Category Archives: class divide

Showing Up

Close to home, in real time, I attended a news conference at the state capitol about a bill that would restore the right to vote for 52,000 Minnesotans who have a prison record.  That’s right—they’ve done their time, they are out, but they still can’t vote—sometimes for years.

I didn’t want to go.  I didn’t want to go. It was first thing in the morning.  It was cold.  The parking would be a pain.

But I went, and as usual with these events I’m so glad I did.  There were a dozen speakers.  I was there with two other Jewish Community Action members, one of whom is an ex offender, and we stood in the back and listened.

The first speaker was a white guy around my age who I assumed—before he opened his mouth—was an elected official.  He was wearing a suit.  Turns out he is an ex offender who owns a business.

“I pay taxes—a lot of taxes,” he said.  “Our country was founded on the idea of ‘no taxation without representation.’  I’m going to pay my business’s property taxes after this but I am not allowed to vote, even though I’m no longer inside.”

An African-American preacher spoke about redemption.  The head of a nonprofit that helps violent offenders stop being violent spoke about how that’s possible.  A member of the Republican Party’s Independent caucus talked about how this is an issue of freedom.

A fellow who looked like Andy Warhol moved to the podium and introduced himself as “your only State Representative with a prison record.”  He had been an addict and was in jail for burglary when he was thrown into solitary confinement and decided to get clean.  That was 43 years ago.

Both county attorneys spoke in favor of the bill.  So did the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections.  Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul told of speaking with a lifelong St. Paul resident in his office.  The man said, “You all told me to reintegrate when I came home from prison.  You said you wanted me to be part of the community again.  But no one will rent me an apartment.  No one will hire me, and I can’t even vote.  I am shut out of my own community.”

The head of the coalition that’s sponsoring the bill said that one of the reasons it failed last year is the impression that all ex offenders will vote Democrat.  Hey, that’s an easy 52,000 votes for Republicans to keep blocked. But 70% of ex offenders live outside of the cities, and rural and suburban voters tend to vote Republican.

There was mention of how African American, Latino, Native, and poor people are disproportionately represented among the prison population, and therefore the fact that they cannot vote is a new kind of Jim Crow.

Vince, my son, was unable to vote in 2016 even though he’d been out of prison for a year.  I know he’s looking forward to voting in 2020.

There was mention that North Dakota has the same voting language in its constitution but it allows ex offenders to vote.  North Dakota!  Similar to how New Yorkers consider Minnesota flyover country populated only with farmers muttering Uff Dah, Minnesotans think of North Dakota as an empty Nowheresville, populated with a few range-roaming, gun-toting cowboys.  For North Dakota to have a more forward-thinking policy was like a dare.

Ninety-five percent of JCA members live in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Our representatives are as liberal as we are, so they won’t need convincing to vote this bill up.  There’s not much we can do except show up and be bodies at these events.

If you happen to be a Minnesotan who lives in a conservative district, and you “get” the need for this reform, please contact your representative and urge him or her to vote Yes on Restore the Vote.

The event made the evening news, at least on the one channel I watched, but it was overshadowed by much blather over the next impending snow storm.

Not Welcome

In my last post I wrote about Australia’s Welcome Wall, on which the names of everyone who has ever immigrated to Australia are inscribed.

There’s also a very mean side to Australia’s immigration policies, historical and present.  In the Maritime Museum there was a section about the White Australia program that handed out money to people—white people—from Britain to incentivize them to “settle” and “civilize” Australia.  It was specifically meant to exclude “hoards” of invading Asians, many of whom had been brought in as indentured laborers and then had the nerve to move to cities once their servitude in the outback was complete.

This program only ended in 1973.

Nowadays, Australia, like most countries, has a points-based system for immigration.  If you speak English and are a mining engineer or some other valued professional, you’re in!

If you’re a refugee, you are detained on Pacific islands like Nauru, an island so remote it obviously negates the need to build a wall.

