Someone who looks like me

I recently saw a picture of a young boy, just three years old, standing behind the rope line at the White House, looking up in awe at President Obama. The president put a gentle hand on the boy’s face. According to news reports, the President of the United States of America bent down and spoke a few words to the boy, and straightened his tie. The boy is African American, just like our president.

That little boy also met Rep. John Lewis, an African American who was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and has been fighting ever since.

There’s another photo, from a few years ago, that’s more famous. It shows President Obama bending down so another young black boy, five years old, could touch the president’s hair to see if it felt the same as his own closely cropped African-American locks. And, indeed it did.

Powerful images both. No one pretends that race tensions and discrimination have disappeared in this country because we have a black president. Indeed, the backlash against him and his has been as fierce as the backlash against the women’s movement. But the imagery is just as powerful as the office itself.

In this election, we have, on one side, a woman and a Jewish man from New York vying for the Democratic nomination. Either one will be a first. On the other side, there are two sons of Cuban immigrants in a tight race for the Republican nomination. Another first.

Feminists and other civil rights activists have long since said that having an advocate in the room is not the same as being in the room. Sure, Sen. Ted Kennedy did lots of great things. And, I’ll even concede that it was probably easier, for him at least, to get it done while he was only dealing with other rich, white men.

It’s easier because they understand each other, they speak the same language, they like each other, they don’t make each other uncomfortable.

But they miss stuff.

They miss lots of stuff.

No matter how hard they try, and no matter how well they do with their advocacy, they don’t “get” certain things. They just can’t.

We all have experiences influenced by how we are perceived in the world. And those experiences shape us.

Who hasn’t heard that George Eliot was a woman, and used a man’s name so she would be taken seriously?

I remember being a young girl and being so disheartened when I would always hear “he.” It was so clear I did not stand a chance for certain things I might want to do.

The commercials would start out saying, “Do you want…?” and I would think, “yes,” and then they would make a reference to “your” wife or girlfriend, or otherwise make it clear the “you” was a man, certainly not me. And I’m quite sure they weren’t targeting the gay community.

It matters to be in the room.

It matters for people, especially young people, to see someone who looks like them in the room.

When little girls saw Sally Ride, they knew they could fly.

When black boys see President Obama, they know they can achieve the highest office in the land, arguably, the world.

When young people see anyone who looks like them doing awesome things, it makes them feel that they can do awesome things too.

So tell me, please, as we head to the polls on March 1 to pick the champions from each party who will head into the final ring to debate their way to the top job in the world: Who does Donald Trump look like?

Take that question and ….

Really, Boston Media Consortium? This is the best that Boston’s finest journalists can come up with? This is how you choose to spend your question, your precious time with the candidates running for Governor of Massachusetts? You ask them when they cried last? Really?

By now, everyone has heard about Charlie Baker’s teary-eyed retelling of an encounter with a yet-to-be-found New Bedford fisherman, while Martha Coakley watched and blinked, presumably trying to figure out how she was supposed to act while her opponent put his head in his hands and brushed away tears.

Heaven help us all. We’re doomed, doomed I tell you, doomed.

Janet Wu, the only woman on the panel (don’t even go there), asked the question, simply: when was the last time you cried? She asked it just like it meant something, just as if she asked what they felt about raising the sales tax. Coakley answered first, recounting, with poise and not tears, but with the appropriate seriousness, that she had been to a funeral that very day. Then Charlie Baker said that just a few days before he had recounted a story of a big New Bedford fisherman, all salty and sweaty…and they hugged.

Wish I had seen that, in his zillion-dollar suit hugging the fisherman who was just getting into port. Puleeease, I bet the guy’s wife won’t even hug him until he takes a shower after just getting off the boat and unloading his catch.

Let’s just crank up those stereotypes, huh?

But I digress. The point is, it was a stupid question. Who cares when they cried last or what makes them cry? I don’t want a governor who cries. I want someone who can get stuff done. Any idiot can cry.

Of course, that’s not what the media is focused on. They are all acting like it was a perfectly good question that deserved an answer. I guess since Bill Clinton decided to tell us if he wore boxers or briefs, anything goes.

Now the venerable members of Boston’s storied press corps are all trying to find the elusive fisherman. Long live investigative journalism.

