Many years ago, I was walking towards the entrance of the urban hospital where I worked and found a tremendous pool of blood on the sidewalk. After I got over the shock of finding such gore I noticed a blood trail and decided to follow it.  It led to the emergency room.

“What the hell happened?” I asked the ER receptionist, pointing at the blood smeared on the linoleum floor.

“Kid got stabbed,” she said. “Not ten minutes ago.”

“Did he make it?”

The receptionist shook her head.

Quite disturbed, I went up to my office. If I hadn’t stopped for a breakfast on my way into work I might have stumbled upon a murder in progress. What if the killer decided not to leave any witnesses and murdered me too? Things like that happen. Or would I have found this poor kid staggering towards the ER and tried to help him?  What would I have told him as his life poured onto the pavement? I later learned that the hospital was in a certain gang’s “territory” and the kid who died was from a rival gang. He was wearing the wrong colors. He walked on the wrong street on the wrong day.

That incident has haunted me all my life. Sure, that kid was no angel, but to get killed because you walked down the wrong street is demonically fucked up. As the song says, “Where you live should not decide/Whether you live or whether you die.” But we see that all the time. If you were born in Sarajevo, Rwanda, Iraq or Syria instead of the USA, your life would probably be very different. Maybe you wouldn’t be alive at all. Now, as a parent, when I think of moms and dads trying to raise their children in the face of such suffering it tears up my insides. Right now, my daughter’s biggest concern is being a good girl for Santa –  not worrying about barrel bombs falling from the sky. But even within the United States, where you live has a tremendous impact on your quality of life.

A while back the Washington Post published an article about “super zip codes” a term describing the most educated and prosperous demographic areas in the United States. The county I live is one of the most affluent in the country and chock full of these super zip codes My town missed being one by a whisker but that didn’t stop a magazine ranking my little burg as one of “top ten best places to live in New Jersey.” Whole Foods is moving in nearby and home values are going up. But a ten-minute drive is all it takes to go into another world – to places where there is homelessness, poverty, hunger and diminished opportunity. The children who live in those towns probably won’t be going to Harvard and Yale. Whole Foods won’t put stores there. Those people live in the wrong zip code. They live on the wrong street.

Even within my town there is hunger, poverty, suffering and curtailed prospects.  I know this because I’m the local social services guy. Even our privileged zip code contains streets that mark its residents as “disadvantaged. Once that label gets applied to you, it’s very hard to shake off. And as rents and housing costs climb ever higher, people who’ve lived here all their lives are looking at pulling their kids out of our good schools to decamp to cheaper digs. But my town’s problems are also America’s problems. Look at this map of super zip codes – our nation’s fracturing into islands of privilege floating in a dark sea of inequity.

But what really bothers me is that, as a nation, we’re becoming like the Bloods and Crips –wearing gang colors of red and blue. Thanks to the echo chamber of modern media, we’re self-segregating into like-minded tribes, a dynamic that’s eroding our civic graces and tolerance. People on the coasts bitch about “flyover states” while those living in the heartland grumble about the “elites.” We’re screaming at each other instead of talking. Soon we’ll all be worrying if we’re wearing the wrong colors on the wrong street. When that happens it might be Uncle Sam staggering into the emergency room. Maybe he won’t make it either.

We’re not exactly angels ourselves.


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