Let me tell you about my son, Gordon. He may be what you would term a ‘special-needs’ kid in today’s vernacular, but if you only knew the extent to which I look to him as a role-model…
Gordon, you see, doesn’t know how to fight. Oh, he’s trained with me for years, has got a couple of inches on me, and is built like a horse. But except for constant spars and spats with his younger brother, Gordon has no understanding of human conflict. Not that he’s got no talent for it, but he has no understanding of it. I can see him sometimes, trying hard to process what he hears on the news or sees in the headlines. And in today’s world, as you can imagine, it’s pretty much a full-time job for the boy; trying to figure out what all the harm grownups inflict upon one another each day is all about.
We’ve wondered for years, his mother, his various therapists, and I, just how complex his thinking patterns might be. He doesn’t seem to be capable of disappointment (beyond not getting the sneakers he wants, that is). That is, disappointment in the larger sense, as in disappointment in the animosity between his mother and I in the years leading up to our separation, disappointment in most anything he’s ever learned from history books or current events, disappointment that adult human beings seem incapable of working out their issues without harshness and horror and hurt.
It’s a holy blessing in my life that he’s beyond (not beneath, mind you) taking sides in human conflict, but it’s a bigger blessing that he’s beyond judging the Human Race for the extent to which we seem to indulge in it like vicious schoolyard kids.
This is some of what was on my mind as I walked carefully through the three or four dreadfully unplowed sidewalks and icy streets between my apartment building on Liberty Street and the last [Bloomfield] Town Council meeting. Wanted to get there early and get a good seat, like in those first-come, first-serve restaurants or theatres. This one promised to fill up quickly.
Well of course, the meeting lived up to its billing. If you even have a cursory idea of what the current issues are between the Mayor, the Council and the Bloomfield Police Department, it’s unions and in fact, the greater Jersey-wide rank-and-file of those unions, then you know what I’m talking about.
Ladies and gentlemen, this was the kind of Town Council meetings I used to hear about before I started attending Town Council meetings. It was clear from the get-go that the next-day’s ratings for blogposts and Facebook posts were going to be through the roof. Oscar-sized. Olympic-sized. Super Bowl-sized. Jimmy Fallon-sized.
I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, because this was the real life of my town, unfurling before my eyes, and some things you just don’t want to hear about second-hand.
The real life of my town. But here’s the thing about real life in a (relatively) small town. You walk into the Council Chambers, and you see buddies of yours up on the Council dais. The room starts filling with first-responders of one kind or another, and you know you’ve got good buddies among them too. Eventually the rest of the breathing-space in the room fills to the brim with your neighbors of one opinion or another, and there’s plenty of buddies there too; people you’ve shared time and conversation with, who you’ve helped or who’ve helped you with this and that.
Real life in a small town, you see, means that sometimes it’s entirely possible to have buddies on both sides of an argument. Entirely possible.
Sometimes it can be important to just show up. Like the parable of the loaves and fishes, one or two multiplying to nourish the crowds, It’s a tiny thing that means a lot, showing up. Means a lot to all of your buddies on both sides of an argument and all points in between.
Otherwise, what do you do? Looking around, you see people who aren’t clapping at all one way or another; keeping their personal opinions to themselves. While others are hooting out loud, like it was one of those British Parliamentary sessions you catch on C-Span sometimes.
I wasn’t afraid to clap for the many points well-made up at the podium. Dreading podiums and microphones (though finding myself unavoidably in front of them from time to time) I recognize how difficult it can be to stand toe-to-toe with one, trying to articulate your passion. So that’s worth applauding, too.
I’m certainly not without opinions of my own. And I love a good fight on the field or in the ring. But bloodsport of words between adults that I know always reminds me of my parents bickering and raising their voices when I was a kid. And makes me imagine what it must’ve felt like for my kids to grow up hearing that same kind of unavoidable conflict between their mother and me.
So in the midst of heated argument over right, wrong, politics and (of course) money, I try to keep my eyes on the prize: how would I explain this animosity and vitriol between adults to my son Gordon, if I had to? Even if I never had to.
Every so often, I’d let my eyes drift around the room. Over the heads and voices of my friends and neighbors, to the tall ceilings and architectural details. Nice paint job. Nice gold-leafing on the capitals. The flags, the old clock, the Seals of State. A room of real dignity, no matter what overheated proceedings it might contain now and then.
