published Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Cook: The Tower of idle

Before the basement fire that scattered them across the city, folks at Patten Towers did a lot of sitting. An awful, awful lot of sitting.

Every time I walked by -- spring, summer, winter or fall -- residents were outside, doing a whole lot of not much. Some stood, others smoked, most sat.

Me? I was usually rushing somewhere; late, late to a very important date, off quickly past the Towers and merging into the busyness and commerce that epitomize downtown.

Freeze-framing this moment -- a fast-walking me cruising right by a very stationary them -- shows the huge contrast between Towers residents and the city around them.

Work versus nonwork.

Busyness versus idleness.

On all sides of the Towers, our busy city hums: suit-and-tie executives. The powerful and their tall, shiny buildings. City Hall. Lawyers, middle management, the Jimmy John's delivery guys sprinting with their sandwiches, the young, hip crowd with their laptops and espresso.

In the midst of such movement, like the grasshopper to Aesop's busy ant, the Towers residents -- sit. The disabled next to the sick. The unemployed next to the mentally ill. The dealer next to the grandfather.

Yet, as if in the middle of one very large sit-in, the Towers residents practice an accidental form of civil disobedience. Without knowing it, they protest: their nonconforming idleness as resistance against our perpetual, frenetic, 70-hour workweeks.

Surrounded by our nonstopness, they don't do so much.

And that is why we resent them.

"What is work?" Bertrand Russell asked in his 1932 essay "In Praise of Idleness."

Work is good. We, as humans, are meant to sweat and labor. But here in the U.S., we work longer hours than perhaps the rest of the industrialized world. It is the trait we hold most dear. I work, therefore I am.

So if you don't work, your life has little value. You become undeserving, which explains why we've been slow to donate to local agencies helping displaced Towers residents.

But Towers residents are the consequences of the utilitarian side of capitalism. You can't have so many millionaires and so much corporate power without also having the under- and unemployed. They are the shadow side of our scenic city, the castaways, the ones the gods of business chew up and spit out.

They don't work, can't work, won't work. (Yet many are incredibly generous). Some are broken. Some have failed. Some are addicted. Some are lazy. Some are lost.

You know what? So am I. Maybe even you, too.

"Pay attention to the things that anger you," a teacher once told me. "There, you can learn a lot about yourself."

Every time I hustled by, the residents were silently asking me to acknowledge some part of myself I'd rather not notice.

Put it this way: when was the last time you sat still for half a day? Visited with your neighbors, watched the clouds go by, or just sat ... and breathed? When was the last time you honored the Sabbath? Why do we crucify the part of our spirit that craves stillness? (Be still, Christ said.)

Is all this work making us any happier?

How do we treat the part of ourselves that is messy, broken and distraught?

The Towers residents -- they're not scared of poverty, or the gutters of life -- have a power that is able to remind us of the part of ourselves that we'd rather hustle past.

By paying attention to them, we can begin to make peace with certain parts of the human condition that we'd rather gentrify, ignore or displace.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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AndrewLohr said...

Life beat up Tower residents and left them by the road to nowhere. Mr Cook walked on by, and now blames "so many millionaires and so much corporate power"? Aww, people need connections, and by offering its own massive fraudulent version of smaller connections, government destroys many of the connections that help. Parents get together and hire a teacher for a one-room all-grades schoolhouse, everyone's connected. County collects taxes and tells you where the school bus stop is, much less so.

June 9, 2013 at 1:08 a.m.
DJHBRAINERD said...

Nice article Mr Cook. Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man's wisdom is despised and his words are not heard. Ecclesiastes 9: 16 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity 12:7-8 I believe these two quotes dovetail nicely with the theme of your piece. Witnessing many at the end of their days the same few themes always surface. I wish I had spent more time with my family. I wish I hadn't worked so hard and bought so many things. I should have been happier, nicer, smiled more. I don't hear I wish I had bought a bigger house nicer car had more things. For this is all vanity. Money vs time, that is the choice facing each of us, so choose time, because tomorrow is promised to no one.

June 9, 2013 at 11:49 a.m.
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