originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Crossborder, the literary journal of Leapfrog Press.
LETTERS OF LOVE AND HATE
She envied the female diarists, scribbling at elegantly carved desks in great houses. Feather pens, dripping ink, and the thin glow of candlelight. By day they oversaw their families and servants, at night they confided to the page. For the most part they recounted their own small lives. Sometimes, though, they dared to broach a broader topic from the world of men. Slavery, perhaps, or insane asylum brutality, or the curse of debtors prison. Even so, their opinions were kept private. Back then, women didn’t write letters to the press. Times had changed. Now the world fed on streams of information, data, loudly voiced opinions. Anyone could speak. The trouble was finding someone to listen.
Cammy J for Jane graduated from Vassar College. In her grandmother’s day, it was a place to gain the social skills necessary for a successful life. These included how to set a lovely table, make witty conversation, and gently, but firmly, rebuff the inappropriate advances of a young man who’d had too much to drink. Cammy J’s mother stomped around the campus in torn blue jeans and demonstrated against the Reagan administration. The Vassar College Cammy J attended continued its tradition of keeping pace with the times. She sat in class with the openly gay and transgender. Also with a surprising number of Arabs, who both fascinated and alarmed her. She was not a xenophobe. However, 9/11 had happened. There was no denying it. Yet these Muslim students didn’t seem all that wound up, certainly not about their faith. They seemed grounded in the moment, even a bit bogged down by the normal demands of life, which focused on their cell phones and Twitter accounts. There was no madness in their eyes, just a keen intelligence which she imagined was much like hers.
She called her article, entitled “They’re Just Like Us.”
Its final paragraph read: Why all the animosity towards these people of goodwill, who come here just to learn and be a part of this wonderful American dream? The feet of many nations have trod upon our shores. We must welcome them with open arms and hearts.
The first response came from her father. James Pritchett took a dim view of his daughter’s journalistic efforts, an even dimmer view of her nascent politics.
“You understand, of course, that you’re just putting them down. These are smart, tough people you’re writing about here. You make them sound like charity cases,” he said.
JP, as he insisted on being called, had done very well as a day trader. He was a numbers man, an analyst. Stay ahead of the curve, he always told her, never believe that life is a law of averages. The article was too important to send in an email he could delete, and came to him by her own hand. She had something to prove, namely that the world wasn’t one big betting parlor, that there were things more important than money, or making money. Humanity had a value aside from a dollar sign. JP had heard all of this from her before, naturally. He had trained himself, at the urging of his wife, a stony yet broad-minded person, to hold his tongue. But on the matter of his daughter’s prose it was hard to contain himself. He was unseasy. Sooner or later Cammy J might turn her talent with words against him. He imagined the contempt she would unleash. He was sure she despised him. He was sure that she – and everyone – saw in him the desperate, needy young man he used to be.
Cammy J’s brother, Hubert, read her piece and scoffed along the same lines as their father.
“Don’t denigrate, dumbass,” was his advice. Hubert hadn’t joined his father’s asset management firm. He wanted to be his own man. He had to compensate for being stuck with the name of some moldy forebear. He turned it to his advantage. He was an “elite concierge.” He had a list of wealthy clients, often referred by his father, who came to the City and wanted to rent a luxury apartment for a few weeks, or on occasion, even buy one. He insisted that he was not a realtor. He didn’t self-promote. He didn’t hustle. He radiated calm and poise, despite the way he spoke to his sister. It was an old thing between them, that animosity. Or rather, the animosity flowed from him much more than from her. Cammy J had always been their mother’s favorite, though if one were to ask Cammy J if that were true, she’d look stunned.
Cammy J’s mother, Elaine, reviewed the article with detachment. Since her rowdier college days, and especially after marrying and becoming a mother, she’d viewed most of life that way. She was passionate about only two things: martinis, and her beloved rescue Great Danes. A large number of them had passed through their home over the years, often happily destroying some pricey treasure, like a pair of crystal candlesticks, but Elaine remained devoted to their care. When the time came to send them on their way, her other passion occupied her time until the next cast-off could be assimilated.
