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A beautiful day in the neighborhood
Why are the Republicans so mad--why so furious with mothers? Perhaps it is
because we remind them they have to share, take turns, grow up.
by Mary Kay Blakely
[Image] Well past midnight on a steamy summer night last year, I clutched
the handle next to the passenger's seat in a large U-Haul truck
as it bounced through construction barricades on the Cross Bronx
Expressway, listening to my cargo crash against the walls as Howard,
knuckles white with tension, swung the loose steering wheel to keep us on
course. Sheer guts had put him in the driver's seat. This man, from whom
I've now been divorced a little longer than the decade we were married,
inspired groans from our teenage sons with his contentment in the 55 mph
lane on interstate highways. Ryan and Darren, the main glue between us for
nearly 20 years, were following in the car behind, all of us exhausted and
a little slaphappy after lifting and toting since dawn.
I was acutely aware that this was "the first day of the rest of your
life"--certainly, it was destined to be the last day of life as I'd known
it. A recently paroled mother/writer/suburbanite, I was about to begin a
solo life in New York City, the first time in 47 years I would not have to
filter every decision through the needs and expectations of other people.
The irony of having my once-husband and two former dependents launch me
into independence made this surreal journey somehow more provocative.
The close relationships in our postnuclear family continually baffled
friends, but I wasn't surprised when Howard called from Ann Arbor and
volunteered his two-week vacation to help me pack my emptying nest in
Connecticut. The sturdy friendship we retrieved from our divorce was
rebuilt slowly from the powerful alloy of regret and apology, an
interactive chemistry that eventually produces genuine change. We'd never
imagined, when we naively recited those vows to love and honor each other
for life back in 1970, we would mainly be providing each other unlimited
opportunities for mercy.
Mercy is the antidote for the crushing pain that invariably follows the
loss of innocence, and only the numb don't need it. Most recently, Howard
had to forgive the hard time I gave him with a memoir I'd just finished on
20 years of motherhood. Long familiar by now with the public compromises of
an ex-wife who writes, he said reading the manuscript made him feel "like a
jerk or a fool." When I asked him to identify the offending passages, it
took three weeks before he called back. "It wasn't what you wrote that made
me feel like a fool," he said quietly, utterly undefended. "It's my life I
wish I could revise." Only in hindsight was it clear how he'd taken this
fork instead of that, how decisions made in Michigan affected people he
loved in Connecticut. Growing instead of shrinking from the truth, he
understood we had no control, of course, over what other people would do
The first review had arrived by fax that morning, shortly before I
unplugged and packed the machine. I asked if the noxious label that would
be appearing next to his name again and again had hurt. "Yeah," he
admitted, "it got to me." He smiled ruefully, said he'd had a sudden image
of us appearing together on a "Geraldo" show: "Deadbeat Dads and the Women
Who Love Them." We laughed. Then we kept moving.
These are perilous times for anyone living outside "the traditional
family," since the reigning politicians are determined to bring back the
social dictatorship of the '50s. Certainly, the contemptuous labels we've
had to live under- broken home, latchkey children, absentee mother,
deadbeat dad- make it difficult for outsiders to recognize all the thinking
and striving most postnuclear families do.
It's more than a little frightening to see how swiftly the White Guys'
Movement has revived the old formula for ridding a country of its
conscience during hard economic times: First, you label whole segments of
the population as the Other. Then, when the suffering comes, it's possible
to believe they deserve it. If any of your own relatives turn out to be
among the despised populations- a gay son, maybe, a divorced sister- well,
mercy is notably absent from the current roster of family values.
Since the neighborhood I was moving into was teeming with Others-- accented
immigrants, hyphenated Americans, single moms, low- income families--I knew
that casualties from the "Contract on America" would be falling within my
direct line of vision. It was already impossible to walk through the Upper
West Side without encountering lifeless bodies laid out on every block, the
parched bottom layer of the trickle-down economy. This reality apparently
doesn't look so bad if you take it in through numbers and indexes in The
Wall Street Journal, where investors declare a "good economy" if profits
are up. There is scant coverage on the business pages, and rarely any
photos, of people going down. Mothers and children are so invisible in the
national news, investors might not even know we are out here, laboring in
the same economy. Business columnists uniformly regard the collapse of
communism as "the triumph of capitalism." Triumph? From the passenger
window, capitalism without compassion looks a lot like Calcutta.
