The Sound of Invisibility

Working in law enforcement for nearly two decades I’ve seen a lot of things. Most don’t warrant elaboration. More to the point, much of what I’ve seen would be neither pleasant to read about nor pleasant for me to describe. Even so, I am frequently struck by the pattern of things I routinely encounter. Poverty. If there is one overarching feature of my work, it is the din of abject poverty. 

I use the term “din” with intent. Poverty is often loud. We’ve all heard the phrase “suffering in silence.” In my experience, a lot of the suffering is done aloud… out loud… loudly. 

I spend a great deal of time in the company of people who literally have nothing. Home is a temporary construct. Food, clothing, shoes, all exist as near luxuries. Order is as fleeting as the breeze. 

Over forty years ago, the eminent policing scholar, Egon Bittner, wrote about the residents of “Skid Row,” a term probably unfamiliar to many younger people. Skid Row was a place through which the dislocated and detached members of society ebbed and flowed. 

As Bittner describes, “The fact that present whereabouts, activities, and affiliations imply neither continuity nor direction means that life on skid row lacks a socially structured background of accountability… every moment is an accident.” This leads to what Bittner terms “radically reduced visibility.” 

The fetter of a predictable address, steady resources for living and all the other niceties most of us take for granted are absent. As these things recede, so too, do the patterns that mark middle class life. The patterns that emerge in their place are far messier.

Bittner’s words were directed at a place and time that seems almost quaint. The people he writes about remind me of Popeye’s friend Wimpy, who cajoled and bargained for the perpetual free lunch. 

The ghettoization and marginalization of modern American poverty isn’t quite so charming. There are few benign beggars with bowler hats and neckties but there are thousands of people whose lives are unimaginable to most of us. 

If not weekly, regularly, I go into a home with no working toilet – maybe no water period. No heat or air conditioning. No working overhead lights. Nothing in the refrigerator is remotely edible. Omnipresent filth, vermin, mold, garbage and disorder bombard every sensation a body can experience. You never sit on the furniture. You never touch anything with a bare hand. If you could just hold your breath the entire time, you would.

Life is cheap here. Since this year began, nearly a dozen young men have lost their lives over the most trivial and stupid of petty grudges, territorial squabbles and reputational slights that absolutely nobody else would give one tenth of a damn about. 

As the latest body cools, my coworkers and I swoop in to inspect the carnage, interview witnesses who “saw nothing” and technocratically assemble a case against whoever the villain of the moment happens to be. 

You never think you’ll become inured of mournful wailing and pools of blood, but you do. You must.

You never think you’ll become inured of mournful wailing and pools of blood, but you do. You must. The humanity of all involved is greatly reduced in these moments: The victims and their families for the unwitting choices that led here; and the police for the bureaucratic and mechanistic way these matters must be processed. 

Perhaps if this scene took place once a decade, the human dimension of it would attach, but in a world where cops ask each other questions like, “Now, which homicide is that…?” human dignity is the second casualty. 

When I am off-duty, all I really want is quiet. Unfortunately, I happen to live near the epicenter of the local carnage. Far enough away to be reasonably certain of my safety, close enough to hear the endless noise and chaos.

The same fools whose corpse I’ll study in a month or two, drive by my house with their stereos thundering and rattling. Their old cars sit on big wheels that make them look absurd and unwieldy. They drive fast, recklessly and with no regard for anything save for their own path. 

Pedestrians yell at one another from opposite ends of the street. Even people walking side-by-side will “talk” to each other at a volume where their conversation is plainly heard from my second-floor office. 

In these moments I think back to Bittner’s “radically reduced visibility.” It’s not that life “on the skids” reduces visibility as much as it reduces materiality. These people are woefully aware of their tenuous hold on life. They understand their exclusion and marginality, even if they can’t articulate it. 

I have come to view their noise as the subconscious howl of people whose captivity affords them only one freedom – the freedom to be loud. They have so little agency in most other spheres of life, only their capacity to make noise proves they exist. 

If one has any human feeling, it’s hard not to want better for these souls. I know it paints me poorly, but I find this sympathy (empathy) increasingly difficult to summon after a night of looking for spent shell casings and searching for clues. 

Their ugliness intrudes upon what tiny bit of solace I try to eke out between attending their tragedies. If I ask them to be quiet, I am the bad guy, the racist… the whatever I have to be to justify their “right” to disrupt every waking second of my life. 

What then is the answer? The easiest answer for me would be to leave… to move far away from all their damnable noise, chaos and disorder. 

I’ve spent most of my adult life in this house, on this corner, trying to do something positive and productive. Why, then should I also bear the cost of leaving? Surely, I don’t owe them that, too?

Lastly, I know many readers will be inclined to chastise me for my unacknowledged “privilege” and middle-class bias. To those who are so inclined, I would remind you that the blood stains on my pants leg aren’t from a hedge trimming accident. I don’t have nightmares because my golf game has declined. My starkly white hair and rough visage beyond my years aren’t fashion choices. 

My vantage on this world isn’t from the suburban cheap seats. It’s center court, right where all the fouls are in plain view. 

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