One of my favorite news stories of late is of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, who won the top prize at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for his book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison.  Boochani has been detained on Manus, another Pacific island, since 2013.  He wrote the book on his cell phone and sent it in snippets to a translator via Whatsapp.

I’ve been thinking a lot about immigrants and refugees.  The issues are in the news a lot because of Donald Trump’s push to build a wall between the US and Mexico.  But I’ve also been hearing first-hand stories from immigrants that make me lose sleep at night.  I’ll relate three of them here.

One: A fellow employee and I were eating lunch in the break room at the YMCA.  I said his name—Vicente—and told him my son’s name was Vincent.  He stared at me incredulously and replied, “I’ve been in this country 18 years and no one has ever pronounced my name right.” Vicente told me he lived 45 minutes away from work. He left his apartment at 5:15am to get to his job as a custodian.  He was worried whether his car would start when he went outside after his shift because it was so cold and he thought he needed a new battery but he couldn’t afford it right now.

I asked if he liked his job and working at the Y.  He said yes, that in eight years there he had only had one bad experience.  He had been mopping the floor in the men’s locker room when a member screamed at him, “You got my socks wet!  I paid $60 for these socks—they’re high tech!

What an asshole. Vicente had responded that he was just doing his job.  Sort of to his credit, the man returned later and apologized.

Two: Vince works at a country club and his Mexican coworker, Angel, holds the same position as he does but has been there 10 years, as opposed to Vince’s two.  Vince noticed right away that when managers came in every morning, they greeted him (Vince) enthusiastically and made small talk but ignored Angel. Vince has brought it to the attention of HR several times but nothing has changed.

“The saddest part is,” said Vince, “I don’t think they’re dissing Angel.  I think they literally don’t see him—as a human being—he’s invisible.”

Three: At the Y again, one of my young coworkers showed a video on her phone of her car going up in flames.

“Someone doused it with gasoline, threw the gas can underneath, and set it on fire,” she explained. The fireball soared 25 feet into the air.

“But why!?” my other coworker and I were horrified.

“We don’t know,” she said carefully.  “There was this neighbor who was giving us dirty looks … my husband is white ….”

She is of Vietnamese ancestry. Could that be it—the neighbor wasn’t happy with a mixed-race couple?

“The police were useless.  We’d just had the baby, and we were so scared, so we moved out of our new house and we’re living with Matt’s parents.”

My.  God.

What are people so afraid of?

On The Rocks

I’ve been sitting here for 10 minutes trying to write a pithy introduction to the carnivorous plant show at the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens.  I guess I’ll just show, not tell.

The exhibit was a little bit of art, a bit of science, and a whole lot of Little Shop of Horrors kitsch.  It was fun. It was pretty. I learned some facts that I immediately forgot.

I took a gander in the gift shop and didn’t buy anything.  My plan was to find the trolley for which I’d seen signs directing me to the Opera House Gate.  The RBG is enormous, as are most botanic gardens, and I had visions of covering it all with the aid of wheels and a silver-tongued guide as we had in Melbourne.

After walking 20 minutes to the gate, I couldn’t find the trolley.  Construction was under way for the Invictus Games; more about that later.  Perhaps the trolley was under a tarp.  There were volunteers everywhere, bumping into each other, and none of them knew anything about a trolley.

I passed this sign about the Opera House being the site of Gadigal land.  I wonder if the Gadigal people are comforted by these signs and pronouncements of “sorry.”  Or do they say, “Yeh, sorry is nice, but you’ve still got our land.”

As long as I was in the general vicinity and it was a beautiful day for a walk, I headed over to the area called The Rocks.  This was where the original settlers … um, settled.  I guess it’s called The Rocks because it’s very hilly and there must be gigantic rocks in them thar hills.