According to Baker, the big, burly mountain of a man who was all sweaty and salt-watery, said he stopped his two sons from going to college, even though they had football scholarships, because he wanted them to be fishermen, too. Family tradition and all. As if New Bedford fishermen don’t know that college men can be fishermen, too.

He doesn’t sound like he’s from any fishing families I know. At least not in this lifetime. Maybe if you found a man in his 80s, you’d find that tale to be a little more believable. After all, back in the day, fishing made more money than any college job. Not now. It still can, but for a dwindling number of people.

Most of the fishing families I know send their kids to college. Then, if the kids want to work in the fishing industry, fine…but they’re going to college first. Heck, lots of ’em work on the boats in the summer to pay for school.

A father with sons in high school in this millennium who forbids his sons to go to college on a scholarship because he’d rather see them fishing?

Okay, I’ll bite: Where is this guy. (Psst….Hey Buddy, whoever you are. Keep your head down. Let Baker sink or swim on his own, because you can’t save him, you can only sink with him.)

As for New Bedford? We’re just glad someone’s talking about us and our fishing industry. At least Baker knows we have a fishing port here. I wonder if he knows we DON’T have a train to Boston?

Another stupid question, because it doesn’t matter if he knows. It matters if he cares. And he probably doesn’t.

Next time, I hope the candidates just say, “I’m not answering that question. It’s no one’s business what makes me cry or when I cried last. Crying is private.”

I can dream, can’t I?

I know you’re in there somewhere.

Are you in there, My Aunt? I think you are. At least part of you is, with bits and pieces slipping out for a few seconds every once in awhile.

You lie in the bed, or sit in the chair; you make not a sound on one day; you sing out loud on others; you talk as if you are making sense on yet others.

Sometimes you look right at me as if you see me. Other times you look right past me.

You start out speaking in words I can almost understand. I’ve told the staff that it’s not jibberish, exactly; it’s Lebanese Arabic. But, I admit, it’s only for a few words. Then it degrades into jibberish. I don’t speak the language, so I only get a few words here and there. I think you are talking about going somewhere (I know the word for “go”), but my sister says you are probably telling me to go away.

That makes me laugh. Maybe you are. Maybe you are saying you want me to take you somewhere. For ice cream, perhaps? You remember ice cream, right? I hope you do.

I sit here with my computer, oldies music playing either on my iTunes program or on the little CD player. I don’t know if you can hear it. You seem to be able to; just the slightest bit of awareness, attention in that direction. Maybe it’s my imagination, my wishful thinking that my being here a few times a month actually makes a difference.

Well, it makes a difference to me, anyway.

I remember you when you were younger. I remember your laugh, with your sisters, my mother, my cousins. I put those pictures on your wall to remind me as much as you. I don’t even know if you can see them, but they make the room yours. Before those pictures it was just a room. It could’ve been anyone’s, for any old “Americaneeya.”

Staff members say you are happy enough in your own little world, but I think you come out of that world every now and then, if only for a moment or two.

I sit here typing away, and that aide you don’t like comes in. I know you don’t like him. You called him a name in Arabic once. No one else understood you. But I did. I laughed. They thought you were babbling, but it was a word, a real word, a very non-flattering word.

One time, as we slowly wheeled by a woman in a wheelchair, you called her a “poor thing,” in Arabic. Very clearly, very purposefully, you said “that one’s a poor thing,” a phrase I understood, a rare thing in itself.

I remember seeing you at the beach, well, not seeing your face, though. You were the one whose face was completely covered with a towel or blanket, or shirt. I always thought it was so funny, not so much that you wanted to cover your face: we all learned early on that the sun causes wrinkles. No, it was that you always seemed so unprepared for covering your face, using a corner of the towel, or a shirt that didn’t quite work right. Of course I grew up in this gadget-crazy world. After reading this, someone will probably come up with a super-duper, specially designed, specially fitted wrinkle protector for the beach; made of t-shirt material, no doubt. But I digress.

I got a big, floppy hat for you so I could take you outside in the little courtyard and you could enjoy the sun without getting it on your face.

