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24 Hours in America

Freedom is a pickup truck with three hundred thousand miles on the odometer. I drive a demure Volkswagen most days but borrowed this truck from a friend. No air conditioning but the windows rolled down and there was a place for my elbows. As a larger man I appreciate that. The seatbelt was an inoperative shell fractured and irrelevant. Cause for a traffic stop but I did not worry about it. I drove to Home Depot blaring mid-eighties rustbelt rock songs. A free man with an empty truck bed threatening to haul something wherever I wanted. Fresh air lapped at my cheek with nothing but old vinyl musk between me and the windshield. A parked police officer scrutinized the thirty-five mile an hour zone as I passed and I nodded and I think he nodded back.

Ferguson was everywhere else that day. On fire in the public consciousness in spasms of rage, grief, fear, prejudice, hope, love, speechlessness, and howling all at once. My newsfeed filled with linked articles and one hundred forty character op-eds by people who could not hold onto themselves any longer. These days we aggregate the news. Some of us have learned to step over and around the bad bits, tales of the barely living strewn like lawn ornaments, and some of us are compelled to stop and check for breathing. Some cannot help but try. Every twenty-four hours the news is almost all of it bad with the “good” stories hideously saccharine. A three-legged dog in a tiny bandana chased this toddler and you won’t believe what happens next. The news is all twenty-four hours and we watch the apocalypse unfold between Olive Garden commercials. 

I picked up a towable hydraulic auger with a twelve-inch bit and no one asked me if I knew how to operate it. What a world where you can rent such a thing. Big enough to dig four-foot by one foot holes in seconds. I hitched it to the truck and brought a stump grinder along too. I needed a shaft extension for the auger so I could reach the appropriate depths on the dig. I am amazed by the English language. I said the magical sentence to myself as I drove the heavy machinery home. I need a shaft extension for a twelve-inch auger bit. An invocation reserved for the middle American priesthood of do-it-yourselfers.

In WWI the French 75mm repeating field gun enabled entrenched armies to fire twenty bullets/sec instead of the merely deadly five, using the same hydraulic technology as my auger. Anything is possible for the man with enough money to rent tools. The auger’s bit was so big it had to be carried in both arms like a cord of wood. Or like a body you carry in off the street. 

The dust has settled since Robin Williams kicked up wet eyes from coast to coast the other day. No one knows what to say but there are the usual suspects cashing in on the collective sigh. I read one especially odious Christian blogger who cannot allow a moment to pass without harvesting it for clicks. He wrote a facile little note about how depression is not a disease. The wisdom shallows. But he’s going on tour ladies and gentlemen, to speak louder to the world like a tourist screaming English at bemused non-english speakers. He might be the most desperate man on Earth. He makes me tired before I even unhitch the auger. 

When someone commits suicide acquaintances talk about their own bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts. Some poor souls cite the selfishness of suicide like crossing guards at Ground Zero. Without fail some person will say “I would never do it but I’ve thought about it.” It is not true. Any one of us would do it. Because we do it already in thousands of small ways. Self-destruction is a matter of scale. For some restraint dissolves into darkness thick and heavy as a comforter you wear on the ocean floor. Once in a while exhaustion wins out over flimsy optimism.

Robin Williams’ worst movie was that one where he uses a clown nose to treat depressed terminally ill patients. 

The gas company was due here yesterday at the latest to map underground lines and promise me that I won’t explode on this dig. I wait on the phone a while and on television an actor tells the news host, who is watching the clock, that being a black man in this country is an act of aggression. My neighborhood is an ocean of non-color non-aggression. I dig with the auger for a while then sit on the patio and wipe the sweat from my brow. Who could imagine a time as magical as this one for being a man? The ground is mine to shape as I wish for my own purposes. 

After I call all the public utilities and they mark any underground wires. 


I read a chapter in Isabel Wilkerson’s lyrical Warmth of Other Sons and in it she describes the typical picking quota of one hundred pounds of cotton a day during Jim Crow. One hundred pounds of feather, one hundred pounds of air in a sack. An eon of work in eighteen back-breaking hours. To hit the quota the body must become a machine hunched in the most efficient position for picking while producing the least amount of irrelevant, human, movement. A fleet of male and female combines racing the sunset. Then back at it like Sisyphus at the crack of dawn.

Slavery then Jim Crow then organized legal subjugation washed away by fire hoses outside Woolworth’s. Progress and irony at one hundred pounds a day thin as a whisper, thin as a bead of sweat, thin as hope burning off a field at dawn. Thin as a boll that pricks your fingers. Creeping up the plow line of progress every day wading a cotton sea white as the sun.

Yesterday's labor is today's presumed suspicious in the unfamiliar posture of dignity as they drive or walk at night no longer subject to a self-imposed curfew to rest aching hands, backs, lungs. The human race is not one family but several and us two are uneasy, black and white. Progress is a seat at the family dinner on a late invitation with ink still wet and quite a bit after the carcass has been picked clean. A few at the table instinctively grab their purses.  Stevie Wonder and McCartney bang away at the piano but it is a hard world for breaking bread when you’ve just come in from the field. 

People are remembering that Lincoln tied the bloodshed of Civil War to a national reckoning. An expiation for the sin of slavery. The ground is always double thirsty for bloodshed says one of the oldest stories in the Book. The auger is heaving and whining unexpectedly because as it turns out the topsoil is thin on my little half-acre with cantaloupe-sized rocks piled inches beneath. So I dig for hours in the conventional way steel against the earth to a draw. Rock after rock draws blisters, sweat, thirst, blood. Underneath the picket fence and the pergola, beneath the chain restaurants and green space with sculptures of children playing, beneath the soccer fields and bike lanes and the asphalt veins connecting pickup trucks with home improvement warehouses there is hard ground waiting to receive an offering. Same as it ever was the earth is uncharmed by this sophisticated age. 

With every advantage, with freedom winged feet and the Industrial Revolution plowing with me, with my very own land at the mercy of my imagination, with the sun at my back for as long as I wanted and iced tea waiting in the shade, I sat on a pile of lumber, on the ledge. I sat with nowhere to go beside an auger mucked and snarled cold in three-inch tree roots and old optimism and stone.

That ancient poet Solomon said everything falls to the earth eventually, the compost of every Mars or Aquarius or revolution beneath our feet. Ambition falls at the rate of gravity as biodegradable as all else. CNN bleeds out the screen door behind me a chorus of ploughshares beating against the curb in Ferguson and later the barricade and the baton. Beating themselves into what? Into the next cycle and the next outrage. Into a furious world of clicks for marketshare. At least that’s what the Teacher says in the old Book. To everything a season, perennial. It is OK to grieve. Then back again, again, oh God, please, selah, to ploughshares.