June 5, 2007


There is a man who works in a local bakery. You do not know his name and what you learn about him, his person, is limited to the span of an order, the money exchange, the taking of the small, white bag; all the wrinkles of routine. He is a presence of energy. The smile is bold, and not for you. He wears his baseball cap at a particular angle, always. He is immaculate in movements and dress. After many exchanges you might see how the ring like a horseshoe matches a horse figure on his watch, the combination of gold and diamonds playing off each other. When he is in a good mood he is pure performance of that mood: effusive and electric and alert to the world, as though your presence and the presence of the folks lined up behind you -- and they will come all morning -- has no bearing on his feeling for what is and the work, which is for himself and his comrades there. Other days he is sour and tired and there is no false pleasantness. He scours, shakes his head at your request. People remember him for this avid presence. Something tells you he is a father of small children and undaunted.

Then one morning he is not there. On the door of the bakery is a poster with his picture and the dates: January 1969 - May 2007. Otherwise, nothing has changed. The street is filled on a wet, warm Saturday. There are people in the bakery ordering, laughing, gathering over croissants and coffee. The staff is bereft but the customers there that day don't see it, or cannot recognize the connection between the poster and the mood. Maybe it is their first time. They cannot know the degrees of difference. It is a business and it is open. That is all. Even you have not yet moved from seeing the poster to appreciating the irrevocable absence inside when everything looks the same.

A girl behind the counter tells you in a subdued voice of shock that he was shot, and died. It takes two days for the information to appear as a three-line "story" in the newspaper, one in a listing of three city shootings that night: a man from a certain address killed in a late-night altercation at a certain intersection. It is two blocks from where he lived on Chicago's South Side.

The funeral gathering is large but the church is larger. There are pockets of people ranging from the family and what must be old friends to customers of the bakery to the great number of the staff there. The space between these groups shows the different dimensions of his encounters, some trying not to make a wrongful trespass others held apart from the absolute void of his death by what is happening all around them, all these people.

But there is a difference between not knowing and refusing to acknowledge. The Reverend has never met him, and if anyone has told him about the reason for this service he has not appreciated what they tried to communicate. His words, if not his intentions, are indifferent. They are a lifeless litany of assertions that have nothing to do with the life led, the man's four children, his mother, the absence that is now itself a part of the neighborhood of the bakery, a scar on the corner where he lived and died. It becomes an advertisement for the Church itself, crassly absorbed in its own "lessons" -- which seem so apart from the violence of the man's death and the realities of the lives spread out in that church. The Reverend seems not to recognize anything of the living and the dead as he moves through his habitual recitations, absolutely lacking in counsel.

What matters is the physical presence of the gathering: one woman wailing, the men bearing the coffin, the family moving so slowly and weak in white, the density of the people together on the sidewalk outside, pressed together by the demands of ritual and brought into close, unspeaking contact by the reach of his presence, now gone.

With the bakery's neighborhood, our neighborhood, it is diffuse, without the gravity of focus; passersby, rhythms of the day, the intersections of movements. It contains him, in the shadows. As people move through the space he once inhabited and defined, many will come to it oblivious and innocent while next to them someone else will feel, often without notice, the loss, which is both the lessening of where we dwell and an appreciation and acknowledgment of what it holds and held. That dispersal of feeling, degrees of knowing without mention is the silent strain of what is called, perhaps without proper feeling for the feelings in it, collective memory.