Tuesday, July 04, 2006

On this Independence Day

Update: I'd cross posted this entry to my diary on Michigan Liberal. Matt has now promoted it to the front page. Thanks, Matt!

Ever the procrastinating writer, I just finished this account of an experience I had on June 13. It's a reminder on this Independence Day that liberty and justice aren't just things to be fought for on a battlefield far away ...

I drove downtown to the church to get Meg and Susan's music so they'd have it for their choir tour to Seattle. (They thought they were to leave it there, but apparently not. They're leaving tomorrow, so I thought I'd better pick it up.) I was only going to be there a minute, so I parked in the no-parking zone alongside the Jefferson St. door. As I got out of the truck I saw a maybe middle-aged black couple walking across the parking lot toward the door. She was wheeling a pull-behind grocery cart full of what I guessed were bags of food and he carried several plastic grocery bags, also full. I went inside.

Quite a few people were there for a Tuesday at 3:30 p.m.: the greeter was an older woman I didn't recognize. She was sitting at the desk knitting. One of custodians and a woman named Helen were sitting across the hallway from the desk. The three of them were talking. I went up the short flight of stairs to the offices to find the music secretary, who had called me about the music folders yesterday. Also there were the interim pastor for mission and a couple of women I didn't recognize. The secretary showed me where the girls' folders were -- I had walked right past them -- and we chatted a minute about how much fun the kids are going to have in Seattle. Then I left.

As I headed toward the door, the black couple came in, the woman first. She was nicely dressed in a long printed navy rayon skirt with matching overblouse. He had on a polo, some nondescript-colored pants and sneakers. He might have been a little older than she; he was graying at the temples, but her pulled-back hair was still all-black. I was still smiling from my exchange with the secretary, and as I passed them I said, "Hi." We have many people from the Heartside neighborhood who come into the church -- for food, coffee, neighborhood meetings, whatever. Some are looking for handouts, some just come in to talk. But the door is always open during the day (hence the "greeter" at the desk). It's not that I'm so overly friendly, but I sometimes think they might feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, so I always try to at least say hello.

They both said hi to me as I walked past, then the woman stopped and turned. "Ma'am, can I ask you something?" she said. I turned around. "Now, I'm not trying to rob you or anything like that. We just picked up all this food from the pantry here, and our ride never showed up. Do you think you could give us a ride home? We live way up on Fuller and Adams and it's a long walk." She talked fast, like she wanted to get it all out before I had a chance to say anything, especially no.

I hesitated. "Where do you live?" She told me again. I said, "Did you see the truck I pulled up in? What a mess it is?" My little Ford Ranger truck has a seriously messed up front end and a smashed windshield. The passenger-side mirror is missing its glass and the rear taillight on that side consists of red paper taped over bare bulbs.

She had seen it. "I don't care. I'll ride in the back of that thing if I have to. We just can't walk all that way with all these groceries." I still was hesitating, trying to size things up. They always tell us at the church not to give things to the neighborhood people who ask -- there are agencies, including our own food pantry, to take care of them. And I have seen people panhandling there. Drunks sleeping it off on a bench in our atrium. Mentally ill people who blurt out inappropriate comments during the service. People who come to the door after-hours asking for food or "money to buy milk for my baby." Then the woman said, "Or, there's a bus coming by here, the Eastern bus. If you could just help us get on that bus, we'd be grateful."

"No, I can take you. There are jump seats behind the seats in the truck, if you want to sit back there. It's kind of cramped."

While she talked to me, the man stood off, not getting involved in the conversation, not hovering. He set himself completely apart from the scene, and he seemed to be looking for something else -- the restroom, a drinking fountain. Later it came out that he was leaving the asking to her -- they'd already been rebuffed twice that day and he figured a black woman was less threatening than a black man to anybody they might encounter. He's right, I'm sure, even though the two of them looked anything but menacing. Now when she turned to him and said, "She's gonna take us," he lit up and a big smile crossed his face. I think the two of them said thank you more than once as they pushed the cart back out the door. But I don't really remember. I was thinking, "Well, I guess I'm doing this."

I also remembered how Meg was waiting on the other side of town for me to pick her up after a haircut. I had already warned my husband that I might not be back in time to get her, just because of the distance and possible traffic. Now he'd have to pick her up for sure. At least she'd have a ride.

We loaded the groceries into the bed of the truck. Then I shoved the front passenger seat forward so the woman could climb in the back. After she was settled in, the man settled into the front seat. I went around to the driver's side, got in, started the engine. "Where are we going?" I asked, because I am directionally challenged. Especially in the part of town we were going to. He directed me out of the parking lot and on my way. And the two of them started in to talking.

Oh my gosh, did they talk. I learned they were husband and wife (which I had figured by now) and they had come to Grand Rapids recently from Flint to take care of his aunt, who had throat cancer. I learned they had just moved to the apartment complex on Adams St. (apparently subsidized housing, which I had never even heard of) from the Dwelling Place downtown, and how it was that they were at our food pantry even though they lived so far away: They were allowed this one last trip here, then they had to start frequenting another place.

As we drove toward the southeast part of town, I heard all about their 8-year old grandson, "Poo-Poo" who was coming soon to live with them again. Poo-Poo, or Marcus, was born to their son and his girlfriend when he was 15, she 14, and as the baby's grandparents, they had pretty much raised him. Further, I found out that this son and an older one are currently in prison. Marcus's father in particular is incredibly gifted musically and athletically.

I slid a comment in about my own son who has had a few run-ins with the law himself. We talked about how it doesn't matter how well you raise your kids -- they sometimes just make bad choices. And they have to live with them.

All of this was matter-of-fact, bubbling talk from both of them. They talked to me so eagerly, interrupting each other good naturedly and constantly finishing one another's thoughts and sentences. "Listen to us talking so much," he said at one point, laughing. "We just don't get out and see anybody," she added. "There's nobody to talk to!"

I drove maybe eight or 10 miles while they talked and laughed -- they even joked about what most would call misfortune. The subject turned to their experience that afternoon. She told me how they'd been snubbed by a man outside the church when she approached him for help. Another man told her, "I don't help 'you people.'"

"I mean, " she said to me, "how can you judge us by our skin color? You don't know who I am, where I came from. I am someone just like you."

He told how the woman at the state welfare agency put off meeting with them on food stamps for the entire 45 days allowed by law. She scheduled a meeting with them on the 45th day. "It just doesn't make sense," he said. The state has to back-pay all the food stamps from the time of their application, "so why the delay?" he asked.

They told me they're living on $97 a month right now while they're waiting for his Social Security to come through, I assume because of their moving to another city. "But you just have to go with it," he said, shrugging.

By now we'd arrived at the Adams St. complex. I drove to the front, where an elderly black man sitting outside in a wheelchair watched, obviously curious as I helped them unload their groceries. Then my passengers thanked me and shook my hand, first him, then her.

As they were leaving, she stooped to scratch her shin at the hem of her skirt. "I've got such allergies," she laughed and she showed me the rash on her lower leg. She asked if I had a dollar so she could buy a packet of Tylenol from the machine inside. I reached inside the truck and rummaged in my wallet, giving her the only bill I had -- a five. She hugged me and shook my hand again. "Now I can get a couple of Diet Cokes, too," she said. Her smile was broad. "Bless you."

I said goodbye, climbed in the truck and drove off. We never even exchanged names.


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