As Howard took the exit on the Upper West Side and aimed the truck down
Broadway, I looked out the window at the street people I'd driven past
hundreds of times, but never as a neighbor. What did being a "good
neighbor" mean in this community, where the utterly destitute and the
fantastically wealthy live within blocks of each other? How would I stay in
touch with reality, when the daily reality is so unreal? Do I put on an
armband, own my affinity with the Others--or do I wear mental blinders, try
not to know what I know? I've never been able to establish any distance
from street people--I keep thinking they're my relatives. I still scan
their faces for signs of my brother Frank, even though I know it's
irrational since I delivered the eulogy at his funeral more than a decade
I'm more or less resigned to my role as an easy mark for panhandlers--a
readily identifiable "Sucker Man," as my son Darren would say in sticky
situations, remembering a childhood toy with suction cups that glowed in
the dark. I feel especially sucked in by street people with obvious
symptoms of mental illness. Frank's madness used to terrify me, as it did
him, and I spent years looking into his wild eyes on psychiatric wards,
trying to make contact, trying to stare fear down by knowing it. If you
make eye contact with panhandlers, know their stories, the buck in your
pocket is already in their hands. I think of these tiny contributions as
payments against my huge debt to all the strangers who were kind to Frank.
We lost him periodically, between hospitals and jail cells and mental
institutions and home--those scary times when this frail, brilliant,
desperately ill young man was "out there" somewhere, totally dependent on
the compassion of others. Walking through Manhattan, I still make sidewalk
diagnoses of manic depression, autism, schizophrenia, paranoia. . . all
being treated on the streets since political reformers in the late '60s
stopped "warehousing" the mentally ill. Few voters back then understood the
loathsome "warehouses" were the last stop for the most helpless, or that
the alternative to inept and underfunded hospitals would be no care at all.
A theater of the absurd, America's sidewalks reflect the insanity of a
national health care policy that now jails the mentally ill before treating
Howard had acquired a new nickname that week after he'd dropped a 27-inch
television a customer had brought in for repairs. "Hey, Crash!" the wise
guys he worked with now greeted him, "How's it goin'?" With all my material
possessions in the U-Haul, I had nothing to lose with Crash at the wheel
since my alternate driver was Anthony, the Connecticut neighbor who'd shorn
the roof off a delivery van when he plowed into a sign that read,
"Clearance-8'." ("Sure I saw it," he later told the hospital staff. "I
forgot I was in the stupid truck.") I already missed Anthony and the rest
of the gang who regularly camped out around our kitchen table.
I loved that raucous household, blooming with growth and optimism. The
quiet solitude after Ryan and Darren left for college felt abrupt. In
truth, our quality time together was sometimes down to five minutes a day
by then, and the main noise was running water. My landlady had been shocked
by our water bills and asked if she should send a plumber to check for
leaks. "No," I confessed, "I'm growing male adolescents here. They need a
lot of showers." I offered to pay the difference, since watering teenagers
was more economical and effective than therapy, and ultimately easier on
the environment. The boys would emerge in elevated moods, skin flushed and
wrapped in terry cloth. Every time I would come across those alarming
headlines about young male violence and try to imagine what might save us,
I'd think: Showers. If every kid in America had enough private time in the
bathroom to get a grip, to feel just great for a moment, wouldn't it have
to improve civilization?
I was lucky to find a "prewar" apartment, Manhattan shorthand for big rooms
that haven't been subdivided into six studios with pantry kitchens and
broom-closet bathrooms. Space is so precious in New York, custody suits
over rent-controlled apartments are common when couples split up. After
postwar prosperity devolved into today's social Darwinism, whole
working-class families now read, watch television, eat, make love, fight,
cry, laugh, yell, and sleep all in the same room.
Driving through Harlem a few years ago, I got lost in an urban canyon
between tall, crumbling buildings. The narrow street was solidly
double-parked, and I noticed every car was occupied: One man was reading by
flashlight, another was having a cigarette, a pair of teenagers was
car-dancing to a radio, another pair was sinking slowly into the seat.
Here, on the streets, people were in the only private room at home. It's no
wonder tempers flare and violence erupts during steamy summers in the city.
Who can take a shower in a car?
My neighborhood is "in transition," as we say, between an elegant past and
present cruelties, a microcosm of the growing class divisions in America.
One block west of my building, uniformed doormen with epaulets safeguard
well-to-do residents who are likely to be liberal, generous contributors to
the soup kitchen in the nearby cathedral. One block east, crack vials
litter the sidewalks where street people and drug addicts spend the night.
The haves and have-nots live cheek by jowl here with remarkable civility I
think, given the givens. The thief who would eventually steal my car radio
did not break any windows, and left a screwdriver behind on the seat. When
the car was broken into again a week later, nothing was taken. Somebody
evidently just needed a room.
