This Is Not What We Mean By Community Engagement

So, as you probably noticed, my hometown was in the news this past week for heartbreaking reasons; a lone gunman committed a terrorist act last Tuesday, setting off smoke grenades and opening fire with a semiautomatic handgun inside a subway car at the 36th Street station in Brooklyn.  By some miracle, nobody was killed, but ten people were shot, seventeen more were injured, and the gunman was at large in the city for over a day afterwards.  Whatever hard-won peace we’d gotten after coming through the pandemic (which still isn’t over yet c’mon everybody) was violated, as we were plunged into fear and chaos once again.

Thing of it is, though, New York is a very big city.  (I have a gift for understatement, I know.) And it’s a resilient city.  Even in the face of our worst catastrophes, life goes on.  And depending on where in the city you happen to be, and what you might be doing, something momentous could be happening a few blocks away and it wouldn’t necessarily affect you.  You might not even notice.

Not this time.

I live off the D line, one of the three subway lines that go through the station where the attack occurred.  I was just arriving at my own station, further south in Brooklyn, when train service along that line was shut down in response.  It would still be a while before any of us learned precisely what had happened, and realized the enormity of the situation, so at that moment it was simply a transit problem to solve.  In order to solve it, I had to walk a few blocks to catch a bus to Coney Island, so I could catch the Q train there (that line experienced delays as a result of all this, but was otherwise unaffected), and take that all the way to my day job on the Upper East Side.  It was an odyssey, to be sure, but hardly anything to complain about under the circumstances, and I’ve certainly endured worse.  So it just took me an extra hour or so to get into Manhattan to start my day – which, after my day job, involved me heading to Theatre 80, to serve as co-host for that evening’s Tuesdays at Nine reading.

And Theatre 80 sits on the corner of First Avenue and Saint Mark’s place, in the Lower East Side – which is where the gunman was arrested, the following afternoon.

Just a few yards away.

The Tuesday night readings – the only live performance outlet I’ve had during this whole pandemic, my primary way of socializing with my peers – have been one of my main lifelines throughout the past few years.  Most of our members feel the same way, I think.  And it was a particularly cathartic night – we’d all been processing the day’s events, we all needed to gather together and unwind in the company of each other’s words.  (Which included mine that evening – we wound up presenting some of my own pages.)  We stayed into the wee hours, carousing after the reading, in defiance of the chaos around us.

And that chaos wound up coming within steps of where we’d been, only a few hours afterward. I’m fine.  We’re all doing fine – or at least as well as can be expected, under the circumstances.  But those circumstances keep coming closer and closer to home.  In my opening remarks on Tuesdays, I always exhort writers to engage with the world around them.  I just wish the world wasn’t trying so damn hard to engage with us.

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