The poor are our canaries in the coal mine

Mar 26, 2020 | 26 comments

By Jeremiah Reardon

When my father John finished eighth grade in 1913 he joined his friends working in the Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania coal mines. The tipple boys separated waste from coal dropped on screens by the wrought iron tippler. An old miner cracked knuckles to keep them in line.

Caranies were an essential part of mine safety at the beginning of the last century.

Later, after finishing night school in Philadelphia and law school in Brooklyn at St. John’s, he’d work for his contract-miner brother Frank when he ran out of money in New York City. And, use the opportunity to court my mother Genevieve in Coaldale, Pennsylvania.

One of the stories he told us seven children concerned the canary. Miners brought into mines a cage with a chirping canary to detect gas. When the bird stopped chirping, the miners ran!

The coronavirus lockdown brought that to mind on a recent walk to the store. We’re the miners and we look to the poorest and neglected to detect the “gas.”

How do they survive? I thought when I encountered two starving men in a block’s walk the other day on Remigio Crespo, party central for Cuenca’s youth.

* * *

An empty street in El Centro on Monday.

Before I continue with my sojourn, I wish to express heartfelt appreciation to the local authorities for taking extreme measures to preserve our lives. And to you dear readers, thank you for your support of this national effort. Together Ecuador overcomes this crisis.

My wife Belinda and I depend upon its public health program to reach the next plateau, now in our mid-70’s. Gratitude to all does not fully express our appreciation in this novel era. We thank God that our lives are blessed in material ways that’ll see us through this comfortably.

For almost two weeks Belinda and I’ve been sheltering-in-place. And so happy to have a roof over our heads. No travel plans. No visitors on the horizon. Just us, at home. We have our hobbies and interests to keep us occupied. And time to pray.

* * *

Yesterday began Cuenca’s 2 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. Cuenca High Life’s pandemic expert, Brenda Langdon, reports that it’s worse in Guayas Province. Martial law will probably be imposed in the coming days. Guayaquil’s numbers are through the roof compared to Andean Highlands Cuenca.

Spontaneous road blocks in town pop up all over the place. Masked police check cars and question the driver’s use of it during the emergency. An army truck passed me at the soccer stadium. Soldiers wearing masks looked back at me from rear benches.

Socially-distanced shoppers wait to enter the Comisariato Popular supermarket on Remigio Crespo.

Shortly before noon I shopped at Comisariato Popular on Remigio Crespo. A dozen people ahead of me spaced themselves roughly five feet apart. The woman behind me must’ve been in a hurry or new to the routine of social distancing for she grudgingly gave me only a couple of feet.

And when I left the line to place a dollar coin on the cardboard sign of a beggar, she had moved into my position. I assumed my original spot in front of her, thanks to space created by social distancing.

My friend Eden came to the store with her grocery cart just as I’d finished shopping. “Too bad, Eden. They closed the doors fifteen minutes ago,” I told her.

“Oh, damn! I see I need to get here much earlier than the curfew. Thank you, Jeremiah.”

“Yes, Eden. Things have really tightened up in the past few days. I saw a young man with a roll of foam over his back. He had a sign that read, ‘Ayudame.’ When I left the line to give him a dollar, he put down the sign for me to hand it over.”

“Oh, that’s too bad. I’ve heard how people here launder money. Now when I get home, I take a shower and wash everything, including my money. A new reason to ‘launder money’!”

“I’ll say, Eden. Good point. Ha! Ha!”

* * *

I enjoy getting out of the house to walk and explore the impact of the lockdown. In the past week, I’ve shopped one day, went to the bank to withdraw cash on another, and on a third day with that cash, Belinda and I went to Supermaxi and loaded up on groceries.

Avenida Remigio Crespo is the commercial heart of our neighborhood. It’s tree line median borders the southern edge of University of Cuenca campus. A walk to El Centro, downtown Cuenca, takes ten minutes.

Before the health emergency, on Thursdays and Fridays especially, traffic comes to a halt as everyone who wanted to see and be seen gather. Partiers controlled the thoroughfare and filled bars and restaurants along the kilometer strip. Teenagers at outdoor tables nodded off in an alcoholic haze. Loud pulsating music sent neighbors into conniptions. Car alarms and horns joined in. Now, the dogs bark.

* * *

An empty park off of Av. Remigio Crespo

But these day it’s vacant. There’s little traffic to speak of during the crisis. On that day that I shopped the local street person wandered by, mumbling. He’s the neighborhood character who fills his time approaching storefronts and passersby for a handout.

I avoided him. He’s drunk half the time, so I rarely give him money, and that day I had no food to offer. Crossing to the median, I paused when a woman called. Standing at the gateway to a rear building, she offered him a plate of food and a soda bottle. Thank God, he won’t be going hungry, today, I mused. I noticed that neither of them wore a mask.

At the next corner I approached Pizza Hut, open for takeaway and deliveries. A thin young man with shinny dark hair dipped into plastic bags he had retrieved from a sidewalk trash can. I bent down to hand him a dollar. He made no sound as he took it. On his knees he bowed to me with hands together in prayer.

I felt blown away how the man thanked me. My next thought, a reflection of these paranoid times, I have to be smarter and avoid direct contact when I give money.

And, then, I remembered that Christ said in the Bible, “What you do for the least of my brethren, you do for me.” So, I left feeling better about myself.

These encounters with the poor reminded me how fortunate Belinda and I are in Cuenca dealing with the coronavirus. The poor and sick will get left behind as the pandemic unfolds. Thank God for the health care givers!

* * *

A beggar on a Cuenca street.

John Reardon would never have imagined how our world would collapse. He lived in Philadelphia and worked at a bank beginning in 1917. He probably attended the parade that the City of Brotherly Love put on just nine days after the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. Over 200,000 attended The Liberty Loans Parade, marching up Broad Street from the Navy Yard. John Philip Sousa’s band played in support of the Allied troops.

Over several weeks, the deadly influenza epidemic killed thousands of citizens and infected tens of thousands more due to the miscalculation of its leaders who anticipated only 10,000. Dad never mentioned it. Today, I know why.

Where are we today? How is Covid-19’s crisis any different? What would Dad say about the world leaders’ lack of preparedness in this era of high technology and artificial intelligence? One thing I’m sure. His heart would go out to those men I saw on Remigio Crespo, our canaries caged in the crisis.


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