I had been urged to visit The Rocks by my Lebanese friends on the dive boat on the reef, and by other strangers.  It seemed the main attractions were “interesting shops and restaurants.”  I never found any, even after much wandering.  Everything seemed closed, and there was lots of construction so I kept hitting dead ends.  There was some charming Victorian architecture, like the Mercantile Hotel, where I had a wonderful fresh, healthy salad.

This was in the toilet.

As I often do when I’m traveling on my own, I pulled out my notepad to jot down some notes.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a young woman at the table next doing the same.

I like the texture of pencil, or a roller-ball pen, on paper.

I was once mocked at work for using a pencil.  I was sharpening one in the copy room and a member of management who wears a perpetual frozen smile said in a syrupy but patronizing voice, “Anne, how old school—a pencil!”  She tried to pull it off as a joke so I smiled back, said nothing, and returned to my desk where I shot off a few lines with my razor sharp pencil, then returned to the copy room and shredded the sheet of paper.

Across the street was Susannah House, an original tenement where immigrants had lived up until the 1970s.

I got there just in time for the 3:00pm tour. This didn’t leave any time to check out the small selection of gift items, but they were all related to household cleaning in the 1980s—think lye soap and wooden scrub brushes—things I could live without.

A very thin man dressed in a period costume led us through the rooms.  He recited the usual types of dreary stories you hear in such places.  You know: ‘This is the bedroom where Mrs. Lopadopalous gave birth to her 14th child after her husband died of alcoholism.  Six of her children had died from smallpox or flu but little George grew up to be the first mayor of Greek ancestry of a medium-sized Australian city.”

I loved it.  In one of the kitchens he told the tale of old Mrs. McGillicuddy’s fight for tenants’ rights against the big-money interests who wanted to tear down the tenement and put up a shopping center.

Then he turned, pointed out the icebox in the corner and said, “That’s an original. The ice came all the way from a vast lake in some place called Mih-neh-soda, in the states.”

 

Grateful

Today, February 4, is the 59th anniversary of my birth.  59?!  How did that happen?

Ten years ago, when I was in the grip of a decades-long depression, I heard about some research that found older people are happier.  I remember scoffing: “No way!  How could you be happier, when you’re decrepit and inching closer to death, and can’t do anything you used to do?”

But in my case, at least, it’s proving to be true—the “happier” part, not the “can’t do anything” part.

Since leaving my job in mid-December, I’ve caught myself thinking on a regular basis, “Today was a good day,” and “Life is good,” and even, “I’m happy.”  These weren’t “if you believe it, it will be” exercises.  These thoughts come unbidden.  And it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever thought them.

And why shouldn’t I be content?

I am working on contract for my former employer.  This month I will submit something like $2.7 million worth of funding applications for Ethiopia and Jordan to the UN and US Government. It’s interesting, challenging, and meaningful work.

Somehow, doing the same work but from home is far less stressful and I am more productive.  I don’t get into office chit chat—which I enjoyed but which ate up time.  I don’t attend meetings except via Zoom and I’m not reading all the corporate communiques.

I no longer commute.  My drive was about 25 minutes each way, and by the time I got through rush hour I had usually yelled “you moron!,” at another driver.  I would arrive at work shaking from being cutting off or just listening to the news of the world on NPR.  I feel agitated writing those sentences.  Now I only drive before and after rush hours.

I am working two short shifts a week at the YMCA.  I love it.  I make 1/10th at the Y as I do writing proposals, but it is something different and it gets me out of the house, very important during the recent polar vortex.  I work in the childcare center.  I can see some of you grimacing at that—your worst nightmare.  But I love little kids, and being around them puts me in a zone—I don’t have to teach them anything; I am just there to play with them and keep them from biting each other.  I am now certified to provide CPR and if you knock out a tooth I’ll know what to do.   I get a free Y membership, so I am enjoying trying out all the different locations and classes.  The sauna was a godsend last month when I had a cold.