After college Cammy J moved down to the city and got an unpaid position with a foundation that helped at-risk youth. She’d been told she’d be assisting a case worker, since she mentioned during her interview that she might one day attend graduate school and earn a Masters of Social Work, which, she was sure, would complement her degree in Anthropology very well. Rather than help her learn the process of managing clients, the caseworker had her file forms, make sure the coffee pot was full, and remind people in the waiting room not to smoke. Cammy J wrote of her experiences there in terms of wasted resources, a willingness to help that was overlooked, and that in this day and age, when government funding was scant and volunteers were needed more than ever, not taking advantage of her energy and education was a sin.
A sin? Once again JP had to shake his head. But he grudgingly admired his daughter’s growing confidence on the page. She was acquiring sass. He liked a sassy woman, in moderation.
Soon Cammy J realized that no one was interested in publishing her articles, so she started a blog. Straight From The Heart she called it. She found a graphic of a heart, with an arrow through it. Her friend, Lizzie, called her up to say that the image didn’t match the title.
“How so?” Cammy J asked. She was at home, in her spacious apartment on the upper east side that she’d tried to decorate in a distinctly bohemian style with mismatched furniture, some of which came from the Goodwill. Her efforts were hampered by the original art on the walls. The annual income from her trust fund was generous.
“You need to say, ‘straight to the heart.’ Obviously, the heart’s been shot.” Lizzie lived in a Chelsea loft on the same block with galleries that showed her sculptures of human faces made out of rubber. When Cammy J suggested once that these faces looked like Halloween masks from the local party supply store, Lizzie was crest-fallen. She continued her work in the same vein, however. Her resilience was admirable.
“Damn it!” Cammy J said.
“An easy fix.”
“I’ll have to find another name for the blog!”
“Shouldn’t be too hard. You’ll see.”
Cammy J thought and thought. It came to her late one night when she awoke from a restless sleep. She had witnessed something disturbing that very day, downtown, on her way back from meeting Lizzie for lunch. A man was being arrested. The officers had cuffed him, and required that he lie on the sidewalk while they completed their paperwork. A grown man, lying on the sidewalk like a dog! A shackled dog, no less. Would he have been so harshly treated if he’d been white? She couldn’t see how. She renamed her blog The Broken Heart. She railed against the police department, hinting strongly that they were so used to practicing brutality that they’d lost their sense of shame, not to mention compassion. She’d gathered some Twitter followers over the past few months, drawn from classmates, friends of her parents, and even Hubert’s clients, whom she’d followed just so they’d follow her back. She read up on promoting oneself through social media. She sent out the link to her article. She invited everyone to post comments. She received two comments. One was from someone identifying himself as Ronald 123.
You’re a dingbat. Actually, you’re probably worse, but I’m too nice a guy to say exactly what.
The other was from someone named Flora. She checked her list of followers. No Floras. But this was the magic of Twitter, wasn’t it? You tweeted, other people retweeted you. You were – what was the word? Disseminated. Spread through the world like fluffy seeds, randy to land, take root and grow.
Only Flora’s comment wasn’t particularly generative.
The guy probably did something rotten. Don’t they all?
They? THEY? Cammy J was rattled, totally taken aback. Was it possible that she had lived her whole life in a bubble, and not really known, never really seen, what it meant to be an African-American in this country? Then, how could she have? In her hometown of Rye, she didn’t know many African-Americans. Who were they, exactly? Marcus, whose father was a famous eye surgeon. He volunteered his time to the poor and underserved just as Cammy J had hoped to do. Where she failed, he succeeded. Then there was Mariah. Mariah’s mother was a painter and had a gallery on Madison Avenue. Mariah vacationed in Switzerland. Cammy J wondered what Mariah thought of her own race, what it was like for her to cross paths with blacks who were much worse off. Or anyone, really, who was struggling.
