by Nikki Little
The nurse looked at me with surprise in her eyes. I suppose it's not every day that a grown man sits in a hospital bed and cries after nothing more than a knot on the head. It wasn't the knot on the head that was the reason for my tears. I held in my hand a printed travel brochure which confirmed my belief that what I had seen and experienced in the past three hours was real. I had had a glimpse of paradise, and I lost it.
I have been a stock broker all my life. I seem to have the gift of gab and the ability to talk people into just about anything -- even things that are against their own best interests. I guess you could say that I am a natural-born salesman. I have enjoyed a considerable measure of financial success and live a very comfortable life in a city known for high living expenses. I've always known about the less fortunate of Washington D.C., but I rarely see them because all of my life takes place in the areas that are prosperous, safe, and expensive. The only negative in my pampered existence, I suppose, is the lack of free time which I have to do anything of my own choosing. I am a bachelor. I live alone. I spend almost all of my time working. I sit at that rarified border between the upper-middle class and the rich. I suppose I could claim that I earned all my wealth as I inherited none of it. It was all from commissions that I had earned. A funny word "earned" is: what people claim as "earned" is actually what is proffered by the workings of a highly selective "free market" which seems to withold its blessings to a very select few. I am one of those select few. I think I am lucky. I "earned" everything that I have, but to claim that I deserve all that I have is quite another matter.
I had finally gotten a rare Saturday off from work, and I chose to spend it seeing some of the sights of Washington D.C. that had somehow eluded me all my life even though I lived in the area. How I reached middle age without seeing the Lincoln Memorial which was within 15 miles of my apartment, I do not know. It was time.
I stood before the memorial and contemplated what kind of a country the United States would be today if it had not been for "The Great Emancipator." Deep down in my heart, I thought that the United States of today would not be all that much different. The slaves had been freed from a slavery of a pure type only to be thrown to wolves of a different type: the Northern industrialists who lusted after cheap, black labor. With so many former slaves suddenly being thrown into the labor market, it is inconceivable that Northern factory owners did not react to the increased supply of labor by cutting wages for all of their employees. No doubt the white working class who had fought the war would feel used. I wonder how many focused their anger not on the industrialists, but on the perceived "new enemy" of black laborers who were paid less for the same work -- and thus a threat to livelihoods. The thought entered my mind that perhaps the emancipation that Lincoln had in mind was never carried out because of his assassination. What if the freeing of the slaves was only half of what Lincoln had in mind? The history of the past is written in stone, and I felt that my question was a mystery that could never be answered. What if? What if?
When I walked away from the Lincoln Memorial and headed for the nearest subway station, I caught a glimpse of three shadowy men who grabbed me and dragged me into an alley. They did not look like common criminals -- their dress was too formal for that. I woke up in the hospital -- the same hospital in which I now reside. The nurse told me that I had had a nasty fall and had hit my head against a stone wall. I checked my wallet, and discovered that nothing was missing. Whoever the three men had been, they were not thieves.
I was released from the hospital without any further ado, and the first mystery I encountered was the lack of paperwork as I exited the hospital. No papers to sign. No insurance forms to deal with. No hassles at all. The hospital did not seem especially concerned with payment for its services. This was certainly something that I had never experienced before. I was convinced that health care in the U.S. had become purely a commodity like everything else, and that hospitals would sooner let someone die than risk nonpayment for services.
As I walked out onto the streets, I noticed that the plethora of high-end retailers to which I was so accustomed seemed to have vanished into thin air. Small, functional shops had replaced them. There were no prices mentioned in the windows. I entered a small Latin-American grocery store where everything was labeled in Spanish. There were about a dozen other people in the store filling small hand baskets with items. They walked up to the checkout where, mysteriously, there was no cash register. There were only bags for the goods. The store owner, or storekeeper, hustled among the aisles restocking, and seemed oblivious to the customers that left his store after bagging their items and not paying. I walked up to him and asked him if he was aware that he was being robbed, but he answered me in Spanish. I did not speak Spanish and he did not speak English. I pointed to the customers walking out without paying, and he nodded his head up and down and smiled. Instead of getting upset, he offered me a fresh mango from his cart. He put it in my pocket and shooed me out the door. He was still smiling and waved as I walked away confused.
