My older son Greg needed to take the test to get his learner's permit. So, on a recent Saturday we went to the license bureau--we and the rest of humanity.

Is there a more demoralizing place in the public realm? You wait on the plastic chairs with the pimpled, the pock-marked, and the paunch-laden. Skinny teenage girls holding infants. Gaunt bikers with ponytails and scraggly beards. Great-fleshed limbs in sweatpants. Flesh: creased beneath baseball caps, unshaven on gray cheeks, gaping free at the midriff, sagging from the arm . . . flesh by the swollen yard.

A guy with tattooed biceps is telling a guy with cowboy boots about a friend's younger brother. "You know, Andy? Randy? He killed a mailman. Went over a hill and just plowed into him." The radio promises "continuous country, all day." You wonder if you're the only one who's different, who feels vaguely scared, self-consciously delicate, out of place; and you sit there, trapped, waiting that slow wait for your number to come up.

It's enough to test your belief in the sacredness of the individual.

I suppose it's a sign of how fully I've always accepted this idea--the sacredness of the individual--that I've hardly ever thought about it. My parents taught it, fervently. Mrs. Azair, my fifth-grade teacher, who stood for everything smart and beautiful, taught it. Religion teaches it. And it's our civic religion, too, the premise underlying the country, isn't it?

But like so many premises, it lies buried until something disturbs the earth and there it is, visible, troubling. For me, the trouble came with the enormity of September 11.

Soon after the attack, the New York Times began publishing "Portraits of Grief," a full page or two--every day, at first--with short, unofficial profiles of the victims. The series instantly won a devout following, readers who visited those pages like pilgrims to a shrine made of words. During those wrenching, fragile weeks of the fall, the portraits of grief filled me with awe: at the remarkable ambition of the project, which was to remember every single person who died, the secretaries along with the stock brokers, the dishwashers along with the consultants; and at the anecdotal specificity of each brief piece, the way they shunned the bloodless formula of obituary for the living presence of voice and story--the real stuff, sour as well as sweet, of a life lived.

Even as I followed the fluctuating count of those who perished, I faced this daily assertion that each of those people counted. "News value" was not the issue here. All were significant, all worthy of witness.

And this assertion, rather than bringing solace, disturbed me on levels that multiplied and spread. I found myself questioning my capacity for true care. Did I really treat people, in my everyday life, as sacred individuals? In the car, at work, in stores, on the phone, didn't I see people more as bothersome obstacles in my busy day? Did I manage to dismiss them by categorizing--the gaunt biker, the teenage mom? Beyond my immediate circle, was everyone else merely "them?"

I would begin to read the "Portraits of Grief" and start shaking, unable to continue. In what way was I touched? Was I merely wallowing in sentimentality over "the tragedy," indulging in the luxury of emotion in safety and at a distance? And wasn't it a kind of luxury, in our pampered country, to have a newspaper lavish such poignant attention on this single day's tide of victims, in a world that washes up victims neverending? The landslide in Mexico, the plane crash in Russia, the killings in Indonesia or India or Israel, or in Afghanistan for that matter: Were those victims given, for the sake of their countrymen, let alone our sake, their own portraits of grief?

Or do they not matter as much? Is individualism a cultural construct, so that people in other societies don't feel the same intimate sense of loss that we do? And to what extent is this sense of loss bound up with the elaborate material trappings and possibilities for self-fulfillment in American life? Defining ourselves by our jobs, possessions, accomplishments, and experiences, do we assume that for poorer people life is actually cheaper? It seems a crass question, but I wonder about "sense of self" and "the value of each life"--our claim on these notions, our assumptions about how others may claim them.

Really, how far can grief extend? Is it possible for me to care about the filler-article victims in Indonesia as I care about the Portraits-of-Grief victims in New York, people with whom I can identify? But I never would have identified with the dish-washers, or the stock brokers for that matter, had it not been for those few paragraphs that transformed them from "stock brokers" and "dishwashers" into individuals who were, so many of them, creative and loving in surprising ways. They would have remained versions of "them."

I wonder, finally, whether we can ever expect to connect with people as individuals beyond those most close to us. We value individualism, but can we really, on a societal scale, treat people as individuals? It's hard enough in families, in friendships. Perhaps those deepest bonds can never translate into an "ism" at all.

We view the world through categories. We need to, I guess; they bolster us somehow. But they trap us as well. I wonder if I can look at other people free of category. I wonder if they, too, each of them, feels different, vaguely scared, delicate, self-conscious. Even as they sit waiting on those plastic chairs.

My son did get his learner's permit, and we left the license bureau with relief, emerging from that common-denominator of a room where everyone is thrown in together, denim and chino, dropout and prof, shoulder to shoulder, each one holding a slip with his number. So Greg has his very first photo ID, a laminated, wallet-sized card with a picture that makes him look--the way we all look on those cards--like a lowlife.

Now I'll have to teach him to drive.


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