After a sleepless night full of strange and terrifying dreams, I started the day thinking about the things that pull us together and tear us apart. It’s Super Tuesday. And the coronavirus is spreading. Fourteen states and American Samoa are holding presidential primaries, and the battles between so-called progressives and moderates in the Democratic Party have gotten intense. I have an inbox full of messages from friends desperately trying to rescue me from whatever electoral sin they’ve determined I’m going to commit. Our differences rise up and threaten to fracture us in historical ways. Despite the best efforts of Mike Pence and the Fed, COVID-19 continues to spread panic and provoke economic ruin, leaving bodies and mourning families in its wake. This day is “on bleak” (it’s a new thing I’m trying).
Millions of us are giving more thought than usual to the question: how close should I be to my neighbor?
So, I’m thinking about all of this and trying to wrestle my way into the awake (not necessarily woke) life, and my doorbell rings. My CDs have arrived early! (For the young people in the audience, “CD” stands for compact disc. After the primary medium for music shifted from the LP record to the 8-track tape, to the cassette tape, compact discs emerged in the 1980s as dominant in the sound recording market, before music came to be trafficked almost exclusively by ones and zeros on the internet. Vinyl and cassettes are making a comeback, but are mostly too damn expensive for independent artists like myself.) I’m very happy, and head out to run some errands and make some deliveries. Among my deliveries is a stop to leave several CDs with my friends Carter and Genny. Carter and Genny Cramer contributed significant funds to the project, because I wrote a song partially dedicated to their daughter Megan, who died seven years ago in a horrible explosion. I drop off the CDs and we talk a little about the coronavirus and Super Tuesday, but mostly we enjoy each other’s company.
Carter digs out an old book that has a poem in it – “The Beautiful Tiger,” by Keith Gunderson – that Jody Bilyeu and I performed in his English class 35 years ago, while he danced around the desks. I had looked for that poem for at least 25 years. I remember how happy it made me. He reads it to me, and I’m happy again. I immediately start thinking about how we could build it into a great rock and roll song.
I say good-bye to Carter in the driveway. He stops me. I roll down my window, and he tells me he loves me. I tell him I love him. I drive away, a little less afraid of viruses and politics.
I’m on my way through a busy part of town, thinking about how, despite the immense challenges facing us socially and biologically in this life, we can find some hope in making human connection and telling the people we love that we love them.
Then I see Joe get hit by a car.
This guy is riding a Schwinn 10-speed that was probably sold the same year Jody and I were performing “The Beautiful Tiger” in Hill Hall on the (then) Southwest Missouri State University campus in the mid-‘80s.
I watched him ride across the intersection, wearing the bags of groceries he’d just picked up at the Price Cutter, when the white sedan drives straight into him and sends him and his food flying. He seemed to be basically okay, but his bike was mangled. He exchanged a brief word with the driver, then that guy just takes off! I wanted to give chase, or help in some way, but I was across five lanes of traffic and the cloud of afterschool traffic had descended. When I finally made my way over there, he was sitting on the curb stunned, taking stock of his situation.
“I saw that asshole hit you,” I said. “Are you hurt?”
“Thanks for stopping man! Yeah, that was crazy. I told him I thought I was okay. He just said, ‘I didn’t see you,’ then took off!”
I introduced myself. He said his name was Joe and that he lived by Bass Pro, but really liked the Price Cutter on Repulic Road. I hung around with him until the police came. I gave my account of the incident. Eventually the guy driving the car had returned to the scene. He’d “felt like he should probably go back.” I don’t know if he genuinely felt bad, or if he figured out Joe might have gotten his license number. Everything seemed to be working out pretty well in the end, except that Joe’s primary means of transportation was thrashed. I offered him a ride home and he told me he was just going to push it up to a nearby bike shop and get it fixed. I told him to ask for my friend Patrick, and that he would make sure Joe got fixed up okay.
He kept saying, “You’re a really good dude for doing this.” He said it multiple times, like he was in shock. When the cop was taking my statement, he acted like he didn’t trust me; that I had some ulterior motive.
“Do you know Joe?” he asked, while holding my gaze and squinting at me.
It all struck me as odd. What I did was not extraordinary. In fact, I was a little pissed no one else had stopped to help. There were plenty of other people around. What has happened to us? When did expending minimal effort to help out a person in need become remarkable?
I’m still left with the question: how close should I be to my neighbor?