Tag Archives: class divide

Belize Bound

When I was poor, many years ago, it used to really piss me off when people said things like, “Why don’t you just move to a better neighborhood?” when I told them I’d been burglarized and mugged in one week, that my neighbors kept me up all night with loud parties, and that I had found a used condom and needles in my front yard.

“I can’t afford to move,” I’d say, gritting my teeth so I wouldn’t launch into a rant about how clueless and insensitive they were.  And these were always liberals—I think liberals are often more out of touch with reality than conservatives.

I’m telling you this because some of you may not have the luxury of being able to buy plane tickets on a regular basis.  Your job may not allow you to work remotely or even offer paid holidays.  You may not own a condo you can rent out while you’re away.  I hope I don’t come off as clueless when I write about travel.  I’ve never claimed any of my adventures have been easy or cheap.  I hope some of my stories may inspire you to plan for something when you can afford it, or try something on a small scale if you can’t afford to do it in a big way.

I was driving down scenic Summit Avenue yesterday in my beloved Mini; spring was in the air and I was listening to Vivaldi.  I felt utter joy.

“Life is beautiful!” I exclaimed in my head.

That’s not a thought I ever had when I was in my 20s or 30s.  It’s not a thought many people in Syria are having right now.  It doesn’t do anyone any good for me to intentionally kill my joy because others are suffering, but it remembering them certainly intensifies my feelings of gratitude for how far I have come.

Back to January in Minnesota.  The holidays are over.  There will be nothing by three months of cold, dreary, short days without a holiday until the end of May.

And so I went to Belize.  It makes a difference, getting away somewhere warm, even if only a long weekend.

This would be an all-inclusive group trip operated by Wilderness Inquiry, a Minnesota-based nonprofit.  Their thing is “inclusive outdoor adventure travel.”  I totally missed that because I Googled “tours of Belize” and went straight to that trip page.  I looked at the color photos, glanced through the itinerary, checked the price, and booked it.

This was back in December, and I didn’t give it much thought until I got a call from the trip leader, Mark, in January.  I have been on group tours before, and it’s good practice to have a meeting ahead of time—if everyone is local—or to at least talk to someone to learn the expectations and ask questions.

Mark informed me about the Wilderness Inquiry mission of inclusion.  “I lead a lot of trips to the boundary waters, and this will be my first international trip,” he said, excitement in his voice.

“You mean, your first international trip ever?” I asked, a little alarmed.

“No, I went to Uruguay last year with my girlfriend.  Her family is from there.  So I’m ready.”

I wasn’t so sure about that.  The Gross Domestic Product of Uruguay is four times that of Belize. But the tour and my plane ticket were paid for, so it was too late to back out and he seemed very confident.  Everything would be fine, right?

The night before I left, I had dinner with Vince and met his girlfriend, Heather.  I liked her a lot, especially since she gave me a beautifully boxed birthday present—a sweater and Moleskin notebooks and pretty pens, which I used to take notes on the trip.  I looked forward to watching their relationship develop.

My birthday.  Vince picked me up at 5:00 am and took me to the airport.  He’s a morning person like me, but 5:00 was even a bit early for him, so it was a very nice effort on his part.  And it’s nice to hug a loved one good-bye, just in case something fatal happens.

TGI Thursdays

This is the story of how I accidentally wound up in a brothel in Dubai, part of a series that starts here.

The hostess at TGI Thursdays looked at me like I was an alien, then slowly led me to a table in the center of the restaurant and left me with a menu, which was all in English.

She had an African accent and I didn’t hear enough of it to ID which country, but I’m pretty sure her real name wasn’t the one on her nametag—“Hi!  My name is Emily.”

She was about six feet tall, string-bean thin, and wore stiletto heels and a barely-there mini skirt.  I vaguely wondered if she changed into more modest clothes to get to and from work, but I didn’t really give it much thought.

I was hungry by now, so I was happy when the waiter appeared almost immediately.  He too looked at me strangely.  Whatever!  What was wrong with these people?  I ordered a club sandwich and a beer, then settled back and looked around.

