Sunday, June 09, 2002

Noises In The Night

You often hear it said
here that "the sun rises to the sound." And, it is true.
You get a choice of what you hear in the early mornings
before dawn, depending on where you lay your head, but
silence is not an option.

This morning broke to
the sound of fireworks, not unusual in this city that
celebrates 170 holidays a year, give or take a few.
Noise, it seems, is a way of expressing control in the
Third World, where control over anything is at a

Noise in the darkness is a way of
saying, "I can't control much, but I can control this!"
followed by the shattering of silence with ringing of
bells, honking of horns, music, banging of garbage can
lids, or just raucous laughter. From the listener's
perspective, the point is there will be sound, because
the silence offers a vacuum to be filled and the
darkness an opportunity to fill it.

For a long
time I thought I would never get used to the noises,
especially the bells in the early morning from a dozen
churches , vendors coming down the Calles shouting
"Cacahuates!" or "Leche!, and the early morning
explosions that make darkness light. But, man
habituates, and I, like all who have lived here more
than a few months, have gotten used to the sounds, all
of them.

But, not everything is so easy to get
used to. Much more difficult to habituate is the
powerlessness and poverty from which these sounds
originate -- the cries into the early morning darkness
from people demanding to be heard, but who are not
heard. These are sounds that act as daily reminders of
the needs here which are many, in this place of deep
contrasts where the rich are grotesquely, flagrantly
rich, living in virtual palaces, driving new BMW's along
cobblestone streets, and being spritzed with Evian by
their servants in the warm afternoons, all while living
within a rock's throw of the poor who live on dirt
floors and ride broken down bicycles to their jobs as
gardeners, maids and waiters, if they are fortunate
enough to have jobs at all. To this reality it is hard
to habituate, if only because the poverty and
powerlessness is 'in your face' everytime you step out
the front door.

I have more than once wanted to
flee, even though I love the diverse and colorful
experience of living in a different culture, learning a
new language, and living a simpler life. But, that daily
visual is sometimes too much, and I have experienced
sadness, frustration, anger, and guilt -- a whole
panoply of emotions that invade the senses, and I
sometimes wonder silently whether it is all worth it, or
whether I should return to the comfort of home, where
everything is cleaner, more sanitized, consistent,
conforming, comfortable, and, yes, economically
segregated, a place where the gross disparity between
rich and poor exists just as it exists here, but it is
not 'in your face,' if only because the poor are

I think about my thoughts of flight
and then I laugh sardonically at them. "Oh, I see, Jim.
It is not so much the poverty that bothers you. It is
your having to see it. Their poverty makes you
uncomfortable. Their poverty is about you, not them.

"Of course not," I snap back at myself.
"Making the poor disappear from your peripheral vision
doesn't make them go away. It just makes you unaware of
what is happening around you. You can't be better off
hiding from the truth, so stop being foolish. Face it.
It's real. If it bothers you enough, do something about

On reflection, that is the difference in a
nut, I think. It is not that there is so much more
poverty here. It's simply that it's so visible. I read a
survey recently that found the elderly in the United
States are in worse economic shape than they have been
in many years, with higher percentages eligible for food
stamps, Medicaid, weatherization, nutrition and energy
assistance . . . the list goes on and

Ironically, the bureaucracy of the social net
that was born to protect the aged and infirm in the U.S.
keeps a high percentage of them from ever receiving the
benefits to which they are entitled, leaving many of the
elderly in America to go hungry and sleep in houses that
are too cold. It is shocking, and should be embarassing
to every American, that in the richest nation in the
world, perhaps in the history of the world, people still
freeze to death in the dark because they cannot pay
their electric bills, who die because they cannot afford
drugs to keep them alive, and who do so without anyone
ever noticing.

In that sense, perhaps the poor
here in Mexico are better off after all. While the
government provides less, much less, in the way of
assistance, there are likewise no unrealistic
expectations of what one should expect in the way of a
parachute when they can no longer work.
importantly, what the government does not provide here,
the family most often does provide. That is a primary
difference in the cultures I think, and one that gives
me hope. I believe it is why you see so few homeless
here. The old and infirm don't live in the streets, but
rather, live with their children, and often their
grandchildren, in the same rooms, or room, as the case
may be. That family members will grow old and need
assistance and that the younger generations will provide
it is anticipated and expected, and if not a welcomed
task, it is a reality that is not lamented, either. It
is the way it is, no more, no less.

retrospect, I believe we have more to worry about in the
U.S. as far as our old and poor are concerned. For sure,
they have more to be concerned about. As stock market
fortunes have dwindled and disappeared, dreams of
comfortable retirements have turned to nightmares, and
tax revenues have plummeted, we are left with a decision
to make: Will we continue to fund the social net,
knowing the baby boomers are entering the breech of
retirement, and knowing that to keep the Medicare and
Social Security and Medicaid systems funded will require
taxes for these functions to to be doubled, tripled,
maybe more, and soon?

Or, will the coming
generations, who were brought up on a gourmand ration of
more and whose selfishness is hidden behind
high-sounding euphemisms like "self-help,"
"determination," and "opportunity," leave the old and
poor to their own devices? Will the revered, yet
nonsensical, belief that "everyone has an equal chance
to make it," result in the economically advantaged
refusing to fund the programs that will be necessary to
provide basic subsistence to tens of millions of

That question is not hard to

We have already seen the social net
shredded with some glee by both political parties in the
name of "helping the poor help themselves." What has
resulted is the poor getting poorer and more desperate
by the day.

The real, and far more difficult
question, is whether we will help our own when that day
comes -- our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers,
grandparents -- those whom will be hard to hide across
railroad tracks and rivers. They will make the noises in
our nights and we will hear them and we will either
listen or we will habituate so that we don't hear them
anymore. Our poor will be apparent to us, just like the
poor are apparent here, and thus they will have to be
dealt with in one way or the other because they will be
our poor.

What happens in the next decade or two
will answer the question for these unfortunate as well
as the question on the lips of every social scientist --
"Does the American family remain a viable social
institution?" Or, has the family become nothing more
than a way of popping out more little greedbags who will
be raised by televisions and live their lives as mall
rats, having their values formed and finished by retail

As I ponder that question, I recall
my father telling me stories about his childhood during
the Great Depression. His own father died suddenly when
was 12 years old and he had to take on after-school and
weekend jobs to help his mother feed the family. He
remembers when the destitute would show up at the
family's door, sometimes having not eaten for a day or
more. They would be invited in to share what meager
offerings the family had, or at least sent away with a
piece of bread or two. "Why?" I asked. The answer was
always the same: "It was the right thing to do." Plain.
Simple. Not necessarily easy to understand, not these

As I think about that America, and today's
virtual reality version of the same country, I wonder
whether we have it in us anymore to give to those who
need. It is a question of who cares, how much, and
whether we will be there when those people, whoever they
are, make noises in the night. Whether in our
workplaces, homes, or communities, these are the
connections we must question, because, contrary to the
prevalent, and altogether wrong, belief, that we are
somehow independent, or that independence is even a
worthy goal, the fact is everyone needs help from time
to time. No one makes it alone.

In the crucible,
the important question that remains for all of us is
whether the connections we want to believe are credible,
are, in fact, credible, whether we can rely on our own
in times of need, and more importantly, whether they can
rely on us. Time will tell us the answer to that
question soon enough.

In the meantime, we should
listen for those noises in the night, for soon we shall
be the ones making them.


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