Maybe part of my contentedness is my keen awareness of how fortunate I am.  When I had that cold, I was propped up in bed one night feeling sorry for myself and I thought, “Somewhere there is a woman my age in a refugee camp who has a cold.  She can’t prop herself up to breath because she’s in a fucking tent and doesn’t have four pillows.  It’s dusty.  She doesn’t have Breathe Right Nasal Strips or eucalyptus essential oil in her humidifier.   She probably doesn’t even have Kleenex to blow her nose.

I shouldn’t have to make myself feel better at the expense of a refugee, but there you go.

My son and I received our first royalty check last week for the book we published in November.  We’re not going to be able to quit working or make big donations to refugee charities with our proceeds, but hey, we did it—we wrote and published a book!

Finally, yesterday my sister-in-law and I bought four tickets to Japan for June in a big sale through a Chicago travel agency.  It still wasn’t cheap, but it was $600 less than anything posted publicly.  So use a travel agent for big trips—they really can see things you can’t.

It’s my brother’s busiest season as a wedding videographer, so I will go with Akiko and my two nephews and chaperone the second one back home after a month.  I have no idea where I’ll stay or what I’ll do yet, but that will be the fun part.  Suggestions welcome!

Suspended

Last summer I took swimming lessons in hopes of feeling confident enough to get scuba certified, but observing the dive instructors on the ship, I knew it would have been too much for me.

The ship was a “speed catamaran” with “state-of-the-art computerized ride control systems.”  This meant we got out to the reef faster, with less choppiness, and for that I was grateful.  It still took an hour to reach the reef, and one hour of seasickness would have felt like eternity.

The dive instructors had convened the tourists who would scuba in the front of the ship.  Most of them weren’t certified—they would get one hour of instruction and dive with the instructors.

As I watched, I recalled my mother exhorting me, 50 years ago, to finish my food with her mantra, “Think of all the starving people in China.”

They aren’t starving anymore.  All the divers were young Chinese.  The base tour wasn’t cheap—$176 US—and they would pay extra for each dive.

The instructors were hunky, sun-browned he-men.  They demonstrated scuba hand signals, “This means low on air,” said one as he held his fist to his chest, “and this means out of air,” as he slashed his hand across his throat.

No thanks.

Suddenly a crew member yelled, “Dolphins!” and everyone rushed to look.  Dolphins indeed!  There were a dozen cavorting in our wake, and when a crew member went out on a wave runner they jumped for joy around him. It was absolutely delightful.

Everyone around me was taking photos and video but I desisted.  There was no internet out here, and I had decided to leave my phone wrapped in a plastic bag with a small amount of cash and my Minnesota driver’s license. For all I knew my passport had been stolen.  Maybe Aussies weren’t as honest as I’d thought.  Would someone pay $176 to spend the day on a ship and pickpocket their fellow passengers?  Probably not, but I wasn’t going to leave my phone in the open.

I took two photos of the sea all day, at our first stop. Then I decided to just enjoy and not try to capture it.

We snorkeled and dived for an hour at a site called Stonehenge, where rock formations jutted from the ocean.  I understand the naming system, but Stonehenge is part of Agincourt Reef 3.  The ship stopped at three sites out of 35 in the vicinity, depending on weather conditions.

The fish were astounding.  There were angel fish with yellow, blue, and white vertical stripes and yellow tails and beaks.  Whatever kind of fish Nemo the cartoon is, it was there.

I glanced down and make a muffled exclamation into my mask, “Giant clam!” My dad had played Giant Clam with us when we were little—sitting akimbo on the floor and pretending to eat us—the little fish.  Giant clams really are giant—maybe four feet across.

When I am fortunate enough to be in an environment like this, I feel a peace and oneness with everything.  I don’t believe in god but I do believe in heaven-like places and states of mind, and this was one.

The horn sounded and we exited the water for lunch.  There was an enormous buffet with fresh seafood, fruits and veg, and healthy hearty salads.