Cammy J put this question to her mother.
“I doubt she thinks about it much, do you?” Cammy J’s mother asked over an ice cold appletini served with flourish by a very handsome blond waiter – a real Hitler Youth type, Cammy J thought – at the restaurant they’d chosen for lunch.
Cammy J examined her salad. Some of the greens looked a bit wilted around the edges.
“I wish I knew,” Cammy J said.
“Tell me, when you run across a homeless person – white, black, doesn’t matter, what goes through you mind?” her mother asked.
Cammy J avoided homeless people. It was the look in their eyes she couldn’t bear, not when it was desperate or seeking, but distant, absent, as if the soul within was too far away to be reached with a mere handout.
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” Cammy J said.
Her mother sipped her drink. The broach on the lapel of her silk suit was in the shape of a peacock. Cammy J loved that broach, and hoped one day it would be hers.
“Are they real to you, these people?” her mother asked.
“Of course they’re real.”
They weren’t, though. They were just part of the landscape. Poor people, homeless people didn’t exist for Cammy J the way everyone else did, somehow. Was it because she felt guilty? Because they scared her? Because she found them disgusting?
“You can always do something for them, you know. We do,” Cammy J’s mother said. She looked at her lamb chop with complete disinterest and ordered a second drink.
“You donate money.”
“To a number of different agencies. I can’t name them at the moment. Your father would know.”
“You get a big tax deduction for doing it.”
“Yes, that’s true. But we also like to help.”
Help, thought Cammy J. Help? Those ladies in their great house probably had known all about that. Rolling up their silk sleeves in time of war and illness. To get one’s hands dirty, that’s what help was. Not writing a check in the comfort of your wood-paneled office.
Cammy J shared her thoughts.
“Your father’s office isn’t wood-paneled,” her mother said. Her lamb chop continued to lie untouched. “I had it all redone just last year, don’t you remember? He hates that wall-paper I chose, but I think it’s rather his style. You know, somber and serious.”
Cammy J watched the busboy at the far end of the room. His brown face above his white jacket was a taunt, a gambit for her to up the ante. Why were the waiters never dark-skinned, only the underlings?
“Do you feel all right, dear? You look a bit wan,” Cammy J’s mother said.
Cammy J nodded. Then she said, “It’s not right. We should all be doing more.”
“You could work at a shelter, or a food bank. It might be just the thing. Though if you do, for God’s sake, dress appropriately. You know my friend Helen, she did a stint at a shelter on 53rd street. Had her watch stolen. Took it off to do the dishes, which wasn’t even her job, but someone called in sick or something, and when she remembered to look for it, it was gone. A Rolex, too. I told her she was silly to wear it around people like that.”
“People like what?”
“Don’t be naïve. People who steal something to pawn.”
Cammy J didn’t typically wear expensive things. She found them vulgar. Except for her Jimmy Choo shoes and matching bag. And her Kate Spade jeans and little tee-shirt with that charming pink bow on the back collar. She’d never really given her possessions much thought. Now, they filled her with a remorse so heavy and deep, it was like stepping into quicksand.
“How did we get on to this subject? I seem to have lost track,” Cammy J’s mother said.
“We were talking about whether or not people were real. Or whether they seemed real.”
“Hm. Well, I hope the waiter is real. Where is he, anyway? I’d like another of these marvelous appletinis.”
By the time Cammy J had steered her mother into a cab, she felt rotten.
That night she poured out her heart to her computer.
We are all, each and every one of us, a failure. To not know, to not even see, the condition of thousands of our fellow citizens, is a terrible blindness, and of the worst kind, for it comes from eyes that are focused always on the wrong things, a gaze that hungers for comfort and luxury, rather than the necessary task of leveling the playing field, and if that task, that essential human task, proves too arduous, requiring too long a reach of resources or imagination, then we must aim our sights on raising the fortunes of just one person. This war – and it is truly a war – comes down to the might of one to make right.
