Monday, August 3, 2020
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Between Heaven & Hell

By Lionel Rolfe

It’s an oppressively hot day.

It was the first time this summer the temperature had gotten up in to the 90s. That wouldn’t have meant much — after all last month it was only August — but for the humidity. Summer usually isn’t humid in Los Angeles. Humidity is mostly alien to Los Angeles. That’s more for Miami or New York or those kinds of places. I don’t know for others, but this kind of weather makes me depressed and hopeless.

I guess I’m spoiled. The air conditioning in my 20-year-old Toyota is broken. So I don’t go out much more than I absolutely have to. But as I pamper myself, I feel guilty. Like everyone else, I’ve seen those pictures of families from Africa and the Middle East, often children and young mothers, stranded on old rust buckets in the Mediterranean, crying from hunger, thirst and fear.

The more real poverty that I see, the more I despair. And, I know that I’m only one missed paycheck away from joining their ranks.

Today I’m OK. I am inside my apartment, at my desk by the window in my bedroom where I normally write. As I said, the weather is almost surreal. It looks angry and gray and wet out there but I know if I opened the window, it would be hot and oppressive. Luckily my window is closed, and the air conditioning is keeping away the suffocating humidity, purring quietly and efficiently. The temperature is nice inside. But I know if the window were open, I’d quickly be wiping the copious sweat away from my chin and head. I would be completely miserable.

I suppose being old and diabetic doesn’t help. Sometimes my legs really rebel against carrying me any further. Old age, I guess. But young age has its pains as well, for sure.

It’s about 5 p.m. outside. I can see the plants are rustling, so I know there’s some kind of breeze out there. Maybe it’s a kind of Santa Ana, but not a dry one, but a wet one. I’m going to hide from the outside because I’m too comfortable in my bedroom to deal with it.

Not too far away from my desk is the collection of William Blake my father had lovingly assembled.  The air conditioning keeps whirring quietly, almost silently. Perhaps I’ll go open the pages of the great old Blake, savoring those songs of innocence and songs of experience and that “tiger, tiger burning bright in the forests of the night. What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

Maybe it’s wrong to be as smug and content as I put on the television and listen to the gloom and doom of what the Germans are doing to the Greeks — to my mind, the whole thing breaks of World War II again. The Germans are really coming across as pricks —lecturing the Greeks about the virtues of austerity. I’ve seen the Germans when they are on vacation in the mountains of Bulgaria. They remain an arrogant bunch, even if they supposedly lost the war. Meanwhile, all the escapees from the civil wars raging in Africa and the Levantine are being dumped into Greece and Italy, with derisive little remarks from the Germans.

I look out the window again. A bit more drama is going on out there now. Some sort of angry winds are whipping the giant jungles leaves that form the landscaping around the apartment swimming pool. Something angry is out there, but thank God I’m inside.

You probably have to live in Los Angeles to understand those Santa Anas — those famous winds that blow out of the desert down through the canyon passes into the basin. Raymond Chandler once wrote that when the Santa Anas come, meek wives look at the back of their husband’s necks and sharpen their knives. But the air conditioning is making that hypothetical. The scene outside is more surreal than real. Certainly, the turmoil outside doesn’t perturb the little plastic girl I have dancing on the window ledge. She’s doing a hula dance, powered by sun power. When the sun goes down, she stops dancing.

But I can’t stop thinking of the other day when my ex-wife called me from across the country. She begged me for help. She was getting evicted. You have to know a way to help, she said. If I didn’t, I’d be killing her. She said she had no car, no way to move everything, including Hammy the blue-fronted Amazon she took with her when she left me for another man. She pointed out I had loved her once, just for that alone I had to find a way to help her. But nothing she said worked. I’m old and tired and have barely enough money to live myself—and I don’t know for how much longer.

“Of course I care,” I thought, and meant it. But there was still nothing I could do. For the next several nights I dreamt of her being homeless, and woke up upset and drenched and exhausted from the thought. No wonder I didn’t want to feel that raging humidity and heat outside.

Some years back, as a result of that lingering love, when I came across some extra money I sent her a check for a few thousand dollars. But that was then and now is now.

I switched on the television.

“Black lives matter” is the new cry of the civil rights movement. Fox news suddenly wonders why they don’t say “white lives matter,” purposely ignoring the obvious. Maybe it’s because innocent white men and women don’t get killed by cops every day? You think?

Racists have always taunted the oppressed by being obtuse about the suffering, because they want to deny the suffering. They know perfectly well why people say black lives matter. There’s a wonderful woman I know, a black woman. For a girl from the hood, she has done OK for herself. She’s brought into the American dream and lives a middle-class life—but the other day with a surprising look of deep hurt on her face, she reacted to yet another killing of a black person. I forgot which one it was — in Ferguson, in Cincinnati, in Stanton Island, wherever, and she was suddenly both scared and frightened. It was there to read on her face. My friend is a civilian employee of a police department, so she knew something of the lay of the land. That’s why she felt both safe and scared at the same time.

Her expression stayed with me. Some people have said it’s wrong to feel sorrier for Cecil the Lion than a dead child. I don’t know how to compare the life of an animal to the life of a human being anymore. Both are sentient beings living on this earth. Both are important. Of course all life is important, black, white, yellow, — whatever. But there’s an immediate real reason to say “black lives matter.”

I saw a documentary not long ago about music, and in it a flautist is playing his instrument to a dolphin, and the dolphin obviously is enraptured and is swooning. Then the animal starts singing the melodies of his universe, and the human flautist and dolphin create a haunting duet.

There’s a ridiculous notion around that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m not sure that that doesn’t rank right up there with the words over the doors of Auschwitz, “Arbeit Macht Frei.”

It ain’t necessarily so. I wish I knew what was.



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