My suburban habit of getting close to neighbors is trickier here because
they come and go sometimes within the same day. It's hard to learn all
their names without mailboxes. And the names sometimes change. The woman
with the wild gray hair and bedroom slippers who growls at pedestrians on
the west side of Broadway calls herself "Bad Bertha," but when she's
sitting quietly on the east side, her hair tucked neatly into a bun and
feet prettily aligned in ballet shoes, her name is "Irena." The exuberantly
manic guy who works the street outside the Hungarian Pastry Shop calls
himself "the Lord's Apostle," and sings a gospel rap that sounds like a
kind of Gregorian Dixie. One rhyme made me laugh, and a laugh in Manhattan
is worth a buck to me: "I love Christ, Jesus Christ/The only Man who's been
But there was a dramatic shift in my street relationships when Howard, the
boys, and I were finishing renovations on the apartment. That whole week,
nobody hit on us for money. Instead, panhandlers grinned and nodded when we
passed them during errands and lunch breaks, as though we were old
comrades. Maybe they only solicit suburban commuters, I thought, and now
recognize us as neighbors. Then I realized how we were dressed: paint-
splattered T-shirts, sweaty kerchiefs, shoes covered with sawdust and
Spackle. Crash's work outfit was truly special--Howard had grabbed a pair
of old sweats from the Goodwill pile in Connecticut and didn't discover the
cord was missing until he put them on in New York. We searched the vacant
apartment for a piece of string or elastic, but all we came up with from
work supplies was a roll of duct tape. Even the craziest panhandlers
weren't tempted to solicit change from a guy wearing a cummerbund of silver
If our degrees of separation could melt with a change of attire perhaps the
current experiment with "casual days," when corporations relax formal dress
codes on Fridays, should go even further. Maybe Mondays should be
down-in-the-socks day. Princely executives could become paupers once a week
and get to know the folks who are so invisible to Wall Street Journal
readers. In their starched collars and knotted ties and pressed twill, so
many of the Suits who bustle down Broadway dodging strollers and shopping
carts look either uncomfortable or angry, as if everybody wants their
stuff. Most everybody probably does.
But suppose they relieved themselves of this burden once a week,
surrendered their gaberdine armor and leather belts for a Goodwill outfit
and roll of duct tape. Would they be less angry if nobody was hitting on
them? If they got grins and nods on the streets, if they made eye contact
and learned the names of the Others, would they be tempted to open up
membership in the tight little group of "we Americans"? It's almost too
poignant to imagine, but could the in-it- together camaraderie on the
streets even move the white guys to share their drugs? The comprehensive
health coverage for Congress and the military is costing taxpayers a
bundle, but that entitlement program never appears on the Republicans' list
of "financial burdens."
Party strategist William Kristol chastised GOP colleagues for compromising
their economic goals after Democrats launched an aggressive campaign with
the "politics of compassion" during the last presidential election.
Addressing a conference on C-Span, he warned his fellow Republicans not to
be sidetracked by worries about poor people next time. If the rich could
become richer still, objections to ruthlessness become moot: "The politics
of growth trump the politics of compassion," he declared over and over.
Greed trumps mercy every time. It was late at night when I heard this game
plan in my hotel room almost two years ago. I couldn't think of anyone to
call, anything to do. Now Kristol is publisher of a new, right-wing
magazine financed by Rupert Murdoch, and Kristol's colleagues have taken
Capitol Hill. Should I have called 911?
After unloading and returning the truck, my tired crew crashed on
mattresses flush with the floors and didn't get up until noon. The next
day, muscles sore but freshly showered, we were in elevated moods after
lunch in a local Chinese-Cuban restaurant. "Chinese- Cuban-Americans," I
said, wondering how I would keep track of the hyphens here. "Imagine
fleeing the Gang of Four and landing in Castro country."
"Yeah," Howard said, "then risking your life in an open boat and washing up
here just in time for the Gingrich Gang." Ryan and Darren gave each other a
worried look, familiar by now with their progenitors' habit of getting
worked up over politics. They hated hearing about suffering they couldn't
do anything about. If we were going to saddle them with family values of
mercy and justice in these mean times, they wanted to know how to fend off
despair. Though we are not regular church-goers, the religion in our
postnuclear family is an interfaith amalgam of Catholic beatitudes and
Lutheran heresies and Zen koans--I suggested a visit to St. John the
Divine. The largest Episcopal cathedral in North America, its towering
spire of magnificent masonry now sits sullenly under rusted iron
scaffolding, renovations stalled once more while fundraising efforts are
applied to more immediate emergencies. Dean James Morton has the formidable
task of convincing wealthy parishioners deeply committed to art and
historic preservation that their first obligation, as Episcopalians, is to
serve the community--in their case, ceaseless waves of troubled kids,
addicted veterans, dying homosexuals, and homeless immigrants. In the turf
wars between the Suits and the Others in this West Side Story, the
cathedral is the parking lot where miracles happen.
