Volume 3, Issue 13: In a Future Age
"Let's turn our prayers into outrageous dares."
|Will Leitch||May 30, 2020|| 5|
My uncle Mike died six years ago. It was a lonely death. His longtime partner Dave, known as “Uncle Dave” to me forever, had died a few years earlier, and Mike spiraled afterward. The two men had been inseparable since they’d met in the early ‘80s in Chicago, when they’d become business partners while Dave was married with two children and, shortly thereafter, lovers. (For a couple of years, to keep the children’s lives stable, the three adults lived and slept in the same bed together, which I have to tell you was very confusing to a nine-year-old at Christmas gatherings.) The two of them eventually moved to Philadelphia and built a thriving advertising business, with Mike designing and drawing campaigns and Dave writing the ad copy. They were with each other 24 hours a day for 30 years, and you said their names together, Mikeanddave, like they were the same person. They were my only family when I moved to New York in January 2000, and every time I visited, they’d feed me, get me drunk and tell me all the old stories about my parents that I was just getting old enough to at last appreciate. I loved them like crazy.
Mike’s life fell apart quickly after Dave died from a brain tumor in February 2012. His finances exploded, and his drinking got out of control. My last visit with him was highly unpleasant for both of us; it’s difficult to even think about sometimes. And then he died, which I now realize had surely been his plan from the minute Dave passed. Neither he nor Dave wanted a funeral, and he hadn’t made any end-of-life plans, so my mother and my uncle Ron had to settle all his affairs in the weeks afterward. It was a mess. Everything had fallen apart, dissolved, and when he was gone, untangling all the knots Mike had made of his life at the end became a full-time job.
But the biggest job was cleaning up their apartment. Neither Mike nor Dave had been particularly tidy in the best of times, and by the end, their home had collapsed into madness. One of the biggest jobs my mom and uncle had to deal with was selling their home, and it required a massive cleanup project. I had spent many wonderful evenings in that home, and I’d never gotten a funeral to say goodbye, so I flew to Philadelphia to help Mom and Ron excavate the last remnants of a life.
The place was a disaster. There were boxes and trash and pill bottles everywhere. There was food in the fridge that had expired the previous year. They’d smoked four packs a day their entire lives, and the ceilings were stained brown and tarred. One closet had a bird’s nest in it. I found an old trunk in a side room stacked to the top with discarded toupees and pornographic magazines. The place looked like a bomb had gone off.
So we got a mop and got to work. The three of us spent a long weekend there tossing just about everything we could find in a trash bag, scrubbing the floors and ceilings, hauling off dumpsters, painting over years over neglect and decay, trying to make the place livable … trying to make it a home again. And there was purpose, even purity in the work: Cleaning was a way not just to transform the wreck, but a way to honor Mike’s and Dave’s lives—one last way to say goodbye. It was incredibly sad, not just to mourn them but also to lament how badly things had gone at the end. But there was hope in the labor. To see such destruction and to attempt to rebuild is to believe in a future, to not give into the helplessness of their last days. It felt like a way, a small way, to make things better. When we were done, we were exhausted, and really quite disgusting. But it felt right. It felt like we’d made a place someone could live again. It was how we moved forward.
I don’t know who lives there now. They’ve perhaps made their own mess. Someone will someday clean that up too. They’ll keep moving forward. It’s the only direction to go.
The morning after a night like last night, in which tens of thousands of people, exhausted by the helplessness, the futility, the pure avarice of hundreds of years of being stomped on and torn asunder, took to the streets in rage and despair, I find myself looking to the people today picking up the pieces.
Similar efforts are going on in Brooklyn, Portland, Louisville and all across the country this morning, volunteers, just everyday people coming out of their homes, seeing their neighborhoods and communities devastated and doing their part to make it better. There is a determination involved that seems independent of the circumstances; there is not a head-shaking, tongue-clucking judgment of what happened the night before. If anything, in most cases that cleanup is being taken up by those most sympathetic to those standing up to injustice, which makes sense: Both protest and cleanup are rooted in the same foundational principle: I care about where I live and want to make it better.
