Saturday, October 16, 2010
Cleveland: You Gotta be Tough
I've come to the conclusion that historians are either OCD, Asberger's savants or (and I may just be building my own escape hatch) people at peace with total chaos. At bottom, we organize information. Often this information is scattered throughout thousands of books, diaries, newspapers, corporate earning reports, morgue statistics, a half-buried oil pipeline that now houses a chipmunk colony, and, well, you get the idea. In fact, visualizing the sources that comprise a single history, which is to say a single argument or idea, is quite a burden in itself. Flip to the bibliography and you will be able to recreate the journey of five, or say, ten years in a single afternoon. Although you might be able to stack these documents into a tidy pile on your kitchen table by following the bibliography and maxing out your library card, the historian's journey is far less efficient.
Any event, even one as modest as this post, makes an impression in the historical record that immediately begins to vanish like a footprint in river mud. Most, and I mean 99.9999999% of human history has completely vanished from memory and record. Think about that next time you snuggle up with a text that promises the "History" of anything. Honest historians have turned downright biblical in describing their pessimism of discovering any big "T" Truth. They argue that the profession, even at its best, can only hope to view the past "through a glass darkly." I prefer to get, in the tradition of Carl Sagan, downright cosmic. Each event, whether a battle, a kiss, or a butterfly fart, is a miracle for it represents the only time in which all the variables exist in a single place at once. With every passing second the fates of nations push a battle front one way or another, time alters lovers' relationships, and the fickle wind blows our butterfly flatulence to distant lands. How much of the evidence can we hope to reassemble in front of our body's sensory apparatus from any event in the distant past? 1%? .01%? .000000000000001%?
I have been on a quest these past five years to view as much of the detritus left in the wake of the Standard Oil Company that is humanly possible. Even with an organization as anal about record keeping as a corporation and characters as self-congratulatory as John D. Rockefeller I have had to battle the cruelty of Time. Yeah, I'm personifying Time as the Greeks would have done (Chronos). I imagine her as a mischievous teenage girl, but no matter. She swallowed up nearly all the company's records from their California business during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. She laughed as the US Supreme Court shattered the company into 34 separate corporations, splintering their records along the way as each company was swallowed by another that, at times, cared very little about preserving the history of its new "property," as I have been informed by the head archivist at British Petroleum concerning the whereabouts of the quite substantial Standard Oil of Indiana's (aka Amoco) records. Each scrap of the past I do find, therefore, represents a small but satisfying victory over this petulant mistress.
This past Wednesday, to make this long story short, I struck a virtual vein of evidentiary gold. Forty-five reels of microfilm of the Chicago Tribune from the 19th century had been shipped to my library here at Case Western Reserve University from my Alma Mater in Columbus and, over the course of eight hours, I pulled 25 pages of notes out of the nether. Likely enough material, with a few other documents I already have, for an entire chapter of my dissertation. Serious fucking business. I didn't eat, didn't visit the bathroom, hardly blinked, I served as a translator and recorder and captured all of this on my laptop. But as I was working on my last reel and the last rays of sunlight were vanishing over the horizon I began to feel a growing anxiety. I realized that much of my work and certainly the hours worth of notes from the previous weeks was contained within the memory of my laptop and NOWHERE else. Why hadn't I backed up this info?
What was boring into my confidence wasn't concern that I might, by accident, spill water on my keyboard or drop my laptop on the way to my car but a realization that I was about to walk outside into a world that has become something akin Mad Max beyond Thunderdome. Earlier that day, the charter one bank on campus that shares a building with Starbucks had been held up for the THIRD day in a row. In the past years the security updates I get via my campus email have been a litany of horrors from rape at Wade Lagoon, a beatdown in the middle of Mayfield, and countless stick-ups for pocket change and cellphones. I made it to my car, walking faster than normal out of Kelvin Smith Library and down East boulevard, and told my friends over a beer later that night that I was completely prepared to run or fight in the event I was robbed. My life's work was worth such a risk after all I had put into it. Such is the desperation of a graduate student. They thought I was either lying or insane and recommended several ways of making my data redundant. If you think I'm mad, when I got home later that night I found this sitting in my inbox:
Case Western Reserve University Police and Security Services
Location of Incident: Kelvin Smith Library & East Blvd near Bellflower Rd.
Date of incident: October 13, 2010
Time of Incident: 10:47pm
Incident Description: While walking near the east side of the Kelvin Smith Library, a student reported he was approached by a male who demanded he turn over his property of value. The student advised the male that he didn't have any property to turn over and then fled. The suspect then ran through Freiberger Field towards the intersection of East Blvd. and Bellflower Rd. where he encountered another student. The suspect demanded the second student turn over his property of value and after receiving a small amount of cash and a cellphone, walked northbound on East Blvd. attempting to leave the area.
Additional Information: During both incidents the suspect motioned to the victims that he had a gun underneath his outer clothing, however, no weapon was seen. Case Western Reserve University Police and University Circle Police toured the area and located a suspect matching the description provided. The suspect was positively identified by one of the victims and was in possession of the stolen items. He was subsequently arrested by Case Western Reserve University Police for two counts of robbery.