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.

I Remembered Rose a Little too Late

I remember Rose. I wish I could do more than remember but I don’t have a choice.
Rose was the perfect name for her.cfiles6499
I have no idea how old she was but she looked about ninety. She was just like any elderly black woman you might see in a movie; toothless, sappy sweet, with just a little touch of sass. She was once a nurse; had been for forty years. She was never married and had no children. She lived with her nephew and an assortment of other characters that I could never keep straight. Cousins, nieces, grand cousins, play cousins, but they all looked older than fifty and none of them spoke to me unless I addressed them directly.

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I met Rose when some missionaries asked me to come along for a discussion. She lived in a row house in North Philadelphia. It was the grand kind of place I would have loved to have seen when it was new, but that would have been about 1850 and it had long since been subdivided into apartments and I doubt many had loved to see it for at least fifty years. There were two short sets of stairs leading up to her front porch which was a large cement slab surrounded by a crooked railing.
She spent her days sitting in the living room, sharing the space with an old TV, a ratty couch, and an upturned coffee can filled with cigarette butts. She never went anywhere. She never left the room. She didn’t wander because she only had one foot. She lost it to diabetes some years before and so now she sat in her wheelchair on the ground floor of a three-story apartment. The others in the house seemed to go up and down, in and out, passing Rose the same way they passed the ratty couch and the old TV. The coffee can wasn’t hers. She didn’t smoke.”Naw honey. Gave that up years ago. T’aint good for ya and I gots enough problems as it is. That can’s for everybody else in this house. I wished they’d smoke ’em out on the porch but I guess its cold out there. Anyways, at least when they’s smokin’ in here I can talk to ’em a little.”
Rose found the missionaries when they knocked on her door and she hollered for them to come inside. Maybe she just wanted someone to talk to. Maybe she had been sitting there waiting for them. Whatever it was, they found each other and they called me to come along. “Miss Rose has lots of questions and has been reading quite a bit,” the Elder’s informed me. “Today we will be talking about church and baptism.” Now I knew why they really asked me to come along; my minivan.

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I was happy to offer my services to help Rose attend church that upcoming Sunday. She was the only one in the house who had any interest in the gospel but it didn’t matter because none of them owned a car. “You sure that aint a problem? You sure you don’t mind coming all out your way to get me?” she asked. I did not mind at all. 8:30 that next Sunday Rose was waiting for me right on the other side of the screen door. She would have been on the porch but couldn’t get herself up over the door jamb. I wheeled her around backwards and we bump, bump, bumped our way down those two small sets of stairs and then I gallantly lifted her out of her chair and set her in the passenger seat of the van. “Hi Rose,” my daughter and wife called out to her. “Hello everybody,” she replied and we drove off to the chapel.

This became our regular Sunday pattern up through her baptism and a month or so after as well. But then my responsibilities changed and I was no longer available Sunday mornings. I couldn’t call to tell Rose because she had no phone. I stopped by on a Wednesday to tell her I couldn’t be there on Sunday and she apologized to me. She was sorry to be any trouble. I promised I would try to find someone else.

The only person I could find was Brother Berry.

I hadn’t really thought this through very well. Brother Berry was perhaps the only person I knew who was older than Rose. Despite his age Brother Berry would volunteer for anything and they were the only other people we knew with a van. That Sunday morning the Berry’s showed up without Rose. Sister Berry marched up to me and launched into some high decibel diatribe about Brother Berry’s back and stairs and wheelchairs, heart attacks, and another thing coming. I pled forgiveness. Looking back I guess it was my fault. I had assumed that Brother Berry had a plan or was simply more capable than I thought. He was not capable, just willing. After church I drove over to visit Rose and she apologized to me again.

After five months of asking for volunteers and organizing Rose had still never made it back to church. I refused to accept that I was the only solution. Besides, I had other things to worry about than just Rose. So I continued to try to find her rides and would swing by to visit her on weekdays as often as I could. I felt guilty I wasn’t able to be her taxi and was inspired by the addition of a blue book with gold print as the newest piece of living room furniture. It didn’t take long for that blue book to look as used and ratty as the sofa it sat next too.

