Sunday, waiting for a bus in the New York City Port Authority’s (poorly lit and oppressive) waiting area, a scruffy young man dragging a long-handled suitcase approached me to ask for money. I turned him down. “Happy Mother’s Day,” he sneered. “Thank you very much. Have a nice day.” And immediately walked over to another woman and went through the same routine; so did she.
After he’d moved on, a third bus traveler who sat next to the second woman—from her accent I’m guessing this third woman is Haitian—spoke up: “He only asked you two,” she noted. “He didn’t ask anybody else.”Just the two white women in the waiting area, she meant.
Reader: I hadn’t seen that.
Last night, as a potential ally,* I sat in on a parent meeting at Mystic Housing, a Somerville public housing complex, to listen as a racially diverse group of mothers grappled with the best way to begin recycling at their complex. (Single-stream recycling bins available to households throughout the rest of the city had not been distributed at public housing. After much pressure from Mystic residents, especially children from the Mystic Learning Center, the housing authority agreed to begin a pilot project there, starting this summer.)
Reader: I’d forgotten what it means to live in public housing ( For many years, back in the day, I’d taught GED classes at Mystic Housing’s community center). I’d forgotten how debilitating, how oppressive it could be if your neighbors scrawl graffiti onto freshly painted walls or defecate in the hallways—stories told last night. I’d not anticipated how a bright and shiny idea like “Let’s recycle!” might land on poor, overwhelmed, working-multiple-jobs mothers.
Sadly, how I “see” race and class sometimes looks a lot like last Friday at Brooklyn Botanic Garden: my daughter, two grandchildren and I sampling different scents from different lilac bushes on a pea-soup foggy and drizzly afternoon as La Guardia-bound jets flew right over our heads, close, loud—yet invisible.
* Somerville’s Mothers Out Front wish to connect with the women in public housing; I embodied that wish.