Have you ever walked into a situation and thought nothing of it until it was too late to get out of it?

All the other women in the bar were either African or Asian, and none appeared to be older than 20.  They were all dressed like “Emily”—in high heels, mini skirts, and low-cut blouses.  They were literally hanging on the arms of fat, middle aged white men, many of whom were talking loudly, so I could hear their Australian, English, and American accents.  North American, that is—I’m sure most of them were Canadian, ha, ha.  These were oil workers, no doubt, and I was in a brothel.

The girls (I’ll call them girls because many appeared to be 17 or 18 years old) tittered and cooed at everything the men said, as if the men were the most fascinating, funny, and appealing male specimens ever.

“Ooh, Keef, you so funny!” a girl laughed near my table.  Keith was 50-something, ruddy faced, rotund, and very drunk.  He sat tilted as though he was about to keel over.

As all this sunk in, one of the few Arab patrons approached my table.  He was like a human cliche of an Arab man: wearing a kaffiyeh, sporting a Saddam Hussein-style black mustache, and smoking a cigarette in a short gold holder.  He leered at me as he circled my table several times.

I had the urge to bleat like a lamb.  Then he aggressively pulled out the chair opposite me and asked, “May I join you?”

“No!” I exclaimed, perhaps a bit too loudly.

A giant Sudanese bouncer sidled up to me and the Arab guy slinked away.

“Do you know where you are?” the bouncer asked in a low voice.

“Yeh-yes…” I replied, feeling sheepish (in the embarrassed sense, not in the about-to-be groped-or-worse sense).

“I will stand next to you while you enjoy your meal,” the bouncer said.

What could I say but, “Thank you?”

My club sandwich and beer arrived.  They were like any club sandwich and beer you would get anywhere else in the world.  I ate, drank, and did what I commonly do when I am dining alone; I wrote in my journal.  In this case, I took detailed notes, which is how I can write this narrative years later.

It’s not a very remarkable story.  I’m sorry if you’re disappointed that something more dramatic didn’t happen.  It was an eye opener for me.  I had seen adolescent girls in Jamaica with the proverbial obese middle-aged German men stuffed into Speedos.  I had read about human trafficking and sex workers in my master’s program.

But this was how the business actually worked.  Supply and demand.  I figured the maze I had walked through to get to the entrance was a means of shielding passersby from what was going on inside, and also of signaling to people like me who just wanted a sandwich and a beer, “This is something you should think twice about!”   Obviously I was too dense to get it.

To be continued …

Calling All Cons

Before I return to writing about my upcoming travel in Italy, Malta, and Spain, I’ll write a couple more posts about my other favorite topic: prison.

I was involved in two criminal justice reform evening events this week.  Normally I hate having commitments like these at night but these were commitments I chose to make.

The first was a phone bank event organized by the Restore the Vote Coalition.  It’s run by Take Action Minnesota and includes Jewish Community Action, a group I’ve written about being involved with.

Here’s why we were there: 47,000 ex prisoners in Minnesota cannot vote.  They’ve done their time but they’re still “on paper”—slang for probation or parole—and they can’t vote until they’re off paper.  Even though Vince has served his time, has been out for a year, has been sober for over two years, is working and paying taxes and rent, and taking his grandma to the grocery and doing all manner of other positive things, he’s not allowed to vote until 2018.

Our job was to call around 7,000 ex offenders who were probably off paper.  Since no sane person enjoys calling strangers—much less ex cons—the coalition tried to make it a fun by calling it a Restore the Vote Block Party.  They had blocked off their parking lot and had booths with a DJ and food, but it rained so we all huddled inside in their basement offices.

There were five or six speakers, including a rabbi and a young woman from Chicago whose father and uncles had been in prison as long as she’s been alive.  It was a very racially diverse group.  A couple guys lead a call and response to get us fired up, then we all dispersed to make calls or knock on doors.