Where I grew up, far away from here, we had no such room. Growing up in a municipality of sorts, all local decisions were made elsewhere. And without Mayor, Council, or Chambers in which to congregate and air our views, the place I grew up in lost its identity as a place at all. I go back there now, for family or holidays, and it’s scarcely recognizable.
‘It’s not like it used to be’. Doesn’t everybody say that about the places they value? I hear it all the damned time, almost no matter where I happen to be, and I’m sure you do too.
The fact is, you can stand in the center of the prettiest town in America, and sooner or later you’ll hear someone say the same thing: ‘It’s not like it used to be.’
None of the places we live are like some kind of town in a high school play, and probably never were. We’ve all got crime, we’ve all got arguments, we’ve all got decreasing resources and increasing needs, too much snow, not enough salt, that kind of thing. And we’ve all got opinions of what’s good, bad, right and wrong. All of us, every single one.
But we’ve got this room, these Council Chambers. And if you let your eyes wander around it like I did from time to time last night, taking in the age and heritage of it, you’re likely to be reminded, as I was, that this Room is older than anyone sitting up on the council dais, older than anyone sitting down in the audience or standing out in the hallway. These Chambers and all they stand for, are older and greater than anything we’re celebrating or arguing about this week or next week or any time thereafter. And God-willing, will outlive us all.
More than any individual person or party or cause, this Room symbolizes our ability as citizens of the Township of Bloomfield to congregate with our neighbors, to stand and represent and make our passions and dissents known.
Or just show up, if we so desire. And in so doing, show our heartfelt support of, not one side or another but our common way of life, where these opinions are both possible and expressible.
I think I was applauding for that last night, as much as anything else.
When I sit in the Chambers, whether to make a case or to just show up, I look around at the Room itself. One of Bloomfield’s best-kept secrets, it reminds me constantly of why I value living here.
There”s another thing that makes me value living here in Bloomfield. You see, as a fitness trainer I certainly think the world of kids’ sport’s programs. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that some of my buddies and neighbors up on the Council dais, out in the audience, in-or-out of uniform, got their first, best lessons in camaraderie, brotherhood and looking out for one another on the sports fields of their youth.
Now think what you want about Facebook, but it was there, just this past week, that I found out about another of Bloomfield’s best-kept secrets.
It is the Special Olympics ‘Bengals’ basketball program. Believing in the power of ‘just showing up’, and always showing my sons the best that Bloomfield has to offer, we did just that. Showed up to see these kids power-up in a tournament at Montclair State University’s athletic facilities.
They were tremendous; all heart and spirit, wearing the Red and Black with ‘Bengals’ on their shirts, representing our town to teams from all over New Jersey.
But as opposed to most other High School sports, there were no crowds there; just a few parents, nothing more. And of course, that ain’t right.
If you’ve ever competed on a field, you know the way it feels when there’s a crowd, the way it lights a fire inside of you and rockets you to your best. Well multiply that; because while we don’t want to treat ‘special-needs’ kids as if they’re different than us, in fact they are. Like my son Gordon, their hearts are twice the size of ours.
We should show up and show our support. We might have to drive far-afield though, because for some reason, there doesn’t seem to be a space in any Bloomfield facility for these kids to play out their season. MSU last week, Wayne Hills next week, these hard-working Bengals have to play all their games away from home, like the football teams had to do back in the dark days when Foley Field was still an unusable wasteland. I don’t know why that is, but it’s worth looking into.
Think of what it would mean to the kids on this Special Olympics basketball team, what it would mean to their families if a crowd of total strangers, neighbors, an elected official here, a school-board member there, anyone at all from the brotherhood of first-responders, just showed up. For no other reason than to see a good game and to cheer on the kids who are representing our Town. For no other reason than we’d like to believe that in Bloomfield, there are no ‘total strangers’!
Showing up. It’s that miracle of the ‘loaves and fishes’ again; the little thing that means so much. Somewhere in that same Good Book it says something to the effect of ‘That which you do for the least of them, you do for Me’.
But these kids are in no way the least of us. They are magnificent and hard-working, all heart and spirit. They’re our kids, our neighbors’ kids, and they wear the Red and Black, representing what is best in us, and in this Town.
They’re ‘BENGALS’. And they deserve all the support we can give them.
Just show up.