The sound of the phone ringing punctured my sleep and my eyes snapped open. Staring at the ceiling my first conscious thought was, “Was that crack always there?”
Groaning, I picked up my phone. It was my town’s emergency response department. I was in their phone chain so I figured I had better take it.
“Dublanica,” I answered.
“Steve,” the emergency director, said. “We had a commercial fire at 123 Anywhere Lane. There was an apartment upstairs and the occupants have been displaced.”
“Be there in 20 minutes.”
Rolling out of bed, I headed to the bathroom. “Fire, honey,” I called to my wife. “You’ll have to take Natalie to school today.”
“Great….” my wife mumbled sleepily.
After a brief shower, I got dressed. Knowing I was going to a fire scene, I put on clothes I wouldn’t miss – which is almost anything in my wardrobe. Pulling up to the scene, the first thing I did was get a cup of coffee from across the street. When you’re dealing with people in distress, achieving sentience is always a good idea.
“Don’t say, ‘How are you?’ I said to myself as I weaved between the fire trucks, hoses, oil filled puddles and broken glass. “Don’t say, ‘How are you?’”
“What happened?” I asked the first fireman I met.
“Looks electrical,” he said. “Burned out the first floor and lots of smoke damage to the second-floor apartment.”
“Everyone get out okay?”
“The fire woke the occupants up, but they’re okay. No injuries.”
Looking at the fire ravaged shop in front of me I said, “Thank God for that.”
“Over here Steve,” the emergency director called out.
“Morning,” I said.
“Thanks for coming out.”
I smiled. “That’s the job.”
“Yeah,” he said grinning. “It is, isn’t it?”
“Where are the occupants?”
“Right over here,” he said. “I’ll take you to them.”
The director introduced me to two young women. They were wearing sweat tops, shorts and flip flops. They looked like they had just rolled out of bed, which they had – running for their lives.
“How are you?” I said, automatically. Doh!
“We’re okay,” the first girl, said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I always say, ‘How are you?’ Dumb of me. Are you hurt?”
“Did you take anything with you on the way out?”
“Just our cellphones and purses.”
“So, you have IDs, credit cards, all that?”
“Yep.” The second girl said.
I went through my checklist of questions and ascertained their needs. “I’ll put you up in a hotel for a couple of days,” I said. “Until you figure out what you want to do.”
“Have you ladies had breakfast?” The answer was negative.
“Come with me.”
I walked the girls to a luncheonette where I eat all the time. “Please take care of these young ladies,” I told the waitress. “Breakfast is on the town. I’ll settle up with you later.”
“No problem,” the waitress said.
“When can we go back and get our stuff?” the first girl asked.
“As soon as they give the all clear.”
I took down the ladies’ phone numbers, handed them my business card and a supermarket gift card for fifty bucks. “In case you need to get a few things,” I said.
When I got to my office I hit the phones and set up the hotel room, talked to finance about getting petty cash to cover the breakfast and asked the emergency director when the ladies could retrieve their stuff. Half an hour. Then I called the displaced duo.
“You can get your stuff in half an hour,” I said. “Also, you’re booked at the Acme Hotel. Two nights. If you need more, let me know.”
“Thanks for all your help.”
Cradling the phone, I looked at the clock. I was getting an early start on the day – which was good because the items on my “To Do” list were threatening to multiply exponentially. Seniors who needed Meals on Wheels, getting Habitat for Humanity to fix up a house, volunteer schedules, a fundraiser, several phone messages and emails to swat down, people wanting to donate things, clients needing help with electric and gas bills, getting posters made up for the aforementioned fundraiser, thank-you letters (I have written hundreds at this point) greeting clients, processing purchase orders for all sorts of charitable requests and – as always – getting food for the pantry.
I clicked down my list and before I knew it, the day was done. Stomach grumbling, I went to the finance office, picked up the petty cash, and went to the luncheonette.
“How are you?” the waitress I talked to earlier, said.
“Good,” I said, paying for the ladies’ breakfast plus a nice tip. “But I had a root canal the other day.”
“Egg salad for you then.”
“On white bread,” I said. “Thanks.”
“So how are those young women?”
“They took it pretty well,” I said. “But when the shock wears off it’ll hit them.”
My sandwich arrived and, as I ate, I looked at the news on my phone. I immediately lost my appetite.
“Another school shooting,” I said aloud. “Goddammit”
They never seem to stop,” the young man sitting next to me, said.
“Horrible,” I said. “And there was that school bus accident yesterday. Couple of kids killed.”
“They say the bus driver was trying to cross over the median to make a U-turn,” the young man said. “Went across three lanes of traffic and hit a dump truck.”
“I don’t think I’d want to live after a mistake like that.”
“I hear ya.”
“You have kids?”
“No,” the young guy said.
Is it just me, or is everyone getting younger? I once read that when you’re fifty, you’re older than more than half the people you meet. “I didn’t have my daughter until I was forty-five,” I said. “And after I did, news like this hits me harder. I’d just go flat out insane if I was one of those parents.”
“I can’t even imagine.”
“It’s goddamn open season on children,” I fumed. “Goddammit to hell.”
I ate my egg salad because, although I didn’t want to eat, my body told me otherwise. On the morning of 9/11, despite my horror and tears, I stopped into a diner to grab a bite too. No matter how bad things are, you must take care of yourself. As I slowly munched on my bacon and eggs I watched on T.V. as the second tower came down; prompting a waitress to start screaming, “My niece is in there!”
Crazed gunman, innocent children dying, suicide bombers, zealots weaponizing cars, riots, wars and threats of war, poverty, people dying because they can’t afford a doctor, famine, toxic online outrage, nationalism, the erosion of truth, cynicism, class divisions and the ever-present predation of the weak by the powerful– it’s enough to drive you crazy. Sometimes I think the world’s going to end. And what will become of my little girl? Probably the same questions my parents asked during the tumultuous summer of 1968. When I was just a babe in the crib.
Then a line from the Bible floated into my brain. “And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.”
Sipping my soda, the rational part of my brain told me that we’re living in the safest time in human history. Less people are lost to violence, poverty, hunger and disease than ever before. More people are educated. People live longer. Crime is down everywhere. Despite pushing eight billion souls in the world, we get along fairly well – at least compared to centuries past. But that’s cold comfort to parents whose child was shot dead in school or lost in a needless bus accident. For them the world will never be the same.
Outside, the afternoon sun was stubbornly trying to pierce the dark rain clouds boiling above and failing. Sitting on my stool I felt very depressed. How do we stand in the face of evil? How shall we witness for the goodness of humankind? How do we maintain hope in the shadow of darkness? What can I do? Anything? Today, sitting at my favorite lunch counter, it all seemed rather hopeless.
“Oh God,” I mumbled. “Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”
“What’s that, dear?” the waitress asked.
“Nothing Charlotte,” I said. “Just the bill, please.”
Walking to my car, I passed the burned-out storefront. Then I realized, and not for the first time, that I needed to keep my head down and keep moving. Work on that to-do list and then, when it’s finished, swat down the next one. Even when all seems lost, keep moving. There will always be something for me to do.
The end is not yet.