Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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When my Peace Corps recruiter told me I’d be a perfect candidate to teach English in Africa, I told her I wanted to build the schools, not teach in them. I wanted to get my hands dirty and sweat a bit.
She placed me in the teaching program in Cameroon.
Classroom protocol was very formal. My high-school students rose from their desks when I entered the room and stood when responding to my questions. At first they seemed to like me. They would linger after class to ask me grammar questions or stop me in the market to talk about my tastes in music and clothes. But then someone in class began to mimic my voice when my back was turned. Every day for a week, an exaggerated, high-pitched version of my voice returned my words a beat after I had spoken them.
On Friday I snapped. I spun around from the board and grabbed the first student I saw by the lapels of his school uniform. He stood, and I heard the rip of cloth, so tight was my grip.
“Wolwe,” I said, “who has been mimicking my voice?”
“I cannot say, Miss.”
“Are you afraid of getting your friend in trouble?”
“Would you take the punishment for your friend?”
So I released my grip and went to my grade book, trying to look calm as I flipped through the pages.
“I see you got a fifteen on last week’s test. Not bad. Now it’s a zero.”
“Please, Miss. Please.”
“I said you have a zero. Now just shut up, boy.”
And there it was. So easy. So natural. Not only had I swiftly and severely punished Wolwe; I’d let the ghosts of my plantation-owner ancestors rise up in me and slap that label on a young black man. Boy. It was in my blood, the way I spat that word. Boy. There was nothing awkward about it; my voice didn’t catch or quiver or hesitate. Boy. I said it just like a character in a Richard Wright novel, lines I had read and reread and underlined until I’d felt the nausea churning inside me, and I’d vowed that someday, somehow I would make a difference in the world.
Mary Beth Simmons
West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania
In the late seventies I was a member of the Clamshell Alliance, which sought to halt construction on a new nuclear reactor in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Once a week we met in “affinity groups,” where all our decisions were made by consensus. Often these meetings went on into the small hours, as there was always someone — usually Ken — who would block consensus, making us start over again until everyone was happy.
One time my father drove me into Boston, where I was to spend the night on a crowded church-basement floor with other Clamshell members. Before dawn my fellow activists and I would board school buses and ride to the plant construction site. We planned to scale chain-link fences around the site and get ourselves arrested by the state police. My job, to my father’s relief, involved tossing a rug over the barbed wire and assisting climbers up ladders.
On our way to the church, I explained to my father the idea of consensus: how each member had a voice, and how we would rework any plan until everyone was comfortable with it.
“That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard of,” he said. “What you people need is a foreman.” My father had a foreman, a guy who told him and the rest of his work crew what to do. “With a foreman you know where you stand,” he added, “and if you don’t do what you’re told, you’re standing in the unemployment line. Otherwise how would anything get done?”
I couldn’t understand how my father tolerated someone ordering him around all day. Yet he liked his foreman and even drank with him after they cashed their checks on Fridays. I dismissed my father’s willingness to follow orders as just another example of the internalized oppression of the working class.
By 3 A.M. I was longing for a foreman to shut everyone up and put us to bed. Every time we were about to settle a last-minute issue, someone would block consensus, and we would have to start over. I found myself concocting various tortures for those unwilling to let anything pass, especially Ken, who each time managed to find some detail that prevented him from casting his lot with the rest of us. I hated his guts.
At 4 A.M., groggy and ill-tempered, we boarded the buses, having decided almost nothing.
Later that day, my father came to pick me up. I flung my sleeping bag into the rear of his station wagon, climbed in, and laid my head back on the seat. I didn’t mention the night of consensus building. All I wanted to do was sleep.
In the sixties, my husband, a full-blooded Arizona Navajo, and I, a white woman from the plains of Colorado, quit our jobs. Together we were going to live according to the old ways of the Navajos on the northern part of the reservation in Apache County, Arizona. Although my husband knew more than I did about what was in store, neither he nor I was fully aware of the indignities and privations of traditional Native life.
We lived with my husband’s family and clan members in a cluster of hogans more than a hundred miles from water, which we hauled in by horse and wagon once a month. These meager stores allowed each of us only about two cups of water a day. The wastewater was carried to the growing plants. There was often no soap. I washed my face, my short hair, and my private areas and called it good. Washing the rest of the body was saved for the rare times we went to a trading post, where we could take a shower for a dime. Going to the bathroom involved digging a hole in the sand and burying our waste. The privy patch was the bane of my existence. I never adjusted to squatting in full view of the others.
