By David Griffith
The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes....
—Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”
There seems to be a deep psychotic guilt in the heart of America, a feeling that crops up at times like these when we feel like we cannot reconcile all the bounty, good fortune, and freedom we enjoy with all the poverty, tragedy, and oppression elsewhere.
Some say it is an inevitable effect of Capitalism, but maybe it’s just from having to be “America” all the time—on top, in charge, the beacon on a hill, the conscience of the world, the unwilling and chagrined imperialists (“nation builders” is preferable).
Well, actually, it’s mostly invisible, tied up in credit: a bunch of numbers that come and go electronically from one institution to another; robbing Peter to pay Paul, as my mother always says.
But then there is the visible bounty: The grain and missile silos, the thrift stores and overstock bins, the day old bread bins at the bakery, and, yesterday, more than a week after the earthquake in Haiti that has left an estimated 200,000 dead and thousands more homeless and starving, there was the free slices of Lemon Chess pie and cup of hot coffee my waitress gave me.
Apparently, the pie was a day old, and I guess I couldn’t have pie without coffee, could I? When the waitress returned to the table she asked, “Can you eat that much?” and slid the plate on to the table with two slices of lemon-yellow triangles of custard. I had only asked for one.
As we were paying our bill, my friend, who had never eaten there before, told her how good everything was and that he would be definitely be back. Hearing this the woman went to the pastry case and filled up two white paper bags full of doughnuts.
Later that night, our daughter in bed, The Biggest Loser on the television, my wife, Jess, wrote, and I read articles from the foreign press about Haiti and Haitian history. These reports weren’t fixated on Pat Robertson’s view that Haiti was paying its debt to the devil, they dwelt on colonialism, military incursions and CIA meddling, though elsewhere I did find more than one report of Haitians who agreed with Robertson—God was punishing them. The second coming was nigh.
Then I realized that I was hungry. I went into the kitchen, opened the fridge and took out the dinner leftovers. I scooped some cold, sticky spaghetti into a bowl and ladled on some sauce with meatballs, popped it in the microwave for two minutes and then went back to the couch to watch the late local news.
I inhaled the pasta while the newscasters explored the local angles of the Haitian earthquake: the penny drive, the food drive, the water drive, a man who flies cargo planes for missionary aid organizations. And then an update on a man who killed eight people in Appomattox (the site of Lee’s surrender to Grant) and then fled into the woods. Over one hundred law enforcement officials currently surrounded him. This was happening a little over thirty miles away, yet I still felt compelled to get up, lock the front and back doors, and make sure that I had remembered to lock the windows that I washed earlier in the day. A few minutes later we heard a boom outside and Jess and I looked at one another, concerned.
Then I remembered the bag of doughnuts from earlier in the day. Jess is pregnant and concerned with gaining too much weight, so she was trying mightily to avoid eating them, but it was clear that she wanted one. So I got up, went to the kitchen, plucked one from the bag and quickly ate half. The glaze was delicate, not too sweet, and the dough, though a little stale, was amazing—it had a hint of lemon. I put the other half on a paper towel and brought it to Jess, now reclining in bed rubbing her big belly. She groaned when she saw the doughnut, but ate it anyway and agreed that it was unbelievably delicious. I said, “There’s another one in there if you want it.”
Jess turned out the bedside lamp and we lay there in the dark for a moment talking about Haiti. It didn’t sit well with either of us—the sudden zealous humanitarian interest in Haiti, the gonzo news coverage of Anderson Cooper risking life and limb to save Haitian children and then posting the images and video to his blog, and Katie Couric holding the hands of injured children.
“Haiti’s always been there,” I said. “It’s like we just last week discovered it was poor.” Jess was skeptical that texting money to the Red Cross would actually pay dividends. The country was just going to continue on being poor and defenseless, and we’ll all just go back to our busy lives without another thought to root causes or sustained initiatives. No one is really sacrificing anything. No one has to actually take money from his or her wallets and place it in the hand of a bleeding and starving Haitian.
Laying there it seemed that the rabidity of the response was perhaps the novelty of cataclysm, the awesomeness, the sublimity, the pitiful and the exhilarating desire to be close to it, a feeling that I once had as an adolescent upon learning of Hiroshima, a feeling I recognized later in Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” The center would not hold because there was no center, it was just a sense of righteousness in the face of madness.
At some point we got too tired and drifted off to sleep, our heads full of Haitians dying in the streets, three hundred pound Americans on tread mills, a mass murderer lurking in the woods near Appomattox with a deer rifle, and the chatter of millions of thumbs texting.
The next morning I woke to news of another aftershock. Most have been sleeping out of doors for fear of just such an event, and so when the ground began to shake people reportedly kneeled in the streets and prayed aloud for forgiveness. I couldn’t help myself. I thought: What could these people have done to deserve such a fate? I thought, what fat beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?