Monday, August 22, 2011

Part 2 of the story...

Debbie called me the next day (8/18) and asked if I could help her get her groceries in the afternoon.  I was swamped that day in job hunting but told her I would be able to help the next morning.  Our phone conversation was choppy and at one point after I interrupted her, she asked in an angry tone if I had a problem.  She even went on to exclaim that I was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  I ignored her jabs and we agreed to meet the next morning at 9:30 sharp for the groceries trip.  After our tense conversation, I was anxious about meeting her but still felt like I wanted to help.  I told my roommate about our phone exchange and she suggested that I wait outside her apartment without going in.  I liked her idea.  I needed to draw my boundaries if I was going to befriend and try to help this woman.

I arrived at Debbie's apartment the next morning at 9:30 am and called her to let me in the front as we had agreed.  She didn't pick up the phone so I followed someone in and signed in at the front desk.  I nervously knocked at her door anticipating what kind of response I would receive from her this time.  She opened the door in her nightgown and explained that she had lost her keys and needed to look for them.  She invited me in, but this time I refused saying that I preferred to wait in the hall and have her come out when she was ready to go.  She then spent about ten minutes looking for her keys and came back out to announce to me that she found them but now needed to change her clothes.  Another ten minutes went by.  She came back out again to say she needed to comb her hair.  Another ten minutes.  I heard the manager shout at me from down the hall to ask if Debbie had let me in.  I responded that she had invited me but that I wanted to wait in the hall.  The manager gave me a knowing look.  Finally, Debbie opened the door and was ready to go.  Before we left, she spent at least a minute making sure she had locked the door properly.  She handed me her reusable grocery bag.  

As we walked out the front of her apartment complex, she was very quiet while I filled the gap by commenting on the weather.   We turned out of the complex and made it halfway down the block to the intersection when all of sudden, she grabbed the grocery bag off of my shoulder and said in an angry tone, "I changed my mind!"  She asked if I wanted to come inside and talk with her.  I said no and pressed her to explain why she had changed her mind.  She shouted back, "These ni**ers won't leave me alone!"  I looked across the street and saw a Latino family on the front porch.  They had not said anything to her nor do I think they heard her shouting.  She walked away angrily and I followed after her asking if she wanted me to walk her back.  She said no thank you at first and when I repeated myself she shouted back, "I said leave me alone!"

I stood there not know what to do.  Should I follow her to make sure she got back OK?  After standing awkwardly in the middle of the sidewalk for a minute, I decided against it and walked the other way.  I was disturbed by her comment.  How could someone living in D.C. aka: chocolate city be racist?  I remembered our earlier conversations in which she had vented her frustrations with a 'colored woman.' And when I called her, she had asked me if I was the small, dark girl who had helped her the other day.  This is, of course, is an accurate description of me.  Was she uncomfortable with me helping her though because of my skin color?  After I got over being offended by her comment, I realized that she must have a lot of issues and started feeling bad for her again.  Did she have family to depend on?  Should I give her the phone number for the senior social services center I found online?  After talking to my Mom about it, I concluded that there was nothing more I could do to help her.  In relating the story to one of my friends yesterday evening, she said that most people wouldn't have gone that far to help this woman.  I disagreed with her.  I think most people would have tried to help if they had seen her apartment and realized she was all alone.  The truth of the matter is though that you can't find help if you are not willing to receive it.   It's sad but true.  All I can do is keep her in my prayers.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Isolation in the big city

On Tuesday afternoon, I went out to run some errands after a productive day of job searching and work.  I completed my normal routine of buying a couple bags worth of groceries and then made by way to the bus stop to head home.  I rested my bags on the bench to wait and sat down when I saw an older woman approach the stop with two grocery bags.  I got up so that she could sit down and soon thereafter she asked me if I could help her with her bags onto the bus.  Of course I obliged and sat next to her toward the front of the bus.  She told me she needed to get off in three stops and asked if I could help her with her bags.  I said no problem and helped her off the bus leaving my own grocery bags behind.  Only once we were exiting the bus she asked if I could walk her all the way home.  Oh great, I thought.  So, I run back on the bus and grab my bags in order to help her.  A lady who got off the bus with us offered to walk the woman home after she found out it wasn't my normal stop, but the old woman wanted to stick with me for some reason.  I sympathized for her and wanted to help anyway as she clearly needed someone to hold her grocery bags.  There is no way I could have left her then.  I asked her for her name and she told me her name was Debbie*.

