Sunday, July 12, 2015

Angels Unaware

Yesterday, I stiffed Jesus. And I maybe, possibly, was the victim of a con artist. Both of these things may be true.

I had gone up to New York for a couple of days to see people who were in town for Thrillerfest, the annual gathering of the International Thriller Writers. It was a good time, but a lot of travel for a relatively quick visit. New York was hot and crowded and I have lost another small chunk of my field of vision, so just getting around the city is tenser than it used to be: I walk in front of people, I can't see people who are right in front of me (hi, Mark!), and that kind of concentrated socializing is exhausting when I'm used to spending days alone in front of a computer.

So when I got off the bus last night in Arlington, trudging into the Rosslyn Metro for the last leg home, I was tired and cranky and even a little bus-sick. A large woman about my age, dressed nicely with some dramatic eyeliner, was sitting with a cane right outside the Metro entrance.

"Excuse me," she said. "Do you live here? Are you from here?"

"Yes," I said.

"Can you talk to me for a minute?" she asked, so I stopped.

On the verge of tears, she told me a long and complicated story I had trouble following. She had gotten into a car accident that morning; she had gone to work, on a Saturday, at a Department of Commerce office in north Arlington. She had recently moved to this area from Atlanta, and was living with her mother in St. Charles, MD, a town so far from DC that I might not even call it an exurb. The bus to St. Charles wasn't running on the weekend, she said, and she was stranded. She needed $89 and change, an oddly specific number, to get a cab driver to take her home. She didn't have access to her bank account, which was in Atlanta. She had bone cancer, she said, which was why she had the cane.

I had a dollar in my wallet. I told her so. "There's an ATM right in there," she said. "I'll pay you back."

I remembered a time I had been stranded at an airport at the end of a trip, without enough money to get my car out of airport parking. My parents had bailed me out that time, and the manager of the airport hotel had let me eat at the breakfast buffet while I waited for the money to hit my account.

"I can give you $40," I said.

She walked with me to the ATM, and I took out $60 — that's what the ATM quick-withdrawal option dispenses, so I just hit that button. I gave it to her with my business card, and she said she'd pay me back. I wished her luck and went down the escalator to catch my own train. She had told me her name, but I can't remember it.

This morning, I wish I could. I wonder whether and how she got home. And I wonder why I didn't just give her $100. I could have. It's not money I can easily spare; a freelancer's life is a constant scramble, and this is the first year in 15 years of self-employment that I have any breathing room at all.

But, but, but. Jesus talked in parables, but on this question, he was absolutely clear. "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in . . . Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." 

It's actually none of my business whether this woman was truly in need, or a scam artist. She presented herself to me as someone in distress, someone in need. She asked me, personally, for help. It was in my power to help her and I did it halfway. 

I don't feel great about this. I want to be the person who would rather get ripped off than turn her back on someone in trouble. I have tunnel vision in more ways than one, and I don't always see when the people closest to me need help and can't or won't ask. I'm going to be thinking about this encounter for a long time, and wondering what a whole-hearted response to that woman would have been. 

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Because America (no, really)

My younger sisters and their families came up to Washington to celebrate Independence Day this weekend. It's something I had come to take for granted in the years after college, something that was at best irrelevant to me and at worst an inconvenience (tourists on the Metro, traffic, loud noises from fireworks I couldn't see). But yesterday morning we all headed into our nation's capital in the pouring rain, hoping to see a reading of the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives.

A woman on the street told us the reading had been cancelled for security concerns. I hope that's not true, and I couldn't find anything in this morning's paper to confirm that. Nevertheless, the line to get into the National Archives wrapped around the building, so we worked our way over to the part of the Mall where the Folklife Festival would be starting in another hour or two.

We had forgotten about the National Independence Day Parade, which was starting from 7th & Constitution at 11:45. It takes a while to get a parade that size organized, so we walked among floats and bands and people inflating giant balloons. The rain backed off, and everyone seemed happy to be there. The bands had come from all over the country — it's an honor but it's also hugely expensive, and I wondered how many bake sales, car washes, wrapping paper drives, etc. had gone into those appearances.

In our neverending political cycle, we hear angry people talk about "taking this country back." As I walked past a float sponsored by the Sikhs of America, I wondered, not for the first time: back from whom? Back to what?

The Sikhs were walking the Smokey the Bear balloon, and a Vietnamese-American group was walking the giant American eagle. One float carried clowns (Coulro-Americans?) and another carried cloggers. A Chinese-American group marched behind a man on horseback, dressed as the Lone Ranger. The Salvation Army Band led things off, and the Society for Krishna Consciousness followed about half a mile behind. I've never felt so American in my life, so joyful to be part of this nutty country where we are bound not by genetics or heritage or history, but by belief — belief in the self-evident truth that all are created equal, endowed by the Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Start with those, and the right to walk down Constitution Avenue holding a giant inflated orange lizard goes without saying.

This country has never been about "back" to anything. The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution would have mocked the idea of "returning" to anything. They set out to create something entirely new, and they expected that it would continue to evolve as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

I empathize more than I want to with some of the people who talk about "taking the country back." Some of them have been friends of mine since high school or college. They did everything the way they were supposed to: they stepped up and took responsibility when they might not have wanted to, they went to school and applied for jobs and paid their taxes, and watched other people get chosen and promoted above them, including some they consider stupider, lazier and less qualified. Today's Republican Party offers them the fantasy of a time when they could reap the rewards of that struggle, but the ugly truth is that time never existed. The 1950s era of prosperity? Funded by the GI bill and VA housing loans, with a top income tax rate above 90%.

Growth and prosperity have always, always been driven by the people who bring something new to the party, who don’t do what they’re supposed to, who challenge received wisdom and are willing to take a risk. Some of those people were marching in yesterday's parade, and I was proud to be cheering them from the sidewalk.