Still beautiful despite its present humility, the stately edifice is
buzzing with civilian activity. Before New York adopted a recycling
program, parishioners brought their garbage to church, where the homeless
turned aluminum cans into cash. Two biologists now work out of the church
to restore the urban watershed in Upper Manhattan, and hold community
workshops on environmental issues. The doors are open to anyone who wants
in--on the Feast of St. Francis, when members bring pets to the procession
honoring all God's creatures, even elephants come to St. John the Divine.
In the park next to the interfaith elementary school at the church, we
stopped before an installation by sculptor Frederick Franck. A row of six
steel panels are aligned on the lawn perpendicular to the path, each with a
silhouette of the same human figure cut from the center, the first one
slightly larger than life, the last a miniature version of the shrinking
figure itself. The inscription quotes the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee,
the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy: "In all our deliberations we must be
mindful of the impact of our decisions on the seven generations to follow
ours." Franck titled the sculpture Seven Generations, but there are only
six figures. The viewer, standing squarely at the mouth of the tunnel, must
become the seventh. We each took turns looking through the five ghostly
silhouettes, connecting with the tiny figure at the end. Step aside from
your place in the human chain, it disappears.
How did the Iroquois chiefs come to their remarkably long view of personal
responsibility? How did they make the connection between their business
decisions in Michigan and domestic life in Connecticut? Were they all in
difficult relationships? Did they speak the hard truth, argue and
apologize, let mercy change them? Seemingly larger than life in their war
paint and headdresses, did the chiefs declare a casual day at the
Haudenosaunee Council, light the pipe and pass it around? Did they inhale?
The architects of the Republican Party's future can't be worried about the
next seven generations- William Kristol said it's not even practical to
care about most of this one. "You cannot in practice have a federal
guarantee that people won't starve," he told Harper's during a candid forum
with five other white guys, explaining how Republicans envision the future.
Some people will have to suffer, but "that's just political reality," said
author David Frum. Obviously unaware of Dean Morton's work with New York
Episcopalians, Frum apparently doesn't think "the sort of people who make
$100,000 contributions to the Republican Party" can get behind poor people.
"Republicans are much more afraid of angry symphonygoers than they are of
people starving to death," he said.
The main problem with running a merciless government is that in a
democracy, millions of voters have to agree to starvation. This requires a
certain "finesse," said media adviser Frank Luntz. "I'll explain it in one
sentence: I don't want to deliver bad news from a golf course in
Kennebunkport." Republicans are depending on Rush Limbaugh, the undisputed
master of political spin, to keep people dizzy and laughing about
starvation plans. Labeling people like me "compassion fascists" for trying
to get people like him interested in mercy, Limbaugh is so popular even The
New York Times compromised its editors when marketing executives hired him
to advertise the newspaper. In the new morality of bottom-liners, it's OK
to have a propagandist represent the "newspaper of record," if it increases
sales. Vice must be spun into virtue before we can get to the Republican
future, but everybody's doing their part.
Several years ago, Ivan Boesky spoke to students at the University of
California while on tour to promote a new book. "Greed is healthy," he
inspired them. "You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself."
Boesky's invocation of avarice didn't stir any action from Republican
crusaders fighting "a cultural warIfor the soul of America," in which Pat
Buchanan sees the enemies as "radical feminists and homosexuals." Talk
about a dazzling public relations coup: The party championing morality in
America has declared that charity is impractical, greed is healthy,
compassion is fascist, and mercy is the responsibility of other people. If
future schoolchildren have to recite a prayer written by these folks,
whatever will it say? "Dear God, please give me more of everything than
I'll ever need and I promise not to care about anyone else."
Though I'm not an Episcopalian, visiting St. John's always makes me wish I
could pray. I envy the solace my family and friends have talking to God. My
own spiritual meditations are generally addressed to my brother Frank, the
euphoric madman who left abruptly at age 36, delirious with love and
forgiveness as he answered God's call. I still want him to tell me: Is
heaven better than the transient hotel where the Chicago police found his
body? Sitting in the garden at St. John's, I remembered our last
conversation on the lawn at Elgin State Hospital. He asked me why I loved
him and I said, "Because you are a fool, and I love fools."
"But Jesus said, 'There are no fools,'" he replied, quoting a scriptural
fragment from his seminarian days.