We shared our hogan with sixteen other people. Navajos respect each other’s privacy, but with so many sharing such a small space, real privacy was impossible. Everyone turned a deaf ear to married couples. We slept on sheepskins on the dirt floor. At dawn the skins were shaken, aired for a bit in the sun, and then rolled up and placed out of the way, for the sleeping area was also the working and living area.
In summer we cooked outside on an old wood-burning stove and over small, intense fires in the sand. We had to gather and dry dung, brush, and dead cedar boughs for fuel. There were no regular meals. In the old Navajo way, one ate when one was hungry, which for the women meant feeding people around the clock.
In good times, when everyone did their assigned jobs of herding and working in the stunted garden, we had the luxury of butchering a goat every other day. Men reaped the best, meatiest parts; the women got the long, skinny ribs, which we roasted over hot coals without salt or seasonings. Even in good times, we cracked the bones to suck the marrow. When times were really bad, we lived on canned milk, fry bread in lard, and canned tomatoes. I dreamed of sauerkraut, bratwurst, fried chicken, potatoes in sour cream, and glorious salads made from cucumbers and every kind of greens.
When I found myself pregnant, anemic, and sick with TB, my husband and I packed up our dreams and left.
When I was nineteen, I thought I could save the planet. Raised on anarchist punk rock, I set out to fight injustice and make the world a better place.
In a national forest near Eugene, Oregon, I climbed to a plywood tree stand two hundred feet up an ancient Douglas fir. (Julia Butterfly Hill had already been sitting in a redwood for more than four months.) For forty-five days I called the tree stand home. When I came down, another took my place.
The forest action grew, and I took many more turns up in the trees. I did my fair share of blocking bulldozers, and even had the opportunity to meet with some congresspeople.
After two years of struggle, though, I was fed up and frustrated with the system. I’d witnessed countless cases of police brutality, lying officials, and broken hearts as more and more forests were destroyed. I decided it was time for underground action. A friend and I planned to set fire to three SUVs in a protest designed to raise awareness about global warming. We succeeded in our mission, and no one was hurt.
That was three years ago. I’ve been in prison ever since. I’m doing twenty-two years for my idealism.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about the choices I made, and I’m proud of them. Maybe I didn’t change the world, but from the letters I get, I know I helped open some people’s eyes.
We managed to save that old-growth forest, too.
When I got to high school, I started feeling depressed. My two best friends both called suicide-prevention hotlines on my behalf. But I wasn’t suicidal; I was simply awakened to the brutality, indignity, and inequity in the world. I felt as if I were the only one in ninth grade who cared about anything besides lipstick, school lunch, and petty disputes. My friends were sympathetic, but things just didn’t affect them the way they did me.
It wasn’t until I discovered macrobiotics at the age of twenty that I developed a zeal for living. Finally there was something positive and practical I could do. I spoke passionately about my discovery to friends, family, and even strangers. “It means ‘living the great life,’ ” I would say. I believed we could save the world by creating healthy human beings.
I ate organic foods from fifty-pound bags. I moved to the country and planted a garden. I dropped out of college to become an apprentice at a macrobiotic healing center. I stopped going to bars, brought my own food to social gatherings, and berated friends for visiting doctors when they could easily cure themselves of whatever ailed them.
By my midtwenties, I didn’t have any close friends anymore. My two best friends from high school had grown distant, and I’d not been able to make any new ones, no matter how many homemade-sushi parties I threw. I went to cooking classes and macrobiotic lectures, but I had no one I could call when I wanted to talk about something personal. If this was the “great life,” it sure felt lonely.
I’m now twenty-eight and married. My husband and I eat a relaxed macrobiotic diet. We go out to eat frequently and no longer bring our own brown rice when people invite us over for dinner. My social life is on the mend.
Hardest to repair are my friendships with the two women who once called suicide-prevention hotlines for me. While I was saving the world one bite at a time, they felt judged. One of them is now a public defender, the other an air-quality expert. They were never unaffected by the injustice in the world; they just had less-visible — and probably more constructive — ways of coping with it.
We live in different states now, and the two of them frequently visit each other on holidays. My wish is that someday they will want to come see me.