As I walked with her the few blocks down to her apartment, we made small talk about what I was doing in the city, who was supporting my lifestyle with no job (haha) and the fact that I lived in a group home.  Immediately after I told her I lived in a group home, she asked if it was a psychiatric home.  I laughed it off.  Once we reached her apartment, Debbie invited me to come in and I was surprised to find a small, dimly lit, un-decorated room with limited furniture and a bed pushed up against the wall.  I set her grocery bags down by her small kitchenette.  She thanked me and told me I was one of the nicest people she had met.  I asked her if she had friends or family in the area that normally helped her grocery shop.  I couldn't fully understand a lot of what she said as her speech was slurred but she proceeded to tell me she had a brother-in-law who lived out of state.  She said that people had trouble understanding her because she needed to have surgery on her teeth.  As I was on my way out the door, she asked if I wanted her phone number and invited me back inside so no one would hear.  I typed her number into my phone and then she asked for my name and number.  As I left I heard her bolt the door behind me and say "call me sometime soon" from behind it.  This tugged at my heart as I knew she probably did not have many visitors.  After I got home that evening I thought about how many older people like Debbie must be living on their own in D.C. with little support from friends or family.  The interaction made me step outside of my own little bubble and think of the struggles that people like Debbie must face everyday.

The next morning (Wednesday, 8/17) I called Debbie to check on her and once I said my name, she asked if I was the girl who had helped her with her groceries.  I said yes and she proceeded to say that she was not in a good mood and needed help with Medicaid.  Through her slurred speech, I could hear her cussing.  I told her I sympathized with her situation as I didn't know what else to say.  I then offered to help her with groceries the next time she needed it.  After she confirmed with me that she had my phone number, she said she would call me if she needed me to help her.

My conscious felt better knowing that I had at least tried to help Debbie.  Still, how many Debbies are out there in this city without a good support system to fall back on?  Who is obligated to help these individuals?  Is it their responsibility to seek out community?  I can't imagine the loneliness someone must feel living by themselves at that age.  No one knows exactly how they will be in their old age as it's something you just can't predict.  I hope that I am in good spirits and health in my old age but if I'm not, I hope I have loved ones to fall back on. 

Monday, August 15, 2011


This past week I felt overwhelmed by the status of my ongoing job search.  I am fast approaching my one year anniversary in D.C. and part of me feels like I need to land a job by then.  Given that my anniversary is in ten days, this is highly unlikely...ok, probably impossible...but a girl can dream!  With that said, I have found it helpful to reflect on my blessings when I start wallowing in self-pity.  Now, I realize this is a piece of advice that you are likely to hear from an after school special, but it really does lift me up when I count all of my blessings.  I am so lucky to have a supportive, loving family and amazing friends who I can count on.  I wouldn't be who I am today without their love.

I went to a huge job fair last Tuesday at the convention center here after my roommate tipped me off about it.  I went not knowing what to expect as I had never been to a job fair before and wasn't sure which companies would be attending.  I can't say I gained a lot in my actual job search as the two companies I was interested in, NPR and Amtrak (yes, Amtrak) were not hiring for any communications or admin positions.  The fair provided for some great people watching however as there were people from all ages and walks of life there.  It was nice to know I'm not the only one searching!  We waited in an extremely long line that wrapped around the whole 1st floor of the convention center to even get in.  I, of course, eavesdropped on three guys standing behind me discussing the difficulties they had in finding manual labor and factory work.  One woman said she was looking for literally anything she could find as she was struggling just to pay the bills and put food on the table.  I'm sure she wasn't alone in her struggle as there seemed to be a lot of middle-aged job searchers there.  And here I was feeling self-pity over my job situation!  I am so fortunate to have parents who are helping me financially as I search for employment.  I wouldn't be up here if it wasn't for them and I need to appreciate that more than I do.

I will leave you with this quote of gratitude from my good buddy Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends."
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

You tell 'em, Ralph.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Why do we like those who are like us?