I wonder, as we sit there, if anywhere in your brain is the memory of the countless times you walked up the driveway at our house, usually with Aunt May or Aunt Freda, but sometimes with one of your other sisters. If the sun was out, you wouldn’t even come into the house. You knew we could see your car in the driveway. Mom always had a few seats positioned to catch the sun just right. You and my other aunts would sit and soak up the rays. My mother would go out and visit with you. I would too. I loved it when my aunts visited like that.

Sometimes, if mom didn’t get out there for a bit because she’d be busy, you would just drive off after awhile. No hard feelings, just a tacit understanding that it wasn’t the best time, and, “thanks for giving us some of your sun.”

Once or twice, I recall mom running out to stop you from leaving….have a little patience already, I’ve got five kids…I imagine she said, or something similar.

At least, that’s how I remember it.

Now, I sit in the little courtyard with you, the big floppy hat covering all except one corner of your chin because of the way your head turns to the side like that. You keep grabbing the blanket, trying to cover that little piece of skin. You manage it, too, shaky hands and all.

That’s why I think you’re still in there somewhere.

It’s time for dinner, so I ask you if you want to leave. You very clearly say, “no,” in English. Not thoroughly convinced, I ask if you want to stay, and you say, just as clearly, “yes!”

So we sit for a little bit longer, Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams crooning.

Then we go inside so the staff can feed you. They ask me if I want to feed you, and I can see the hope in their eyes, but I can’t bear to do that.

I hope they are gentle with you.

Is this how it starts?

A young woman leaves the Feast and starts walking to her car, which is parked several blocks away. She notices two men following her. She notices them because she is a smart, modern woman who has been taught to “be aware of her surroundings” at all times. It’s been beaten into her head since she started to venture away from home on her own.

She’s a smart, modern 20-something, but she’s not paranoid, and she doesn’t want to judge the two men simply by their looks. So she doubles back to make sure she is not imagining it. She even stops and talks to someone walking a dog. The men stop, too, hanging back about a block.

Then she crosses the street a couple of times, and the men do the same. She knows, now, that they are following her. She’s not sure what to do, makes sure they don’t get too close and she stays where there are people around. She’s smart enough to know she should not go to her car. There might not be any people there. At this point, she’s still pretty close to the Feast so there are lots of people walking around. She thinks maybe she should go back to the Feast and find someone she knows to walk her to her car. It might seem silly, though, but, she looks back, and the men are still there. She’s been taught to trust her instincts.

She spots four police officers, FOUR, on a corner, because, after all, it is near the Feast grounds. Feeling relieved, she approaches them and asks if one of them can walk her to her car because, and she points, two men are following her. Instead of offering to, at the very least, watch her as she goes to her car, they question HER. They ask her how she knows the men are following her. They even ask her why two men would be folllowing her. 

Excuse me? WHY? Really?

And then they tell her “no,” they will not walk her to her car. They will not even walk far enough to see that she gets to her car safely.

The young woman stands there incredulous. She was raised to believe that the police officer was her friend, that she should look for the uniform in a scary situation, that they are there to protect and serve.

I guess that doesn’t apply when they are getting detail pay at a feast.

What the hell were they doing there, I ask. Shame on you, whatever police department you belong to. The young woman was rather shaken and did not read the names on the badges or see which depatment these officers were part of. l guess that’s better, or I would be slamming a whole department here.

I thought you were supposed to be there for public safety. Obviously not for the safety of that particular member of the public. So, what was your job, exactly? What was the point? Were you supposed to be getting paid to stand there and bullshit with each other? How much was that detail costing for four of you NOT to help a young woman in need? As for HOW she knew they were following her? She knew because she did exactly as she was taught: she paid attention to her surroundings.

And so what if they were not following her? So what if she was wrong and they were just ambling around? What happened to being able to ask for some help just because you feel uncomfortable in your surroundings? When did it become necessary to prove an imminent threat to personal safety for a police officer to show the common courtesy and respect that any decent-thinking, random stranger would have shown?

When did Officer Friendly become Officer Asshole?

Is this how it starts, the deterioration of public trust in our safety officials?

Is it a big leap from this to Ferguson? Of course it is. Is it a ridiculous, impossible leap? Maybe, but not necessarily, because it has to start somewhere. We didn’t suddenly go from Andy Taylor to Ferguson in one fell swoop. We didn’t go from, “Do not fear, Officer Friendly is here,” to citizens being treated as enemy combatants all in one summer.