Out on the street, I noticed that there were only two police officers in sight within all directions. That was certainly many fewer police officers than I was used to seeing. I entered a subway station and noticed that there were more affluent-appearing people than I was used to seeing in the subways. The transit police whom I was accustomed to seeing everywhere were nowhere in sight. There were no turnstiles. I looked around wondering if I had entered via the wrong area, but nothing seemed amiss. There were no turnstiles. People boarded the subway trains without paying. I looked around for the ticket vending machines, but did not see any. I thought of the machines which had once dispensed bus tokens and had vanished during my childhood. Perhaps some new way of paying for subway trips had been implemented, some means of which I was unaware. I boarded the subway train traveling to the Lincoln Memorial. I had just seen it, but for some reason unknown to me, I felt the need to see it again. Or perhaps I just needed to see that place where I had been "mugged."
The subway stopped near the Lincoln Memorial, and I exited noticing that there appeared to be no turnstiles on the opposite side of the tracks. I walked up the stairs and found the same Lincoln Memorial as before, and yet somehow, it wasn't the same. There wasn't the same heavy police presence as before, and the area was filled with vendors who, bizarrely, did not take payment for anything they offered. Hot dog vendors, candy vendors, soft drink peddlers, taco stands, gryo stands, and all other sorts of park vendors were there. No money was visible exchanging hands anywhere. I also noticed for the first time that everywhere I looked, doors had no locks on them. No locks! How was that possible?
I walked up to the Lincoln Memorial just as I had before, and stood there, this time contemplating all that I had witnessed in the last few hours. I thought about the changes that "The Great Emancipator" had brought to our country, and what would have been had he not been assassinated. A young woman tour guide walked up to me and shoved a brochure in my hand. "He was our only four-term president, you know," she said to me, lovely gray eyes reflecting the sun. I glanced at the base of the memorial stone noticing a date. Lincoln had lived to 1879? What? The young woman who had given me the brochure had disappeared.
I walked past the same place where I had been "mugged" and once again encountered the same three men. "Not again!" I thought as they dragged me into the alley. I woke up in the hospital. Again. The exact same hospital. The exact same room. The exact same nurse. I asked her to get my suit from my closet. I hesitated a moment, and then reached into the pockets. I was truly not sure of what I would find in them, if anything at all. Out of one pocket I pulled a mango, which I gave to the nurse. She stared at me in surprise, as most people do not carry fruit in their pockets. Out of the other pocket I pulled the brochure which the gray-eyed young woman had given to me. I read the brochure and found the answer to what troubled me. I had seen Paradise, and I had lost it. I handed the brochure to the nurse, and told her to read it.
"It's just the Gettysburg Address," she said.
"Read it again," I said. "Read all of it. Down to the last line."
The Gettysburg Address
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate...we cannot consecrate...we cannot hallow...this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us...that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. Therefore, from this day forward, as enacted by the People's Congress, not only is slavery henceforth abolished in all territories controlled by this government or Union armies, but the very institution which gave birth to this atrocity, capitalism, is also abolished. From this day forward, the private ownership of land is abolished. The farmer shall till his land unencumbered by rents or shares owed to some distant investor. The private ownership of factories, mines, and oil wells is abolished. The government shall run these facilities for the benefit of all. A program for a transition to an economy without money or prices has been drawn up by the People's Congress and passed. On this day I signed it. Even barter shall eventually be swept away. From this day forward, want, penury, and misery are abolished. No longer shall the many suffer for the benefit of the few. There will be no compensation for the disinherited investors. They are abolished. They are swept away. They shall trouble you no more. They shall live like the rest of us, or they shall flee. From this day forward shall rise a new ethic of sharing, for the world belongs to each and every one of us. God bless you all. Thank you.
--Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, now known as Abolition Day