You might not think the guy from Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” and “The Joker” from the “Batman” series would make great friends. But if you put them on both ends of a scale, you would have the dynamic between me and my best pal for the last 20 years. I am a walking nervous breakdown and a heavy anchor, while Dennis is a buoy of humor that bobs above waves even in the stormiest of seas. Balance. So when I heard an NPR story that talked about a charity giving $1,000 directly to each poor person in some African village, instead of helping them through charitable services, I thought it had “bad idea” written all over it, and I was upset. I knew The Joker would see the funny side when I told him about it.
I reminded my friend of a time before he knew me, around 30 years ago, when I supported a boy in Africa myself, through one of those non-denominational charities. I think it was the one with the Sally Struthers commercials. I am a nondenominational person, so I didn’t want to evangelize others. I just wanted to do my bit. To this day I seldom pray, but 30 years ago, I went through a “pray-every-day-over-every-aspect-of-life” phase. I even prayed silently over my employee discount hamburger at the fast-food joint where I worked. I know a lot of fast-food and low-skilled workers do this even now, and you can see them do it yourself if you keep your eyes peeled.
I told the charity to please stop sending me hand-scrawled letters from the small Muslim boy I was sending money to in his West African village. And the heart-rending drawings he made for me made me feel even guiltier for everything I had. I didn’t need anyone “thanking” me for 10 bucks a month I could easily spare. And I especially didn’t feel like I had the right to peek inside this kid’s life, or the lives of his neighbors, just because I was doing a small thing.
I did like getting the photos of him smiling as he posed with his large extended family, and the pictures of the waterworks and developments that were going up around their village gave me hope. Someone told me, “That’s their way of keeping you ‘hooked’ on giving, you know. They make those little kids keep writing letters and drawing pictures to make you feel miserable if you stop sending money. You feel responsible for them in the way that some Native American tribes feel ‘responsible’ for all a person does — for the rest of their life — if they save someone from drowning.”
I finally stopped sending money once the Muslim kid got married, in his mid-teens.
But the charity kept sending me letters about this (now) man. When last I heard, the small Muslim boy had two wives and eight kids from each wife. That’s 16 kids from a young man who can barely feed himself. Then a few years later, I heard he had a heart-stopping 88 (eighty-eight!) grandkids from those 16 children.
At this point I thought, “What have I done? There is no way that any environment on Earth can support this kind of exponential growth. What if each one of those 88 kids has 88 kids of his or her own? Scream! This young man’s entire village — not to mention this planet — is riding for a fall if that kind of thing keeps up.”
From that time on, I decided to support only The Nature Conservancy, which buys up the world’s last remaining wild places, coral reefs, endangered rainforests, etc., and saves them for all time — for our kids and grandkids. I even made TNC a beneficiary on my life insurance policy, since I have no kids of my own.
I told The Joker — for whom nothing is sacred when it comes to humor — that I felt rotten for sending that poor Muslim kid the first penny. I also told him how dumb it seemed (to me) for this new charity, 30 years later, to be experimenting with giving poor Africans $1,000, free and clear. One African villager they interviewed on the NPR story said that her neighbor had used his money to run off to the nearest city “to buy himself a wife, since his old wife died.” Yikes!
The Joker said, “Cheer up. Maybe one of the kids from that Muslim boy you supported 30 years ago grew up to become one of the World Trade Center bombers. That would mean you are responsible for killing thousands, instead of being responsible for overpopulating a dusty village in Africa, causing an environmental catastrophe almost single-handedly.”
I pointed to the patches of woods at either end of the small street where I live in San Marco, and told The Joker, “Seriously, dude. This neighborhood gets noisy enough as is, with kids playing loudly in the streets when you’re trying to sleep, neighbors revving engines as they work on cars in driveways. Dogs bark all day and night sometimes, and lawn mowers, leaf-blowers and garbage trucks constantly shatter the peace with an orchestra of noise pollution. It can drive you nuts. But can you imagine if we added 16 times the number of people in these few blocks of starter houses? What if you added 88 times the number of people in just 30 years — or more than that? The place would be unlivable. We would be piled on top of each other like swarms of ants, and not one of these pretty trees would be here any longer.
“I enjoyed that movie ‘About Schmidt.’ It was about a retired, middle-American man played by Jack Nicholson who thought his life was a waste. He couldn’t connect to any of the people in his real life, so he started sending money to poor kids overseas and exchanging letters with them. That was the one true connection Schmidt felt he had to anyone on the planet. I always liked that movie, but when you think about, the film was really about Jack Nicholson committing an act of environmental terrorism on the other side of the world by overfeeding rabbits in a very small cage. He turned some place into a dry, unlivable dustbowl of depravity and depleted resources.”
“OK, stop it,” The Joker said, as he always does when I do my Edvard Munch screams. “Just quit it. You know darned good and well that you and Jack Nicholson did a good thing.”
“I just think we need to send two cases of condoms for every case of food we fly over to those famine-riddled places, along with the strongest possible Planned Parenthood messages,” I said. “We should send so many condoms that people can replace their current building materials using them if necessary, stacking them up for walls and roofs. Then when a man has sex in his condom-crate house, all he has to do is reach into the wall of any room to pull out a rubber. We should reward responsible family planning with money, rather than starting a cycle where thousands of fertile bunnies are kept in tiny cages that can’t support them. You know what happens to rabbits when you do that? They start eating each other, that’s what. Not a pretty sight, but that’s where we’re going.”
Pointing to my neighborhood again, I added, “Just a few years ago there were woods all around here. Now you just have tiny patches at both ends of the street. I used to explore all over in those woods when I first moved in. Now you can see right through the trees to the city skyline. Goodbye, country. Hello, city. If the world keeps piling up babies to the ceiling like cordwood, with no sense of responsibility or foresight, we’ll all be homeless pretty soon.”
“Well,” The Joker said, “if everyone in the world keeps having kids and piling them up to the ceiling, there’s your building material. Make houses out of children.”
This made me laugh and feel better all day. I hope The Joker has kids of his own one day. He’ll make a great, funny dad.
(P.S. They knocked down the woods at one end of the street to expand I-95. The Joker was so appalled by the sight of a mud pit where the pretty forest had been the day before that he took pictures and posted them to Facebook in protest. Scream! I joked, “Unless you’re Shad Khan or some other billionaire here in Jacksonville, no one will give a damn what you say about this.”)
Baker’s science-fiction novel “The Earthling/Alien Chatroom” was published by Beswick & Beswick in 2012.