Dedicated to the memory of City College scholar-athlete Ray Glasgow, III
Sometimes you get the whole story all at once.
By all at once, I don’t mean in a sound bite or in an excerpt or in just a few sentences that a clever editor wants you to see. A sound bite can be misleading. An excerpt can leave you wanting more. A few good sentences can be enough.
But, the whole story. All the words. In a specific order. Exactly as the writer wanted you to have them. That can be more than a person can bear. Etgar Keret’s short story, “Asthma Attack” is like this.
Here it is. The entire story. Yes, this is all there is – 116 words. These words are final. And, they will take your breath away.
When you have an asthma attack, you can’t breathe. When you can’t breathe, you can hardly talk. To make a sentence all you get is the air in your lungs. Which isn’t much. Three to six words, if that.You learn the value of words.You rummage through the jumble in your head. Choose the crucial ones — those cost you too. Let healthy people toss out whatever comes to mind, the way you throw out the garbage. When an asthmatic says, “I love you,” and when an asthmatic says, “I love you madly,” there’s a difference. The difference of a word. A word’s a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could even be ambulance.
The difference of a word. A word can be everything. Even the whole story. Of course, you’ve got to get the timing right. Like Henny Youngman. He got a thousand laughs with this one – “Take my wife, please.” Raymond Carver’s short story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please, doesn’t even get a single laugh, much less twice the laughs. You see, one word is a lot. It really can change everything.
In Baltimore, reading the walls every day is just as important as reading the newspaper or a book. Like “Stop the killing. Just stop the killing.” The difference of a word. This is the whole story. It is our city’s story. When someone’s breath is taken away. These words are final. It’s more than we can bear.
Let’s not shoot, no, let’s.
Let’s not try to even the score, no, let’s.
Let’s not sit around waiting, no let’s.
These decisions are final.
Some people probably die waiting. Some people will die going. Some will die knowing. Some will die just being here. Targeted. Or not. People will still call you “late” when you’re not here. “The late so and so,” they will say. But, it’s not inconsequential. Like missing the bus.
Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman wrote a beautiful book called Hurry Up and Wait, in which the difference between waiting and just being here is kind of an existential matter.
I didn’t even know that I was waiting. I thought I was just here.
But, once I realized I was waiting, I wasn’t still anymore.
I’m sure existential matters come up from time to time in the city. But probably not too often. Things tend to get real here in a hurry. Even so, when I read what Daniel Handler had to say in Hurry Up and Wait, I knew that stripped of the theory and philosophy, he could also be telling the whole story of Baltimore.
In Baltimore, we don’t know that we’re waiting. We think that we're just here. We’re mostly content to be just here. But, just here is not enough. So, what is it, exactly, that we are waiting for? Everything. Just one thing. Nothing in particular. Someone else to do something. It doesn’t matter. The answer to this question is final. And often it’s more than we can bear.
The month of May has 31 days. On one of the days, we celebrate mothers. On another, we remember soldiers. On both, we might have picnics or visit cemeteries. On a handful of the days, maybe no one will get killed in Baltimore. But, even on those days, we won’t always be able to say that it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Blessed Mary Theresa Gerhardinger – the founder of the congregation of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, whose feast day also is in May, makes us think about the whole notion of words and waiting with this profound realization – “We are not born with serenity of heart,” she said, “we must acquire it.”
So, if by chance, we are waiting for some inherent serenity to manifest itself.
For some natural serenity to show its presence in ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods, our city.
We need to realize that because we are waiting and not just here, that we are most certainly not still. That we should never be still. That we cannot afford to be still.
Not one more day. Not one more life. Not one more word.
This decision is final.
Ray Glasgow, III, died this month after being shot while sitting in a parked car in front of his old elementary school. He was 17 years old.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke called Ray a “rising star,” an “outstanding young man” who tragically was taken “from our midst and from Baltimore’s future.”
We grieve with the entire community and especially with Ray’s family. Ray’s mother is a Caroline Center graduate. I am the parent of two City College alums.
This loss is difficult and personal.
This loss takes everything we have within us because it strikes us where our hearts hurt most.
This loss takes everything we have within us and we can barely breathe. Even one word can be a lot.
With love and everything we have within us, we offer these words
of comfort and peace ~
May his memory be a blessing.
May his memory be a blessing, forever.
Editor's Note: While preparing this post for publication, two current Caroline Center trainees lost relatives to gun violence in the city. Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families at this sad time.
Etgar Keret's short story, "Asthma Attack," is published in The Girl on the Fridge, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992, 1994.
Hurry Up and Wait by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman is published by Harry N. Abrams for MOMA, 2015.