All three of the African-American speakers said something along the lines of, “This is a problem that mostly affects black people.”  While it’s true that African Americans are disproportionately represented in prison compared to their percentage of the overall population, 56% of adult prisoners in Minnesota are white.  As of September 30, that’s 5,228 men and women, not counting juveniles or people in county jails.  I don’t think we do the cause any favors by making it all about race.  Race is a factor for sure, but so are class, poverty, abuse, education level, disabilities, chemical dependency, and many other issues.

There was an elaborate script probably written by a graduate student who’d never been near a prison, which went out the window the moment we started dialing.  We used a really cool online system.  I logged in and immediately a guy’s name came up with his age and phone number and the names of other people in his household.  I said to the leader, “I’d be really creeped out if stranger called me who knew I’d been in prison.”  I was assured that this was public information and that ex cons knew it.

I dialed 72 numbers in an hour and a half and spoke to exactly two ex cons.  About 80% of the numbers were disconnected, busy, wrong numbers, or no one answered.  The two guys I spoke with were opposites.  The first one, who was 28, had researched whether he was eligible to vote, was registered, and was committed to showing up at the polls.  The other guy, who was 56, said, “I ain’t never voted in my life and I ain’t gonna start now.”

I noted their names as I scrolled through the data base—Frank, Damarius, Jason, Katherine, Moua, John, Orville, Krystal, Matt, Jose, Abdi—all typical Minnesota names, all over the state, all ages, all races.  I reached quite a few mothers, which tugged at my heart strings.  They sounded care worn.  A couple said, “I don’t know where he is.”  Ugh.  I’ve been there.  One father told me, “He’s not here,” then, sadly, “He’s in the ground.”  What do you say to that?

“I’m so sorry,” I muttered.  “I’m sorry to have bothered you.  Have a nice night.”

I only reached two guys, but as our group of 80 volunteer callers got pledges to vote from 122 ex offenders.

It may not sound like much, but we did something.

Tsouris, Tikkun Olam, Teshuvah

Another week, another shooting of an unarmed black man by police.  Three, actually: in Columbus, Ohio; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charlotte, North Carolina.  The kid shot in Columbus was carrying a BB gun; you can understand why that could put a cop on edge.  The cop who shot the man in Tulsa has been charged with manslaughter.  That seems just, except it’s a female cop.   She may be guilty, but I think some of the officers involved in previous shootings (all men) were as well, and most were never charged.   Is a woman seen as easier to prosecute?  No one can agree whether the guy in Charlotte was carrying a gun or a book.  A book.  I think even I could tell a book from a gun.  It’ll be interesting to watch these investigations unfold.

It is emerging that no one who should be collecting statistics on police shootings has been doing so.  The best source seems to be the Washington Post.  Its running list illustrates something similar to the situation I’ve written about in our prisons.

Of the 1,500 people killed by police between January 2015 and July 11 of this year, 49% have been white while 25% were black.  Whites comprise 62% of the US population and blacks are 13%.  Does that mean blacks commit more crime, or that they are singled out and treated differently by police?  That’s impossible to know unless all the white people who have committed crimes and gotten away with them step up and admit it.

There were also two terrorist incidents this week.  You probably heard about the man who planted four bombs in New York and New Jersey.  The police managed to take him alive, even though he actually had a gun and was firing at them.  Hmm.  Ahmad Rahami was born in Afghanistan, came to the US when he was seven, and was apparently radicalized after visiting Afghanistan.

In St. Cloud, Minnesota, where my son Vince was incarcerated for six months, a man attacked nine people with a knife. Dahir Aden was a Somali born in Kenya and also came to the US when he was seven.  He was apparently radicalized by online ISIS propaganda.

People were injured but no one died in either episode except Aden.  To paraphrase a blog post Vince wrote about the St. Cloud attack, we needn’t live in fear of terrorist attacks, because these guys are incompetent.  The ones who should live in fear are African American men.

So much tsouris in the world.  That’s Yiddish for suffering.