As I ate, three women in the adjacent booth invited me to join them.  They were Lebanese-Australians from Melbourne.  They appeared to be my age but they all rocked bikinis. Was it their Lebanese skin they should thank for their faces being without a wrinkle?  They were well-educated, smart and funny world travelers who were very kind to invite me to join them.

After lunch we stopped at Barracuda Bommie.  A bommie is an underwater tower.  I floated face down, mesmerized as I watched thousands of barracudas swirl around the bommie—down, down, down into the darkness until I couldn’t see anymore.

Why do scenes like this bring on such a feeling of peace, at least for me?  Perhaps because it’s so humbling.  I realize how vulnerable I am, and how insignificant.

At our last stop—Blue Wonder—the sea began to swell and I hit a wall of exhaustion and nausea.

Prawns and Prisoners and a London Souvenir

After a lovely day with Puffing Billy, it was time to face facts that we would leave in the morning.

I would fly to Cairns.

Heidi and Danielle were hashing out how to get each of them back to different places with one car in one day.  They could retrace the route we took to get here, with Heidi dropping Danielle off in Blayney.  But Heidi wanted to stop in Canberra to see her friend Moira. Danielle was up for that but it would add another day.

People everywhere talk about how to get from A to Z: should we fly or drive or take a train?  “If we drive, maybe we might as well stop in Hooterville since it’s kind of on the way.  But the train would be more relaxing…but driving would give us more control.  But flying would be faster…not really, when you factor in getting to the airport and getting through the lines, and we wouldn’t have a car on the other end.”

And so on.  People everywhere do this, but I think for Australians the stakes are higher and they spend more time thinking and talking about getting around.

But first, a farewell feast.  Dean would barbeque and we would contribute three salads.

I made tabbouleh, my go-to salad.

“I’ve got shrimps on the barbie,” Dean joked, “except we don’t call them shrimps, we call them prawns.  There was an Australian Tourism advert …”

“Starring Paul Hogan—Crocodile Dundee,” inserted Danielle.

“Where they had to say ‘shrimp’ instead of ‘prawn’ so you lot would know what it was talking about.  I’m also making sausages and grilled veggies.  We do make other things besides shrimp on the barbie.”

I noticed the box of red wine on the counter top.  “Oh, these are the crimes people could be sent to Australia for?”

“Yeah,” Lisa responded, and we read them out loud.  We had to Google a couple, like “Impersonating an Egyptian” (a Gypsy, or Roma, who were considered rogues) and “Embeuling Naval Stores” (stealing).

“Murder isn’t on here,” I commented.

“Aww, you would have just been hanged immediately for that,” Lisa explained.  “These are all mostly property crimes that poor people would commit out of desperation.”

“Yeah,” added Danielle as she reviewed the list, “Don’t threaten an English lord’s right to own everything, from your house and land to the fish in the river and the rabbits and firewood in the forest.”

Back in December at my cookie baking party, I provided a few bottles of 19 Crimes and visitors had fun with their very clever app which brought the convicts to life.

I couldn’t help snapping a photo of Lisa and Dean’s shopping list the next morning.

Heidi was up before me, undoubtedly anxious about the long day of driving ahead.  Dean had harvested some gorgeous lemons and gave her and Dani a supply.

It was frosty, and as we huddled in a circle drinking our coffee we laughed when we looked down at our feet.

“Socks and flip flops,” Danielle commented, “Australian spring fashion.”

“Not thongs and camel toes,” I quipped.

That killed the conversation.  Sometimes I go too far with my language observations.

“Can I see the cab before I leave?” I asked Dean.

“Yes of course, give me a few minutes.”

I wandered around outside, enjoying the fresh air and this quiet Kookaburra on the sign post.

Dean called me over to the garage, where he’d lifted the door to reveal the souvenir he and Lisa had brought back from London.

