Saturday, October 17, 2009

Transparent Reflections

I had an interesting slice of life not too long ago, but long enough that I can consider it in retrospect.

It began on Mother’s Day, of all things. I knew I couldn’t face being in church on Mother’s Day without my kids. I could tell you why, but it would take too long and that’s not what I want you to remember today. I want to tell you about the other event; the one that started that day.

Well, to be honest, it started the day before Mother’s Day, but forced itself to be carried to the next day. Some instinct told me it would take more than one trip to convince myself I could do this. I wasn’t afraid of the place, but of the memory rush that it brought. It took me a bit to get my bearings.

Walking in gave me flashbacks of the many trips to the Welfare Office or Public Health Center or Energy Assistance Offices in another city in another life. It was the same sort of building which housed a Social Worker or a WIC-aid or a Public Health Nurse who would be too overwhelmed to really help me. It always bothered me that they never looked at me and would push me along with a “here’s-your-paperwork” sigh. “Next!”

The atmosphere sang a familiar song. The defeated hum of the clients in the waiting room, the constant rush and buzz of conversation clouding the air, the weary shuffle of people tired from the inside out. I knew it immediately.

There is a desperate hope that people cling to who are beyond their abilities. If you have lived among them, you know it’s almost tangible. It’s in their choice of words for greeting, “what’s up?” Strange positive twist when no news is most often the best news. Their dismissals are likewise different: “take care!” or “later.” Rarely do you hear someone say good-bye. Life is too fragile for such permanent bridge burning. Maintaining the precious connections to another life is of utmost importance.

I have spent a lot of time with millionaires in the last several years. I have become accustomed to the feel of a BMW. I have learned to like good food, Broadway performances, have been in several American airports for pleasure travel. I am in the midst of obtaining a degree from a prestigious private college known for its writing expectations. I have come to enjoy listening to brilliant minds battle over points of law or literature.

Within moments, all of that history was gone. “Hey,” I nodded with quiet respect to the tilted hats, sagging jeans and hip/hop songs covering the sidewalk.

They parted in like manner, “’Sup?”

“Ain’t nothin’, brother. All good.”

Inside, I feared the workers would be like the many I had met in these circumstances before. They would look over you, around you, past you, but never AT you. They would talk above you as if they assumed you couldn’t understand them because you were beneath them. You would be identified by your number, your name, but not your person. I was prepared for that.

Maybe because this isn’t exactly a public service, although it provides much needed cash for the clients; or maybe it’s the idea that this office is in business to provide something which ultimately saves lives. It could even be that all of the clients are not necessarily there only for the money. I’m not sure why, but I know the treatment is different. Even when very, very busy – there is time for a smile, time to joke, time to care. If they catch your eyes and see that you’re open to them, you will find a gentleness, a real concern shared.

Even in my hardest days living on welfare and existing on the streets, I had never gotten far enough down to donate plasma. I knew you could get cash for it, but I thought it would hurt and I was sure it would be even more demeaning than food stamps.

I was glad to find that I was wrong when my house of cards began to fall and I found myself without work. There are only so many options a woman of my age and history has to fall back on. There is the goodness of friends, the support of family and the kindness of strangers. But those have their limits when the chips are down for everyone.

I told myself I would try the “plasma thing” as sort of a good deed. I knew the plasma was used for some sort of medical something and that was a good thing. I didn’t want to face Mother’s Day alone again. I needed the cash, badly. It all made sense.

There I was. Looking in a room full of mirrors reflecting different stages of my life.

I spent many, many hours in that clinic over the next six months. My life went from bad to worse financially, but inside I grew exponentially richer. I watched the workers and clients sloughing through the sadness of their days. I saw them pulling good from one another like threads of gold. They didn’t know they were stitching a quilt of comfort around me covering me with hope.

Some were particularly good at being personal. Ubah, of course. Her strong, dry humor keeping the distances proper. William and Sam controlling the floor always watchful of who was needed where, but not without time to notice the clients. Dr. Brooks and The Marine, like odd twins, quick with a smile and distraction that made the girls forget the sadness waiting outside. And the many, many others whose names blend together in a cacophony of professional friendship, but whose faces and conversation have etched themselves in the surface of me.

I walked across the bridge of past and present time and again in those months.

Listening to men whose voices were filled with my father’s words and women whose eyes carried my mother’s worries. I saw young men, much like my brother, whose shoes my sons had never worn. I recognized myself time and again in the deep sighs of young women carrying babies when they should have been carrying textbooks.
I had nothing again. No prospects for work. No way to make money to support myself. I had already sold what I could and was left with value-less remnants.

The worst days came when even my body worked against me and I wasn’t healthy enough to donate plasma. I would not have the precious $20 that would fill my gas tank and get me to school. I wonder if any of my peers saw the bitter tears that my hopelessness bought? It wasn’t pride that kept me from telling them, but the knowledge that I had made my own way. I was at the bottom looking up again because I personally refused to sell out any longer to a world where I didn’t belong.
There, at that clinic, surrounded by faded life, I was reminded of who I am and where I’m from.

I’m not about having stuff. I’m not name brand or big cash or titles or location.

I’m about rich, real relationships colored by love and commitment. I’m about connections that aren’t broken, but strengthened over time.

I understand the musical language of the streets. I like the laughter and the foolish banter. It’s not too deep for me to wonder if I’ve missed something. I like the flattery and flirting of the ghetto. Outsiders think it’s crass, but insiders know it’s complimentary. I would take a blatant whistle and smile over a leering look any day.

I am real. I don’t have time to be fake because life is too quickly lived. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Don’t burn bridges. Those people around you might need you and you might need them, even if it is just for a bus transfer. It’s okay to ask. We are all in the same place and get it. We won’t be offended. We understand.

People not in the ghetto don’t get that. It’s not begging. It’s asking. They would just as quickly give to you as ask from you.

I thought I could get used to living with the “others.” I have found I don’t understand their rules. When to speak, when to be silent. When to laugh, when to smile quietly. When to ask, when to give.

I just don’t get it.

That’s why I’m still at home here among those who are living without. And as soon as people realize that I’m really one of them, they open back up with that smile and banter and generosity and goodwill. It’s not as scary as you might think. You have to be wise - that’s hard for me to remember. I always think the best of everyone and not everyone is in the best frame of mind.

I am better for having lived this slice of life. I hope I never forget its depth and blessings. If I have to cross this bridge again, I know I’ll be okay.

I can look in the mirror again and like who I see.


  1. Yes ma'am. The language is rich and the human connections much more easily forged in honesty. I appreciate your way of defining things in a way that reflected it accurately.

  2. Kris ~ I didn't want to stop reading. This pulled me into the page. Excellent!

  3. wow thats deep...good stuff...their is nothing wrong with the ghetto..after all i go to school in ur part of the ghetto. nice place.