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Too busy living to think about obituaries

A woman is incensed that a 7-year-old second-grader in St. Petersburg was arrested and cuffed, charged with destroying property after he acted up in school.

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 23, 2002

A woman is incensed that a 7-year-old second-grader in St. Petersburg was arrested and cuffed, charged with destroying property after he acted up in school.

A mother has found new evidence that her son is innocent of the charges for which he's serving life in prison.

A Tampa man is outraged after he learns that a major grocery store chain has no black managers, only assistants.

One by one, little snippets of life marched to the center of somebody's universe.

Those were a few of the voice mail messages that had piled up in the few days I recently took away from the office. Each was delivered with its messenger's own brand of urgency, but still, the world could have ignored any of them and, beyond their block, beyond their circle of tightest friends, life wouldn't notice. The world would go on largely unchanged.

Ignoring them, however, was not an option acceptable to my callers. They, in different ways, were insistent and persistent, their messages delivered with urgent calls for action. Each left the impression that his or her cause is the one that, even if trains don't run and the water supply has been depleted, must be dealt with today.

All sounded so committed to their crusades that their causes could headline their obituaries and they'd be pleased.

I said as much to Bill Sims when I called seeking to discover the origin of his apparent commitment to diversifying the grocery chain's management. He was the most persistent of the voice mails. He left several messages regarding the chain's dearth of black managers and had even figured out a way to get the automated voice that announces the messages to inform me that his was "urgent."

A couple of minutes into our conversation, it became clear that Sims, who lives in Tampa and works for a medical supply company, isn't just committed to changing the face of that chain's management. He also serves on the mayor's African-American Advisory Committee, is trying to raise money to upgrade a Little League park in one of the city's poorer communities and generally serves as a squeaky wheel for a number of problems and oversights that need attention.

"I want to be a part of something that's positive," he explained. "If something is wrong and so obviously wrong that I see it, and I don't say anything, even if it doesn't affect me, eventually it's going to trickle down. Sometimes I believe that old saying that the squeaky wheel gets the grease."

To explain his commitment, Sims took me back to his days in Catholic school where the nuns taught students to sing My Ole Kentucky Home, which contained the phrase "... and the darkies are gay," a reference to slaves being happy.

"The darkies were not gay," he said. He said his silence now would give the false impression that the "darkies are gay" in Tampa Bay.

"There needs to be some people who are willing to step up to the plate and say that," he said.

I didn't press my notion about obituaries. He was obviously too busy writing his while he's living to worry about how someone else will write it when he's not.

There was a time not long ago when I didn't think about obituaries either, didn't even bother to look at the obituary page. They were just there for the families of the deceased, some small acknowledgement that so-and-so passed through here and that there was someone who cared.

Then, a couple of years ago, possibly because I realized I have gotten closer to having an obituary I can call my own, I started reading them, almost religiously.

Within the restrictive formula with which they are written, obituaries are for many people their first and last introduction to the public. He was a plumber, they will say, or president of this or that company. She was a doctor or a homemaker.

One sentence, often without compound verbs or objects, usually suffices to sum up a life that spanned decades.

I often wonder if that sentence would come close to matching the one the subject would write were he or she afforded the opportunity. Would the owner of a construction company choose that as the defining aspect of his life?

That is not intended to marginalize ownership of a company, or waiting tables, or journalism, or any of the countless other ways we put food in our bellies and roofs over our heads. But after 70, 80, 90 years of life, doesn't it seem a bit pathetic that the crowning achievement of one's life is the thing done to sustain it, that the most important thing we do with our lives is make our passage through it bearable if not comfortable?

That is all our titles are. No matter how noble the terms we may use to describe what we do and our attitudes toward doing it, with few exceptions we work because it pays. Even high-minded newspaper columnists who have convinced themselves that they write to fight injustices would find the battle less pressing if the checks stopped coming. Teachers would not teach. Preachers would not preach.

Our titles, no matter how simple or fancy, are nothing more than names for the way we perform the menial task of survival.

Life, as my persistent callers have learned, should be more than that.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail

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