As I’ve written before, Vince and I have been getting involved in Jewish Community Action’s campaign to reform the criminal justice system, including mass incarceration.  On Monday night we’ll attend a phone bank event where we’ll call ex offenders to make sure they know they may be eligible to vote and to tell them how to register if they are eligible.  Vince may not be able to vote, but he can help others to do so.

Next Thursday, we will speak at a JCA event hosted at my workplace, the Center for Victims of Torture.  A CVT psychotherapist will talk about the psychological effects of imprisonment.  A CVT volunteer physical therapist will speak about the physical effects, and Vince will talk about the fallout on relationships.  If you are local, please join us for either or both or other events.

So much tsouris.   I feel my share of despair and helplessness, but doing something helps.  I’ve been estranged from organized Judaism since Vince’s troubles began, when our rabbis were less than supportive.  Lately, I’ve felt pulled back toward the community by my involvement in JCA.  That’s because the essence of Judaism is tikkun olam, or healing the world.  Doing something to right injustice, even if progress is slow.

Last week I took a big step and went to my old synagogue because I heard there was a new prayer book that acknowledges doubters and atheists.  I went to a study session with one of the (new) rabbis was a dead ringer for my aunt.  I don’t believe in signs, but this did make me feel like I was literally returning to the family.

Oxford to St. Louis via Festus

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

While Lynn slept, I explored the breakfast bar at the Quality Inn in Oxford, Mississippi.  It offered weak coffee, powdered “milk”, white bread for toast, single serving boxes of corn flakes, single portion bags of instant grits and oatmeal, and … do-it-yourself waffles.

These weren’t toaster-ready waffles. I watched people try to figure out the waffle maker one after another as I ate my instant grits.  Where was the batter?  How did it come out of the container?  Where did it go into the waffle maker?  Then what?  How long did you keep the lid closed?  Where you supposed to flip it over?  How did you get the waffles out?  It looked simple, but to someone from…oh, let’s say China, it must have been about as familiar as I would have felt trying to make dim sum.

Meanwhile, I was keeping an ear on the conversation of two guys at the next table, who appeared to be truckers.  I had heard the word “Jesus” and “Bible” and assumed they were fervent Christians, so I avoided eye contact.  One was flipping through a pile of magazines.  Maybe they were having a bible study at the Quality Inn.  Finally I was able to pull my attention away from the Chinese guy fumbling with the Made-in-China waffle maker and was able to listen in on the conversation next to me. “These born agains are fucking crazy,” the guy with the magazines said.  “They don’t reason.  They cain’t tell the difference between opinion and fact.  They only know what they’ve been told to think by their preachers.”

“Ah know, ah know,” replied his companion.  “They’re wreckin’ ar country.  We used to be superior for our inventions and idee-urs but now everybody’s laughin’ at us.”

“Everybody but Saudi Arabia,” replied the first guy.  “They probably love that we’ve stopped using our brains.”

This went on for some time and I was able to very subtly—I hope—get a look at the magazines, which included Popular Mechanics and National Geographic.  So they must believe in evolution!  Did you know that 42% of Americans believe God created the world in seven days?  I can barely bring myself to type that, it’s so embarrassing.  That’s an average, of course, and a much higher percentage of young people, urban dwellers, and yes—northerners believe in evolution.

I’m aware it can be irritating when I reproduce people’s accents in writing, but I did it above to make a point.  Well, two points.  First, I’m aware I’m prejudiced against southerners and second, there are southerners who don’t fit my stereotypes.

I had the urge to reach across and introduce myself, “Hi, I’m Anne!  I’m from Minnesota, and I’d just like to say how thrilled I am to discover free thinkers in Mississippi!”

Instead I went next door to Starbucks and got a decent cup of coffee.

We headed north again, toward St. Louis.  This would be a short day: we would only put around 400 miles on the odometer.

