sense of community anymore? Is it something we decline and decide to mind our own business, or is it something we only feel for “folks like us”?


Regardless the source of “bad news”, it takes a moment to process, to comprehend exactly what happened. Sometimes, in an honest moment, maybe you ask yourself, do I really care? And if so, why should I? What difference can my caring make if I cannot reach those most affected by this “bad news”?


And that’s okay. We’re human, and if we’re honest, we acknowledge that humans get frustrated and fall prey to fatalistic thinking. If you’re human, you surrender sometimes to feeling utterly apathetic because, well, that’s where you go.  


Reality check: let’s say you really don’t care, you won’t care, why should you care? It’s just another negative blip on the murder radar, another strike in the shooting gallery. That’s not about you — until it becomes about you, until it impacts you or someone you know. Then it’s all about you and those you know.


During summertime, crime rates escalate, and kids, teens, and young people get caught not only in crossfire, but caught up in situations that might not be available if they aren’t idle. Twenty-four hours every day is a long time and for many, an interminable time.  


Is it each person’s problem to (re)solve? No. We understood this growing up. We were told who the “bad kids” were and why they were “bad”, and the definition of “bad” was highly subjective, but you knew better than to be around the “bad kids”, even if one of them might be a friend. Similarly, we were told what a “bad situation” was and why it should be avoided, and what would happen if you found yourself caught up in one.


We can turn blind eyes, move to other neighborhoods, drive-by and never stop, whatever: it’s a democratic right. Nothing compels any of us to care more than we should or want.  


But it does not stop or stem the problems which contribute to murders and shooting, drug overdoses and car-jackings, be it summertime or any time. And when I’m most inclined to surrender to cynicism and create distance between myself and the source of befuddlement and pain, I have to make the choice not to cave and throw in the towel.  


Unless I’m planning on moving to the most remote of surroundings, it’s unlikely there’s anywhere in America where grief and tragedy can’t strike. Here, it’d be easy to call into question the ease and access to guns and other weapons of war which make it to the streets of our small towns and cities, but the weapons are but one part of a larger problem to be found throughout our country, not just in urban areas like New Orleans.  


Wherever people and poor thinking intersect with access to a means of destruction, something bad is bound to happen. And, idle minds are to be found in every clime and community: where now there is a significant opioid crisis, there’s a sad plurality of idleness. Before the current “crisis” associated with opioids, there were previous drug crises run rampant in rural areas, small towns, and suburbs thanks to idleness.


How to cure the problem and make people’s lives more productive: that is the question, and not just sometimes, but all throughout the year. We’re talking about making living meaningful, be it in the Crescent City, Coal Country, or the Gold Coast.  


There’s something wrong at the heart of this crisis of American conscience that has more to do with consumer consumption and a failure to fill a void, or a disconnect with a larger culture that no longer exists. Better yet, what is the larger culture?


In a perverse way, America is being forced to deal with “the blues”. As Memphis Slim once spoke in the beginning of “Blues is Trouble” from the album All Kinds of Blues, “They say blues goes color only, but I disagree, I believe everybody have the blues…” 


Seriously, do we want to solve the problem, or do we wish to just “SMH” and “like” every time another post or tweet signals an opportunity to express a sentiment cheaply? That only makes the divide wider and the disconnect a greater impasse.


Let’s start with by rediscovering our connection to people. People like each other, people like the ones down the street whether they look like you or not, people like everyone impacted by some great weight they can’t seem to get from under, people like people some of us know, people like, lemme see, the human race.  


Or do we believe in that anymore either?


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The text above is a column and expresses only the opinion of the author, not NOLA Defender or NOLA Defender’s Editorial Board.

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