She called her blog entry, “The Power of One.”
There were more responses this time.
You go girl! said Charlie Z.
Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt, offered Lucy D.
Get over yourself. This country has poured a shitload of money into raising those slobs up and out of poverty. And before you call me a racist, I’m not talking just about blacks, here. I grew up in rural Kentucky, where the poor are as white as milk. Nothing helps. Nothing. Change must come from within. This was from Zandie.
If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, Cammy J was tempted to reply. But she refused to waste her time engaging with people whose opinions were set.
She unburdened herself to Lizzie. They were in Lizzie’s studio, a makeshift area at the end of the loft she lived in. Her father had objected to buying it, saying it had no resale value, which made Lizzie say he should think with his heart, not his bank account.
“You need a project,” Lizzie said. “You’re bored. Being bored makes you frantic.”
“I’m not frantic. I’m just upset.”
Cammy J poured herself more wine. Lizzie was right. Cammy J was full of guilt. She had guilt to the gills.
Lizzie drew her legs up onto the huge pillow she was nestled on. Lizzie was a tiny person with a fierce expression that made her seem like a little girl a lot of the time. Cammy J wondered if she were aware of this – if she struggled to overcome the perception that she was incompetent.
“What if you could wave a magic wand and in one instant erase all inequality?” Cammy J asked.
“Things wouldn’t stay equal for long. Some people would do better, just like they do now.”
“Some people will always have more talent, you mean?”
“Not talent. Luck.” Lizzie’s tone was rueful. She hadn’t sold one of her faces for quite a while. Artists she deemed less worthy were cleaning up, or so she thought. She didn’t really know, she simply assumed that it was her lot to always be on the bottom. Secretly she believed that her own privileged background made her something of a fraud – that her suffering wasn’t real, that her vision wasn’t keen and incisive, and that this in turn was why her work wasn’t sought. She was the victim of ruthless Karma – she didn’t really need the money, so she didn’t make any.
“People succeed because the odds are stacked in their favor,” Lizzie continued. “They’re – connected. It’s like there’s this network of power-brokers. It’s not what you know, but who you know. You’re either in, or you’re not. Poor people are never in. They can’t get in.”
“They get in sometimes. Look at President Obama.”
“Yeah, but he’s smart. If you’re not smart, you’re always on the outside.”
“Of course he’s smart! Dumbshits don’t get elected president.”
They both though of W. Lizzie’s point fizzled. Cammy J sighed. They drank more wine and felt even gloomier.
Within the week, Lizzie had sold not just one, but three of her masks to a Frenchman wanting to decorate his Manhattan pied-á-terre. His enthusiasm for her work was expressed in sweeping gestures with both arms, and rocking forward onto the balls of his feet. Lizzie had no idea what he was saying. The year she’d spent in Paris had been occupied with drinking and blowing her father’s money on stunning little outfits that she quickly tired of, and sold to a consignment shop in the Village. She invited Cammy J to join her for a lovely dinner, on her. Cammy J couldn’t bring herself to accept. She was still flooded with malaise. She wished she’d been the daughter of a bus-driver or a steel-worker. But then her life would be hard, and that would have made her bitter and envious of people like herself – the person she really was.
No point in wishing she were anyone else.
She hated to admit it, but her mother was right. She had time, she must spend it wisely. She presented herself at a homeless shelter for battered women the next morning. She entered through a heavy glass door which opened only after someone inside had pressed a buzzer. She had to speak into an intercom and state her business. The long pause between saying she wanted to volunteer and the sound of the buzzer suggested that she wasn’t necessarily being taken seriously.
The hall she walked down was lit with fluorescent lights and smelled strongly of boiled cabbage. Cork boards lined either side with various community service messages about getting tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases; hotline numbers to report abuse and assault; enrolling children in Headstart; qualifying your child for free and reduced lunch in the public schools; drug counseling services; even a free weigh-loss program offered through a nearby YMCA. Cammy J felt her spirits lift.