The drive was uneventful. We passed by Memphis, then veered northeast near the town of Marked Tree.  We passed Osceola, Tennessee; Blytheville, Arkansas; Hayti, Missouri; then Portageville, Tiptonville, Sikeston, Cape Girardeau, Pocahontas, Ste. Genevieve, Prairie du Rocher, and Festus.

St. Louis was the first place I used Air B&B.  We were staying in the upper part of a fourplex on Flad Avenue, in the Shaw neighborhood, chosen because it was a short walk to the Missouri Botanical Garden.  Shaw appeared to be a historically African American neighborhood that was being gentrified.

Flad ave

We had been instructed to park behind the building, but a pack of bearded, plaid-shirted hipsters who resembled Neanderthals were unloading a truck in the alley.  They smiled dumbly at us and clearly weren’t going to put themselves out to get out of our way, so we parked on the street.

I had received several texts from the Air B&B owner, Yuri, about gaining entrance, and it went without a hitch.  There were two bedrooms, a bath and a kitchen that would be our base for exactly 17 hours.

Creole, Cajun, Casserole

This continues a series of posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

We had the same conversation every morning:

“What do you want to do today?”

“I dunno.  What do you want to do?”

“I don’t care.  I’m up for anything.”

“Okay then, let’s go!”

I had been to the city before.  One of the most memorable things I had done was a tour of a Creole plantation called Laura.  It was about what you’d expect: a wide lawn, big house, antiques, and vignettes of how people lived 150 years ago.  The house was a different style from Tara, the plantation you might recall from Gone with the Wind:

Oak Alley

This is actually a photo of Oak Alley, another plantation near New Orleans on which Tara was based. I think. Don’t quote me on that.  Anyway, it’s built in the English style, symmetrical and staid.  Built to impress.

By contrast, here is Laura:

Laura

Very French, don’t you think?  Because that’s partly what Creoles are—a people of French or Spanish descent, sometimes with Afro-Caribbean or Native American mixed in.  They speak Creole, cook Creole, and make Creole music.

I was enjoying the tour of the plantation.  Then we stepped out back to the slave quarters and it was like everything turned from brilliant color to grey.  We “toured” a restored slave cabin, but only two or three of us could fit inside at a time.  Meant for a family, it was about half the size of a boxcar, made of rough-hewn wood and sparsely furnished.  Next we gathered outside so the guide could talk to us all at once, and that’s when I happened to turn and notice this behind me:

slave_list

You don’t need to read French to know this is a bill of sale for people.  My eyes welled with tears.  I’m teary right now.  The poor woman at the end of the list is a “lunatique.”  What did that mean?  Was she schizophrenic?  Autistic?  Rebelious maybe? Would someone have bought her because she was cheap?  For what purpose?  Ugh.  Double ugh.

I passed around the brochure about the tour and told Lynn, Molly, and Christine about it.  No one wanted to go.  Maybe I should have left out the part about the lunatique.

When I was younger I would have pressed and wheedled until I guilted everyone into going, because I thought it was an important, historically significant tour.

But I got it.  Lynn and I had spent half a day in the civil rights museum learning about slavery and lynchings and Jim Crow.  Molly is a head start teacher whose kids live in trailer parks and whose parents are in jail or on drugs.  Christine works for Oxfam, which aids people in disasters and wars.  I got it.  We didn’t need to be “sensitized.”  And we were on vacation!

You may be wondering, “What’s a Cajun?” since I wrote about Creoles above.  Cajuns are descendants of Acadians, who lived in eastern Canada and the Northeast U.S.  When the British took over this region, the Acadians, who are French and Roman Catholic, refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the crown.  They wound up in Louisiana, either voluntarily or forcefully exiled, and that was a much better fit for them.  As with the Creoles, the Cajuns have their own food, music, and language.

So there’s this theme in Louisiana of cultures coming together—French, English, and Spanish; African, Caribbean, and American Indian.  It seems like they mostly got along, although that may be because they stuck to their own territories.  In New Orleans, for instance, Canal Street marks the boundary between the old English and French parts of town.

