A tale of two tweets

Scrolling through Twitter yesterday, two tweets stayed with me. One shows goth rocker Alice Cooper serving meals at a homeless shelter, but it wasn’t his rock and rollishness that stood out to me, (though the aura of otherworldly cool was indubitably there). It was the little kids in line to get food they otherwise would have had to go without. Not just one, though that is bad enough, but a whole line of them! It is an awful, heartbreaking sight, one that I always thought would be unimaginable in America, something we as citizens would be way too proud to let happen, but here we are.

I haven’t been able to get the picture out of my mind. I see the servers being animated and kind and I think they probably have never experienced getting attention for being poor – it’s uncomfortable to be reminded that you depend on the kindness of strangers, since most strangers aren’t very kind. It’s humiliating to stand in line for food instead of be able to open your own refrigerator door and take out the makings for a sandwich. Making a sandwich at one’s own kitchen counter, taking out food from your own refrigerator at any hour of the day or night, to sit down and eat at your own table and not have to worry some odd duck will suddenly plop their plate down next to you and start talking about the two people found dead of fentanyl overdoses in front of the church next door…then put your dishes in your own sink or dishwasher and wander off to another room, a place where you hang your clothes and lay your head.

A roof and food, two needs that form the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy, so fundamental are they to survival. A born person is entitled to roof and shelter, the basic meeting of physiological needs until independence is possible – that’s our contract as a species, it’s the reason humans so successfully evolved, through our ability to cooperate. I look at this picture and I see cooperation happening, but at the wrong end of the telescope. Where was the cooperation these kids needed to stay housed with their families – surely that is the best place to invest in our fellow humans’ survival? It’s what all of us would want, in their place.

The other tweet was a reposted TikTok video, a nice couple give a server a $300 tip. The server is brisk, efficient, a bit harried but totally professional, even before the tip you’re thinking, this is the kind of experienced server who you just love to have. The couple explains about the group they are part of that goes around collecting money and giving it to servers and you can see the server is patiently waiting for them to get to the point while her mind has raced ahead to the zillion other things she has to do right now. Then light dawns and she asks, so you’re giving a tip to *me*? They hand her $300 and she breaks into tears of gratitude (pausing to answer another server that yes she will take another table) telling the couple she’d just had a meeting at the shelter where she lives, they said she’d need $600 to get an apartment.

I didn’t know where I was going to get that money, she said.

Here she is a kick ass server at the busiest time of year and the huge tip isn’t the story to me, the story is that she’s a full time worker living in a shelter, and somehow being asked to come up with a couple of nights’ worth of tips in order to get into an apartment, so what are she and her kids going to buy food with? This unexpected gift means she doesn’t have to choose between having the safety and dignity of their own place and feeding herself and her kids. It really hurts to see a woman like this made so vulnerable, and it also bothers me a bit that she is having to display her gratitude for the viral hopes of the social media account of the person holding the camera (though I don’t mean to knock what they are doing, it’s really great.) On the other hand, the idea that one should keep private their hard times is most hurtful to people experiencing hard times – when we find out that a whole bunch of other people are also living month to month, have also lost jobs, have also been financially crippled by medical bills, have also had to resort to living in cars or vans or tents or shelters, maybe we’ll start holding our Congressional representatives and Senators – millionaires every one of them – accountable. That would require a responsible media that stops stoking the fires of illusory ideological differences and instead focuses on how a very small slice of the population (a slice that contains the owners of the media, alas) that keeps getting richer and richer while everyone else finds the ability to afford the basics of life – a roof, food for the family, healthcare – more and more difficult to obtain. It doesn’t have to be this way. And it’s not sustainable – it can’t, won’t stay this way. There aren’t enough shelters, there aren’t enough big tippers to fix what is wrong with America. I guess when there are finally enough people who’ve finally had enough, we’ll find our American gumption and make real change happen. If ever there was a country by the people for the people, it’s supposed to be ours. I still have faith in us. Women like the server, guys like Alice Cooper and the people working alongside of him give me faith in us.

I went to an outdoor holiday party this past weekend. It’s the closest I have been to multiple people who are not also from my household in a very long time . Now I’m in a mild state of panic doing highly specific searches on the internet, what are the odds of catching COVID or Omicron variant at an outdoor party where I interacted with 6 people at a distance of about 3-6 feet?

We came late and left early, we were careful about sanitizing our hands and keeping our distance, not using utensils, and we were outside the whole time… but now I’m wondering, was the risk really worth it? No one was wearing a mask and though I can admit I would have felt better wearing one, I would have felt too weird as the only person wearing one. I did not know many people at the party, which was located in a township kind of famous for its anti-vax stance even before the pandemic. Being the only one wearing a mask would have been like talking about going to the bathroom in a really loud voice, or so I felt. So instead I wore a blue velvet steampunk hat with big trailing feathers that forced people to keep a distance, and I looked totally awesome too.

It was great to see people I haven’t seen for a long time. I got to talk to D., a man who lost his sister to cancer at a young age, and who has lost both his best friend and his father since I last saw him. I told him about my ex dying, a man the same age as D. We talked about grief, the way it makes you feel like a stranger in a strange land. He is a sweet and sensitive guy and also a total crusher on a mountain bike, surfboard, or skis. Then there was S., who leaned in twice for a social hello/goodbye kiss – he has had COVID and is likely not vaccinated, which I didn’t ask because he’d get offended, and maybe loud, so I just dexterously kept space between us while asking him about his son, the same age as my daughter, at college.

I met some prospective new friends, too, which is always nice because after a certain age new friends become harder to make, especially in this age of pandemic. Today is Day 3 since the party, so far so good but no matter what happens I’ve already made up my mind, if I go to another outdoor party I’m just going to have the guts to wear my mask and be done with it. Now I guess we wait to see if we will pay for our two hour holly jolly folly. We have some tests sitting on the table, awaiting the first sign of illness.

My husband had to travel on my birthday, so after dropping him off at the airport I drove home to an empty house, just me and the dog. At the intersection where the highway exits into the city, ragged men lined the median with signs and shopping carts full of their worldly possessions. I had two five dollar bills which I had vague notions of using to buy some Two Buck Chuck and a chocolate bar at Trader Joes on the way home, a kind of mini birthday celebration, but instead I gave one each to two of the median men, both of whom had dirty hands and fingernails which is something easy to get all judgey about until you start asking yourself, where would you go in the city to wash your hands and face if you don’t have a place of your own? Both flashed me big smiles, smiles that totally changed their appearance to me – they were each only in their mid to late thirties, I saw. Young men, still, with a lot of years ahead of them.

I’ve been thinking about those two guys because it’s going to be really cold tonight, and rainy through the rest of the Christmas holidays. My daughter will be coming home from college, and it will be great to have her around, even if it’s only to see her shoes outside a closed door while she texts back and forth finding out what friends are around for the holidays to go hang out with. We’ll have a nice Christmas Eve movie night, Christmas dinner is all planned out, we’re going to decorate Christmas cookies just for the heck of it. Last year they turned out great and though there are only three of us and none notable sweets eaters it all worked out when someone on my Facebook Buy Nothing Group asked, Hey does anyone have any leftover Christmas cookies me and my kids are at a shelter this year, and I couldn’t bake any. I ended up giving her more than three dozen. Sometimes things have a way of working out.

Happy holidays to you, whatever and however you celebrate. I hope we can all find a way to make someone’s life a little happier, and I hope you and yours know peace and joy in the coming year.

______________________________________

ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING-ILLUSTRATION

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