Johnny Martinez was a complicated man who did wonderful things. I campaigned for state Rep. Johnny Martinez last summer when he was running to be re-elected to represent the 95th district, but I knew his opponent a lot better than I knew Johnny. Present Ward 16 Alderman Raul Avila has consistently blocked constructive things from happening in his ward, has wasted $500,000 of city money through the Fair Haven Development Corporation (FHDC), and has racialized politics in his ward in the ugliest way. I knew enough about Johnny to know that he was definitely the better choice. I knew that he was the deputy majority leader in the House of Representatives, serving the Hill since 1995. I knew that he was a well-respected state leader who had fought hard for blacks and Hispanics in the criminal justice system, and worked for rehabilitative services and community courts for drug offenders. I knew that he helped head Hill Development Corporation, which manages to do everything right that FHDC does wrong. I knew that he was radiant and charismatic and always seemed so sure of himself — almost indestructible.
But I never really knew Johnny. He died on Friday a little after midnight, when he lost control of his car on the wet freeway, and I couldn’t feel any personal loss or deep emotion — just an abstract understanding that something very bad had happened. It was only after hearing the stories about how this vibrant, active person had affected other living people that I finally cried.
Ward 7 Alderwoman Dolores Colon had run into Roger, an acquaintance of hers who works for the city of New Haven. She told him about Johnny’s sudden death and was shocked to watch him — a tall, full-grown man — crumble.
“He was completely devastated,” she said. “At first he didn’t want to tell me what he was feeling, but then he decided to.”
Roger described how he had been at the lowest point in his life, addicted to heroin and in a halfway house when he first met Johnny. Roger said that all of the rehabilitation professionals and counselors had told him there was no way he could make it, that he should drop out of the program because he wouldn’t be able to handle it.
“But Johnny told me that I could make it,” he said. “He told me that it was within me and that my mother hadn’t raised me to live on the streets. And I did it. He visited me every day and I did it. Johnny Martinez saved my life.”
Talia Aikens, a coordinator of Johnny’s summer campaign said that while going door-to-door in the Hill last summer, stories like that were typical.
“At least 15 people came up to him and hugged him and said how he had saved their lives,” she said. “That’s what he was known for.” Throughout the 1990s, Johnny led the Hill Health Center Grant Street Partnership, a community-based group that helped substance abusers overcome their addictions, working with individuals one-to-one on the same issues he would later legislate.
I had spent the week leading up to Johnny’s death reading every article on Iraq that I could find — in The New York Times, in The Guardian, in The Atlantic Monthly, from the BBC, anywhere. The day that Johnny died was the same day the Senate voted to authorize the President to attack Iraq. I realized then how each death echoes through a community, rippling through to all the lives that have been touched, disrupting the delicate network connecting each person. The doctrine of “pre-emptive war” no longer seemed just senseless and immoral. The imminent destruction of Baghdad, its people and young Americans — of millions of complicated people who do wonderful things — finally made me cry.
I remain overwhelmed by the fragility of life — how quickly we can be gone and how permanently it can be over — at the very moment at which the lives of millions have been put in more terrifying jeopardy than they have in decades. I guess we’re not supposed to think about how crazy the world actually is, how whimsical and disordered. We’re definitely not supposed to make decisions based on it. Because when some people realize how utterly chaotic the world is, they are overwhelmed with the desire to control it, lashing out sociopathically, pathologically, irrationally, with hatred or cruelty or ICMBs and nuclear warheads.
Then there are other people, like me. I just want to hug all of you — even those of you who write 1,000-word vicious responses to my columns at 7 a.m., and those of you who think we (Yalies) are the smartest people in the world because you have never stepped two blocks off of campus, and those of you who ascribe every redistributive policy to the guilt of privilege. I want to hug everyone because I realize that I can’t survive this chaos alone; the only thing that can withstand it is the we — the families and communities and civilizations that we all create together.
Ultimately, I realize that this, too, is extreme and impractical. I have to survive the chaos alone, and I am not going to spend tomorrow throwing my arms around every unsuspecting passerby. But a large part of our nation has been manipulated into being scared in ways that Friday’s columnists on this page articulated far more powerfully than I ever could, and our federal representatives have voted to allow our president to lash out. That is scary.
Shonu Gandhi is a senior in Saybrook College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.