‘City Life’: A Re-Post from 2010

Hearing the place-name Kyrgyzstan related to the family journey of the Tsarnaev brothers who attacked Boston made me think of a post I’d written a couple of years ago. I went into the vault to find it, and am re-running it here as an echo from the past and another reflection on violence in our lives, near and far.—PM


City Life (June 30, 2010)

I wake up early every day, but today I got up even earlier to check on our young cat who came home from the vet’s late yesterday after being spayed. We were told to watch her closely for several days to be sure she is recovering as expected. I was awake, listening to New Hampshire Public Radio’s station in Nashua with its overnight broadcast of BBC’s World Service, when I heard the rattle of cans and cart wheels on the street. It was barely first light outside, but a middle-aged couple was making the rounds on trash pick-up day. As they picked through the recycle bins, a tall, thin older guy jogged up the street toward the courthouse. He was alone, but there’s a group of gray-haired guys who regularly jog this route, probably jumping off from the “Y” on Thorndike Street (YMCA Drive is the actual address). The clock read 4.32.  Big cities like New York and Boston come to mind when you think about cities that don’t sleep, but Lowell has its own 24/7 tempo—ask any police officer about the night rhythms. This time of year the birds are keeping time in the trees. Their music rises with the light.

On the BBC World Service, the news as usual these days was angled toward war and money and politics. The Republic of Congo is marking its 50th year of independence from Belgium, and the five decades have been dominated by chaos and brutality. At one point, ten African nations were fighting with and against political factions in Congo in what was called “Africa’s World War.” I also heard a report about Hamid Ismailov, an Uzbek novelist and poet from Kyrgyzstan now living in London. He’s a writer-in-residence for the BBC who has been blogging about the turmoil, killings, and refugees in his homeland, where the Kyrgzs are fighting against people with roots in Uzbekistan who live in Kyrgyzstan. Listening to him talk, I was reminded of Andrew’s recent post here about the Irish Civil War and Steve’s comment about the indiscriminate bombings of more recent times. The Kyrgz-Uzbek writer was asked if he was losing his faith in human nature, given all the violence. About the inter-ethnic strife in his homeland, he said, “I felt as if my hands were cutting my legs.” He had written on his blog, “Are the crows who do not peck out each other’s eyes more human than us?” and “Is civilization as thin as the shirt we wear, covering a beast underneath?” He said the stories of human kindness coming out of the war zones keep him hopeful.

You don’t have to cross an ocean to encounter violence. Last week, a 19-year-old man from Lawrence was killed in the Back Central neighborhood. Juan Ferrer’s death was a page one story in the newspaper. Two days after the shooting the yellow police tape was still on the ground in the alley between the buildings where he was shot. He had been at a barbecue, according to the news report. When I walked by there was a black kettle-top grill in the alley and black curtains blowing in one of the open upper windows. I spoke to someone from the neighborhood who knew him. I asked what happened. The man said, “There was an argument, and somebody had a gun.” That statement could fit the old Irish situation, Afghanistan today, 50 years in Congo, and on and on. Andrew has been writing about the origins of human beings and most recently “What Makes Humans Unique?” One of the traits is the capacity for “abstract thought.” We can imagine peace and tranquility, but there’s a behavioral glitch that manifests itself in some individuals or in social groups that prevents some people from rejecting violence as a way to settle arguments or solve problems. Isn’t war or smaller scale assault the result of a failure to use words and human reasoning effectively?