Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Legion Lonely

On Thursday, July 13, 1995, a concentration of high pressure in the upper atmosphere above Midwest Chicago forced massive amounts of hot air to the ground, causing temperatures as high as 41°C (106°F). In a Midwestern city not built for tropical heat, roads buckled, cars broke down in the street, and schools closed their doors. On Friday, three Con Ed power transformers failed, leaving 49,000 people without electricity. In high-rise apartments with no air conditioning, temperatures hit 49°C (120°F) even with the windows open. The heat continued into Saturday. The human body can only take about 48 hours of uninterrupted heat like this before its defenses begin to shut down, and emergency rooms were so crowded they had to turn away heatstroke victims. Sunday was no better, and as the death toll rose—of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and renal failure—the morgues hit capacity, too, and bodies were stored in refrigerated meat-packing trucks. In all, 739 people died as a result of the heat wave.

In its aftermath, an inquiry found, unsurprisingly, that the majority of those who died were poor, old, and lived alone. More surprising was the gender imbalance: significantly more men died than women. This was especially strange considering that in Chicago in July of 1995, there were more old women who lived alone than old men.

What made these men more vulnerable than the women? It wasn’t physical circumstances. Both groups lived mostly in “single room occupancy” buildings, or SROs—apartments of one room in what used to be called flophouses. It was social circumstances. The phrase “No known relatives” appears repeatedly in police reports of the dead men’s homes. Letters of regret were found on floors and in backs of drawers: “I would like to see you if that’s possible, when you come to the city”; “It seems to me that our family should have gotten along.” The single rooms of the deceased are described as “roach infested” and “a complete mess,” indicating few or no visitors. The women, according to Eric Klinenberg, who wrote a book on the heat wave, had people who checked up on them and so kept them alive; the men did not. “When you have time please come visit me soon at my place,” read another letter, unsent.

What conditions lead to this kind of isolation? Why men?

Artie, 63, who lives in Beards Fork, West Virginia, population 200, has never married. He grew up in Beards Fork, but spent most of his life elsewhere. He moved back when he was 47 to take care of his sick mother, who died earlier this year. Now, after putting his own life on hold for sixteen years, he finds himself single, semi-retired, and without a close friend. “Life goes by really fast,” he said. Since his mom died, he’s found himself thinking, “Where in the hell did it go?”

This is the kind of thing he used to talk about with his mother. Now that she’s gone, he doesn’t really open up to anyone. He has no close friends in the area, and he’s “felt a lot of depression over the past few years.”

Artie’s not an antisocial guy or a homebody. His career brought him into contact with hundreds of interesting people over the years; he lived in California for a decade, and before that he had a nine-year relationship. But back in his hometown, all the connections he made seem to have melted away. “I don’t really have any close friends, other than my family,” he said, “which is something different.” (A 2005 Australian study agreed: while close friendships increase your longevity by up to 22 percent, family relationships make no difference.)

Artie has a group of friends he met in his thirties and forties with whom he’s still in touch, mainly on Facebook, but those relationships are “not quite the same as the friendships I had when I was younger. Less deep. Less vulnerable. And I’m not even sure I want to [open up].” He’s somewhat close with a few of his former coworkers, but though they confide in him, he doesn’t feel like he can confide in them. “They’re younger,” he said. “They don’t understand my problems.” Despite being semi-retired, he still goes into the office every day and stays late, after everyone’s gone. “I’m reluctant to go home,” he said. “Nobody’s there.”

In many ways, Artie seems in danger of going down the path of those Chicago SRO-dwellers. But there’s an important difference between those men and Artie: what the former had in common was their social isolation—having few or no social connections. Artie’s problem, on the other hand, is one of loneliness—the feeling of being isolated, regardless of your social connectedness, usually due to having few or no confidants.

Is this my future?

At first glance it seems unlikely. I’m 34. I have what seems to me a pretty active social life. I’m integrated into my community and I go to arts events regularly. I’ve lived here in Toronto off and on since I was 18. I went to university here. I helped found an arts venue here. I know hundreds of people here, if not thousands. I have multiple jobs—college instructor, freelance writer, tutor. I have friends. Whatever path led to these lonely destinations, I want to believe, is not the path I’m on. When I die, my floor will be tidy, and my letters sent.

And yet, there’s something about their stories that seems eerily familiar. Slowly but surely, I feel my social world slipping away from me. All three of my jobs combined require me to be around other humans a total of about eight hours out of a week’s 168. The other 160, I’m mostly at home. It’s not unusual for me to go several days in a row with no social contact of any kind, and the longer I go without it, the scarier it feels. I become shy, paranoid that no one would want to hang out with me. Social slights metastasize in my brain. I start to avoid social functions, convinced I’ll walk into a wall of mysterious eye contact. I live close to many friends, but I hide from them when I see them in the street. I don’t think of myself as antisocial—I love people, love being around them, and have had so many good friendships—but it often feels like an uphill battle, and mystifyingly complex, to not slip back endlessly into this pit of despair.

The thing is, I wasn’t always like this. How did I get here?

by Stephen Thomas, Hazlitt |  Read more: