Tuesday, March 7


There's a medium-sized oil painting sitting on its side in the dining room. The only thing really unusual about that is there's just one, not eight or nine. I carry more student art around in a given year than I do sacks of potting soil.

It's a self-portrait, the head and shoulders of a girl in a white tank top and the beginning of life, a stray strand of hair across her face, looking up and sideways at the viewer, sort of half-confidently, half-self appraisingly. Like a lot of student work it's mannered, missing much, reproducing the look of a self-portrait with no clear awareness of self. A decent eye and a fine enough hand, and no real command of the medium. When you see the work of kids who are serious enough about visual arts to focus on them in school, and watch them progress over three years, you get to where you can make snap judgments. My wife seeks mine out at times. Mostly, I think, because a couple of times I've strongly defended the work of younger students she wanted to drum out of the program because of their impossible behavior. And both of those times the kid turned out okay. I was lucky. She didn't need my opinion of the talent, she just needed to borrow a little backbone. It's one reason she's so good at a job that would drive most people insane within a week.

So my appraisal is somewhat unforgiving. A moderately promising work if done by a sophomore, but the sophomores don't get to work in oil. A senior, one who might be a decent illustrator someday; maybe she's better with other media, but the awards season is over and I know she's not really in line for a big scholarship. Some of the kids don't want one, don't want to go on with schooling or with art, just wanted to do that in high school, move on where life takes them just like everybody else.

Allyson Jamison. seventeen years old. Died Sunday along with her nine-year-old sister Mary when their house burned down.

It's just news, y'know? Story like that every couple of days, oh-how-sad. A little sympathy, a little empathy, maybe a tear or a prayer or a small donation to a memorial fund. You don't get to live very long before you learn that there's a huge disconnect between how it feels when it happens to someone else and how it feels when it happens to you. The world might stop and pat you on the back before it moves on. The world's a little more interested in who the stars are wearing than in what happened to somebody nobody ever heard of.

There's more than that here, more for me than a wife who didn't sleep and couldn't talk about what happened at school Monday beyond, "I cried." Allyson was luckier than some, in the conventional sense in which we use everybody's morality to club the disadvantaged: she was not the product of a broken home. What she didn't have was a conventional, nuclear family that had paid its heating bill. Their gas was shut off on January 3. Neighbors suggest they were heating the house with wood, whether in a fireplace or wood stove. The cause of the fire is not yet known.

I'm not going to scream. This isn't supposed to happen, but I'm not going to scream. There's a moratorium on shutting off heat during the winter months provided the customer applies for state energy assistance. They didn't, apparently. I'm not going to scream. "Shutting off the gas is something we really try to avoid, especially during the winter, but with the size of the bill, it just wasn't possible," said Dan Considine of Citizens Gas. He's doing his job. The gas company in Indianapolis is a public charitable trust, not a for-profit utility. We've managed to resist its sale to a faceless, heartless corporation so far. I'm not going to scream. I'm not going to take a cheap shot at the worship of mammon or empty promises of "faith-based" solutions. There are programs in place. They weren't enough. Somebody, maybe everybody, screwed up. I'm not going to scream. Two young girls are dead, and in another couple days the news will be too, and no one will ask why we send a man over to disconnect the gas because some paperwork wasn't filled out, instead of picking up the phone to find some help, somebody, somewhere, however temporary. Pray for their souls and find some way to make ourselves feel better. We ignore a hell of a lot worse in Iraq every day, don't we? Life isn't neat. If you let one person slide then everyone will want to. I am not going to scream. Tears are much more civilized.


Anonymous said...

Oh Jesus, this eloquent post sure made me scream. Two young lives unnecessarily snuffed out that no one outside of your home town would have known about had you not written about. Now they are a little bit more real to the rest of us. An aspiring artist, a little sister. If only they each got their own TV movie we might actually care. (A thought that always crosses my mind whenever "In other news, three U.S. military personnel and at least 20 Iraqi civilians were killed in Iraq today" zips by on the evening news.)

Old news, but speaking of caring and not caring.
A sidenote: our local gas company, formerly Brooklyn Union Gas (my emphasis for nostalgia's sake) now Keyspan is a public utility about to be purchased by a global firm. The CEO of Keyspan will clear at least $80 million from the deal.

I really don't know what kind of people we are turning into. The word egalitarian has been totally eliminated from our vocabulary. Our president is infinitely more likely to say "fuck" to his Cabinet than "equality". The Wall Street Journal, the organ of an industry that just paid itself $22 Billion in bonuses this past December, ridicules the poor as "lucky duckies." The devout Catholic and self-annointed "virtues czar" William Bennett decries the poor as immoral merely for being poor.

I hate to sound old but I don't think it were like this so much when I was a bairn. "Every man for himself" was not something we aspired to. Maybe there should just be fewer tears and a lot more screaming.

Oh shit. I'll stop now cause I'm running out of hair to tear out. Thanks (really) for a moving post.

Anonymous said...

That's horrible.

isabelita said...

Makes me wanna holler. More victims of the "ownership society."

Jaye Ramsey Sutter said...


If it isn't drug overdoses, car wrecks, stranger rape, date rape, husband rape, alcohol binge, drive by shootings, now it is this. Every fucking semester they die over spring break here.

This young woman and her little sister were just cold and wanted to sleep warmer.

So fragile...

Anonymous said...

Jesus H. Christ. I'm going to think of this story whenever some asshat tries to tell me about personal responsibility and picking oneself up by the bootstraps, etc etc. When did it become acceptable to fuck over the poor?

Sorry for the profanity, this sort of thing makes me so mad. R.porrofatto is right, we need more screaming.

Ray Bridges said...

That's a tough story, dude. My sympathies to all who knew the young women. We're all diminished by their deaths.

Anonymous said...

I just scream. Laryngitis stops it eventually. Long before I'd run out of tears.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering where your story was going until suddenly it got hard to read. Man, that's sad. What a fucked up country we live in.

maxwell said...

Max has a post about the poor over at Maxspeaks. Really, it's a post snarling at George Will's condescending take on why the poor are poor -- they're dirty and lazy and disorganized. And it all starts at home.

But when does it start? Maybe it starts when the stuff of life starts costing arms and legs and all. No one ever comes to turn off George Will's gas, unfortunately. I suppose he would say that that is because he is so well-organized and such a clean man.

Ann Bartow said...

Jeepers that got to me. I grew up in an area with a lot of poor people, and in the winters there were fires. The kids whose houses did not burn down still had to brave the tormenting of classmates who mocked and derided them from the smokey smells emanating from their clothes and hair embedded by things like burning old papers in a metal barrel in your livingroom to stay warm.