Friday, January 23, 2015

Many Places I Have Been

In some circles, I am well-traveled. I've been to Europe, after all. Since statistically only 30 percent of Americans have passports, and I suspect most of those are to go to Bermuda on cruises, I'm in a minority.

Compare that to the number of passports in the UK - 75 percent. Those folks get around. Americans are content to stay at home, but we suffer for it - our ignorance shows.

In other circles, I am not so well-traveled. I know folks who have been many places that I only dream about. They are always more worldly, more knowledgeable, and more patient than folks who have never been further than 50 miles from home.

When you travel, even if it's only in your own neighborhood, you learn a lot.

When I was writing regularly for newspapers and other local publications, I saw neighborhoods in my own community that I did not know existed. I saw poverty that should not be allowed in this or any other country. I saw decay, neglect, and destruction. I met many downtrodden and extremely frightened people.

I also interviewed well-heeled and very scary people. I met folks with whom I would not want to spend more than a minute even if they were bedecked in jewels and lived in 5,000 square-feet McMansions. Those folks almost always scared me more than the fellow who lived in the beat-up ol' trailer (though he could be a mite scary, too).

It takes all kinds to make a world, but it is my profound belief that people should strive for more meeting in the middle and less separatism and partisanship. That applies to living conditions, salaries, health care, and opportunity. Because in spite of what the slogans and jingles say, this land of opportunity does not provide equal opportunity for all. Sometimes it provides no opportunity and folks are lucky to eat crumbs. It matters here if you're male and white. Those folks have opportunity. The rest - not as much.

Journalism can be equal-opportunity in that it allows one access into all kinds of worlds, if one desires to look around. True story: one minute I was shaking hands with slime like disgraced former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (he was running for Attorney General at the time) and within the next hour I was interviewing an intelligent 69-year-old woman who played guitar, yodeled, and never left her house because of a disability. He was well-groomed and wearing an expensive suit and she hadn't had her yard mowed in 10 years because she couldn't run the mower nor afford to pay someone to mow it for her.

McDonnell is going to jail, and good riddance to him, but the man had charisma. I was not surprised he became governor. However, nothing made him any better than the poor woman on Social Security who was eeking out the rest of her life as best she could. I mean, absolutely stinking nothing. That single day has stood out in my mind for 10 years, and probably always will. There stood McDonnell flashing that boyish grin, his handlers huddling close by, and then I met that that old woman, all alone. She sang a song to me on a guitar that desperately needed new strings.

Talk about a variety of places. And you know how many miles I had to travel to see these disparities? One. These two events took place within a solitary mile of one another. I met McDonnell on the county courthouse steps and then drove a mile to the woman's home.

There is something wrong when you go from First World to Third World in a little under a mile in your own hometown.

I have thought about this a long time. There are people who would say that the old woman was living in a broken down house by choice, that she'd made poor choices along the way, or she'd misspent her money. She limped around and used a cane because her foot was misshapen, the result of a birth defect. She overcame it as best she could. I wonder if McDonnell, born in the same circumstances, would have done any better.
In the many places I have been, I have always had great compassion for the circumstances in which I have found myself. Even the well-heeled have troubles, and I have written about those with grace and empathy. I fear see their stories are seen in the media more than those of the poor, though. Missing white girl stories are a big hit, for example, but people go missing every day. We just don't hear every story.

I find compassion and empathy to be two components that are missing from today's rhetoric. No one has compassion for the elderly, the poor, the hard-working firefighter who's just doing his job, barely getting by on a public servants salary. Teachers are evil sycophants who get the summers off! Police are evil jack boots who want to control the world. Why should we pay garbage workers and why should we pay our taxes so that everyone can drive on the highways?

Poppycock and phooey to all of that kind of talk. I have never heard such crap in all my life as I see on the Internet and hear on talk radio these days.

People need to get out of their comfort zones and discover the many places that exist around them. They need to walk a mile or two down the street, and see what is there.

I strongly suspect that what they discover might open their eyes, if not their hearts and wallets.

(And yes, I left $20 with the old woman on my way out that day. I picked up her Bible and looked at it, and slid the money into the most worn place, which I recall was in Psalms.)

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