No political system ever perfectly expresses the needs of its society. – Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789
Maybe not, but lawsuits come close.
You’ve noticed that I’ve developed a calm and resilient philosophy about suing. Perhaps you’ve wondered why.
Let me introduce you to my late mother, Esther Fein. She was an earthy lady, a crypto-feminist with auburn hair that fell to her waist. She wore no makeup, no jewelry, not even a wedding ring. Had there been a Levi’s store every three blocks in the 1950’s, she would’ve been wearing jeans every day.
She fed us yogurt the first year it was sold in the United States and, almost from our birth, deposited repulsive drops of omega-rich fish oil into our morning orange juice, where they floated upon the orange surface like teeny Gulf oil clots. And she initiated me into the sublime adventures of discount shopping by plucking a $3.99 swath of shop-worn organdy off a remnant table and turning it into a pretty graduation dress.
Long ago Mom knew that lanolin was the best emollient, and taught us why we should never cross a union picket line. A teacher, she patiently showed me how to take notes in outline form and later, when I was a teenager, imposed no curfews whatsoever when I went out at night.
A real free spirit, my mother.
There was one conventional mother thing she worried about, though. Whenever we were in a store, theater or other building with a tangle of aisles or staircases and no obvious egress, my mom would narrow her eyes, murmur, “This place is a fire trap,” and immediately visually locate the nearest fire exit. Just in case.
I never thought to ask my mom the cause of her uncharacteristic nervousness but I now believe it’s because she was born around the time of the 1911 Triangle Shirt Factory fire that killed over 100 young women factory workers who couldn’t escape the building because most of the exits had been locked by the owners.
Adding to my mother’s particular ontological anxiety, I myself happened to emerge from her womb on the very night 300 screaming people died in a fire that consumed a huge Boston nightclub, the Coconut Grove – which didn’t have adequate fire exits. Obviously, the concatenation of the Triangle Shirt Factory and Coconut Grove fires had a serious impact upon my mom’s psyche.
Of course those fires had an even greater impact upon the people who heard about them, who lost friends and relatives, were horrified and furious and who insisted that their cities develop building codes and vigilant inspection systems that could prevent future similar disasters.
This is why we should embrace government and government agencies. This is why we have laws. At painful points in our history, we people have demanded them.
And not just we ordinary people. While reading a NY Times book review of ‘A Gambling Man – Charles II’s Restoration Game,’ by Jenny Uglow, I was intrigued that Charles II, restored to the throne after the British ended their Cromwellian hiatus, worried out loud about the flimsy wood structures of much of London and went out in the streets with his people on a bucket brigade to quench the Great London Fire of 1666. After viewing the devastation, Charles persuaded Parliament to develop strict new building codes.
Although I can’t say I’ve incorporated King Charles’s and my mom’s nerves into my consciousness, when I used to shop in the original Pearl River Emporium on Canal Street, or the old Century 21 down on Cortlandt, I swear to you I’d hear my late mother’s dry murmur, “This place is a fire trap.” And I’d (sort of) laugh. But I’d also check out the nearest exit.