Friday, May 9, 2008

Just Because

I have delayed posting about my canvassing experiences this week in North Carolina. I jotted down tidbits of things that struck me as my good friend Will and I walked throughout various neighborhoods to Barack the vote in NC's primary. While I am thrilled with Tuesday's outcome, I can't help wondering what will change in the daily lives of the people we encountered. Will any president make a difference to their plight?

It has simply been too difficult to face the hard core, pounding, bass riddled music. I start a post and then leave my laptop, feeling spent before any substantial words get out. It's hard articulating what I saw and felt. And I'm finding that it's even harder keeping it in.

Will and I canvassed in some of Raleigh's poorest neighborhoods. Places that we read about and hear about but manage to neatly sweep under the rug in our brains and hearts because we know it is too devastating to face the reality that we saw. Neighborhoods just a few miles from where we live. That's the worst part, it's so close yet totally out of sight and mind. I live in a perfectly lovely neighborhood that harkens back to the days of yore when neighborhoods were communities and neighbors were friends. It bears zero resemblance to the places we canvassed, leaving me feeling ashamed, guilty, sorry, frustrated, lost, but mostly, just deeply sad. Here's a taste of our day:

Stray dogs, full, heavy teats swaying while digging through trash that didn't make its way to the dumpster. Hunger in their eyes. Skeletal frame and patches of crusty, infected fur. Paws bleeding and torn.

Broken glass everywhere. I mean everywhere. It crunched underfoot the way gravel does on a park path. I would have surely endured glass shards to the toes had I not been wearing sensible flats (BTW, canvassing in flip flops is a very bad idea. Trust me, I did it on Monday in a hilly neighborhood. Very bad idea.). The only patches of green in the whole apartment complex were covered in shattered glass that I imagine being tossed from balconies by angry, bitter even, frustrated people who are just trying to get by and feeling abandoned. Forgotten. Worse, ignored.

The four-year old girl who was small enough to pass for two, and not in that dainty peanut of a way. She was clean but wore a tattered, too-big sundress. What struck me most was that she and the dogs shared the same steely, empty look in their eyes. This little girl (the same age as my Bird!) was home with an 18-year old boy. I have no idea if he was her father, brother, uncle.

The men, young and old, drinking cans of Budweiser at 10:00 in the morning, lighting a fresh cigarette from the butt of the current one. Tossing those beers cans into the bushes, onto the sidewalk. Reaching into the Styrofoam cooler to pop open another. Music thumping, blaring from an unknown place. The steady, hard beat. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.

The smoking. All that smoking. The people who do not get decent healthcare are the very ones who will need it most, and smoking certainly fuels that fire. What got me was the smoking around children. All those babies clutching on to a mom who has a Marlboro Red hanging out the corner of her mouth. A lipstick stained cigarette butt held between the fingers of a mom wiping her baby's drool with that very same hand. I'm not judging here, just noting.

A sorry excuse for a playground. There was a patch of sand about 10 x 10 with a very small slide and a climbing structure. That's it. No monkey bars, no swings, no real playground equipment. It was as if it were an afterthought in developing the apartment complex. An imagined primary color oasis amidst the otherwise colorless, lackluster surroundings.

The dilapidated buildings. Shame on those landlords who perpetuate the state of disenfranchisement these people face everyday! Busted doorjambs, broken windows with duct tape to hold the pieces together, nails popping out of steps, fallen handrails, gutters askew, shingles flapping, uneven balconies, dented doors, crumbling sidewalks.

The few homes with silk flower spring wreaths on the door and potted geraniums on the porch. Shoes neatly lined up on a mat outside the door. Porch swept. Windchimes swaying and tinkling something that sounded like songs of hope in the breeze.

The filthy dogs chained up to porch rails. The stench of feces infecting the air as we walked up the front walk. Dogs angrily growling, babies wailing, children playing with pieces of an old refrigerator, a legless old man rocking on the front porch, oblivious to it all. No mother or father in sight. Filthy conditions unsuitable for even the worst offenders, much less children. Squalor sums it up.

