Biff America: Getting used to injustice in America
My cousin Jimmy grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.
My mother – Jimmy’s Dad’s sister – described Jimmy’s family as “working class”; my Dad called them “Shanty Irish.”
Saying Jimmy lived on the “wrong side of the tracks” was actually an understatement. Jimmy lived ON the tracks – or at least right next to them.
What Jimmy lacked in toys and new clothing was more than made up for by the recreational opportunity of living so close to railroad tracks. They literally were in his back yard and easily accessed.
All you had to do was climb over a fence with barbed wire on top, go around signs that read, “Danger Keep out” and “Violators will be prosecuted” and you were right there.
Jimmy, his brothers and I would sit with our backs against the fence waiting for the train to pass and crush pennies we had placed on the rails. When the trail passed the ground would shake and the breeze would cool our skin.
As we got older, crushing pennies seemed boring. I’d tell you what our fun evolved to, but I’m not sure what the stature of limitations is for mooning train passengers.
Even though Jimmy was poor I envied him. That was, until he and I shared a bedroom.
One summer my Mum went in for surgery, my Dad was away on business so I was willingly dispatched to the wrong side of the tracks to live with Jimmy’s family.
That was when I learned that the trains also run at night.
The first night at Jimmy’s house, I was almost knocked out of bed by the house shaking and whistle blowing as the locomotive rushed by.
It was in the morning that I realized that, out of a household of nine, I was the only one awakened by the din. When I asked Jimmy about it he said he seldom heard the train at night – “I guess I’m just used to it.” By the end of the week, I, too, was getting a good night’s sleep.
I guess that’s part and parcel of the human condition. You can get use to almost anything if you hear or see it enough.
This is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing for those who live next to train tracks where an audible numbness is needed. But for those of us who observe – and as a result, become numb to injustice, it that very coping mechanism that allows injustice to prevail.
I hadn’t checked my phone messages in a few days when I got one from an old friend.
“Berger, it’s Bobby: Peter Reilly is really sick, give me a call.”
Peter Reilly grew up with us, though he was a few years older. He was one of those older guys who never picked on the younger kids even though he could have. He was big, tough and happy. Once he got out of high school his uncle got him a job as a pipe fitter on large projects around New England. He married had three kids; one went to college, two to the military. He was a good father, husband and never lived more than a few miles from the place he was born.
He saved his money, drank only on weekends and took care of his health.
Pete was diagnosed with stage 4 “cancer of the everything,” and the prognosis is not good. Yes, he has insurance, some savings and a manageable mortgage. And yes, he stands to loose it all.
Rather than do the traditional fundraiser: dinner, raffle, clam bake, etc., Bobby was simply calling Pete’s friends asking for money. Even with insurance, it looks like Peter will end up a quarter million in the hole – and probably dead.
By the time I finished writing the check and addressing the envelope I was a little less depressed. Certainly I knew no amount of money would cure Petie’s cancer, but at least I felt that I was, in a small way, helping. As I bicycled to the post office, I had other things on my mind; when I mailed the letter I got sad again.
That’s when it dawned on me I had not felt the emotion the circumstance merited. I had not gotten mad.
I had heard that same train so many times I’ve become numb.
How the hell, in a country as great and as rich as ours, can a person like Peter, whose only crime was getting sick, die broke? How the hell can Americans tolerate the fact that health care and insurance that covers all needed health care, is a luxury of the privileged? How in God’s name can voters get angry over immigration, gay marriage, gun control, inheritance taxes and not the fact that millions can’t afford insurance and those who can cannot afford enough of it to die with both funds and dignity intact?
I’d go so far as call it that reality a train of injustice and this country, and some of our leaders are sleeping soundly.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8 and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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