"I know," I replied. "But I think what Jesus really meant is that we are
all fools," I said, paraphrasing J.D. Salinger. I told him I thought he was
the king of fools. He laughed, said I must be the queen. I don't blame God
for the scrambled thinking that led to Frank's suicide. I can't even be
sure there is a God. I believe my divinely crazy brother heard God say what
he wanted to hear. Many mentally ill people think they are in direct touch
with the Almighty. The Lord's apostle outside the pastry shop, the
toothless guy at D'Agostino, even Bertha on her bad days will offer the
panhandler's benediction: "God bless you," they say, whether the quarter
comes or not. Republican Christians today are getting some frenzied
directives as the political scene becomes ever crazier, and they too hear
exactly what they want to hear: God wants everybody to get married, wants
women to stay home, doesn't want gays in the military, doesn't want
national health insurance. I can't share their faith that a supreme
benevolence is behind all these messages, but if the polls are correct and
most Americans do think somebody's God should be directing all our lives,
let's please not pick the one who's inspiring pro-lifers to get automatic
weapons. Until we have a firmer grip on our common reality, maybe we could
all follow the harmless god who's telling the autistic disciple on 34th
Street, over and over: "Go to Macy's nine-to- five, Go to Macy's
nine-to-five." We could leave the credit cards home, stay out of trouble.
It was a beautiful summer night on Broadway as we walked home from our last
dinner together, grateful there were no more boxes to move. When a U-Haul
truck rattled down the street, Crash laughed and asked, "Do you think
they'd have less business if the company was named, 'U-Bust-Your-Ass'?" Our
laughing foursome attracted looks from our neighbors, but few grinned or
nodded, as if we'd become strangers again. Darren noticed too.
"This is too weird," he said. "People are staring at us because we look so
normal. Like Mom and Pop and the two boys from Iowa." He was struck by the
irony of having been labeled the weirdos in almost every neighborhood we've
lived in, then arriving here--where weirdos abound--and being mistaken for
"We should wear a sign," he said. "We're Not What You Think." Maybe
everyone should wear that sign through the next election, since there's so
much confusion about the Other. As bad decisions in Washington crush good
people in Harlem, even "liberal" politicians are telling us to prepare for
further compromises--live a little leaner, do more charity work, tighten
our belts. What can they be thinking? My neighbors are already living in
cars, doing-it-yourself, holding pants up with duct tape. There is plenty
of self-help and personal responsibility out here, where people watch each
other's kids and take mostly working vacations, if we take them at all.
How did the white guys ever get the impression they are doing all the work?
Because they are earning all the big bucks? Why are the Republicans so
mad--why so furious with mothers? Do they need more Prozac? Since all the
female labor sustaining them at home and at work is so invisible, so
seemingly profitless, they can't seem to hold the picture that somebody's
valuable work is responsible for the fact their children are alive, their
Contracts are typed. The arrogance and ignorance of the current political
leadership is so stupefying, you don't even want to argue with these
boys--you "just want to slap them," as a high-ranking official recently
told Molly Ivins. Maybe that's why the white guys loathe mothers so much-
we remind them they have to share, take turns, grow up.
The next morning we loaded the roof of Howard's car so high with the boys'
sports equipment, easels, and trunks, we had to make one last trip to the
hardware store for longer bungee cords. It was a hectic departure as the
Clampetts hit the road, and I waved from the curb as they mouthed their
final goodbyes through the window. Still smiling, I stayed on the curb for
a long time, sorry the party was over. Letting go rarely comes naturally to
me, and I felt my worry reflexes kick in as the car turned the corner.
Almost every family value Howard and I tried to give our sons will give
them nothing but trouble, if they choose to live them. As two young,
educated white guys who could qualify as insiders if they got behind the
Contract on the rest of us, there are bound to be days they'll feel like
Sucker Man, stuck with mercy when greed is called trump. I know it's a
peculiar wish for a mother, but I hope they never quite fit in with their
crowd. Certainly their affinity with their dad, a truly original odd man
out, was a heartening sign. I could see them all laughing for the next 750
miles. Folding my arms, I looked up at the cathedral. I wished I could
pray. I remembered my religious instructor's belief that we were all fools,
walking from one hallowed ground to the next. Dear God, I thought, please
let us be merciful fools.
Mary Kay Blakely, a contributing editor at Ms. and The Los Angeles Times
Magazine, is the author of American Mom: Motherhood, Politics, and Humble
Pie; and is working on a new book about political depression called Red,
White, and Oh So Blue.
Photograph by Christoph Lingg/JB Pictures
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