The eviction letter taped to the door, dated three days prior to us knocking. There were Hefty bags stuffed to the brim, toys, and toddler size 8 sandals waiting to be claimed, left behind in a hurried departure.

Oh, the children. My heart aches for those faces. Those parents don't love their children any less than I love mine. We all share the same intense, consuming, indescribable giddy love that only those who have parented a child know. Their fierce desire to protect their kids is no different than mine. The difference is that paying rent is never an issue. The lights, phone, and gas will never get turned off at my house. Three squares with a few snacks thrown in will always be served. Healthy squares at that. I don't have to weigh the cost of treating an ailment with putting cereal on the table for breakfast. Little, and big, luxuries aren't given a second thought at my house.

What are necessities to us are luxuries to them.

Will and I talked with some lovely people. They were candid, friendly, funny, and warm. Perhaps in different circumstances I would have been afraid in these neighborhoods. On a sunny 82 degree May day on which people were casting a vote for the first black man to potentially be our President, I felt no fear. Hope, amid the desperation, was palpably in the air.

We met great grandmothers who had never voted before but decided to make use of the free ride to the polls to cast their votes for Obama. We met teenagers who voted for the first time, despite the fact that their parents had never voted to set that example. We met men who waited in line for longer than the lunch break they were granted to vote early. For the first time. We met people think that they could make a difference, which is exactly the reason we were canvassing. Will, as all-American as you can get, and I, the short Indian woman who looked a bit like Suzy Cheesecake that day, were welcomed into those neighborhoods with nary a glance of judgement. Would the same hold true had those folks entered my neighborhood? Sadly, we know the answer to that. Guilty as charged.

We were all brought together for one cause, cliche and treacly as that sounds. We had a rare chance to hear what's on the minds of some of America's disenfranchised. When is the last time you had a dialog with people who don't live life as you know it? I don't know what Obama will do for these people. What I do know is that a lot of these people feel inspired in ways they had never known. They feel that he's helping them tell their story. They have a glimmer of hope that they won't be forgotten or ignored after all. Mind you, these are not folks who want a Lexus or summer beach house. They want fair wages, healthcare, decent schools for their children, affordable grocery bills, and gas prices that don't eat up the grocery bill. Some of these people cannot afford the gas it takes to get to work, yet they cannot afford to not work. The worst Catch 22, no?

We all have our version of the American Dream. My father did too when he left the only home he knew and moved his wife and two small children across an ocean to give us opportunities he had merely tasted as an adult. As a young, inexperienced man he had the incredible foresight and fortitude to risk everything to bring us here. I will never know the real risks, anxiety, and struggle he faced all those years ago in 1970. There aren't enough words in me to begin to tackle the issues of immigration, race, and classism that my parents endured. Issues very real today.

The American Dream is real. It's not one that will ever be old fashioned or passe. Let's protect it. Let's make it attainable to those after us. These are the principles upon which my brother and I were raised. Mac Daddy and I will raise Bird and Deal in the same fashion, with a keen eye on imparting gratitude and empathy.

My campaigning over the last fews days and weeks has demonstrated that a good many folks were raised with the same values. Admittedly, many a stereotype was shattered for me. Just because a plain front khaki pants and Brooks Brother oxford shirt clad 20-something looks like a good ol' boy doesn't make him one. Just because a young black man wears baggy jeans and Timberland boots doesn't make him a louse. Just because a woman wears Lilly Pulitzer doesn't make her a Republican. Just because people are poor doesn't make them lazy, uneducated, or entitled. Just because people are rich doesn't make them generous.
Just BecauseSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend


Unknown said...

Hey, guys I found you through Obama's blog. Congrats on your newfound fame, excellent post, and thanks for all your work. I enjoyed your video--you get extra cool points for the Nick Drake soundtrack!
Yes we can...

Anonymous said...

Bonnie, thanks for your kind words. I'm so happy you know who Nick Drake is! Glad to add another cool reader to the Dirt & Noise family.

Girlplustwo said...

thank you for pointing me to this...i have had similar dilemmas...how much to introduce my child to and yet at the same time, how much i want her to see. terrific post.