The volunteer office was across from the cafeteria, which meant the cabbage smell was even stronger. Lunch was being set up. Two skinny white women, both with dreadlocks and wearing aprons, were setting out big bowls of something on each of the folding tables lined up in the room. One had a nose ring. Cammy J found it distasteful, and made herself look away and focus on what the woman sitting behind the desk was saying to her.
“You need a criminal background check, but if you’re wanting to start today, that’s fine. We run the prints through the State, and until they come back, the only thing you can’t do is be alone with any of the children. There always has to be another staff person present,” the women told her. She had thick glasses and an Hispanic accent. Her face was young. Her manner wasn’t.
The woman – Andrea, she’d said – looked closely at Cammy J. Cammy J had tried hard that morning to look the part. Her nail polish was clear. Her blouse and slacks were both Navy blue. She wore comfortable, sensible shoes Calvin Klein loafers. Her jewelry was modest, a thin gold bangle on her wrist, and small diamond studs for earrings.
“What will my duties be?” Cammy J asked.
“Right. Sorry. Well, basically, you help out. Whatever’s needed. Get clean linens for a cot. Round up a spare toothbrush and toothpaste. Sort out the donations when they come in, which isn’t often.”
“Things people give us. Free stuff.” Andrea’s tone was tense, annoyed.
The voices of children floated across the hall. Lunch was now officially underway. Cammy J turned and studied the scene. She’d assumed that the clients would mostly be black. They were mostly white, a few native American, and just one black family, a mother and three children. One was a girl with her hair in corn rows. It must take hours to do, Cammy J thought. She’d never thought about having children of her own, yet seeing that little girl sitting no nicely in her chair, waiting while the rest of her family served themselves from the bowls on the table, made her heart ache.
“Tell you what. Walk around a bit, get a feel for the place. Then we’ll talk specifics. Leave your purse there,”Andrea said, and indicated an empty cubbie on the wall behind Cammy J. Cammy J hesitated.
“It’ll be safe, don’t worry. No thieves here,” Andrea said.
Cammy J crossed the hall and took the empty chair next to the little girl. She, her mother, and the two siblings – both boys – stopped eating and stared at Cammy J.
“Hi,” Cammy J said.
The mother nodded. Her face was lined. Her eyes were sharp and knowing. She wore a bright headscarf and small gold hoop earrings. Her sweatshirt was stained, though the children’s clothes were clean.
“Have you been here long?” Cammy J asked, aware that her tone was overly pleasant.
“Dey just start servin,” the mother said. Her sweatshirt was several sizes too big for her, Cammy J saw.
“I mean how long have been at the shelter?”
The woman shrugged. “Been awhile. Might get us a new place soon.” She continued eating what appeared to be a stew of some sort. The children also ate.
“What’s your name?” Cammy J asked the little girl.
“Don’t talk with yo mouth full,” the mother told her. Marcelle swallowed her food.
“I’m sorry. I should let you finish your lunch,” Cammy J said.
No one spoke. One of the boys swung his legs, making the table jiggle.
“You cut that out,” the mother said. Her voice was flat. She pushed her half-eaten bowl towards the older of the two boys, who’d consumed his serving. Then she watched as he shoveled in spoonful after spoonful.
She’s still hungry, Cammy J thought.
“Can I get you anything? Some coffee?” Cammy J asked.
“You new, ain’t ya?”
“Yes. Today’s my first day.”
“Bet it’s yo last un, too.”
Cammy J flushed. She stood up. “I’ll be around, if you need anything,” she said, and walked off.