      Here goes another entry on a Sunday...perhaps this could be the start of a new tradition for me?  Sundays are a great day for reflection for me.  Perhaps it's the fact that I go to church that leaves me feeling reflective on Sunday afternoons.  Whatever the case, it has been a good week for people watching here in D.C. and I am going to recap for you!
     I live down the street from a high-traffic part of D.C. with lots of shopping, eateries, businesses, and a main metro stop that connects to the metro system.  I am constantly commuting back and forth via bus between my more isolated neighborhood and this so-called 'town square.'  It's not a bad commute and it usually takes around 10-15 minutes one direction with all of the stops along the way.  The only downside is the wait for the bus which can vary depending on what day or what time of day it is.  There are so many characters to take in, however, that I am rarely bored while waiting.  Annoyed perhaps, but bored never!
     So the other day, I was making my weekly trip back from Target when I saw the '12 Tribes of Israel' group standing at the metro stop.  They are a group of young, black men dressed in long tunics preaching and lecturing the unenthusiastic passer-bys.  I had seen them plenty of times before and had always struggled to understand what their message was based on their loud diatribes.  I knew they liked to invoke God's name and I had always assumed that they were reading passages from the Bible.  Today, however, their message appeared a little different as one of them held a colorful poster depicting Jesus as a white man with blonde flowing hair.  This, of course, is a traditional Western depiction of Jesus.  Next to the image in large letters it said, "This is the Devil.  Jesus was a Negro, not a white man!"  My immediate thought was 'Wow, that is racist!'  The neighborhood I live in is majority-minority with blacks and Hispanics making up the majority of the population.  So, they were certainly targeting the right audience with their message.
     Was it racist though?  Upon further consideration, I started to think about the root of the sentiment displayed on the poster.  These young black men wanted to see themselves reflected in the image of the son of God.  Why wouldn't you want to see yourself reflected in a God that you worship?  Why is Jesus so often depicted as a white man and so rarely as anything different?  Based on a New Testament course I took in school and a documentary I can recall, scholars believe Jesus was most likely neither black nor white, but instead more middle-eastern in appearance.  I think it is human nature to want to see someone like yourself reflected whether it be in the God you worship, your family, friends,etc.  Why else do people tend to gravitate and want to help others who look like them?  Perhaps familiarity?  The idea that you must have similar value systems?
     The way I look earned me a favor one rainy afternoon in my neighborhood.  I was running late for my interview with a temp agency when just as I stepped outside, it started pouring.  Of course, this would happen to me when I am already running late!  So I get to the bus stop and wait for what felt like 15 minutes.  Still, no bus.  I start contemplating ways to explain my tardiness to the interviewer when all of a sudden, a random car going down the street pulls off to the side and puts its blinkers on.  Are they having car trouble?  Do they want to give me a ride?  Should I take it if they do?  The driver proceeds to back up to where I am standing at the bus stop and honks the horn.  A young man about my age is driving with his guy friend in the passenger seat and a female passenger in the back seat.  They all motion for me to hop in.  I take them up on the offer and hop into the car.  Normally I would never do this for safety reasons as a young female, but it was broad daylight on a main thoroughfare, I was late for my interview, and there was another female in the back seat.   Kids, don't do this at home!  So, I hop in the car and thank them hoping I am not going to regret my decision. 
     As soon as I get in the car, I notice they are all speaking another language and it smells like ethnic food.  Two of them appear to be East African and I ask them aloud if they are Ethiopian by any chance.  The driver responds that they are all Ethiopian and that they thought I was Ethiopian when they picked me up.  He finds it hard to believe that I am not one of them.  He asks what my ethnicity is and when I reply that I am Indian he exclaims that he has never seen an Indian person who looks like me.  They proceed to all converse in Amharic (the language of Ethiopia) while I nervously check my watch.  I question them about the Ethiopian community in DC which they say is one of the largest in the nation.  As they drop me off close to the interview site, I realize I will be right on time if I walk just fast enough.  As I board the elevator at my final destination, a middle-aged man asks me if I am 'Habesha' which is a way of asking if you are East African.  I tell him no and ask about his background.  He says he is Ethiopian.  I think to myself, 'Wow, I must really look Ethiopian today!'  
     I wonder if my Ethiopian friends would have offered me a ride that afternoon if I had looked differently.  If I had been an older white man, would they have helped me out?  Or perhaps if I looked white, a white family might have tried to help me?  I may be thinking too deeply into this, but I am fascinated by why and how people gravitate to those who look like them.  Perhaps this fascination is due to the fact that I am biracial or rather of a bi-cultural background as my Dad is Indian and my Mom is white.  I grew up having friends from all races and Mom dubbed my high school a mini United Nations.  In fact, I have almost no Indian friends.  I have plenty of acquaintances though.  Even so, when I meet or befriend an Indian person, I tend to have a certain kinship with them that is based on our shared culture.  It is easy to relate to people who have shared experiences to us as it is a common ground to build friendship on.  Still, I wonder how many people miss out on different perspectives by only sticking with those who look like them?