Sunday, February 7, 2010
Brother of the Stranger
When we arrived here, my husband sought in vain for a pub like any of the couple of dozen back in our old neighborhood, but none appeared. As for me, coming to a place that required driving skills when I had none gave me a unique perspective into our town, one that I have come to believe the town's boosters have missed entirely. I walked everywhere, just like in New York, and also took buses and cabs; but it was nothing like walking and taking buses and cabs in New York, which are done by everybody. In a place like this, cabs (as well as buses and hoofing it) are for those who are too poor to own cars, which, in a place like this, means very poor indeed. So, in spite of the fact that I am something I never dreamt of being -- a prominent man's small-town wife -- I have come to see some things in our new town from the perspective of the local poor, and what I see has been disturbing to me.
New York is full of poor people, too, but -- or at least so it now seems to me -- the poverty in other places in America, if this place is any gauge, is its own special misery. Here, there is isolation, alienation, and a tremendous divide between the haves and have-nots in ways that just don't exist in New York, because in New York, whatever people may think, there is a high level of equity in transportation access -- though the price of subway fare recently went up to $2.25, you can still traverse the entire length of the city, going the thirty or so miles from the northern Bronx to Coney Island, or from the Hudson River piers out to Kennedy Airport, for one swipe of a Metrocard, any time of the night or day -- which allows you to literally rub shoulders with everyone else in the city. Here, on the other hand, those who have cars are in them all the time, and don't have to walk to the supermarket with a folding push-cart or take cabs home from Wal-Mart; in fact, they don't shop at Wal-Mart at all. In New York, there is a sense of energy, ambition, and life surging all around, wherever you are. In New York, there are the bad schools you've heard about, and they are in poor neighborhods; but under No Child Left Behind, the most motivated parents in poor neighborhoods can and do transfer their children to the better schools out-of-district. In New York, everyone who can works; even welfare recipients work in the black market economy, and New York is full of illegal immigrants who live in poverty and squalor and yet work a hundred hours a week and send huge sums of money home. My friend N., for example, would certainly qualify as poor by any American standard. She came from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the daughter of an abusive alcoholic father and a developmentally disabled mother, didn't make it through the equivalent of the eighth grade, settled in New York illegally, is a single, unwed mother, and lives in a shelter; but she works hard at her illegal job in the salon, and has the ambition, drive, and intelligence to survive through situation after situation that would have made many a lesser person (myself included) crumble in despair.
Here, on the other hand, in my perambulations through the post-industrial landscape, I see the empty husks of many souls who seem to have been felled by despair, and by the kind of multi-generational poverty, out-of-wedlock childbearing, drugs, violence (domestic and otherwise), and welfare dependency that are supposed to be the hallmarks of the ethnic urban underclass, but seem even more entrenched in white semi-rural areas like this one. And so I walk around; I go swimming in summer at the public park where the poor, the drug-dependent, and the tattooed take their children; I take the bus to the library, a beautiful structure in the midst of crumbling tenements and abandoned shopfronts, where a little black girl once asked me, incredulous, "Don't you have a car?" when she saw me getting my son into his stroller for the walk back to the bus stop; and occasionally I even take a cab home from Wal-Mart. I see very young women with many children by different fathers, judging at least by the children's varying skin shades, and mouths full of stumps instead of teeth, which I suppose is a symptom of meth addiction. I see little boys at the playground with neck tattoos just like their fathers'. I see many people who stare at me with the same mixture of suspicion and hostility I met thousands of times when riding the subway through the South Bronx or through pre-gentrification Bedford-Stuyvesant. I suppose I'm as strange to my fellow citizens as they are to me, though I hope I'm not as unsettling to them as they are to me.
However, we are now in the process of adopting a child from our community. The child will, most likely, come from one of the broken families of the very poor among whom I have walked like a strange, observing shadow during the past year. As the small-town wife of a prominent man and the prominent man himself, we are in a rather unique position -- a position we never dreamt of being in back when we were a grad-student mom and an Irish guy who went down to the pub in the Bronx -- to open our home and our hearts to children who might be called the children of despair, and we very much want to do so (and after our string of miscarriages, it's not at all certain that we will be able to have more children on the natch).
While my family of origin has long been committed -- some in thought, some in action -- to ameliorating the lives of the poor, if not to overthrowing the structures that they believed made people poor to begin with -- the adoption will connect us in a mysterious way to the lives of the poor in our community, the lives that I find so unsettling. We feel called to parenting through adoption, and to welcoming the stranger in this way, and recognize that the threads of grace that bind us to one another, not only as parents and children, but also as neighbors, brothers, and fellow citizens, can be impossible for the human mind to entangle. Please pray for us.
As Rabindranath Tagore wrote:
Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not.
Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own.
Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger.
(Above: my town.)