Before too long our ward welcomed a set of senior missionaries. They weren’t all that old, they were full time, and best of all they had a car. I asked them to please go get Rose. And they did.
I was so happy when this good Elder wheeled Rose into the chapel. She reached out to give me a big hug repeatedly asking, “Where’s the baby?” till my two year old was eventually produced to be hugged as well. It was a great day till about four o’clock.

At four I got a phone call from this Elder’s wife telling me all about her husband’s back problems, his age, and the challenges of getting Rose back up those stinking stairs. I apologized. I often find myself in situations where this is appropriate. This senior Elder spent a day and a half resting hs back but had the bright idea of a deal moving forward. If I couldn’t be there to pick her up, and he couldn’t get her home, maybe we should work together. He would go get her if I would take her home.

Deal.

That next Sunday the senior missionaries showed up without Rose. When they arrived at her home one of the others in the house told us she was in the hospital. Something about her diabetes and surgery. No one there seemed willing or able to tell us anything more than that. After church the senior couple began calling hospitals eventually tracking her down. That Tuesday I paid her a visit.
There she was, smiling her toothless grin. She had lost her other foot but not her smile. She chuckled and waved me into the room past an extra bed that looked to hold a large pile of pillows and sheets. “That’s Clara”, she said pointing to the other bed. “She upset because they won’t let her smoke and I keeps reading the Book of Mormon out loud.” With that she winked at me and pulled open a side drawer to show me her dog eared scriptures. I love that she had her scriptures and loved even more that she winked at me. How could anyone not like Rose?IMG_9088

The senior couple continued to visit Rose till she was moved to a convalescent home nearby. We all talked about how it would soon be time to start arranging for her to get rides to church again, there was some discussion about maybe perhaps bringing her the sacrament, but no one felt any urgency. Things were just moving along. It all began to feel quite normal. That is the right word for it; normal.

It was now normal for me to drive right past the home where Rose was staying as I went to and from wherever doing this and that. I would drive by on my way to pick up one of the youth for an activity, look over, and think to myself, “I should go visit Rose.” But I was on my way somewhere else, somewhere worthwhile, so I would vow to visit Rose later. I would pass by Rose’s center on my way to meet the missionaries somewhere, look over and be reminded I hadn’t yet been by to see Rose. “I should make a note to go see Rose”, I would tell myself, and then hurry off to meet the Elders. I recall one day driving past having finished my work for the day and thinking, “now is the time to go see Rose.” It was dark, it was late, and I was tired. I figured it wasn’t that big of a deal, I would get by to see her. She wasn’t going anywhere, besides, no one but me seems to be able to move her. I went home.

Sometime later the senior missionaries told me a story. It had been just a little too long since they had seen Rose so they scheduled some time to drop in and visit.
Rose wasn’t there.
Rose had passed away.
The people at the home had done their best to contact someone but Rose had listed no relatives and left no point of contact. With no one to contact Rose had been buried by the state. The employees at the home were only disclosing this information to the senior couple because they recognized the logo on the name tags as the same logo on Rose’s copy of the Book of Mormon.
Riddled with guilt I asked where she was buried.
“They don’t know. They said people buried by the state are put in unmarked graves. They have no idea where she is. Sorry.”

That was that. Rose was gone.CIMG4332

I know enough of the gospel to know that Rose is in a better place. It wouldn’t be hard to be better than an empty living room in a wheel chair. Yet when I think of Rose I mostly remember that I drove past her house, thought I should stop, and didn’t.
My little family was in the airport getting ready to board a plane when my little three year old yanked on my sleeve, “Look Dad, it’s Rose!” she said pointing to an old stranger in a wheel chair. “O yeah, that does look kinda like Rose.” I say in my best fatherly voice; encouraging and matter of fact. But it wasn’t Rose. Rose was gone.

Where Rose is now, she can smile with teeth. She can stand. When I knew her she couldn’t do either of those things. I should be happier about that. But I haven’t changed all that much, I’m thinking about my own guilt and failure to act. I’m trying hard to get better and I think I am making some progress. Slow progress. Rose didn’t have time to wait for me to get better. I couldn’t fix all Rose’s problems, but I could have helped more than I did.

How many Roses do we drive past every day without stopping? Let’s do a little better.