For the next half hour or so she wandered through the shelter. There were four large dormitories with lockers along one wall, a common area with children’s toys, rocking chairs, and a small television set. For privacy, the cots were inside cubicles. Unoccupied ones had folded linens and a single pillow. Those in use were usually unmade, with the sheets often trailing to the floor. Cammy made up one cot, then a second. While doing the third, the person using it, a teenage girl with a tattoo of a spike across her throat arrived and asked Cammy J what she thought she was doing.
“Just straigtening up,” Cammy J.
“I don’t need a maid.”
“No, of course not.”
Cammy J continued her tour. The bathroom offered a row of ten shower stalls on one side, and ten sinks on the other. Toilets were in a separate room next door. Everything looked clean, yet dismal, minimal, barely enough somehow. The place was full of people, yet no one spoke to her as she meandered along. When some children ran noisily down the hall, Cammy J stood back and let them pass. A woman, clearly their parent, shouted after them to slow down. Then she looked at Cammy J.
“Why didn’t you grab them?” she asked her.
“I don’t think I’m allowed to.”
“Great. And me, slow as a turtle.”
The woman’s pale skin had ugly red spots. Her hair was patchy. She was fat, and wheezy. She took a minute to catch her breath, then went on her way.
Cammy J realized she was hungry, and found the kitchen next to the cafeteria. It was huge, with stainless steel everywhere. A skinny black man was mopping the floor.
“Lunch over,” he informed her when she asked if there was anything to eat.
“Vending machine got candy.”
Cammy J went to the office, and found her purse where she’d left it. Her wallet held no coins. The smallest bill she had was a twenty, and she was sure no vending machine could change it. She’d have asked Andrea what to do, but she’d stepped out.
Cammy J was exhausted. She returned to the dormitories, found an empty, unused cot in a vacant cubicle and lay down. She focused on the sounds around her, which were minimal just then. Maybe it was naptime, and all the running little children were doing just as she was, resting, and getting sleepy. She felt utterly defeated, and soon fell asleep.
Someone poked her awake. It was the little girl from lunch, Marcelle.
“How come you crying?” she asked.
“What? I’m not crying. I just closed my eyes.”
“Yo face all wet.”
Cammy J sat up. Sure enough, her cheeks were damp. What had she dreamed that made her cry? She had no idea. She didn’t even know you could cry in your sleep. But once, as a child, she’d laughed in her sleep, or so her mother said, so it must be possible to cry, too.
“You better get back to your mother,” Cammy J said.
“She all right. She playin’ cards with my brothers.”
Cammy J sat up and patted Marcelle’s corn rows. Their ridges resisted her touch. She walked Marcelle back to her family, where they were gathered around a table, intently bent over their hands. One boy put down the seven of clubs. His mother smiled and shook her head. Then both boys smiled. Cammy J watched them until the mother looked up and caught her eye.
“You sittin’ in?” she asked Cammy J.
Cammy J said she didn’t want to be a bother.
“We playin’ hearts,” said one of the boys. “You don’t know it, I teach you.”
“You good at dat, too,” the mother told him. Then she threw her arm around his neck and squeezed.
“No, really, I don’t want to intrude.” Cammy J lightly brushed Marcelle’s shoulder, and turned away. She collected her purse from her cubbie, and left the building.
Neither Lizzie nor her mother called to ask how her first day had been, because she hadn’t told either she was volunteering. She could tell them both now, of course. But they’d want to know how it went, and if she’d go back again in the morning.
That night she wrote: It’s not just money that divides us, or opportunity, or access to a better future. Something more splits us into the haves and have-nots.
Those that have it are truely blessed. Those who lack it will always hunger for it.
She couldn’t post it. The responses would be unbearable.
She sat until her computer’s energy saver darkened the screen and cloaked her words.
So this is what it feels like to be trapped and cut-off. This is how it is, on the wrong side of the divide.
The emptiness of her past met the greater emptiness ahead. She chewed her thumb, as she’d always done when overcome with grief.
She sat a bit longer, then brought her screen back to life. Her new blog post had taken shape.
She called it “Poverty of The Worst Kind.”