Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Housing Projects and Life Insurance

When I was about eight years old, my father took me to a Chicago housing project. At the time, we were living in a nice suburb. My father was an insurance salesman for Bankers Life and Casualty, and for some reason, he was sent to a Chicago high rise project to sell, of all things, life insurance. Throughout my father’s 12-year stint with Bankers Life, he took me along with him several times, as he hopped from house to house, following lead after lead to sell insurance policies. Actually, I liked going with him. The customers would dote on me and offer me all kinds of treats as I watched my father explaining this policy from that policy.

It’s important to know something about Cabrini Green, the most notorious Chicago Housing Project, namely, that it was known nationally as a hub of high crime, most of it violent. I don’t understand why they called these things “Projects.” Since when do people find dwelling in something called a “project.” But if a name is warranted, then perhaps “experiment” would be better, bunching a lot of people, most them “underclass” and “unwanted,” in a single setting. This way, the unofficial theory goes, you gather all your problems in one place, which makes things easier in terms of police presence and unspoken property values in “special” neighborhoods. The projects are down. Years ago, detonations and wrecking balls brought down the horrendous things with a violence the project high rises were familiar with.

Of all the times I went to work with my father (God bless his soul with mercy), I remember most the housing project. As he spoke to the parents of a family there, I met some kids who asked me if I wanted to play. So about four of us went out on the balcony, way high in the sky. I’ve always had a fear of heights, but we played “hockey” on the concrete without giving any thought to the altitude. Our puck was the lid of a jar, and our hockey sticks were old brooms. There was only one goalie, whose shin pads were yellow foam cushions tied around his leg. The fun was amazing. I remember that day with remarkable clarity and with great warmth and gratitude. We a had wonderful time, mostly improvised. The un-improvised part was the unity of childhood: kids, not yet jaded, having a blast that lives on in our memories.

We have childhood for a reason. It’s not a cruel trick of life that we pine for our glory days, especially when we were kids and free of accountability. When we disallow the possibility of youth again, our memories and the nostalgia they create lead to momentary feelings of joy but then are slowly pushed aside by subtle melancholy and then we’re not sure where the down feelings are coming from. We pine and have memories because, for the believer in God, He created them for us, and, therefore, there’s a purpose beyond what the higher critics or what the fundamentalists of empiricism insist—memories evolved to help us survive in the urban Serengeti. We should remember how often we wish the clocks would turn back to a time when we had every right not to be responsible to carry adult problems that can reduce a man and woman to tears. When we face fear, injustice, betrayal, heart break, even financial woes, most people will remember a time when none of this mattered or even could have mattered. But this is not an act of sheer reminiscence, an intellectual safety valve or a shunt that prevents a blockage of thoughts or a breakdown of nervous systems, but part of a deeper yearning, located in all of us, for a different kind of life altogether in which innocence, freedom, no work, and great emotions come easy and stick around forever. It is in us, part of our fitra (the essence of our souls created uncorrupt and in a state of grace), not a trick but a glimpse of what is possible, but not now it seems, not in this adult world, a tumultuous crucible of tests and trials, of saints and villains.


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