11 February 2013

Closing the Stable Door After The Horse Has Bolted

On November 28, 1942, my mother told her parents she was going to meet some friends at the Cocoanut Grove, the swankiest night club in Boston. When word of what was to become the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history reached my grandfather, imagine his despair as he spent much of the rest of the night frantically searching for his daughter, who, thankfully, wasn’t there. On her way to the club, she and her friends had changed their plans and gone somewhere else. In his relief, my grandfather was furious, and grounded my mother. I don’t remember the whole story now, but grounding might have been the least harsh of the punishments my grandfather meted out.

By now the world beyond Brazil has heard about the tragic fire of two weeks ago in the disco Kiss, in the town of Santa Maria, state of Rio Grande do Sul. The similarities between this most recent nightclub disaster and so many others are startling. How is it that nothing ever changes? Whether it’s Boston in 1942 or West Warwick, Rhode Island in 2003 or Buenos Aires in 2004, clubs are still allowing illegal pyrotechnic flares to be used in closed rooms full of flammable, toxic materials. Exit doors are still being locked and chained from the outside and windows are still being boarded up. And bouncers are still blocking the escape routes of panicked, screaming people because they can’t let them leave without paying. Jeez, do they teach them that in Bouncer School?

There has been plenty already written about the Santa Maria tragedy itself, I won’t add much more to it here. What I’m watching is what’s happening all around Brazil in the tragedy’s aftermath. All of a sudden, laws that have been ignored for decades are being rigorously enforced. All of a sudden, there is manpower aplenty to conduct inspections of hundreds of thousands of nightclubs, bars, restaurants and theaters. Most of the public venues being inspected are, indeed, operating without proper documents and against safety regulations. But ostentatiously shutting them down after allowing them to operate in the first place? Visions of Captain Renault closing down Rick’s Place in Casablanca run through my head:

Look, I’m all for abiding by the law. I come from a country of (mostly) law-abiding citizens. But no one’s being fooled here, these inspections and closures are predictable and heavy-handed. Can’t help but think, What if they had been doing these inspections all along, in a timely manner and on a rotating schedule? How many lives might have been saved? Because doing it now, in one fell swoop, with no discussion allowed, is resulting in draconian closures, a huge economic impact and the renewed cynicism of an already cynical public. It’s the quintessential closing of the stable door after the horse has bolted.

In our own little town of Búzios, five locations were closed down, including the inoffensive Gran Cine Bardot, our jewel of a movie theater, which has been operating for 19 years. It seats a mere 111 people (though we rarely see more than 50 people there at one time) and it has three exits and several visible fire extinguishers. Any pyrotechnics at the Bardot are on the screen. What on earth could the inspectors have found? All we’ve learned is that the theater’s owner must now provide 16 documents in order to be able to reopen. In the meantime, while the theater complies with the law and remains closed, all of the other clubs, bars and restaurants went right back to business as usual an hour after they were shut down. Good old Búzios, where total anarchy trumps zero tolerance.

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