February 1989 was a bitterly cold month at Baker Correctional Institution in north Florida. It was also Black History Month, and a solid week of nightly programs were planned at the prison’s makeshift auditorium. I didn’t go the first three nights, but Galen, a black friend of mine, invited me to the Thursday-night meeting. I decided to go and take a friend nicknamed Swamp Thing.
Swamp Thing and I had both been at Baker less than six months, and we were two of only a couple of dozen white faces at a meeting of about four hundred. A black church group had come to give a presentation about Martin Luther King Jr. They emphasized that the civil-rights battles were won by black and white people marching and working side by side. Their message was good for my soul. Despite racial prejudices on both sides in prison, I still believed that black and white men could treat each other as brothers.
The program concluded, and we lined up outside the auditorium in the freezing wind beneath the starry sky and the blazing perimeter lights. When the shift captain gave the OK, we all started running back to our dorms to get out of the cold. That’s when somebody hit me from behind.
I fell to the sidewalk, but I was up and running again in a moment. I didn’t realize I’d been hit until I felt the right side of my face.
When I caught up to Swamp Thing at the door to our dormitory, I told him what had happened.
“Sorry, Wood,” he said. “I shouldn’t have run off and left you behind. I know how these niggers are.”
I told him I was OK, just shaken up. I didn’t even know who had hit me.
In our dorm, seventy men slept on double bunks in one large room. We took our places on our racks for count. As the guards counted us in silence, I rubbed my sore cheek, feeling stupid for having gone, and self-conscious that I had been singled out among the whites who’d attended. When the guards left, the black inmates began to hold court.
“You all see Wood get punched tonight? He hit the ground like a sack of taters!”
The dorm exploded in laughter.
“Bet that ol’ white boy will never go to a black-history meeting again!”
I looked up, my face hot. Every black man in the dorm was looking my way. None of the white inmates wanted to get involved — they all thought I was a fool for having gone. Galen frowned and shook his head at me.
“What was that silly fool cracker thinking?” another black inmate said. “What he do? Get a personal invitation?”
“That’s right!” Galen snapped. “I invited him. I thought this was gonna be a fucking civilized group tonight.”
Another black inmate spoke up: “Man, a cracker going to black history. That’s like me going to a fucking Ku Klux Klan meeting!”
“No!” I said. “It’s not the same.” I was the quiet one in the dorm, but now here I was, running my mouth when I shouldn’t. “Martin Luther King was about everybody, not just blacks. He was about unity, not separation.”
“What do you know about the black man’s troubles, cracker?” an inmate named Death Row said. “You got it all fucked up. Years gone by since King got killed, and the white man still steps on a nigger’s neck. You ever hear of Malcolm X? You ever hear of Nat Turner or Marcus Garvey? Nelson Mandela’s been locked up in jail twenty-five years ’cause white men are scared of him.”
“You gonna live in the past?” I yelled. “You can’t fix the problem by piling more problems on top of it.”
“You keep on being stupid,” Death Row growled, “and you’re gonna get hurt again.”
“Squash that shit now,” Galen snapped. “The man’s got heart, and all you fools got is big mouths.”
The guards came back for a recount, and silence returned to the dorm. I was starting to realize that racial battle lines had been drawn long before I’d shown up there. I was a fool to hold on to my anachronistic view of racial harmony when all we really had was an uneasy truce between enemies. Galen was my friend, but I had no rap about brotherhood for any other black man. As far as I was concerned, the next night’s black-history program could be an all-African American affair.
The next morning I went to automotive class at a large garage behind a high fence, erected to keep inmates from stealing tools. I was taking apart an old VW engine block when a fellow student tapped me on the shoulder. “Wood, you got a phone call,” he said, meaning another inmate wanted to see me.
I stepped out of the garage and went to the fence. An old black man waited on the other side. Had he been asking for someone else?
“I’m Wood,” I said.
The man smiled. “You coming back to black history tonight? It’s the last one, you know.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. I felt the anger rising in me.
“My name’s Willie,” he said. “I saw what happened last night. I can’t tell you who hit you, but I want to say I’m sorry it happened. The sorry-ass punk is a racist and a coward, and he doesn’t understand what King or the civil-rights marches were about. I hope you realize most of us don’t feel like that.”
I nodded, more out of politeness than agreement.
