Friday, January 07, 2011

Message in a Bottle

January 7th, 2011

Today at work I received a remarkable letter in one of our Business Reply Mail envelopes, having nothing to do with our work:

The original is writtten in blue ink on a torn and ragged piece of paper, on both sides.  I transcribe it as follows:

Alexander Gardner
General Delivery
San Francisco, CA 94142

I got problems and I
got 13 1/2 years in
California state prison
having hard time
ajusting feet to        [adjusting?  feel?]
kill myself        Can'nt
deal to much

I got problems
to much Problem
all problems

Alexander Gardner
General Delivery
S.F. CA 94142

                   I was instantly struck with a certain melancholy, for the fragility of our lives and minds, of our fortune and our ability to cope and thrive.  This Alexander Gardner is marooned on the drifting, sinking hulk of the derelict freighter of his life; he has lost all his lifeboats, and his ability to attack his problems has been reduced to this desperate, inarticulate appeal to anyone in America - to some random office worker in an obscure charity - for no specific help; no pitch or spiel, just a shout into the darkness as the waves wash over the rusting carcass of the boat. He's looking at thirteen and a half years as a guest of the State of California, and when he gets out, will he be any better off? Is the State investing anything in training this poor guy for anything useful?  If they did, is he capable of improving himself in any case?
                   I know of no way I personally can help this man.  The world is full of people with even less in the way of personal ability, who cannot cope, land in jail, lose their health and their teeth and the little money they had.  Something went wrong very early on in their lives, and their downfall, gradual or sudden, makes us insecure, and calls our basic dignity as conscious beings into question.  Every week I see beggars standing at the off-ramp holding signs, usually much better written than this letter.  Most typical is something simple, like:


                    I'm sure this sign causes us to cough up a certain amount of cash in a day; we have no sure way of knowing what that man's life is really like.  But I feel fairly certain that Alexander Gardner is sincere, desperate, and essentially incompetent, and that there is no one on this earth willing to really give a rat's ass about this one man.  The human condition is boiled down to its essentials in this single instance, and reveals a flash of terrifying blankness underlying all.

GĂ©ricault's Raft of the Medusa, 1819

                  Kind of makes me lose interest in Lindsay Lohan's problems, ya know? 

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