A postcard from the edge
encouragement for a friend on the eve of Election 2016
When I was half your age, young and naive, America was still home to Ozzie and Harriet. Father still knew best. At least he did in a small blue-collar suburb on the edge of Chicago.
But on Saturdays, I’d take the bus into the city and explore; pick a line and ride to its end, watching the subtle shifts from one neighborhood to the next. Chicago was and still is a city of ethnic enclaves centered on their church and culture. Mass was still in Latin, but the rest of the early services were conducted in Lithuanian or Spanish or the Polish that my grandmother knew but wouldn’t teach me.
Looking back, I believe those years may have been the model for making America Great Again. Every dad was a union member and worked at the plant; sons joined him right after graduation. The future held promise. At fifteen, I honestly thought things would just get better and better; I couldn’t imagine how good.
My budding interest in architecture, especially the early works of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, took me to inner-city neighborhoods where all was not idyllic. I remember seeking Sullivan’s home for his brother Arthur and finding myself the only white person on the bus. As I stood on Lake Park Avenue in front of a decaying building — it has long since been demolished — a half dozen Black kids noticed me (how could they not?) and one of them asked “What you doin’ here?” for which I had no easy answer.
Chicago’s public school system wasn’t integrated because its neighborhoods weren’t. My bus rides taught me the differences between home ownership and anonymous absentee landlords. From the “L” I could see rotting back stairways and into kitchens without air conditioning on 100-degree days; kids playing in the street, staying cool in the spray from fire hydrants.
I also heard the language around me: the “N-word” a lot. But a third of my high school was Black or Puerto Rican and about a third of my dad’s customers at the gas station were Black: kids he’d gone to school with, who had protected one of their classmates with just one leg (Roy lost it when he was nine). Racism existed but not at home or the station.
In 1963 I packed for college at Norman, Oklahoma, my first time away from home. Harold Andrews, an electrical engineering student from Oklahoma City, was in my freshman dorm and we became friends. Harold was Black. One day he asked if I’d like to take a walk downtown, far from campus, to the Cleveland county courthouse. In the lobby, Harold pointed to a wall with two drinking fountains. Above each was a discolored patch of wall with an older coat of paint showing through. He explained that only the year before there had been signs identifying which of the fountains was for people of color.
Two Black students lived just down the hall. I knew one of them as Calvin Looper and learned that Calvin’s mother Clara was a leader in the NAACP. I met Mrs Looper once or twice; she was very kind and asked about my family. But somehow I became aware that we should be alert to the possibility Calvin might be attacked; he was his mother’s son. One window looked like another in our dorm, so something might be thrown through mine as easily as Calvin’s. Nothing ever did but it and the Chicago convention of 1968 showed me that Ozzie and Harriet had been a pleasant fiction.
During my undergraduate years in Norman, President Kennedy was assassinated, as were his brother Bobbie and Dr King. I attended a rally about Vietnam, on the North Oval in front of the Administration Building, and was shocked by its presentation on local news: as far as I was concerned, the broadcast was a distortion, an outright lie designed to put dissidents “in their place.”
The two Chicagos I had seen were becoming two Americas: Whites and people of any other color [Oklahoma had its issues with Hispanics and Native Americans and apparently still does]. Eighteen-year-olds were burning draft cards or heading to Canada; women burned their bras. I was Gay and knew from the age of six or seven, but dared not do anything about it.
Guns. Enough said. Don’t want one; never touched one until mandatory Army ROTC forced me to march with a rifle every Tuesday afternoon. But the guns of my youth were shotguns that held two shells; not AR-15s that deliver hundreds of rounds in a few minutes. I don’t get it and likely never will. Ninety percent of NRA members support gun control, yet they remain members. Hell. Ninety percent of us think Congress is out of touch and doing a shitty job, yet we’ll send the same career politicians back again and again.
Sociologists tell us why we vote against our own better interests, but we don’t read those studies — probably because we don’t read. Anything. Libraries, schools and colleges are under attack. The legislature in Bismarck would like NDSU to be a trade school.
Some years ago in a second-year studio, Philippe D’Anjou posed a problem: design a place to contemplate the skull of Lucy, the purported Missing Link. I’d been asked to review them but found the solutions uninspired, prosaic at best. During a break, I did an informal survey: how many of them, I asked, supported the Theory of Evolution? Fewer than half the hands went up. “There’s your problem, Philippe,” but he was Canadian and simply didn’t get it.
These words aren’t nearly so eloquent and carefully considered as yours. I have more questions than answers. In November, I’ll enter the voting booth uninspired but certain that one of those candidates embodies most, if not all, of what is wrong with America. We’ve become atomized as a people. FaceBook and other social media encourage it. My bubble here allows me to believe that everything can be OK. But venture outside that protective bubble and pull back a bloody stump. I commented once on the boy in Texas who built a clock that was mistaken for a bomb. Fifteen hundred people — I’m not exaggerating — suggested I should 1) go back where I came from; 2) pull my head out of my ass; or 3) die. There were a few more colorful and creative suggestions, which told me I shouldn’t venture outside the comfort zone.
What are we to do? Inform ourselves of the issues and options. Read. Think. Grow. Vent. Stand for what does the most good for the greatest number, while not losing track of those who are invisible and slip through the cracks. Exercise our franchise, even when the choices are slim to none. Do not succumb to despair. Positive change will come. Incrementally. In the meantime, for you and others in my small and contracting circle, we can love and support one another when overcome by events like those over the last several days.
You have been the greatest friend to me, for which I will be forever grateful. I value everything that you have expressed here and to me personally; I value your counsel. I want to help when, where and however I can.
The election is past; the votes counted. And the prospect before us is challenging. Now more than ever I need to remember these words.