“I’m just waiting for it to be old enough to register as a classic car, which’ll make it a lot less costly to drive,” he said.  “I was thinking of starting a car hire business with it but maybe we’ll just have fun with it ourselves.”

Heidi and Danielle and I said our adieus; I would see Heidi again in Sydney. Then Dean and Lisa drove me to the airport, a 45-minute drive on this early Saturday morning. I always enjoy dropping people off and picking them up at the airport.  It reduces their stress and it’s nice to say good-bye and hello to friendly faces, isn’t it?

A Night on the Town

Heidi and I returned to our motel to rest up before hitting the town for the night.

After working on my swimming skills all summer, I had looked forward to staying here because it had a pool.  But the pool was indoors, next to the parking lot, with no natural light or even a potted plant to make you feel you were in nature, and it was too small to swim a lap.  It was surrounded by concrete topped with artificial grass and two lounge chairs.

When searching for accommodations with a pool, always look at photos of the pool.

Heidi had made all the arrangements for our time in the centre and I was grateful for that.  Not being able to swim was no big deal.  I would have plenty of opportunities on the reef.

Our only plan for the evening was to check out a restaurant, Sportys, that Heidi’s Aboriginal exchange student from Alice had recommended.  Alice is a small town so we found it right away.  There was nothing else, really.  I ordered a steak salad that came with wilted, brown lettuce and “steak” that was really processed beef lunch meat cut into “steak”-shaped strips.  Our server was a young guy from Orlando, Florida who was clearly thrilled to be anywhere but there.

“I’ve got a one-year work permit and I’m hoping I never have to go back!” he effused.

“Do you think he’s gay?” I asked Heidi when he’d skipped away.

“Hmm … yes?” she laughed.

“Do you think he’s The Only Gay in the Village?” I asked her.  This was a reference to a skit from the old politically incorrect comedy show Little Britain, in which comedian Matt Lucas plays the eponymous Only Gay in a tiny Welsh village.

Alice didn’t seem like a place our waiter was likely to meet an Australian to marry so he could stay in the country forever.

It was dark.  We sat on the patio and watched passersby: groups of young people with beer cans in their hands, men who looked like they’d been cleaning out sewers or dumpsters all day, Aboriginal teen moms with strollers and toddlers running free.  The streets weren’t well lighted except for the main pedestrian drag, which had a fantastic art installation involving swirling Aboriginal patterns projected onto the sidewalks and neon sculptures that resembled insects.  This was accompanied by new-age music emanating from nowhere and everywhere.  The streets leading away from the main street receded into darkness.

We wished our waiter good luck, then sauntered out into the night.  All the shops were closed except for Target, which is not the same Target as the US chain but which has the same logo.  “Target sell mainly clothes and small household items,” explained Heidi as we did a walk through.  It was a warehouse-style store, but with red Target logos everywhere.

That was our whoopdeedoo night on the town; there was nothing else to do.  This was okay with me since I can’t stay up past 9pm anyway.

Heidi had an ambitious plan for us the next day.

“We’ll take a bus out to the telegraph station, then we should be able to visit the School of the Air using the same bus route.”

We procured a schedule, enough change to pay the fare, and searched and asked strangers for directions for half an hour until we found a bus stop.  The bus came quickly, and we paid our fares.

“Five more dollars,” demanded the driver, who appeared to be Somali.

Heidi showed him the bus brochure, which stated the fare in black and white.

“No, five more dollars each,” the driver insisted.

We fumbled and coughed up five dollars, then he performed some sleight of hand, insisting we needed to pay two more, then he gave us some change back.

“I think we were just scammed,” I said, “but I’m so confused I don’t think I could argue for our money back.”

Heidi was steaming.  When we got to our stop 20 minutes later, she stood in the bus door to keep him from closing it and calmly argued with him.  He didn’t budge.

“I’m fairly certain that’s the only bus,” she remarked, “So we’ll be walking back to town.”