Back at the B&B, we had our own little cultural casserole.  The English couple avoided the Germans, who were sour faced but friendly in their serious German way to the Dutch pair. The French couple seemed anxious about everything while the Scotts and Canadians were outgoing.  I had two free bus tour tickets and offered them to the group.  The Germans recoiled as if I were trying to hand them a rotting fish, while the Dutch couple eagerly grabbed them.

Jim Crow, Old and New

This is the latest in a series of posts about a road trip from St. Paul to New Orleans that starts here.

If you don’t learn something about yourself when you travel … well, that’s okay—I’m not going to sermonize—but I was pleased to learn something important about myself in Memphis.

In the morning, Lynn and I took a walk along the riverfront, which is beautiful:

memphis_riverfront

We walked back to Beale Street, found a restaurant, and ordered breakfast. We were excited to try southern foods like grits and biscuits.  We waited, and waited.  You could say this restaurant put the “wait” in waitress.  She kept coming by and giving us a dose of another southern treat—calling us “honey”, “sweetie”, and “darlin’” as in: “Your food’ll be up in just a minute, darlins’”

It seemed like half the morning passed away before we got our meals, then we wolfed them down and headed over to the National Civil Rights Museum.

It was difficult to find—there was no signage—but then we turned a corner and there it was, the former Lorraine Motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  I recognized it immediately, having seen it a hundred times in iconic photos.

TENNESSEE, UNITED STATES - APRIL 04:  Civil rights leader Andrew Young (L) and others standing on balcony of Lorraine motel pointing in direction of assailant after assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is lying at their feet.  (Photo by Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

And this was the beginning of learning something about myself, because I got so choked up I had to turn away so no one would see me in tears.

I have been to Holocaust museums in Washington, DC; Jerusalem, Berlin, Prague, Chicago, and elsewhere, and they’ve been tear-filled experiences too.  But then, I’m Jewish.  Were my tears only because the story was about my people?  That fear—that I only felt empathy for my own kind—was laid to rest in Memphis.

Can a Man

I wiped my tears away but they welled up continually inside the museum, which was one long, sad horror show that traced the abuse of African Americans from slave days up through the assassination in 1968.

There was a large group of school children, mostly African American, going through with docents.  I wondered what they felt seeing Africans in chains, the police dogs, the fire hoses?  If it was my kid I would want to be on the tour to put my arm around him.  There was the usual laughing and fooling around that any group of kids will exhibit, but I wondered if they would have trouble sleeping that night.

I commented to Lynn, “A coworker of mine at Oxfam used to find every opportunity to mention, ‘the UK never had slavery’ in a superior tone.”

“We may not have had slaves in the country, but we certainly benefited and participated in the system,” Lynn replied as we read a display about how global the slave trade was.

And of course it didn’t end with the abolition of slavery.  “Jim Crow” was the system in the southern United States from reconstruction up through the civil rights era in the 60s that kept “negros” in their place.  Here are a few of the ridiculous laws from that time:

Baseball Law Mulattos Checkers

Really?  Checkers!?  Who knew checkers could subvert the social order?

Then we marched slowly through exhibits about bus boycotts, lunch counter protests, and strikes.  Then there were the cross burnings, lynchings, and bombings by white racists; somewhat counterbalanced by the support of white and other allies (including Jews).

Lunch Counter I am a Man Bus Boycott Activists

I watched a video about James Meredith, the first black student to be accepted to the University of Mississippi, in Oxford Mississippi.  Of course he hadn’t mentioned his race in his application, and when he showed up to enroll all hell broke loose.  After weeks of rioting by whites, which resulted in two deaths, he was reluctantly let in, and as Lynn read later, he did graduate and lived a normal life afterwards.

The museum was really well done.  There was a second building that explored African American activism post 1968, but after three or four hours in the first building we had to leave.

Last week Vince and I talked to a group about mass incarceration.  One of the audience members referred to it as the New Jim Crow.  I agree, although in my opinion it’s about poverty, addiction, mental health, and class as much as racism.