A friend called me this week with a sad tale. She had purchased a wreath for her elderly mother, who lives nearby and is recovering from surgery. Her mom loves Christmas, especially wreaths. The day after my friend put the wreath up, her mom called her tearfully; the wreath had been stolen.
This follows on the heels of my own story. I was sitting outside recently on an unseasonably warm day. I made the mistake of daring to leave the folding lawn chair outside. And the next day — you guessed it — it went missing.
None of this is unusual. It’s a daily event in these parts. The theft won’t be reported, and the newspapers won’t cite it. There are way too many, more serious crimes for anyone to acknowledge a missing wreath or chair.
And while the murders, muggings, and mayhem are much worse than a missing possession, there is something life-depleting about having to continually deal with theft, trash, and the other insults of life around here. Jules Feiffer, in his prescient 1960s play, described it as “Little Murders,” that is, the psychological and spiritual assaults of urban life. This is a perfect way to describe the SF Bay Area: there are a plethora of violent crimes, for sure, but, more commonly, we must endure the little murders of life.
They are the things stolen, whether it’s a holiday wreath, or maybe something more eviscerating: the assaults on our basic dignity. When you don’t matter, when your things don’t count, this does something to a person deep inside. Pain. Hurt. And the fallout: a life lived angrily and fearfully. A person is on perpetual shut down and lock down, with one’s guard always up. You just don’t know if that stranger walking towards you is a nice guy or gal, or someone who will rob you in a heartbeat or go nuts and yell expletives at you.
This leads to an atmosphere where it’s not safe to make eye contact with another person or smile at him. Doing so would be too exhausting anyway because before you do this, you have to scrutinize the other person. Is he a con man endeavoring to scam you or a thief distracting you or a paranoid person ready to go off on you? Even a trip to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods can seem daunting, threatening, as one wonders whether an antisocial mob will suddenly burst in and riot.
And, in the Berkeley area, people who look like me are often treated differently, sometimes with utter hostility. It’s very un-PC to state this. But it’s true. We’re also targeted by thugs as easy crime victims, whose lives don’t matter that much.
To illustrate, let me tell you about something that happened the other week. I went to a dentist’s appointment in a downtown area. When I was in the building, I encountered a woman who had put herself in harm’s way through some unwise move. I was the only one around, and I ran over to help. I put myself at some risk trying to free her.
Afterwards, with her now safe, I said to her, kindly, “I’m so sorry that you had to go through that.” She looked at me with a face that emanated pure and unadulterated hostility. Hatred, actually. She seemed disgusted that I would even speak to her, and repulsed that her rescuer looked like me, a white person. For a moment, I was even afraid that she might hit me. Instead she said something so mean that it took my breath away. In a weird twist of logic, she somehow blamed me for her own misguided action that endangered her life. While she did not physically hurt me, she cut into my own heart.
This is just one little soul murder, in an area where there are big and small ones every day. Living in and around Berkeley will break a person’s heart. If a person isn’t careful, it has the potential to damage his soul.
And it’s a place where an elderly, ailing woman can have Christmas stolen.