No point in being safe if you don't feel alive


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Category: Reflections 30 Nov 08


All cities have a soul. It's why I am drawn to exaggerated comic book illustrations of city dwellers with high heels clicking on pavements shadowed by menace from the underworld, a sea of garbage bags, neon lights alternating with dark alleys, stray dogs and a full mad moon.

I’ve had to be shuttling between New York and Port-of-Spain for medical reasons since September. The cities seem to be spilling into one another.

At first was a relief to escape to New York after a weekend of five murders, images of bullet-riddled bodies. I felt a knot on my back unwind as I landed in the late summer warmth of the city.

The light bouncing off a noonday sun flashed gold off Manhattan's skyscrapers, lingered way past dinner time. People roller-bladed, ran and biked past us in Central Park in the tiniest of shorts.

Land of menace

It was difficult to believe, while weaving our way around a leafy pathway, that before a crack down by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik this place was as dangerous as Trinidad.

There are still areas to tread carefully, but the general absence of fear, the freedom of being outdoors at night felt like pure luxury.

The familiar anxiety returned when I got home—the talk was not as it usually is, of a government that is deaf to its people by a sound-proof wall immune to the trouble of its— soaring food prices, crumbling health services, unaccountable spending and billion-dollar white elephant construction.

This time the talk was about the murdered couple in Tobago. Even the sleepy idyll of Tobago was corrupted. I was back in the land of menace.

In October, I returned to New York for a month. The city was gripped by the election soap opera with Barack Obama as the superhero, John McCain as his nemesis and Sarah Palin as the Joker.

The chill set in after Wall Street crashed overnight and world economies reeled from a domino effect. The winter coats came out. The street dwellers curled into themselves. The march towards the loss of 1.2 million jobs in America had begun.

I was recovering from surgery and felt vulnerable in that chaos. I needed to get out of that city. Vermont was recommended. The drive from Boston to a little cottage in the wilderness went by in a blur of trees spraying colours in leaves of mahogany, lemon, and gold, salmon pink, taupe, and crimson, butter, copper, clay, coral ochre, aubergene, red, flame, yellow and chocolate. It was a feast for the eyes, but proved not to be enough for the soul. In that idyll, set in a clearing where a river tripped over rocks prettily in a wooden dwelling, with a roaring fire, I froze. I looked for the axe murderer in the thicket of trees.

In that wintry wilderness I began missing the smells sounds and colour of a hot colonial city: bougainvilleas, stabs of sharp colour, winding roads descending to the sea, crumbling pillars, fumes, shouts of vendors, bustling markets, billboards, noon day bristling pavements, gold dust twilights. It could be Trinidad or Mumbai. Anywhere but the spooky clean quiet.

Island apathy

I couldn’t wait to get home. There is no point in being safe if you don’t feel alive.

On the drive home from Piarco I thawed out. Even the plans to fence in people in our depressed areas like cattle didn’t dampen my joy in the Queen’s Park Savannah, the hills, the knowledge of the sea, the easy Trini ole talk, the balmy twilights.

The murders didn’t bother me. I was resigned to the reports of medical negligence deaths out of Mount Hope. I hoped small island apathy hadn’t set in.

My final trip to New York assured me it hadn’t. A wintry briskness lit by fairy lights had overtaken the autumnal gloom. It was a city rebounding from the brink.

The soulful sounds of saxophonist filled the metro station visibly moved people. In an alternate theatre, an audience in pools of light to gape at performers running sideways on walls, mermaids, touching our hands through plastic slithered in water, rained water on us. The energy was high.

The people skating at the Rockefeller Centre, the massive snowflake suspended overhead signalled that hope, with its new president, Barack Obama, was restored.

This last homecoming was sobering. News not just of the usual bullet-riddled murders, but heavy flooding that destroyed the homes and property of hundreds of citizens. The corpse of a friend who crashed and died after falling asleep on the wheel at 3 am, was robbed of a chain, ID, wallet, phone.

It’s city life at its most heinous. The cowardly, murderous, Mumbai terror blasts and hostage situation a reminder that terror can strike the heart of any city.

It happened to us in 1990. We have not spawned a collective evil yet, not on that scale. We might.

There was talk from the executive of tightening our belts, of extreme “Burroughs” measures against crime.

“Hard work,” “sacrifice” weren’t said, but they hung there, somewhere.

There was a recession, the Prime Minister acknowledged, finally, and we would “go down fighting.” A poor choice of words, I reflected, since it implied we would go down anyway. It’s a start.

Every city soul needs hope to survive, to feed its soul, and perhaps on the cusp of this Christmas season when hearts soften, this is a start.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur