Monday, March 18, 2013

Getting Shot In America: A Tale Of Two Cities

Sitting at the surgery trauma waiting room at UC Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, I couldn’t help but notice two separate realities. The good news is, the divide was not racial. The bad news is, it was painfully economic.

There was a prison inmate in the room, shackled and leg-injured, with a sheriff on one side and his girlfriend on the other. His girlfriend was arguing with him, he kept asking her to leave. There was a little old lady, black and cute as a daisy, whom I wanted to adopt as a grandmother. What struck me as odd and a little heartbreaking is that she seemed to be there alone, and disoriented. A nurse came by to check up on her. There was a middle-aged white woman in a wheelchair, who looked all of sixty-five but my bet is that she was no more than forty-five. She was accompanied by her daughter, stunning looks and looking all of thirty, though my bet is that she wasn’t more than twenty. Growing up fast is an expression of bittersweetness on the right side of the tracks, but on the wrong side it is just another battle wound.

I was there because a friend of mine had been shot. Twice, once in the leg and once in the abdomen. The leg shot had shattered his femur. He was ambushed at midnight in what turned out to be an armed robbery, and as he wrestled for his life the gun went off twice. My friend is in his mid 20’s, but I’ve known him since he was 14. He was “assigned” to me in 2003 by an organization that works closely with the division of Children Services at Hamilton County. I was his Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).

Sydney (not his real name) had landed in “the system” after he ran away from home. His life -- or “file” as the system prefers to call it -- was a textbook case of child neglect and abuse. The complication is, once you dig in beyond the surface, it really does get complicated. Sydney’s mother was a product of the system herself. 

I remember when I first met Sydney, at a foster home. His foster mom seemed nice enough, the home was clean and well-furnished. I could tell Sydney sized up all of us rather quickly: the foster mom, as much as he seemed to respect her, received a subsidy from the government for taking care of him; the social worker from Children Services did not interest him in the least. But he looked at me up and down more than once, almost as if to say: what does he get out of this? It was emphasized more than once that my role was strictly a volunteering one.

Four years later, with a few visits to juvenile detention centers in between, I found myself in court for Sydney’s official “release” from the system – on his 18th birthday. It seemed a bit surreal to me, as there was a strange assortment of people present: a lawyer from the CASA organization; my CASA supervisor; Sydney’s 3rd social worker (I had been his only CASA throughout the same period of time); a lawyer from Children Services; Sydney’s biological mother; and me. Sydney chose to sit with me, not surprising given the revolving door cast of characters. The judge went around the room, asking everyone for their comments. The social worker was issuing a somewhat defensive statement, sprinkled with local politics, occasionally glancing at the lawyer from the county. The judge interrupted her a bit impatiently, looked at me and asked for my thoughts. I looked at Sydney, then back at the judge and said, “All I can say is that in these past four years I thought it was Sydney who was hopefully going to learn something from me. Instead, I believe I have learned more from him. I am thankful to him for that.”

In the ten years that I have known Sydney, I must have traveled between the west and the east side of Cincinnati over a hundred times. The West Side, while it does include a couple of middle class and affluent neighborhoods, is primarily blue collar or poor. The East Side is the exact opposite – a couple of blue collar and poor neighborhoods, but primarily middle, upper middle, and highly affluent neighborhoods. There are awkward jokes in Cincinnati about which side of town you are from – usually in the form of "where did you go to high school?". As a permanent outsider no matter where I have lived, the jokes struck me as odd. People from the East Side and the West Side have no more in common with each other than people I have met from opposite sides of the world. So if by “which part of town” they really mean “which part of the planet” – I guess I could join in the nervous laughs.

I have traveled the road from New Delhi to Agra; north and south through Port-au-Prince Haiti; through the slums of Bogota, Rio, Manila, and countless of other "third world" cities. I have wined and dined in London, Paris, Munich, and other “first world” cities; and I have driven through Cincinnati’s Indian Hill neighborhood over a thousand times. Indian Hill is not only one of Cincinnati’s wealthiest neighborhoods on the East Side, it is home to one or two king makers. During my thirteen years in the city, both US presidents have paid multiple visits to the neighborhood. Given all of these contrasts, I can safely say from all of my travels that a common name and adjacent proximity does not a single city make. Neighborhoods, and their economic realities, are the only relevant segments of society.

Sydney was released from the hospital within a few days of being shot. It was much too early a release, but it is common for someone without health insurance in the US. I also learned that you don’t just drop off someone without health insurance at a hospital for a follow-up: you are expected to wheel him from one section to another, help him up on the x-ray table, get him down, hold him up while they remove his staples, wheel him from one doctor to the other, and beg for him to be given painkillers.

As I drove Sydney from the hospital to his sister’s house on the West Side, I realized he was in significant pain. Yet he had already reprimanded me once at the hospital for demanding that someone get him painkillers. He explained, half-groggy from the pain, that all I was going to achieve was get the nurses to entrench against getting him meds, since there are so many junkies that try to play the system. I asked him if there was a rash of cases with junkies shooting themselves in the stomach and shattering their femurs for free painkillers. That was a wiseass reply that I probably shouldn’t have made, given his state of pain.

Sydney mentioned something I’ll never forget, and it had to do with his ambulance ride to the hospital -- “the longest ride of his life”. Paramedics are trained to keep such victims conscious, even though all they want to do is pass out. But in describing what he remembers looking out of the ambulance, some of the words he used seemed very familiar to me. I had to look them up when I got home, but it didn't take long for me to recall where I had heard a similar thought:

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.”

- Sydney Carton, “A Tale of Two Cities” (Charles Dickens)

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