“I hope you’ll reconsider and come tonight,” Willie said. “Black history belongs as much to you as to me.” He smiled and left, and I went back to my engine block.
I got eight more “phone calls” that day, all of them from black inmates who had never talked to me before. All told me pretty much the same thing: they wouldn’t say who’d slugged me, but they emphasized that his thinking was not theirs.
I didn’t get too much work done that day. Something was going on inside me: my old beliefs and values were coming back. At the 5 P.M. count, I informed Swamp Thing that I was going to black history that night, and nobody was going to tell me otherwise. Swamp Thing thought I was nuts, but he said he’d go with me to watch my back.
After count and before chow call, Death Row stepped up to me. “Cracker, I hear you’re going to black history tonight. Is that true?”
“Yes,” I said, standing my ground but worried all the same.
Death Row bent closer, almost sneering. “I had figured you learned your lesson last night.”
“I guess I didn’t,” I said.
“You’re the craziest fool I ever met, you know that?”
I didn’t say anything.
“All right, if you’re gonna go, I’ll walk with you, and if your shithead tries anything, I’ll break something on him.”
I was floored. I thanked him and let him know it wasn’t necessary.
Before the meeting, four more black inmates offered to watch my back. Swamp Thing and I went to black history that night. We returned to the dorm without a problem.
St. Petersburg, Florida
I was raised in a rural Virginia county that still ranks as one of the state’s poorest. I grew up wondering why my family was so much better off than most. We had done nothing to deserve it. It seemed like dumb luck.
Our nearest neighbor, Ida Mae, had no running water. At Christmas, she killed a chicken and brought it to us. We reciprocated with a food basket and money. My parents quoted the Bible: “To whom much has been given, much will be required.”
Ida Mae’s nephew Michael used to visit her from the Bronx every summer, and he and I would play together. Once, when we were fooling around on our bikes, Michael cut in front of me, and I fell. When Ida Mae heard me crying, she came running, and I told her what had happened. Then she beat Michael with a leather belt, right in the middle of the road.
How I wish I had lied to her. It had been an accident. I’d expected her to be fair and even-tempered, like my father, not to beat Michael like a dog in front of us. But I was a little white girl, and he was a young black boy, and Ida Mae was a veteran of Jim Crow and white expectations. How was I to know, at eight, about differences in race and class?
Another child who was with us just looked at me with disgust. Didn’t I get it? Hadn’t I known that was what would happen?
I still don’t get it. I’m still surprised by violence and ignorance. I’m still looking for kindness and wisdom from those around me. And I’m still waiting to find it.
My husband and I work together at a downtown church that opens its doors to parishioners who wouldn’t be welcomed at many conventional churches. Almost a year ago, we invited a man from our church to live with us. Homeless and schizophrenic, John had been attending Sunday-evening services for about two years. When he’d first shown up, we’d thought this well-dressed, well-educated man from Ghana was an international student. Over the months we feared for his safety many times. One night during a summer thunderstorm, my husband went out and came back with John.
John is funny, slightly obsessive-compulsive (not a bad thing when it comes to washing dishes), and loves to watch C-SPAN and the local Christian channel. Living with him is alternately like having a fascinating foreign roommate and raising a willful ten-year-old.
“You can’t change the world, you know,” my father reminds me as he climbs behind the wheel of his Ford Expedition — half of a matching, his-and-hers set he bought for himself and his second wife. He’s headed to his law practice, where he’ll spend the day protecting the rights of corporations. He believes in the power of the market as a universal, benevolent force, and in the tangible connection between a large salary and personal virtue. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is his motto, followed closely by the famous (and nonbiblical) “God helps those who help themselves.”
Of John, my father says, “He has to take responsibility for himself, you know. Everyone has to take care of themselves.” When I question whether John’s schizophrenia allows him to do that, my father replies, “Well, he’s a grown man; he’ll just have to make up his mind to do what’s right.”
“Just remember, dear, you shouldn’t go overboard with this kind of thing,” says his wife as she leaves for her weekly manicure, pedicure, and facial, followed by a shopping excursion and dinner at the club. “You don’t have to be perfect, you know!”
