22 April 2009

Us and them

This morning I pulled into the grocery parking lot, and after locking my car was approached by a woman carrying a small paper bag with a string handle, the sort Starbucks would give you to carry a couple of muffins. She was clean and dressed in business attire--a nice pair of slacks and a silky sort of blouse--but her skin was weatherbeaten and her short-cropped hair was just a little too bright.

"Excuse..." she began and then started to hack, the deep, wrenching cough of a long-time heavy smoker, and I could smell the cigarettes on her. I waited politely until she stopped.

"I lost my purse," she began again, looking up at the sky, as if reading the words on a teleprompter above my head, "and my fare to work--bus and train--is five dollars. Can you spare it?"

"I'm sorry," I replied, "but I don't have any cash with me."

Which is generally true these days. I've been approached by some rough-looking people a couple of times in recent months, so when I leave the house on my own, I no longer wear jewelry, and I carry nothing but what I need to for my trip.

"Yeah, yeah," she said, flapping a hand at me in disgust, as she stalked away, "None of you people carry cash any more."

You people?

I deconstruct stories, conversations, occurrences, the words others use.

You people.

I drive a 12-year-old Camry. The sort that was described at its release by the car magazines as "plain vanilla." It suits me fine, in part because I am in possession of an excess of personality and do not require additional from my car. But mostly, because it runs, it's reliable, it does precisely what I need it to do. Standing there in the parking lot, I was still wearing the clothes that I threw on this morning at 6:30 to take the son to the bus stop: the faded red t-shirt that I was wearing yesterday and a pair of denim shorts. The much-reviled Birkenstocks. My grooming routine had gone so far as brushing my hair, and I hope to god I'd brushed my teeth.

You people.

I know what it is to be poor. I know what it is to touch bottom and to force yourself back to the surface, to learn how not to drown even if you aren't exactly swimming. I know about survival and one hundred one ways to cook beans. I know the language of struggling to make ends meet, the terror that you may not succeed in doing so. My story is evident in my innate toughness and my ability to take care of myself, but it's not clear from how I look or how I behave.

Her story was written in her attitude, her words and her smell. I could create a dozen scenarios for her, and at least one would be correct. But I don't choose to do that, to walk the path that she did in dismissing me as "you people."

Be very careful what you assume.

Go listen to some good music: "Us and Them" from the album Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd.

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