The Suburban Middle Class Mind-Set: Four Wheeling Through Poverty

I have always wanted a Jeep Wrangler. Four slightly large but not huge tires, top down, and the doors removed from the hinges. Forest green, maybe black or midnight blue, not yellow. I have pictured myself driving it off road in the dirt, on the streets passing strip malls, and even pictured parallel parking it in Manhattan between a cab and a Smart car.  It was never an obsession, not a top priority, but it was always there. In 8th grade, drifting off during math class-Jeep. College, sitting in a dorm room eating instant noodles-Jeep. I have always thought it the perfect vehicle for the person I wanted to be, the vehicular expression of the inner me. I may wear a suit and tie to work, but deep inside, I’m a Jeep.

Funny thing happened when I lived in Philadelphia’s inner city, the Jeep drove away. It was not buried under life’s cares, it wasn’t towed away by day-to-day practicality, it simply drove out of my consciousness.061004-philly-W(4)

I have since moved to another local and to my surprise, the Jeep, or rather a vacant parking space meant for a Jeep, has returned to my imagination. I can’t shake that stinking contraption, it’s there all the time. I suppose I could exorcise the demon by simply buying one. I can think of a million reasons not to do that, but none of those reasons can shake the fantasy. I’m doomed and the realization of this doom has caused me to reflect a little on why this is the case. I have also reflected a little on why Philadelphia somehow made me mentally Jeep-proof. I think I know the answer, and it makes me just a little afraid of myself. It makes me a little afraid of us all. I will explain.

Philadelphia was the first place I had ever lived, not visited, where there were a lot of poor people. Now I have never been wealthy, or even very stable (reason number one for lack of four wheel drive dream car), but in Philadelphia there were people, a lot of them, that were very visibly doing much, much, worse than I. The longer I lived there, the more I not only saw such folks, but I got to know them. Names. Situations. Humans. This familiarity and proximity provided for me a new opportunity; I was able to help. I didn’t help much. In fact it could easily be argued that the net effect of me living there nine years was zero. At least zero in the dent I made on poverty. But being there and working there made a huge dent in me. That dent came from a constant blow to my chest that eventually crushed by ribs and touched my heart. I felt it. It hurt. But it didn’t only hurt it also gave me this sort of zealous energy and joy. This trying, this being needed, and this involvement in something bigger and more important than my day to day life was invigorating despite the pains I picked up along the way. Not only was it not only painful, it was also not only poor people. This was the first place I met real life rich people.

When I say rich I’m not talking the “I own a car dealership” kind of rich, I’m talking the “My name is Henry Ford the 5th”, kind of rich. Now no, I never really met the heir to Model-T dynasty, but surely I now know players in that same league and I will admit there was excitement in such encounters. Some such folks were wonderful, and others not so much; just like the poor people. Some people were doing fascinating and wonderful things with their resources, and others were just minding their own business. Knowing these people and peeking into their world taught me a few things, but it didn’t hit my heart. Some of those folks bruised my eye a little, but nothing lasting.cheesesteak

In Philadelphia I saw these two worlds, the wealthy and the destitute, rub up against each other. Watching these two tectonic plates, these huge forces of nature that have to our knowledge always existed, grate and rub, I learned what humanity is. Humanity is people, you me, us them, rich and poor. Humanity, these individual and singular people are what are important. Not the money, not the lack of it, but the person is what is important and one person interacting with another can do big things. Huge things. Things that matter! Not matter in the way that getting the high score on Angry Birds matter, but matters in the life outcomes and eternity sort of way. I got to live in that world. I was one of those people getting ground up between these two forces of nature, poverty and power, and I got to do a few little tiny things that really mattered.

And none of those things required, or had anything to do with a Jeep. That gorgeous chariot and all it offers never even occurred to me while I was there.

I have since left that city. It is a hard place to be and my job sent me somewhere else. Where I live now is wonderful. No potholes. No abandoned houses, no panhandlers, and no rib crushing blows. My kids go to a great school where I never worry about their safety and my wife never complains about the weather. I like my job, my friends, most everything about the place. I love it here-but the Jeep is back. I see it driving down the sunny streets and parked right over on the other side of my desk where chairs should be. It no longer has chrome rims, but it’s still green or blue. My dream car has returned and my chest has started healing. That dent, that damage, doesn’t hurt quite the same way, and that, is what makes me afraid.IMG_3945

My daydreams are not the faces of the people struggling to make it day to day but rather a gas guzzling car. The pain of tragedy and struggle is being replaced for a desire to have a little fun. Now make no mistake, I never abandoned fun, but it’s becoming my default setting. I had for some time filled my thoughts with doing good for other people, but without even trying, my thoughts are drifting to Jeeps. In fact I’m trying really hard to focus on doing good stuff for other people but Jeeps are all-terrain and apparently so are my daydreams. I have learned that seeing struggles on television, or the radio, or even talking to struggling people on the phone, just doesn’t hit my heart quite the same way. There is too much meat and bone, perhaps a little flab, protecting my heart from the outside world and I have a new found appreciation for a wounded heart’s ability to heal. This makes me afraid for myself. It also makes me afraid for all of us. I’m afraid because I think I might just be a normal person. Not super special or unusual, and if this is the case, than what are the rest of us dreaming about when we could be dreaming about helping people? Mine is a Jeep, what is yours?

And this matters because the one thing I refuse to forget is that those others, the ones who need help, really do need help. They need help from other people… more than I need a Jeep.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Suburban Middle Class Mind-Set: Four Wheeling Through Poverty

  1. Uglyblackjohn

    Dude. Get the Jeep. One of my homeboys has a shop in Ontario that lifts trucks and Jeeps. (At least he still owned it the last time I was there). As for me… I think I’m still in your Philly stage – it seems that I’m helping or teaching more than I am enjoying life. You’re now in Cali. Get the Jeep.

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