Observations: An unexpected response from the community

mike chaiken headby MIKE CHAIKEN, Editions Editor

It’s all kind of odd.
I think I told that to quite a few people in the days after a fire at my condo on Redstone Hill Road left me a gypsy until the space is inhabitable again.
After I posted a Facebook message announcing that my condo had just been in a fire, and I was “homeless”— but my cat and I were safe— the number of comments and messages I received was overwhelming.
I lost track after a 100 or so comments asking about my wellbeing… and my cat, Pesky. There was probably twice that number I could offer an update that night.
I was just voicing my frustration into the wind. I didn’t expect a reply. I certainly didn’t anticipate words of sympathy, encouragement, and concern.
I definitely didn’t expect offers of help.
I’m a newspaper editor. Period. I write news stories. I direct my staff to write stories and take photographs. I draw a paycheck for it. It’s my job.
And I’m a wannabe artist. I take photographs and hope people like them.
I don’t expect anything in return.
As I tell my friends, offering a vague Frank Zappa reference, “I is what I is.”
But here were people—friends, co-workers, acquaintances, news sources, artists, models, photographers, strangers— stepping up to offer me a helping hand as I grappled with how to survive without my home, rebuild my life, and move forward. One friend set up a website to collect funds within hours after I washed the smoky smell from my body. Others were organizing benefits. They were offering me advice on where to stay… and eventually offered me a place to stay.
Part of me wondered if I should accept the help.
I had not asked for help. And as long as I’ve been an adult, I managed to do everything on my own.
It wasn’t “stupid pride.” It was simply being unfamiliar with people asking if they can help me.
But a friend of mine, who had been— still is— going through some hard times advised me, “Take the help if it’s offered.”
So I did. It was a bit uncomfortable. I still wondered if I deserved it.
And always I wondered if I was gracious enough. Had I said enough thank yous? Was I sincere enough when I said my thank yous? Did I miss anyone?
But everyone who helped told me I had helped others now it was their turn to return the favor.
At one point, I made a comment about how I now knew how the character George Bailey must have felt in the film, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Towards the end of the film, Bailey—who throughout the story puts the needs of others before himself— feels as if he let the community down when the money deposited his building and loan has been misplaced. As the film draws to a close, he is about to be arrested for misappropriation of these funds.
But just when all seems lost, the community rallies for Bailey. He had been there for them when times were bad. And now they were there for him when he had reached his lowest ebb. They dip into their own savings to rescue Bailey and the building and loan just as that combo had helped them.
I never really thought twice about what I was doing for the cities and towns I cover or the arts and fashion community that I sometimes comingle with. It was just what I did and who I was.
People responded to that.
When I had reached my lowest ebb—losing use of my home due to a fire in a manner beyond my control—they wanted to help.
At the benefit held at Marilyn’s on Broad Street, just a few short days after the fire—I told people the fire may taken my home.
But in a way, that “theft of use” was a gift.
Many people never learn the impact they have had on the lives of others. It’s not until an obituary is published, and they are buried in the ground, do people remember to speak fondly of the departed.
The fire provided me with an opportunity to learn what a difference I have made in my adopted communities. Rather than being left in the dark, the fire lifted the scales from my eyes and I saw how much I really mean to the people around me.
A couple of weeks after the fire, the outreach from the community has begun to die down.
And that’s fine with me.
Let their attentions turn toward others deserve a helping hand.
I’m more than happy to abdicate my position as an object of compassion. After all, I’m just a newspaper editor.
And all of this concern for me… it all still feels a bit odd.
Mike Chaiken is editions editor of The Observer.
 mike chaiken head