Excerpt from Losing the Middle: Essays & Ramblings from the Disappearing Middle Class
I walk to a small lake to drop in some money. The change in my pocket is my offering to the universe. If I were a Cuban priestess in training, I would have cut up a rooster with a meat cleaver and thrown that into the water as well. But I’m not. I’m just me-- so throwing a couple of pennies and a quarter into the murky lake feels like plenty.
It’s eight in the morning and the Bronx is out early setting up tables, chairs and charcoal bins. Several small groups have gathered in the park right next to the train station. A middle-aged brown-skinned woman wearing long white shorts, a bright yellow t-shirt and sneakers unloads her car. She has short hair, glasses propped on her nose and lip-gloss. She reminds me of my dead aunt. It could be the caramel brown of her calves or her moon round glasses but I get the feeling that it’s more than that—like, maybe that woman and my aunt share the same state of grace. My aunt had the kind of spirit that made you feel glad to be born even if you were setting up a picnic on the side of a congested road…in a patch of grass…in the Bronx.
I follow a small path that heads through the park. I watch Black and Latino families with their shopping carts filled with aluminum foil covered trays, soda, potato chips and bottled water. A group of teenage boys with sagging dungarees, long t-shirts and baseball caps sit around a milk crate playing cards. Hanging over them is my aunt’s peach shower curtain and moonshine grin. This is poor in New York City, I think. Passing time on July 4th playing cards on an old milk crate in a public park surrounded by a few dented garbage cans.
Independence Day is the day we pay tribute to the men and women who died fighting for our freedom. I wonder how many of these people sitting in the park have family members dying overseas in one of the perpetual wars in the Middle East or have sons being tortured in solitary confinement in one of New York’s jails? I wonder how many feel they live in “the land of the free?” If my aunt were listening, she’d tsk, tsk, tsk me and say my interrogation was disrespectful. Even though she worked the last fifteen, twenty years in a hospital in New Jersey and had to fight to save her health benefits at the end when diagnosed with cancer—my aunt believed in America. Even though she died penniless, her few belongings stuffed into several closets in her 1000 square foot apartment, a Latina woman who experienced the same discrimination and struggle as any —my aunt believed in America.
The plight of the poor in America is the ultimate paradox, I think. It’s hard to live in a country that spends billions of dollars on the military while you live a life of bondage, a minimum wage, underemployment and a glass ceiling. I think about how President Obama just signed over 70 billion dollars to Israel because he said we must protect them from harm and show how our friendship is unshakable. I think about the ten human rights activists killed by Israeli snipers bound for the Gaza strip a few years ago, the horrific pictures of African immigrants suffering in Tel Aviv being passed around on Twitter and the Palestinian families forced to live in a ghetto. I think about Trayvon Martin and Chi-raq. I think about Stop and Frisk, Bloomberg and the hundreds and hundreds of poor black and brown children being bullied in their schools that are being sold out to large corporations who mask their greed by shouting philanthropy, school reform and innovation. I think about Arizona and the dismantling of critical thinking programs and the banning of good books. I think about how “illegal” Latinos are being accused of stealing government benefits and supposedly that’s why our country is in an economic crisis—not the big banks nor the wealthy corporate backed politicians who can afford to pay $40,000 for a plate food. I think about how I have nothing left to sell, living unemployed for over a year now, my family has officially hit a level of poverty and debt that I fear we won’t ever recover from and I ask, really? Should we be celebrating Independence Day at all? Then I look around at the poor folks around a picnic table and I wonder, do you guys get it? Do you understand what’s going on in the world? I’m not being elitist, I’m just asking because somebody once told me that thinking globally is a commodity for the rich.
A dark skinned woman rolls her mother pass me in a wheelchair. The old woman is my grandmother who is also dead. She has no teeth and Alzheimer’s disease. Passing by her, I smell my grandma’s kitchen and the fourteenth hand of Rummy-Five-Hundred while she babysat me and my brother. I walk around the back of the park to the track and start running wildly as I see myself come apart into one big jigsaw puzzle made up of a thousand pieces. I feel the pain, the love, the pity and joy even! It occurs to me that I am all those people back there, all those poor people in the park are my puzzle.
By the time I get to the lake, I’m feeling compartmentalized. I stare at the water for a long time. I imagine the distant highway disappearing. The city streets turn into gravy and the helicopter that flies overhead becomes one big firefly in the sky. All the clouds take on miraculous forms and I swear I see roman numerals up there spelling out a hidden message. Later, I think, I’ll look them up in my book of dreams. What does my life mean now that everything I’ve ever relied on has come undone? What does it mean, Dios mio?
I fumble around in my pockets and find three pennies and a quarter. That’s four wishes, I think, or rather three small wishes and one big wish if I conjure up my father’s mathematically precise spirit. I look out over the lake and pray. I want God to know a few things. I want him to know that I’m a good person and that I work hard and care about people. I say, I know I’ve experienced adversity in my life but I haven’t had to endure the much greater sorrows of life, like those sufferings I read about in books. I think about Rwanda and Anne Frank and the slave ships. I think about India. I think about the real poor like what I know about in the ghettos of New York or even my in-laws who lived through the Spanish Civil War who washed themselves with a pail of water and ate stale bread for dinner if they were lucky. I think about how I’m grateful that my suffering is not the greatest suffering but I’m angry, I say, because my suffering is still great enough to say something, to say something to God and to the world all over because it’s real and I’m not alone in my silent day to day fear. I worry about my children every day because we have so few choices now. I’m scared that even though I’ve done everything and still continue to do everything possible to find a job, pay the rent, I’m losing.
I throw three pennies into the water one at a time.
Splash, circle, circle.
Splash, circle, circle.
Splash, circle, circle.
I watch the circles spread out from the center like a drain sucking water out into the opposite direction. It reminds me of a museum exhibit about sound waves and the conversation Jeff Blume has in Jurassic Park about the butterfly effect. I watch the rings grow on and on until they blend in with the natural current of the lake and the surface returns to its natural state of tranquility.
Then the heaviness of the silver quarter in my hand calls me. It’s the twenty-five cent bubble gum weight of it. This time I want God to know that I am ready to embrace abundance. I tell him that I am ready to go back out into the world. I tell him that I have learned my lessons well and that I will make him proud. I promise him that with my skills I will teach peace. I stare out into the lake and spot a porthole. With all my might I throw the heavy quarter and it slam-dunks right in. Bam! Splash, circle, circle, circle, circle.
A zillion circles ripple out!
Man, I’m so impressed with my aim that I forget my wish. It just disappears into the absolute silence of the moment as if wishes don’t need to exist. I feel one with the universe and I’m a Zen master just then.
I head back in the same direction I had come from. I decide there’s no harm in walking through the park because now all my heavy emotions have slipped out of my hand and the people out there will just be strangers. I was all left-brained again.