I am wary of the tendency to grandstand on what’s happening right now. Not only am I a white 40something male from central Illinois, with all the institutional blindspots, privileges and unconscious biases that come with that, I can't help but notice that a signature feature of those who constantly claim to be “listening” and “trying to learn” is that they can’t seem to stop talking. That’s a mistake I will try not to repeat here. The rage people feel is one I can understand but cannot, by definition, viscerally share, so I can just only show my support, mourn for the families of George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and so many others, do what I can to try to make a difference in my own daily life, beware of those who might try to exacerbate conflict for their own divisive ends and otherwise shut the hell up.
But one thing I know good people everywhere share is the desire to keep moving forward. Some people are outwardly political, some people are private, some people speak out on social media, some people put in the blocking and tackling in their own communities on a daily basis. But we are all dealing with pain. We are all knocked down, and discouraged, and sometimes, particularly lately, the world just feels as if it is too much to bear. But we keep lurching forward, nevertheless.
When something is broken, we fix it. When someone is hurt, we help them. When something spills, we mop it up. There are failures, institutional failures, of lifting people up on a societal level that are long overdue to be addressed. But on a personal level, people help each other. One of the many frustrations of this particular time in history is that we routinely spotlight the worst aspects of humanity to give the illusion that those aspects are a bigger part of our daily lives than they really are. We allow the shittiest people to dominate the conversation, and it just divides us further. It’s no wonder people want to burn it all down. It’s hard not to want to sometimes.
But we do all still have to live here. We have an obligation, a duty, to improve. We’ve all been handed a mess. Each of us has to account our own personal contribution to that mess. But the most important thing we can do with the mess is clean it up. To honestly face what confronts us, to roll up our sleeves, to put on a beaten-up pair of sweatpants we won’t miss, to get down and dirty at the business of cleaning it up. There will be more messes after we clean up this one; the people who live in Mike and Dave’s old house surely have wrecked the place in their own ways at this point. But to clean up is an act of hope. There is clarity in this belief that it can be better. Whether or not we’ll just make another mess is besides the point; we surely will, after all. The best you can do is clean up what’s in front of you, right now. To put in the work. To do the best you can. It can feel overwhelming. It can feel helpless. But messes are made to be cleaned up. It starts with picking up a mop.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
You Can Keep Fans Out of the Stands, But You Can’t Keep Them Away, New York. You think those Ozark bro swimming videos went viral? Wait until Bills fans start tailgating.
I Did an Interview With a Right-Wing Media Watchdog Site and All I Got Out of It Was This Lousy T-Shirt, The First. Actually, I enjoyed this conversation.
Baseball Year in Review: 1990, MLB.com. All I remember from this year are the Sabo Goggles.
The Thirty: Great Seasons by Otherwise Unremarkable Players, MLB.com. I look forward to someone doing a “great newsletters by otherwise unremarkable writers” piece.
Grierson & Leitch, two new movies, The Lovebirds and The Trip to Greece. Also, we rebooted Point Break, which has inspired Grierson and me to go skydiving together.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
LAUGH THAT I NEEDED THIS WEEK
In honor of the NBA (maybe) getting back soon, here is the time that J.R. Smith saw his friend Jason Terry in the stands, walked over to say hi to him and forgot he was in the game.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
The weekly schedule is becoming quite efficient in the pandemic. Send 'em:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“No One Knows,” Queens of the Stone Age. I am an absolute sucker for little kid drummers on rock songs.
I was deeply saddened, in the midst of everything else, to learn of the closing of Foley’s in New York, a baseball bar that was also the host of the Cardinals Fans in NYC group I helped run for a decade. I basically lived there every October in NYC, and I never missed dropping by the place once I moved. Everything is always changing and falling apart.
One last Foley’s memory: The exact moment the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series. Halfway through, you can find me, screaming and high-fiving like a guy who just, well, like a guy who just watched his team win the World Series. I did not know this video existed until Friday. The joy it provides me is gonna have to last a long time.
Have a great weekend, everyone. Hang in there. We can do it.