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Syndic Literary Journal


What Is Reality?

By Baltimore Writer Charles Rammelkamp

I’m the first to concede that I look like a schlub, as some of my less charitable relatives like to say – “Mr. Magoo,” they “lovingly” call me (though the contempt is plain and searing). So I suspect I was given the responsibility of coordinating responses to building emergencies because I fit the Dilbert-like figure who supervises fire drills – as if these exercises are a waste of everybody’s time, an imposition. In other words, somebody inconsequential, or at least not critically important. Loser.

I inherited the job from Clarence Fowler, the retiring part-time Baptist minister who spent most of his time working on his Sunday sermons. “This is an important responsibility, Avi,” my boss, Manny Paxton said, when he added it to my work responsibilities. Did I see his face twitch? Was he suppressing a smile?

I recruited people to man the stairwells during evacuations, holding the door, regulating traffic, others to ensure everybody left their cubicles, others to pay special care to the “EWDs” – Employees with Disabilities, who needed help getting out of the building, sometimes with special chairs. I signed them up for training with the officials who did this stuff full-time in the Office of Occupant Emergencies. I supplied them all with neon orange vests, flashlights and flares, some, the “floor captains” (there were five floors in our building) with two-way radios.

When a fire alarm went off, that deafening clanging, those whirring lights, interrupting people in the middle of their work, several of them would always come to me and ask, “Is this real, Goldman?” It was as if they suspected me of playing a practical joke on them.

Full disclosure: I majored in Philosophy at Craycombe Community College before transferring to Loyola University, where I got a degree in Technical Writing, a more practical pursuit. Ontology, epistemology, cosmology, metaphysics – they all intrigued me. Maybe solipsism was all that was “real,” after all, the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist. The revenge of René Descartes.

Still, the question intrigued me. Is this real? What is “reality”? Often the building “emergency” was not “real” in the sense that it was merely a planned exercise and not an actual crisis, just a drill, but it was “real” in the sense that it was happening, now, and people needed to respond accordingly. Or, if not a planned drill, was it an actual emergency, a “disaster” in the making, or did an alarm malfunction, as they sometimes did? I was always notified in advance when a drill was going to take place, but I never told anybody.  Tell just one person and soon everybody knew. What is reality?

There were two planned building evacuation drills every year, one in the fall and one in the spring. There were two shelter-in-place drills, too, one in the winter and one in the summer. After a rare east coast earthquake early in the century, earthquake drills had been instituted as well.  People sat at their desks and ducked for cover, almost like the old elementary school A-bomb drills during the Cold War. For some reason, everybody blamed me for the inconvenience these caused for them, even though these drills were mandated by law, by code, nothing I actually caused. I think I just had that kind of face. Mr. Magoo.

My cubicle was festooned with Emergency Preparedness posters and calendars that I got from the Office of Occupant Emergencies. Hurricanes, extreme heat, flooding, flu, tornadoes, fire emergencies, of course, earthquakes, “civil unrest,” as this possible disruption was ominously called. As the years rolled on after September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had gradually disappeared from the menu, probably too traumatic to include – anthrax, smallpox, sarin gas. These things tended to spark panic attacks among the employees, and management figured these risks outweighed the possibility of a chemical or biological terror attack.

But then, in the spring of 2020, it finally happened – a “real” emergency, the Covid 19 pandemic.  Our building was closed, employees sent home to do their jobs remotely. Finally, I could go back to being just a technical writer. Nobody in the building, after all, so there was nobody to evacuate, nobody to provide with vests and flashlights, nobody to assign to the third floor northwest stairwell (among the 25 or 30 assigned areas).  

But was the pandemic a “fake” emergency, as some would have it? A “hoax”?  Over 300,000 dead in the United States alone by the end of 2020, but all the solipsists can see, apparently is that they are alive, so is the pandemic really real? What is reality?



Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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