“I’m so tired of your noble, self-righteous act,” snaps my sister over the phone as she heads to the gym. “What makes you so special, anyway?” Not content to be a size 8, she obsesses over her weight. (She once spent weeks in treatment for bulimia.) Her husband likes her thin and says so. She’s grown to hate her corporate job, yet her fifty-dollar moisturizers, her gourmet foods, and her “furniture budget” have become necessities.
Ten months after he moved in, John stands at the stove frying potatoes for supper and watching Friends with me. As the opening credits roll, John whistles, and I sing along: “I’ll be there for you, / when the rain starts to fall.” John looks up from the stove and smiles. “Those people,” he says, “they are friends, just like us.” And he returns to his potatoes, still whistling. I find myself wondering: which of us in my family are pursuing an unattainable ideal?
When I was twenty-six I discovered the Radical Faeries, a group of mostly gay men who were devoted to nature, spirituality, and radical politics. Joining them was a way to combine my attraction to men and my interest in conscious living. Within a year, I’d dropped out of graduate school and gone to live on their anarchist commune.
Life on the commune gave me many inspired moments: gardening naked in the summer; building a hand-tiled shower in the bathhouse; and planning everything by consensus, from milking the goats to rebuilding the road.
There was also, however, a great deal of frustration, inequality, and disappointment: a space we had reserved for a woman was given to a man because he had carpentry skills; we considered ourselves environmentally conscious, but kept building new structures in the previously undisturbed woods; consensus sometimes meant wasting hours debating what color to make the cover of our quarterly journal.
It was the most challenging and rewarding time of my life, but after five years, it was time to move on.
That was ten years ago. Before I moved to the commune, my ideals were a driving force in my life, but since I left it’s been hard to be motivated by them. If I couldn’t make them a reality on an anarchist commune deep in the woods, then what hope do I have out in the mainstream world?
“Saint Anastasia was the daughter of a Roman noble,” said Sister Theophane. Her face bloomed, pink and smiling, from the wimple that snugly circled her head. As the sister handed a holy card to each first-grade student, her veil swished, and the scent of plain soap wafted from her.
The image of Anastasia on the card was angular, swathed in robes and set in a rectangle of dusty gold. The saint’s nose seemed pushed to one side. Her big, dark eyes looked worried.
“After she became a Christian, Anastasia helped others who were persecuted by the Romans. Finally she became a martyr. She was burned alive,” said the sister, her head tilted sweetly to one side, “but she gave her life cheerfully for the love of our Lord.”
From then on, sainthood became my goal. That I did not quite feel up to the task did not stop me from trying. I knew I must be self-sacrificing, so for Lent I gave up ice cream. When a friend begged to play with my walking doll, I handed it over, taking up an old rag doll for myself.
One day, Uncle Mike came to visit us in our Bronx walk-up and offered me a dollar. I knew just how many Tootsie Rolls and Little Lulu comics the bill would buy, but saints should give, not receive, so I refused it. Mike insisted. I refused again. When he tried to force the bill on me, I grabbed it and ripped it to bits. Mike stared in disbelief. Then he went to ask my mom what she was teaching this crazy kid.
A year later we moved to a house that was just like Little Lulu’s. It had an upstairs, a yard, even a dog — a black-brown mongrel named Target, whom I adored. One day I came home from school to find that my friend Lisa had opened the backyard gate. She’d just wanted to play, but Target had dashed out and been killed by a car.
I wanted to kick and scream, but I knew a saint forgives and puts others first. So later I went to Lisa’s house and wrapped my arms around her. She wept and shook. Though I uttered no angry words, I was filled with hate. I knew then I was a fake.
Unlike Anastasia, I took no pleasure in saintly sacrifices. In fact, I resented them. If I ever were offered a chance for martyrdom, I knew I’d drop my holy principles like a bucket of snakes.
Sainthood abandoned, I pursued other ideals. In high school I studied painting and ached to be an artist. After college, I chased the ideal of social justice. When my elderly parents’ health failed, I tried to be the ideal caretaker. I never hit the mark.
There’s the ideal, and then there’s me: caring, but also human, selfish, and not given to absolutes.
Annette Amelia Oliveira
The line of customers stretched out the door. It was 7 A.M., and I was serving impatient coffee drinkers dark-roasted java in double cups as fast as I could pour it. “If you reuse your cup, you get ten cents off your coffee,” I said to them as they threw down their money and grabbed the disposable cups full of Third World coffee.