It happened bit by bit. It happened one incident like this at a time.

About 35 years ago, when I had just moved to Revere, one of my sisters drove out to see me in my new apartment. She got lost and called me from a pay phone. We didn’t have cell phones back then. She gave me a landmark to tell me where she was, but I didn’t know because I had just move there; two New Bedford bumpkins out of their ken. I was pretty sure she was in Chelsea somewhere, but I had no idea how to find her. Instead of driving around blindly while she waited in her car in a possibly bad neighborhood, I called the police. I don’t remember if I called Revere police or Chelsea police (I really should keep a journal). In any case, I gave them the same information she gave me, explained that I was new to the area and did not know how to find her. I was at least hoping they could direct me to her. They didn’t do that. They went to her. Yup. They sent a cruiser to where she was in a parking lot waiting by the phone for me to call. They directed her and even followed her to her first turn.

That was Chelsea, Mass., in the late 70s or early 80s. Those guys were busy, but they still had time to swing by a parking lot and give directions to a scared teenager.

The fact that I even called the police is probably surprising enough to some people. But I grew up on Adam 12, Andy Griffith and the righteousness of TV Westerns. All I know about integrity and honesty and doing what’s right I learned from Lucas McCain and Matt Dillon and the Cartwrights.

What happened America? In a re-run this week, Officer Reed admonished some old guy, saying that the way a person dresses or wears his hair is his own business. Geesh. Those days are gone, aren’t they? Dare I even mention skin color?

I have it on good authority and am happy, even proud to say that I know there were no Fairhaven police officers on details at the big Feast. I am happy to be able to say, “none of our guys did that.”

I know our guys are not all angels all the time, but I’d like to think that if one of my young cousins approached one of them and asked for an escort, that she, or he, would be greeted as a person in need and would be treated with respect and would be helped, not given the third degree.

Oh, the young woman at the Feast? The two men took off when they saw her talking to the police. Obviously, they weren’t close enough to hear the conversation. Let’s be grateful for that.

 

 

 

Herding Cats

I can’t recall the first time, exactly, that I heard the expression “herding cats.” I’m pretty sure it was one of my mother’s sayings (probably about us kids). I have this flashback (not in a bad way), with me on the kitchen floor, kind of looking up and seeing my mother as that expression hung in the air. The funny thing is, I never questioned the expression. I knew exactly what she meant, because we had cats. We had a dog, a succession of cats, a horse and a couple of ponies. At one point we had chickens and even rabbits. Then there were the animals we caught and brought home, yes, among them many snakes.

Our neighbors had cows. There was a chicken farm on the street. A few other neighbors had horses. All our cats were outdoor cats, the neighbors’ cats, too. The point of having a cat, was to prevent having mice (or…shudder….rats). Ours were working cats.

So, when I heard that the town of Weymouth is actually, seriously debating a leash law for cats, I thought for sure it was from The Onion, a spoof website devoted to making fun of the day’s news.

It’s a sad commentary on our society that we have become so distanced from nature that we don’t even understand our domestic animals .

A leash law for cats?

Heaven help us. We’re doomed, doomed, as my friend Pam would say. We are, simply, doomed.

Cats will not be leashed. Anyone who has owned a cat knows this. The woman who is proposing the law is tired of cats messing up stuff in her yard and pooping everywhere. I can appreciate that, really I can. I have a vegetable garden, and the neighborhood cats love to do their business in the nice soft soil. It’s yucky when I’m scratching around trying to tend to my plants.

Ugh.

But, said cats also keep the mice population at bay. And I saw one of those cats keep a full-grown Labrador Retriever at bay the other day, too. I heard the dog yelp and cry and I even heard her as she stomped away. I looked out the window of my little office just in time to see the big, 60’sh pound Lab run home to papa. I ran out the door to see if it was a coyote or a big raccoon or a car or something that set her to running. I found my neighbor’s cat, the light calico, sitting with her head high looking like all of the Queen of Sheba, calm as a glassy ocean on an early morning in August. She looked at me as if to say, “What? That dog annoyed me, so I got rid of it.”

I chuckled, heard my neighbors (the owners of the dog), say something about a cat (and they chuckled, too), and we all went back to our business.

So, c’mon over, Weymouth. Try to put a leash on that cat.

I dare you.