When I was ten years old, a man attempted suicide by fire in the front seat of my mother's car. Back then it was me and mom and the cats in a house near Boston College. She was putting herself through law school at night while working various jobs by day, and while we weren't rolling in material possessions by any means, that car of hers was the other apple of her eye.
It was an MGB convertible, clean white with a black ragtop and trim, the kind of car they simply don't make anymore. My mother used it as kind of a rolling knapsack; the trunk was filled with her law school textbooks, notes, outlines, along with de-icer, oil, jumper cables and all the different odds and ends needed to keep a California car running and rolling through a New England winter.
The thing could go. Some of my strongest memories of childhood involve the front seat of that car, with a bunch of grocery bags stacked on my lap because the ‘back seat' was overflowing with books, watching my mother put the gearshift through its paces as she roared up Commonwealth Avenue like something out of a Bond movie.
The man didn't know any of that. He was too busy drowning in his own life. A severe and undiagnosed manic depressive on the downward plunge of a bipolar swing, addicted to cocaine and alcohol, his experience as a student at Boston College had been transformed into a nightmare. He came down our street that night with a can of gasoline in one hand and a pack of matches in the other, looking for a place to die.
My mother never locked anything. In the years we lived in that house, we got broken into and robbed no less than four times. The funny part is that the thieves always slit a screen and came through a window or something, never realizing they could have just cruised in through the unsecured front door. My mother, even after all that, never locked the house, and never locked the car.
The man with the gasoline came down our street and found the MGB sitting in the driveway with the lock button standing at attention. He opened the door and slid into the seat. Maybe he sat there for a while, watching his breath fog the windows. Finally, he took my mother's tweed winter coat that was sitting in a ball on the shotgun seat and put it over himself like a shroud. He poured the gasoline and tossed the can onto the floor. He popped a match.
I woke that night to the sound of engines, and saw red and blue lights flashing across the ceiling. My room faced the street, so I jumped up and peered outside. The street outside my house was filled with fire trucks, police cars, and a crowd of neighbors. I saw my mother standing at the front of a knot of people, her breath pluming out into the cold air through the fist she had jammed into her mouth.
The car was in the driveway, on fire from stem to stern. Two firefighters were holding up the back end while a third put the hose to the gas tank underneath. If the thing had blown, it would have lit up the far side of our house and sent those three firemen sailing singed into the puckerbrush. They got it under control in a matter of minutes, however, and soon what had been a jewel of a car sat in the driveway on melted tires, black as a lump of coal and hissing like a scalded cat. The firemen used prybars to open the driver's side door.
The car was empty.
My mother grabbed one of the firemen by the coat and asked him something. He turned to the car and used the prybar to open the trunk. I watched as he threw a blackened cube onto the lawn, and then another, and then another. A sodden sheaf of singed papers followed. This was all that remained of her law school textbooks, her outlines, her notes, everything she needed for the final exams that were right around the corner.
The only thing to survive the blaze was Black's Law Dictionary, which wound up sitting in the front entryway of the house, its melted cover smelling like barbecued benzene. By morning, there was nothing left of the car but a blackened spot in the driveway and a few scattered, twisted coins. My mother stayed in bed late that day, her eyes red and blasted from crying as she called around to classmates hoping to get permission to copy their outlines for exams.
One night about a week later, the doorbell rang. My mother opened the door to find a young man standing there in scruffy jeans and a green sweater. She asked what he wanted. He pulled a hand out of his pocket and pointed to the burned law book sitting on the entryway floor by his feet. “I'm responsible for this,” he said. My mother's bright Irish blue eyes blazed as she summoned him to the kitchen table. She sat him down, wreathed him in smoke from her cigarettes, and got his story.
