Thursday, January 29, 2009

Frozen Hearts

In the past few days, two separate incidents of indifference and inhumanity in the face of death have caught the attention of the media.

The first is the case of Marvin Schur, the 93-year-old veteran who froze to death inside his home:

BAY CITY, Mich. (AP) — When neighbors went inside Marvin Schur's house, the windows were frosted over, icicles hung from a faucet, and the 93-year-old World War II veteran lay dead on the bedroom floor in a winter jacket over four layers of clothing.

He froze to death — slowly and painfully, authorities say — days after the electric company installed a power-limiting device because of more than $1,000 in unpaid bills.

The old man's sad end two weeks ago has led to outrage, soul-searching and a resolve never to let something like this happen again. [...]

On Jan. 13, a worker with the city-owned utility installed a "limiter" on Schur's electric meter after four months of unpaid bills. The device restricts power and blows like a fuse if usage rises past a set level. Electricity is not restored until the device is flipped back on by the homeowner, who must walk outside to the meter.

Bay City Electric Light & Power did not contact Schur face-to-face to notify him of the device and explain how it works, instead following its usual policy by leaving a note on the door. But neighbors said Schur rarely, if ever, left the house in the cold. [...]

Bay City Manager Robert Belleman said that he was "deeply saddened" by Schur's death and that State Police will investigate. But he also said neighbors have a responsibility to each other.

"I've said this before and some of my colleagues have said this: Neighbors need to keep an eye on neighbors," Belleman said. "When they think there's something wrong, they should contact the appropriate agency or city department."

It's the attitude of Bay City Electric Light & Power that is so terrible in all of this. The neighbors did know Schur--and knew better than to expect to see him outside in such terrible weather, with temperatures dropping into the single digits. Schur's nephew knew Schur usually paid his bills on time and had plenty of money, too--but the nephew, who lived in Florida, apparently had no idea his uncle had missed four utility payments. Only the utility company was in a position to know that anything was wrong, and their approach, to install a limiter without explaining how it would work at the home of a nonagenarian without making the slightest attempt to see or speak to a man who had paid all of his bills without fail until just a few months ago, ended up being fatal to Mr. Schur. But the power company blames the neighbors.

The second case, in some ways, is worse. If you're sensitive, don't click this link to the essay; there's a photo of the body of the homeless man frozen in ice in the basement of an abandoned building--and left there and ignored, until reporter Charlie LeDuff got involved:

It starts with a phone call made by a man who said his friend found a dead body in the elevator shaft of an abandoned building on the city's west side.

"He's encased in ice, except his legs, which are sticking out like Popsicle sticks," the caller phoned to tell this reporter.

Why didn't your friend call the police?"

"He was trespassing and didn't want to get in trouble," the caller replied. As it happens, the caller's friend is an urban explorer who gets thrills rummaging through and photographing the ruins of Detroit. It turns out that this explorer last week was playing hockey with a group of other explorers on the frozen waters that had collected in the basement of the building. None of the men called the police, the explorer said. They, in fact, continued their hockey game.

Before calling the police, this reporter went to check on the tip, skeptical of a hoax. Sure enough, in the well of the cargo elevator, two feet jutted out above the ice. Closer inspection revealed that the rest of the body was encased in 2-3 feet of ice, the body prostrate, suspended into the ice like a porpoising walrus.

The hem of a beige jacket could be made out, as could the cuffs of blue jeans. The socks were relatively clean and white. The left shoe was worn at the heel but carried fresh laces. Adding to the macabre and incongruous scene was a pillow that gently propped up the left foot of the corpse. It looked almost peaceful. [...]

Convinced that it was indeed a body, this reporter made a discreet call to a police officer.

"Aw, just give 911 a call," the cop said. "We'll be called eventually."

A call was placed to 911. A woman answered. She was told it was a reporter calling. The operator tried to follow, but seemed confused. "Where is this building?"

She promised to contact the appropriate authorities.

Twenty minutes or so went by when 911 called the newsroom. This time it was a man.

"Where's this building?"

It was explained to him, as was the elevator shaft and the tomb of ice.

"Bring a jack-hammer," this reporter suggested.

"That's what we do," he said.

Nearly 24 hours went by. The elevator shaft was still a gaping wound. There was no crime scene tape. The homeless continued to burn their fires. City schoolchildren still do not have the necessary books to learn. The train station continues to crumble. Too many homicides still go unsolved.

After another two calls to 911 on Wednesday afternoon (one of which was disconnected), the Detroit Fire Department called and agreed to meet nearby.

Capt. Emma McDonald was on the scene.

"Every time I think I've seen it all, I see this," she said.

People went by this body for some time, and knew it was there. Most of them were homeless, trying not to become frozen corpses themselves, living on the streets of Detroit in winter. Some were not, but didn't call the police, either--or if they did, the response was like the first response to LeDuff's phone call--just call 911, said the police, and then somewhere along the way the ball was dropped. And nobody seemed to care.

Both of these people, Mr. Schur and the homeless man, were created in the image and likeness of God. But in our materialist culture that's an old-fashioned belief; to a materialist, both men were merely carbon, and not particularly valuable in any intrinsic way. Without a family support system, without one person nearby to whom either of these men were in any way important, both were simply left to die alone in the freezing cold. In the case of Mr. Schur, at least there is some public outrage; in the case of the homeless man in Detroit, though, there will probably be little more than an addition to a list of sad statistics.

How long does it take to freeze the heart of a nation? How many years of exalted individualism, idolized material prosperity, and the smug surety that one's own merits have gained one a comfortable and successful life does it take before a people begins to look on the unfortunate and tragic as being somehow deserving of their pain and suffering? How many years past a shared moral vision before the citizens of a country begin to have that curious blind spot that shrugs at stories like these, and thinks, "They should have been more careful, more wealthy, more popular, like me," blaming the victims and distancing themselves from such privation and hardship and even death?

1 comment:

KC said...

My heart breaks for these people. How very sad.