Staircase mural

Last week, I went to City Hall to drop off a red plastic container of used hypodermic needles. One of our cats, Snowflake, was recently diagnosed with diabetes, so since January we’ve been giving him twice-daily insulin injections. Used syringes (or “medical sharps,” as they’re officially known) are a health hazard and can’t be tossed in the trash, but the local Health Department accepts puncture-proof containers of used needles for safe disposal.

USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere

It took a lot of wandering inside City Hall to find the Health Department: the building is literally a bureaucratic maze. Newton’s City Hall also doubles as a War Memorial, so while I was lost and wandering, I had ample opportunity to admire the dioramas in the hallways, each depicting in miniature a significant scene from American military history.

Pickett's Charge

Dioramas are like windows into another time or place, depicting a particular moment frozen in time, but they are also a kind of box, cleanly containing a discreet moment that exists separate and apart from the present. Viewing miniature models of soldiers dying on the battlefields of Gettysburg or France, for instance, I can imagine what it was like to be there…but I’m not there. The pane of glass between me and a diorama scene safely contains the story it depicts, so I can peer into the box of another’s pain without having to touch it.

Somewhere in France

Once I found the Health Department, I was surprised I didn’t have to fill out any paperwork or show identification to prove I’m a resident. Instead, when I announced I had medical sharps to dispose, a man silently rose from his desk and barely made eye contact as he solemnly walked me down the hall to a locked closet where a large, deep box—large enough to curl up in—was filled to almost-overflowing with red biohazard canisters and used detergent bottles, each filled with puncture-points of pain.

Valley Forge

After adding my contribution to the box, I got to wondering about its contents. The box, like a diorama, was both a window and a container. As a container, it safely held sharp, potentially infectious things that need to be handled (and disposed of) with care. But as a window, the box offered a glimpse into the pain of my anonymous neighbors. Behind each needle-prick lies a story of suffering: patients and caretakers, sickness or addiction, pain and relief. Maybe this is why the man with the closet key averted his eyes, in part to preserve my privacy (needles freely accepted: no questions asked) but also to protect the sanctity of an unshared story.

The diorama of daily life contains so much suffering, a jaw-dropping accumulation of countless pricks and jabs. Who among us has the courage to look it in the eye?