Cook: The Tower of idle

Cook: The Tower of idle

June 9th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

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.