We had to double-cup — put one cup inside the other — because that was the corporate rule. Only the lattes and cappuccinos were served in single cups, but most customers insisted on a double cup anyway, which always made me wince. Each morning I hauled plastic bag after plastic bag filled with used cups to the dumpster out back.
In the five years I worked there, I became increasingly crazed about the wasteful cup situation. I never let go of the fantasy that maybe, just maybe, I could convince my tiny corner of the coffee-drinking world to pull together and drink from reusable cups. I started a recycling club, met with the garbage man, called corporate headquarters. Customers started to avoid me, choosing a different line if possible.
One day a harried mom with two boys hanging off her came rushing up and ordered coffee. I recognized her from earlier in the day. “You know,” I said, “if you’d brought your cup back, you could have gotten ten cents off.” My tone was accusatory, as if I were saying, If you cared about your kids’ future on earth, you would remember to recycle your cup!
She looked at me and said, “Just give me the damn coffee.”
I flushed, handed her the coffee, and stammered, “Have a good day.”
After she left, I looked around the store. Most of the staff were sick of my lecturing. No one was using the ceramic cups I’d ordered. The trash bins were overflowing with paper and plastic. Right then and there I gave up. I didn’t make an announcement. I just let the revolution quietly die.
Recently I went into a coffee shop with my two boys hanging off me and ordered a cup of coffee to go. And after I’d finished, I threw away the cup.
In my late twenties I became pregnant. I turned down offers for baby showers and baby bottles. I read books on nursing and preparing organic baby food. I searched the Web for the perfect cloth diapers and nursing bras. I planned to be the earth mother incarnate.
I judged other mothers, including my own. My mother had not breast-fed us — the doctor had told her formula was every bit as good. She had died of breast cancer. I knew nursing would spare me the same fate.
After nearly thirty hours in labor, I had an emergency C-section. A massive staph infection followed. My body was so ravaged, my milk never came in. I pumped a few drops of colostrom every three hours for four months. My beautiful baby boy enjoyed gallons of formula and cushy disposable diapers while my husband administered my IV.
During my recovery, I felt an overwhelming gratitude just to be alive. My body, I saw, was a beautiful, fragile thing. And I experienced a sudden solidarity with all mothers — including my own.
I was a junior in high school when I decided I wanted to become a doctor. I’m not sure where this desire came from. Neither my father, a brick mason, nor my mother, a housewife, held college degrees or pushed me to go into medicine.
My first day of medical school confirmed that I had chosen the right path. It was intoxicating to know that one day I would have the ability — no, the power — to relieve pain, repair physical infirmities, and surgically remove disease. I eagerly anticipated the respect and appreciation of those I helped.
Twenty-four years later I find myself in a medical environment where lawsuits are as common as colds and flu; where people seek out lawyers not so much for justice as for financial gain; where patients feign or embellish symptoms of work-related injuries. And I am a different man — bitter, defensive, and frustrated. Mine was a career path that anyone would envy; looking back, I wonder if I should have taken a different one.
In August 1980, after years of escalating fights, my wife asked me to leave. I was in my late forties and worked as a shipper for a mail-order publisher in Boston.
At a Cambridge Friends meeting, I’d become acquainted with Luke, a college student who lived on a commune. He had curly black hair, large round eyes, and glistening lips. He preferred to dress in overalls and sneakers, and spoke softly, bending a little toward the listener, with a benevolent smile that conveyed interest and empathy. When I told him about my living situation, he described to me his plan to found a commune in an abandoned parochial school in the heart of the ghetto. He was recruiting volunteers to live there.
Days later I brought my dog, two of my cats, and the better part of my personal possessions to my new “home” — a vast, decaying, cold, dusty, and deserted building. Outside, car tires screeched, packs of dogs barked, and the roar of passing trains competed with the sound of jet planes taking off. There was no running water, no toilet, not even an outhouse. I had given Luke a couple of hundred dollars as an advance on plumbing installations, but so far nothing had been done. I had a thirty-gallon plastic barrel of water that I used for cooking and dishes. I went to the bathroom at work.
I was lonely, but that soon came to an end: a young Cuban refugee moved in with me. He didn’t own much more than the clothes on his back and spent his days waiting by our phone (we had that, at least) for calls from potential employers. After interviewing here and there, he returned each evening stoned out of his head, collapsed into our armchair, and ignored my attempts at conversation.
