Posted by: Mark Nielsen | April 9, 2009

Elijah on the El, Running Through the Rubble


The elevated train I am on is passing by Harry S. Truman College. It’s one of the City Colleges of Chicago, in one of the most economically depressed areas of the city (the Uptown neighborhood).

The “Y” on the end of Harry’s name is detached at the top of the fork, leaning forward oninously like it may fall off completely any day now, and it almost makes me cry.

Why? Because I’ve been grieving my nation’s messed-up priorities quite alot this Lenten season. Things fall apart. Then we rebuild new things next to them, in front of them, on top of them, with hardly a thought about whether the old was worth saving.  Colleges like Truman College –and the one where I teach as well– offer training (in theory), and a leg up, to people caught in a bind, left behind by a bottom-heavy capitalist system. But at this colleges, we cannot undo eighteen, or twenty eight, or forty eight years of bad educational experiences for most of our students. Ultimately, I think many of them are going to come out of school with a whole lot of loan debt and only a marginally better chance at a higher-paying job. So I suppose I don’t believe much in what I am doing, nor in my ability to help them. And I believe even less in the people I work for. And worst of all, perhaps I’m losing faith in myself… dying on the vine, so to speak.

Meanwhile here, at Truman College, the “Y” falls off the building, even as they are spending millions right next door — to erect an entire new wing of this old-school, entry level college for the city’s youth and working-class career-changers. Harry and Franklin are probably turning over in their graves over how lost we are as a nation.

Now, at the beginning of the Newer Deal, my nation has elected Barack Obama, a new sort of FDR and a new straight-talking, “buck stops here” Harry S. Truman type (or is that Biden?). Barack, no superhero, is now “on the job”, helping us to emerge from the ruins of several decades worth of bad economic decisionmaking. I have serious doubts. Not because of the man, or the plan, but because of how bad it’s gotten and our own unwillingness to change.

It’s been a helluva decade, I found myself thinking this morning. I am reading Jay McInerney’s 2006 novel The Good Life. A great book. About upscale malaise and dissatisfaction, lust, fear & existential dread among the Manhattan elite in post -9/11 New York.

I am not exactly like McInerney’s characters, but I do have pieces of all these mixed-motive upper-middle-class people within my own shadowed soul. I have a heady, too-smart-for-my-own-good poet/prophet wasting away within me, dying to come out and rip the world a new asshole for being so chaotic and screwed up.
Quiet fury.

That’s me. Always dreading the inevitable appearance of the next target, the next scapegoat for my own sins.


I take up two seats on the el: one for my own fat, self-satisfied ass, the other empty seat for my traveling companion Elijah (on this, the first day of Passover). Yet that grateful and forward-looking Elijah of Advent has been supplanted lately by weeping Jeremiah, he of the Lenten sack cloth, ashes, and deep painful grief. I have despair to spare, but little hope of improvement heading into this Easter weekend.


Who could blame me? I have lived bravely and stoically through the Lost Decade: when the WTC became the locus, the stillpoint of destruction, when the “markets” sold us out, even prior to the towers falling. Then we waged war on a straw-man enemy in Iraq, because somehow we knew the real enemies would be forever beyond our reach (given the methods and weapons we have chosen.)


Now, the cleanup. What will we find under the rubble of our imploded culture? What is worth saving and celebrating?


Meanwhile, back in the year One, on the other two thirds of the planet, it’s all about food, clothing, shelter. Anything else is gravy.


Survival of the fittest? Indeed.



  1. I understand the frustration, Mark. No facile answers from here. I just wanted you to know I’d read an empathized.

    • Thanks, Ruth. I was having a darker than usual day. Didn’t want to turn away from the uglies… but I don’t want to be overwhelmed by them either.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: