I'll say this for John Edwards: He's right about "Two Americas." But, tragically, for so many people, hope is not "on the way," as Edwards promised repeatedly from the Democratic National Convention floor Wednesday night. No matter who wins the presidential election, the painful, brutal truth is that there is no happy ending in the cards for the "other" America.
All around us are people who have no social safety net to speak ofno education, no homes, no money, no jobs, no food. They are everywhereinvisible people on the urban stage. They are the real-life Others in the world's greatest country, and there's not a damn thing John Kerry and John Edwardsor Busheney, for that mattercan or will do for them.
The story of two of these souls is enough to stir anyone to utter hopelessness.
One Friday evening recently, as shoppers perused the aisles of a local liquor store, enjoying the South American cabernets that are their privilege, an Amish-looking older woman was pacing with a young girl just outside the door. The two wore long-sleeve collared full-length cotton dresses. They paced aimlessly back and forth on the sidewalk, arm in arm.
As shoppers exited the shop with arms full of delightful, full-bodied spirits that they would no doubt eventually enjoy over lovely food and good conversation in their comfortable homes, they walked by the woman and her little girl without so much as an acknowledgment. On his way out, one person eventually stopped to ask if the woman, clearly aged well beyond her actual years, whether she needed help.
"No, we're OK," she said, clearly embarrassed.
He went on his way, stopping at Kroger next door to supplement his already well-stocked kitchen shelves. But the thought of the woman and the little girl, a child with Down's Syndrome, nagged at him unmercifully. In the checkout line, he grabbed some bottled water and Fig Newtons, paid his bill, then walked out toward his car. As he did, he looked around the corner of the store, where the woman and child sat together on a concrete wall, the little girl with her head on her mom's lap. Cars passed, shoppers went out of their way to avoid them.
The guy took them the water and cookies, at which point the little girlLisa is her nametore into the bag and the package of cookies with an almost disturbing gusto. He again asked the woman whether he could help in any way, and she blushed, saying, "You came back." There was an amiable, appreciativebut very sadtone to her surprise.
"Sure," he said. "I was kind of worried about you."
"We were trying to get to a church meeting," she said, "but my car ran out of gas in Brentwood."
He suspected that, in fact, there wasn't really a car, and he couldn't quite figure out how she'd made it to the Belle Meade Kroger from Brentwood on foot. But none of that really mattered. She asked if he could give them a ride to the church, and from there, she said, she could get a ride back to her car. She had no money, she said, but guessed that perhaps a fellow parishioner could help out.
The man, a friend of mine, told her that was no problem, then he invited them into the car. As they got settled, he noticed that Lisa had a dirty face and was clearly famished, as she made quick work of her packaged cookies. Her mom was missing some teeth and wore men's athletic shoes that looked as if they should have been retired 200 miles ago.
Soon, they were on their way, and the few of us who had been watching this scene unfold were touched. Somewhat guiltily, he rolled down the window to mitigate the overwhelming body odor. What happened next gave him little hope in humanity. She noticed his cell phone and asked if she could call one of her church members to see where the meeting was being held.
As she spoke to this person on the phone, it was clear that she was being given the runaround and that whoever was on the other end didn't want her showing up. Good Lord, he thought. If someone who needs a little help can't even count on fellow church members, what hope is there?
When she got off the phone, she too knew she'd been double-crossed. "I don't think he wants me to come," she said, dejected and looking utterly vulnerable.
He told her she could always find another group with whom to worship, one that would treat her more kindly and be more worthy of her company. By then she began to confide in him as they pulled into different church parking lots looking for signs of a gathering. Exactly what they were doing, he wasn't sure, but he had a full tank of gas.
She told him that she was German (which explained her accent), that she was a Messianic Christian and that her husband left her 10 years ago when Lisa was born with Down Syndrome. So much for "for better or for worse." As far as he could tell, she was unemployed, and she told him that she had a 17-year-old son at "home," which he wasn't certain actually existed. "My son and I, we're just trying to get by," she said, doing her best to put on a brave face.
Strangely, my friend said he felt somewhat better when he stopped at an ATM and it refused his request on the grounds that he didn't have adequate funds. He apparently made a more modest request, took the money and climbed back into the car. When he handed it to her, she took it graciously without looking at the amount, and then said something that he says made his heart sink. "But won't you miss it?" she asked. "Don't you need it?"
He told her that he'd needed help himself in the past. "Maybe what goes around, comes around," he said, struggling to find something upbeat to say. "I'm doing this more for me than for you."
They continued to talkabout what Lisa likes to eat, about the way she actually spoke in German to a Catholic priest recently. Suddenly, mid-sentence, she said excitedly, "Pull in here." It was a church on Franklin Road, the parking lot full of cars on a Friday evening.
As they got out, my friend went around to the other side of the car, where Lisa gave him a hug. "Maybe we'll run into each other again sometime," the woman said.
"Maybe so. God bless you," he said back. He never learned her name.
In the hands of a congregation, maybe she and Lisa could get some help. Maybe something good would become of her and her family. But in the other Americathe one that has no lobbyists, no PAC funds, no claim on the country's agendathere's little chance of good, life-changing things happening for a single mother with a severely disabled child. Even if the mother is evangelical and God-fearing. Even if the little girl is sweet and loving and gives hugs that can stop your heart.
Instead of pacing back and forth all afternoon in a parking lot, the Lisas of the other America should be playing. They should be read to. They should be getting the special education and attention they need. They should not have to rely on Fig Newtons from a stranger not to starve.
John Edwards gave a pretty speech. But until someone on either side backs it up with something more than nice wordsand I pray that they dohope is not on the way.