A theatre history teacher in Miami begins all of her classes by saying, “Death is all around us.” And I suppose it always is. But when we inhabit the modern world, its inherent order, its many rules that codify our behavior, that lead a city to flow like a machine because we are programmed into it, implicitly stopping at every red light and seeking the help of cops and judges instead of relatives with guns (for the most part anyways) - all these restrictions and limitations bred into our freedom of choice over action prevent an array of deaths that would otherwise result in the increasingly complex landscape of urban life. Likewise, health and safety codes further deter us from getting electrocuted, poisoned, trapped in a burning building, buried under the rubble of a poorly erected house; and our first responders are centralized, well-organized and efficient, our hospitals unnaturally clean and full of specialists just waiting for your appendix to burst, your heart to fail.
But this city - despite all its urban complexities - is not yet a manifestation of modernity; it is a model of a world in transition, of a world trying to transition. Modernity did not grow up in Santo Domingo like it did in the United States and Western Europe; it was recently imported. And so, we have mostly pre-modern personalities operating modern tools living in an environment that’s somewhere in between both worlds. That means that all these brains - not reared for the order and structure demanded by modern technology - are nonetheless driving motor vehicles and using electricity. Traffic lights, when they are working, are just a loose suggestion; road directionality is a norm not a requirement (If you only have to back up along the shoulder for half a kilometer, why would you drive two kilometers to make a U-turn and then have to drive back?); only physical impediments, like traffic, a rocky road or the power of your car’s engine, serve to limit speed; light switches are a luxury; and powering your house requires nothing more than a couple of wires and a ladder. It really is very funny.
Until a woman crossing an interstate in pitch-black-night gets smashed into by a motorcycle driving at full speed with a broken headlight. Just one example of the daily combination of modern and pre-modern elements with deadly consequences. Even if you decided to operate a motorcycle with a broken headlight on an interstate in a modernized country, you’d probably encounter painted lines, reflectors and streetlamps. But there’s none of that here, even though this incident happened on the most major of all roads - the Autopista Duarte that leads north from the Capital. It’s also a rare and shocking event in a modernized country to find people walking along or crossing a major highway. But people live all along the highway here; they set up their small businesses along it on the off-chance that someone wealthy enough to own a car will stop to buy a coconut or a beer; their communities are bisected by that business-bringer, and they must cross it regularly to visit each other and transport goods - all along the Pista, 2 hours up from Santo Domingo.
This woman actually managed to survive, but the accident, like all of them, marked the beginning not the totality of her trauma. Even if she did have a cell phone, and doubly fortunate enough to have reception, there’s no emergency infrastructure to contact. There are no ambulances waiting to pick her up - not even a 911 center to call. Instead she had to be loaded on the very motorcycle that hit her and taken to a substandard medical center, where they couldn’t figure out how to stop the blood that kept spilling out of her ears. And that’s the last I heard.
Death here is as sudden and violent as it’s been since the beginning of life. From our Western vantage point, we see a clear division between life in a state of nature and life in a civilized society. But that distinction is not so obvious here; the chaos blinds, the view is messier.
Furthermore, the disjointed communities of modern societies - that remain after the deterioration of traditional local ties - keep us from hearing about quite a number of deaths; is it all that infeasible to imagine a neighbor dying while you’re at work or asleep and an ambulance scooping her up without your knowledge? Rather, our familiarity with death seems more closely connected to the objectifications of news reports - as sterile as our funerals, as sanitized as an embalmed corpse. However omnipresent it might really be, we instead touch death only when it touches someone close to us; and thus only see death as a once in a while occurrence.
But minutes after a mentally disturbed twelve year old orphan girl hangs herself in the shower, everyone knows and no one is shocked; and when a man hacks up his wife and her lover and then shoots himself - well there’s nothing surprising about that; nor is it distressing to hear about a man holding an uncovered outlet in one hand, plugging a television in with the other and frying himself to death. It’s only a seeming paradox that the more prevalent and bloody death is among a society, the less it disturbs and disgusts.
But I am not so acclimated. And the weight of life amidst death, the heaviness of so many people swimming in it, will strike in moments - like stopping to touch a totaled car left along the road from which there couldn’t have been any survivors.
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