A third “postulant” arrived, a musician. He drove a battered red VW and wore a soiled scarf slung around his neck. His shoes were bursting at the seams, and he clutched under his arm a battered violin case. He said he had recently been evicted and was willing to put up with any inconveniences just to have a roof over his head.
Luke visited sporadically, arriving around 1 A.M., after he got off work at a homeless shelter. Every so often, he was accompanied by one of his many girlfriends, all of whom seemed to consider him some kind of saint because he voluntarily went without luxuries and devoted himself to helping society’s less fortunate. And, of course, he was young and good-looking.
Although Luke was soft-spoken, he was also capable of stubborn resistance. If criticized or contradicted in the slightest, he’d avert his gaze and busy himself with some unrelated activity. He envisioned a commune that was devoted to community issues and was remotely Franciscan, by emphasizing self-imposed poverty. There would be parity of the sexes (he encouraged us to have our girlfriends move in), and the members would meet at dinnertime to talk about their “work projects.” He promised to have the water problems solved just as soon as we came up with the necessary funds.
The other commune members and I met only by chance, talked about what was foremost on our minds, and went our separate ways. Luke spent most of the week far away from us. My dog’s barking often awoke me in the middle of the night. Raccoons, I thought. Prowlers, the musician corrected me in the morning. He had heard the noise of the doorknob being turned, pushed, and shaken. Luke didn’t give our concerns much credence. “Think of how our government robs us, taking our taxes and using the money to make bombs,” he countered.
For my work projects, I scraped loose plaster off the walls to prepare them for a fresh coat of paint; I made sure our trash was picked up; I weeded and watered the yard. I also began to explore the neighborhood. Two elderly female neighbors greeted me warmly, but not everybody was happy to see me and my dog. I think the neighbors suspected we were just a bunch of druggies or alcoholics squatting in an abandoned building for want of anything better.
In the end, I went apartment hunting, found one I could afford about a mile and a half away, and abandoned the fledgling commune. Only a couple of days later, the building was burglarized, and everything of value was stolen.
I was going to raise a nice Jewish boy. My son Jordan and I enjoyed going to synagogue together. He never sat through the entire service — he was only six — but he loved to sing the songs and read along with me. I never forced him to sit through a full service, because I didn’t want him to have unhappy memories of synagogue, like many adults I knew.
My roommate David was a male version of a Jewish mother. He cooked and cleaned for us, told wonderful stories, and was a bit of a noodge. David loved Jordan and would sing Jewish songs with him and keep him entertained.
One day David demonstrated for Jordan the way he’d been taught to recite the Shema, the holiest of all Jewish prayers, which confirms that God is one. David’s way of saying it was very powerful: he stood with his hand over his eyes and chanted the age-old prayer. He asked Jordan to do it with him, and Jordan dutifully followed along.
When they were finished, David asked Jordan to keep his eyes closed and describe what he saw. “Really concentrate,” David said. “Think about the prayer and how it makes you feel. Now: what do you see?”
Jordan said, “Jesus.”
Los Altos, California
I first thought about becoming a Hollywood director when I was in the navy. I had been assigned to the Public Affairs Department and was involved in making videos. When I got out of the service, I applied to several film schools. I was aware that only one in a million people made it to the big time, but I felt sure I would be one of the few.
Rejection letters came from Columbia and NYU, but I was accepted at the University of Southern California and Boston University. The choice seemed simple: USC was the top film school on the West Coast, the alma mater of many top Hollywood directors.
Boston University, however, offered me a scholarship; USC didn’t. I put money ahead of my dreams and went to Boston University.
I quickly fell in love with the city and the curriculum, which focused on independent films rather than Hollywood blockbusters. On my way to classes, I often walked past well-dressed business students talking on cellphones. My friends and I made fun of them. Sure, they would make a lot of money, but there was more to life than that. They had no passion. My student loans grew, but I didn’t care. I was going to make films, express my humanity, and make the world a better place.
Four years have gone by since I graduated from film school. I live in Michigan with my wife and dog. Twenty VHS copies of my thesis film sit in a cardboard box in the basement.
I’ve worked at a few companies since graduating, and each new job has taken me farther away from the film world. I have ended up a technician who works on digital equipment. Since I do more work in business than in entertainment, I recently decided to make the best of it and apply to business school.
