I went yesterday to a blood drive held at St. Patrick’s Church in Rittenhouse Square. Out of all Philadelphia’s squares it’s probably the most beautiful one. Perhaps it’s the combination of old and new architectures, or the grand stone fountain in the middle that’s reminiscent of European towns. The place usually buzzes with people, drinking and laughing inside the many restaurants, bars and small shops huddled in between. This time however it was eerily quiet. The bright shops were closed. Chairs were put over tables, neon lights were off -the air itself was cold and grimy. I passed a few people on the way, careful to reach the widest boundary of the sidewalk and avoid looking into each other’s eyes.
At last I arrived to the church, or rather, the parish hall. The Philadelphia Youth Orchestra usually practices in the main room, which I’ve visited a few times. Their chrome instruments and golden bassoons thunder with epic, sparkling sounds. But that seems like ages ago. I don’t know the last time they practiced here.
Instead, the room’s been repurposed, like a field hospital, with about a dozen platforms scattered around and nurses walking around them. I am greeted by a nurse with a facemask, gloves and a temperature meter. They take my temperature, sign me in, lead me to a table to get my medical information and again take my temperature. I ask my nurse whether people have been donating blood in light of the current crisis. She says they have, and have been very grateful for the outpouring of public support. She’s bubbling with energy and kindly leads me through the process.
The drawing of blood voluntarily is a strangely ancient thing. Romans frequently “opened their veins” to commit suicide. Medieval doctors prescribed “purges” for all sorts of sicknesses. Aztecs pricked their ears with cactus spikes as a blood offering to their gods with the same nonchalance as we might eat cereal in the morning. Nowadays, blood is so common in movies and tv shows that it suffers from a comical tiredness.
As I watched the crimson liquid slowly flow through the tube, I had the vague feeling that I was giving a small, though not unsubstantial, part of my life away -if they drew too much, I could pass out and die. Of course, this was not going to happen, but the fact that people put themselves in these situations is a testament to the strangeness in which people can either hold on to their life, or give it away. A wise man once said that saints love life so much, that they’re willing to give it away for their faith. I still ponder what that means.
I walked back to my car as before, but with increased effort in keeping my stride straight, taking in deep breaths, sipping from an apple juice box. The city remained as silent and cold as before, and I hurried my way to the car in case a policeman were to ask of my whereabouts. I slipped out of downtown into the quiet security of my home. But I realize that that peace has been shattered for too many people in the world today. The war continues against the silent, invisible enemy that’s invaded our shores.