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SIGNS FROM ON HIGH: Like a silk necktie. Learning about America in Columbia, USA

 

A surprise ending marks this chapter of The Pink Ribbon Chronicle

COLUMBIA, 3/2/12  (Op Ed) --
 This is a story about a man hitting the half-century mark who has taken serious stock of his life over the past few years, right down to a big stack of hospital bills.  Nearly every day they used to come.   The $20,000 ones almost made me faint.    
 
I'd wanted to tally them up, but kept putting it off.   I'd start, then stop, pushing the stack aside.   But I persevered.   The cost of fighting -- and so far defeating -- an aggressive, five-centimeter breast tumor was, for the family of Mike and Alison Martin, $367,930.08.  
 
Insurance paid virtually all of it, one of many blessings I've written about, starting with God and Medicine at Ellis Fischel.  
 
Working through a foggy-headedness cancer survivors call "chemo brain," Alison walked to and from chemotherapy at Ellis for nearly a year, rarely missing work. 
 
Whenever I urged her to stay home, she'd tell me she didn't want to exhaust her sick leave or do anything at all to compromise that all-important employer-provided health coverage.  She was diagnosed around Thanksgiving 2009, and declared cancer-free (or as free of cancer as any survivor can be) about March 2011.   

On March 12, 2011, three days after my 49th birthday, a manila envelope arrived addressed to me. 
 
It was oddly soft, handwritten, and hand stamped, only a local return address in the upper left corner.  I wasn't expecting anything, but I get stuff from readers -- tips, scoldings, and thank-you cards -- so I opened it.   On a non-descript sheet of yellow paper, I read a handwritten note.
 
"Mike:  At my retirement 'roast' I 'awarded' about 25 of my more fun ties.  This one is for you."   It was a handmade necktie, soft and silky, sleek and shiny, with a golden-orange turkey standing proud and luminescent, a Great American bird. 
 
This week, just days before my 50th birthday, a second sign arrived. 

"I was hoping to set up a time to talk with you since this has become a big issue for you and you have been able to catalyze the formation of the CIVIC group," Columbia Daily Tribune business reporter Jacob Barker emailed me, about a story he's doing on City Hall's Blight Decree/tax break package, and a new group -- Citizens Involved and Invested in Columbia, or CiViC -- opposing it.  

"Thanks for the note," I emailed back.  "I'm not the right person to talk to about this, as credit for forming, catalyzing, and even naming CiViC rightly belongs to others.  The concept has a history that dates back a couple of years..." and I referred him to the right folks.

Within seconds, it appeared:   "A message that you sent could not be delivered to one or more of its recipients.  This is a permanent error. The following address(es) failed:    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.   550 ip address access denied.   mail.columbiatribune.com."

The Trib had been banning my email address, something I could work around by using a different one.  Now my IP address -- my virtual identity -- was locked out.  We don't get along, in case you haven't noticed.   They routinely print stories the Heart Beat broke, then dismiss me as "just a blogger" or "persistent conspiracy theorist" or whatever belittling phrase is making the rounds of the news room.   I can't imagine disrespect reaching any higher level, and it's far from limited to just me.

I forwarded the interview request to CiViC, and took it as the sign it was. 

A
nyone who reads the Heart Beat knows that most things in Columbia are big issues to me, maybe even bigger now, given the past two years.  My wife comes from a long line of Mizzou grads -- mother, a physician; father, a lawyer; four brothers, from engineers to bankers.  She brought me here from my hometown West Coast, where, if I made it to the ballot box, I thought I was civically engaged.

Like the CiViC name says, I got involved here because I got invested here.   I've spent a decade rehabbing rental houses in Columbia's central city, the now-blighted First Ward.  For weeks on end during warm months, I come home covered in everything from saw dust to drywall, and manage the properties on my own.   I started the North Central Columbia listserv in 2005 to help neighbors engage.  Together, those neighbors have fought everything from crime and slumlords to stormwater floods.   Their neighborhood has improved remarkably, an entirely different place than it was in 2002.

I was appointed to the City of Columbia Historic Preservation Commission, a couple of Mayoral committees, and even chaired the City's Finance Commission.   I've run for School Board, addressed groups about Black History, hosted local radio shows, and with my family, found many friends. 

Like our friends, we feel threatened beyond comprehension by City Hall's Blight Decree and every Pandora's Box it opens.  The very word "blight" stands for everything Columbia is not.   It disregards history; turns a blind eye to pain; casts aside labor, love, and sacrifice; ignores community vision; blots out the American dream. 

It is, as Missouri property rights expert Bruce Hillis told 80 people last week, "evil" plain and simple.

We are heartsick about this terrible lie, and realize that even if blight is defeated in Columbia for the fourth time in 60 yearsResolution R20-12 marks a watershed moment for us.

Our friend sold his lovingly-restored historic North Central Columbia home after years of battling City Hall, which -- as so many people have astutely noted -- contributes more to blight through infrastructure neglect than any other force in town.  My family and I are faced with a similarly difficult choice.

If we hang in, do we risk condemnation?    Or a slow death called "pre-condemnation blight" that gradually drains our property of all its value?   Do we hang on until a great irony of history -- that white families face the fate black families faced 50 years ago -- befalls us? 

Do we give up and get out?   Do we stay and fight?   How much fight do we really have left?

Despite the reappearance of this giant historical mistake, we're optimistic that Columbia will endure.  Her people saved Alison's life, and helped me discover America:  that exhilarating cacophony many listen to, but few ever really hear.

I won't get any REDI awards, and I'm not on any shortlists for Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year.  But for all my cacophony -- otherwise known as civic duty -- I have that handmade silken necktie displaying that quintessential American bird, which -- being a turkey -- has a double meaning a writer can appreciate. 

It arrived as 18 months of chemotherapy and radiation and endless heart-stopping hospital exams were finally ending.  It said Thanksgiving, in brilliant autumn hues.  Maybe I was already light-headed with all the good news, but I almost fainted when I read who it was from.

"Please accept this in the spirit in which it was given," the handwritten note said.  "Bill Watkins, (Former) Columbia City Manager."

-- Mike Martin

 


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