He told her about the depression, about the cocaine and the alcohol, about the night he tried to kill himself in her car. When that match popped alight, the gasoline had caught immediately. The burning and the smoke had terrified him, and he'd fled. Before disappearing back into the night, he had pulled the alarm box on the telephone across from our house, and waited for the sound of sirens before running away. He was at the absolute bottom, so consummately screwed up that he couldn't even get suicide right, and was there in our house to ask my mother to take him to the police.
Put yourself in her seat there in that kitchen a moment. Here he was, the guy who burned up her car and destroyed everything she needed for law school, with exams right around the corner. She'd sat through enough Criminal Law classes to know what one phone call to the cops would mean for him. Here he was, and his future was in her hands.
She thought about it for a while, and made her decision. Instead of calling the cops, she gave him the telephone number for the person in charge of Health and Human Services at Boston College, a man she'd known and worked with for years. She told the kid to call her friend at HHS, and to get himself into a program. If he quit the program before it was over, she said, she'd make sure he was prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
The guy who burned up my mother's car got into a program and got cleaned up. He got into therapy and gained control of his depression. After a while, he moved to Chicago, where he opened a clinic to help treat inner-city kids for drug and alcohol abuse. For all I know, his clinic is still operating. We got Christmas cards from him for a few years, and then he faded out of our lives completely.
I've been thinking a great deal about this story as the debate over the future of Social Security has raged across my television and the newspapers. In all the details about private accounts, budgets and the bottom line, it feels as though something vital is being left out of the conversation. The missing piece is simple: It is the obligation of the citizens of this country to help their neighbors when their neighbors are in need. That obligation becomes pressing when the neighbors are old, or sick, or handicapped in some way. This we call a community.
This is a large and diverse nation, with many citizens who need assistance. In order to manage the job of providing that assistance, we pay taxes to federal and state governments, which in turn disburse those monies to those who need it. Americans have been well-trained to despise paying taxes, and cutting taxes is a guaranteed winner for a politician looking to hold on to his job. Yet it was a Republican named Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “Taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society.” If a civilized society means roads and schools and a national defense, surely it must also mean we take care of those among us who need our help.
A lot of politicians like to talk about how this is a Christian nation. These also happen to be the same politicians barnstorming for the end of Social Security as we've known it. The Book of Matthew has Jesus teaching his followers, “If any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.” Aside from being holy writ for many, that's a pretty good plan for a civilized society.
The concept for a new Social Security system being offered by those who see this as a Christian nation involves a nebulously-defined process of privatization that has to date failed completely to make sense when held up to the light of basic arithmetic. In truth, their plan has more to do with winning an argument that has been raging since the days of FDR than anything else. These politicians would like to see the federal government stripped of the ability to do much besides wage war, and leave absolutely everything else to private corporations seeking to turn a profit from the process. It is worthwhile to note that the corporations seeking to enjoy the profits from this are also the ones who pay for the politicians in question. So it goes.
It is difficult to find the Christian ethic in a movement that would turn citizens into customers, that would slam the door on those citizens who simply cannot afford a for-profit safety net. It seems loving thy neighbor and blessing the meek is only good fodder for church on Sunday, leaving the other six days of the week open to turning a profit on the backs of the poor, the sick, the old and the lame.
This is not worthy of a nation that thinks of itself not only as great, but as good. Being good costs money, and involves sacrifice. Being good involves doing what must be done to take care of the weakest among us, rather than leaving them at the mercy of a kind of economic Darwinism that would have made Jesus vomit on his own sandals in disgust. Being good means taking the time to see through the words of wolves who would sell us a bitter pill while dressed as sheep. The system as it stands needs work, but not the kind of work that has been proposed. A great nation can do better. A good nation must do better.
My mother had the life of that young man delivered into her hands, and she chose to lift him up to a higher place despite the sacrifices she was forced to accept. Each of us holds the life and well-being of our neighbors in our hands. We can choose to lift each other up, or we can shrug and decide it isn't our problem. If we are indeed a community, if we are indeed good, we can make the choice to do that lifting.
Make the choice.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and 'The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.' Join the discussions at his blog forum.