Towards the end of The 39 Steps, our dashing hero (with his equally dashing moustache) demands to know, “What are the 39 steps‽”  But before the respondent can complete his answer, he’s shot.  Not that the answer has much meaning anyway:  the 39 steps are nothing more than a Hitchcockian MacGuffin.

The MacGuffin, as Hitchcock explains, is “the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.”  It’s the code for which people will kill.  It’s the computer disk that a hero must retrieve or protect.

Though the primary purpose of the MacGuffin is to drive the plot forward, I think it also serves a second, more existential role.  The MacGuffin is necessary to stave off despair.   A hero’s travails must have some external meaning (to preserve the secret British airpower, to expose the bad guys, to fall in love with the hot blond) to be consequential.  As much as MacGuffins give narratives their shape, it also gives on-screen lives their significance.

If only real life provided MacGuffins as easily.

Over this last weekend in Wilmington, there were two shootings, both unrelated, both about 10 blocks from our house.  The quality of the neighborhoods in Wilmington, like most urban cities, varies drastically from street to street.  When Matthew and I go on recycling strolls (picking up stray cans as a form of exercise), we see the differences immediately.  To our north is Baynard Boulevard, with its grand houses and manicured lawns.  Very few cans there.  But if we go south past Jefferson, the streets grow increasingly dingy.  I oftentimes see an object and think, Should I touch that without a Hazmat suit? The cans here are long 40 ouncers, with some variations of the word ‘Cobra’ or ‘Ice’ emblazoned on it (sadly, completely unrelated to the Southeast Asian aperitif of iced cobra liquor).

Our street (21st) is relatively quiet, a mix of families and younger professionals, with very few problems.  Occasionally a rumble comes down our street — a mass of youths hooting and hollering and aching for a fight, but our across-the-street neighbor, Sharon, quickly puts the kibosh on that.  Her rolling out with her wagging finger is enough to dissipate any trouble.

But these fights have their own MacGuffins (a stolen boyfriend, an insult), but the shootings don’t have a readily-available narrative.  A woman shot in the back.  An 18-year old.  A robbery, a random event; nothing is there to help make sense of the crimes.

This evening, after the sun had set and as the sky approached near dark, I took 39 steps from my street towards 31st Street, where both the shootings took place.  I only made it halfway down the block — not far enough to put myself into harm’s way, and yet not far enough to distance myself from the fear that people are killed for no reason whatsoever.

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