Sunday, April 17, 2011

Desperate Times

Twice in the past week I've encountered African American men who were begging for gas money. One was in the parking lot of the local low-cost grocery store. The other was a man who was walking with his gas can after his car ran out of gas on Hwy 23. My husband and I picked him up and drove him the three miles to the gas station. It's rather unfathomable to me what kind of night he was going to have walking those miles and back to the car before going on his way to Minneapolis. He seemed happy enough for the ride, and didn't ask for money, but when we asked him about his situation, it turned out his plan had been to get to the next truck stop on the gas in his car and there beg for money for enough gas to get back to the city. He had four dollars, enough for one gallon.

Of course, we gave him enough money to buy gas to get back to the city. Then, trained to distrust anyone who wants money from us, we tried to figure out the nature of the scam. No matter how we wrapped our mind around it, if it was a scam, it was a very bad one. He was a black man walking on the side of a rural road with a gas can. It was quite likely no one would pick him up given where he was walking. Even if they did, he wasn't likely to get much money, if any. He was right to think his chances of "begging up some money for gas" would be better at a truck stop.

We also tried to figure out what this tells us about people who are, if not poor, on the edge. He had nice enough clothes, one of those old-timey hats. Why did they head out to St. Cloud that day without enough money to buy gas to get back? What did he think was going to happen when he set out on that road with no sign of lights in either direction? With more questions, he said his fiancee was in the car, and that they'd been engaged for two years because they were waiting until things got better for them. It was so hard to get a job in this economy, he said, and even harder to keep it. We got a glimpse of a man who seemed to just go from one thing to another, just focus on the task ahead. Out of gas? Start walking. He said, "If we ran out of gas in the city, we would have just left the car and gotten on the bus, but here it's a big problem." It was a glimpse of a life of going from one complicated situation to another. Even on the way back with the gas, he was making a call to make arrangements having to do with the car, which seemed to be borrowed and had to be returned the next day. It was all confusing, and disorienting, and we were fully aware of our privilege and the order of our lives.

When I encountered the second man, in the grocery parking lot, I felt I had already given my gas donation for the week. I was in a funk, having just spent $90 on three bags of groceries that would barely last us the week. Suddenly, the price of everything seems to be soaring, and the discourse over the budget and other issues, seems very far away from the reality of people's lives. It's part of my ongoing new feeling of dissatisfaction, driven mostly by the way the financial crisis played out with no consequences for the ones who caused it, no changes in the system that led to it, and the seemingly entrenched gap between the rich and the poor.

The disparity in culture between me and the man who ran out of gas was disorienting-- I could not imagine his life. And the situation fostered distrust and a mixture of feelings. It took a week for me to figure out if it was even a story to be told at all.

I am not sure this is a story about race so much as class. I heard David Simon, who created Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire, two gritty television series about Baltimore, on Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me this weekend. The host was commenting on a scene in The Wire where two characters go to Philadelphia and their radio station fades out and comes in on A Prairie Home Companion. The two guys wonder what the heck the rest of America is about. That was the place I was visiting in the car. A deep disconnect with people who live 80 miles away from me.

1 comment:

Sarah j said...

Wonderful. Thank you. Such insight.