Last fall I began working toward an MBA at the University of Michigan. Sometimes, when I’m standing outside on a beautiful day, I wonder if the film students are making fun of me.
© Suzi Q. Varin
“Let go!” I yelled to Christina as she lay on the sidewalk, clutching her black leather purse to her chest. One of our attackers had punched me in the face and knocked me down while the other two had grabbed my fiancée. I did not know whether it was a mugging or a rape. Maybe if they took her purse, they would leave us alone. She would not let go, though, and I felt another blow to my head.
“Let go of your purse!” I shouted.
She did, and they were gone.
A month has passed since that evening — a month of anger, fear, and regret. We had moved to downtown Atlanta because we wanted to live in a mixed-income, mixed-race community. We drove through the neighborhood with our windows rolled down. We played Frisbee in a park frequented more by prostitutes than by softball players. When a petition was passed around to close the nearby homeless shelter, we refused to sign. In a city of racists and revolutionaries, we wanted to be with the latter.
On the day of the attack, we had discussed walking more and driving less. That evening, while walking home from a friend’s house, we encountered the three men who put an end to our naive sense of security and trust. We fled the neighborhood within a week.
Now we live a few miles outside the city. Jogging college girls have replaced wandering homeless men. There is an elementary school instead of a crack house on our street. Our neighborhood is idyllic.
So why, then, do I feel as if I have failed?
My greatest sense of failure comes when I drive downtown with my windows rolled up and my doors locked. Young black men on the street scare me. Every time I feel afraid, I hate myself. I am angry with the men who attacked us, and I am angry with myself, because I commit a crime whenever I associate young black men on the streets with memories of Christina and me lying on a blood-spattered sidewalk.
When I look in the mirror, I see a long red scar underneath my right eye and another across my temple. In a few years, the raised red lines will still be there, but I hope that some of the anger will be gone.
When I first moved to New York City, I got a job with a repertory dance company on the edge of Chinatown. The company shared a building with a garment manufacturer, and I’d ride to the studio in the rickety two-sided elevator, listening to the muted voices of one floor meld with the factory noises of the next.
Sometimes the back door of the elevator would open first, revealing a vast warehouse packed with tired, blank-faced Chinese women hunched over electric sewing machines. The women’s fingers never stopped moving, even as their eyes collectively shifted from the machines to my optimistic face. I’d smile what I hoped was an ingratiating smile, holding it until the doors wobbled shut.
Then the other door of the elevator would open, and the dancers would greet me warmly, although in time I began to detect a sort of sweatshop fatigue in them as well. One was injured; another bounced a check; a third needed a root canal but had no dental insurance. The complaints were justified and interminable. Was it possible that life in New York was not as glamorous as I’d imagined?
One day I arrived at rehearsal after an agonizing morning of bill paying. Numerous fitful recalculations had all yielded the same pathetic result. I finally settled on paying my phone bill with my credit card and using my grandma’s birthday money to make up the remainder of the rent. I was quiet and a little distracted throughout the day, and as I boarded the elevator that night, one of the dancers asked if everything was all right.
“Aren’t you ever disappointed?” I asked her. “Don’t you ever feel like all this day-to-day struggle is holding you back from living an artist’s life?”
She looked puzzled for a moment but then smiled. “Artist’s life?” she asked. “As far as I can tell, this is it.”
New York, New York
In the March 2004 Correspondence, Sherry Franzen wrote in admiration of Jeffrey Luer [Readers Write on “Idealism,” December 2003], an activist who is now doing time for burning SUVs to protest global warming.
Sadly, to judge by what Luer wrote, he seems not to have learned much from his three years in prison. He still believes he’s doing time for his idealism. It seems to me he’s doing time for torching SUVs.
Franzen talks about “self-education.” Self-education is when I decide to get rid of my SUV, not when someone decides to burn it for me. People need to make those decisions for themselves.
For the record: I don’t own an SUV, and I think it would be great if our government would take the initiative on fuel efficiency.
Jeffrey Luer’s brave action, described in his Readers Write on “Idealism” [December 2003], is appreciated by many who champion his effort. He set fire to three SUVs to draw attention to global warming and the despoiling of the environment. If Americans were more self-educated and able to face reality, they would embrace this type of direct action. Instead they’re willing to condemn property destruction without decrying the destruction of the earth and its inhabitants.