#79 Two Worlds

On a hot summer day I snapped. I went for a walk by the river where I live downtown in a Pennsylvania city. As a floodplain, it is mildly downhill getting there and feels plenty uphill getting back. Nursing the pinched nerve in my back, the jaunt gave me sixty pain free minutes.

Along the river most walkers acknowledge one another, no matter the gender, age of the bones or color of skin. For runners it’s a different etiquette. Their focus seldom allows eye contact. But when I walk back the few blocks through the neighborhoods to my apartment, all that changes. Occasionally I nod to a person sitting on a stoop and they to me, but the walking camaraderie ends.

Feeling the heat that day just blocks from home I struggled and crossed to the shady side of a street. Near the end of that block there was a group gathered and my instant assumption was a fundraiser. My brain scanned remembering a day care center in the area, about a two second process. When I was almost directly across the street I heard them calling out, “Yard Sale.” A few steps more and they yelled it out again, then louder again. Not wanting to ignore them and as the only person in the block, I looked to my left, patted the pockets of my shorts and yelled back, “Got no money.” An odd phrase, but that’s what I said.

One teen girl teen hollered, “Got no money?” Several of them laughed, giggled, tittered. I stopped, but with no pause in my stride and without looking for traffic I crossed over to where they were gathered outside an apartment complex. By now I paid no attention to the purpose of the gathering, who they were, only to what that girl said, the laughter and complete preoccupation with why.

I had no idea what I would say until I said it. I wasn’t feeling anything, except the laser focus to find out what had just happened. From my mouth came, “Who said ‘got no money’ and laughed?” Great approach Elizabeth, probably appearing to them like a scrawny sweaty old white lady, which I was. My hair was wild with humidity. I took off my sunglasses instinctively knowing eye contact would be a good idea. There must have been at least fifteen kids, one woman and one man, all of them black.

There was still some chatter, and surprising myself further, I would not be deterred. Instead of speaking to the group I addressed the girl standing directly behind the table. I noticed a doll in a box marked five dollars. The teen girl looked at me understandably wondering why I picked her. Since the others kept chattering and I thought they should pay attention to me I stayed. One girl said that she hadn’t said anything. I said, “I heard someone holler back, ‘got no money’ and then laughing.’” I knew I appeared the mad woman I was, trying to assure everyone that I just wanted to understand. Did I look like I had money? I actually asked that. Because frankly that’s what it sounded like. Impossible for them to believe the scrawny lady didn’t have money. So I emphasized my point to the entire group. I had absolutely no thought that this was a bad idea, only that I needed to know why. One girl snickered (I’m at a loss for a better word) and I said, “Do you think I can’t be broke? Because I’m close to having to sleep in my car.” And that got attention and a hush. In defense of my exaggeration, it was only partial exaggeration.

I wouldn’t let go. One girl hid behind the others, so I asked if she was the one. She was particularly defiant and I said that I only wanted to understand why they would laugh. I started to walk away, not getting anywhere. Then the girl behind the table insisted it wasn’t she, and then the girl who giggled crawled under the table to the other side. Yes, I grilled her too.

I started to leave again, but turned back and asked if anyone realized that it was unkind. One very brave girl said she did. I thanked her. I wish I had said something more, something to let her know how brave I thought she was for being honest. I wanted to introduce myself to her. But I didn’t. I wished them luck with their sale and continued home, utterly amazed at what I had done, also understanding the inevitability of what I had done.

Though I was born in the south and we lived in New York, my father was transferred to an isolated part of Washington State. So we grew up solely with people who looked like my family. It wasn’t until I moved back to New York as a young woman that I got to know and work with different cultures and people of color. But that too was pretty much it. We worked together but we were not intimate friends. We did not live in the same town or neighborhoods.

Since I’ve lived here my heart has been missing such an important connection with the human race. That’s the only way I can explain it. Something’s missing. I live in a diverse building and belong to two groups, old and white. And as much as I thought that living in diversity would make a difference to that missing part of my heart, it’s only reinforced the divide. After years I’m finally accepted, rather than ignored. But we have polite hallway neighbor or lobby conversations only.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama made one of the finest truthful and brave speeches, The Philadelphia Speech, I’ve had the privilege to hear in my lifetime. His is the only photograph of a U.S. President ever displayed in my home. I admire him and was hopeful about the opportunity for our divided country to get to know the other sides, finally in this century. I was hopeful since at long last someone spoke the uncomfortable truth in that speech and still got elected. But as a nation we’ve scurried even deeper into our many separated trenches. And my heart still breaks about how separately we live.

That ache of the two worlds that exists in this country and in my daily slog through life wasn’t the only impulse that summer day. The other was the utterly baffling perception by others through decades that I have money and must have been educated at one of the finest schools, and that I’ve breezed through life with nothing touching me. All that, by looking at me. Rather than a privileged child, I was the puppy that barely escaped drowning.

Back when I was a publisher, a colleague and I had a business lunch. She is an unusually straight talking person, beyond brusque. Occasionally working late, she stopped by my office to talk about how difficult it was to meet men. So at the end of our lunch I thought it safe to reveal the pain and exhaustion of just having left the man in my life of eight years. What she said back was a smack, but it was the first glimmer of a peek I had into how others viewed me. She said, “Elizabeth, you’re not a sympathetic person.” Was she saying I’m not sympathetic to other people? She went on. “You have the best job in the region. You drive an expensive car and you’re always put together.” She did not throw in decent grammar. It felt mean, but it was what she saw.

On the day I approached the teens about their laughter at the possibility of my having no money, I was awkwardly but sincerely trying to break through a wall. I was straining to understand why they made an assumption. Scaring them was not my best tactic however. But one young girl spoke, and to me she was a bright spot in that moment and still is.






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