It's been said one's entire destiny can change just by missing a bus. Maybe that's true about catching one, too. Or a subway. All the "experts" who hold forth on urban social problems should ride public transportation once in a while and see how the other half lives. Not everyone has an SUV in the driveway. Not everyone has a driveway.
A lot of the issues about which we speak – teen pregnancy, abuse, drug addiction, failing schools and welfare dependency – we really believe to be about not so much "us" as "them."
How many of us really know any of "them?"
Last Sunday I rode the subway in New York City and took in a scene no Nikon could capture.
On the bench across from me sat a young Hispanic mother – I'd guess about 17 years old. She had a baby girl on her lap. This was a beautiful child with round, dark eyes as big as saucers. She wore a little princess dress. On odd expression was on her face, neither happy nor sad. Try as we might with our arsenal of goofy faces, my wife and I could not get her to smile.
Her mother had an empty sort of look on her face. She had on old jeans and a tight stretchy T-shirt that might have fit her about 25 pounds ago. Her upper lip was cut and swollen and her cheek was bruised. I suppose she might have been in a car accident or walked into a door, but it looked to me like the after-effects of an overhand right. She wore no wedding ring.
Directly above these two was an advertising placard which had a picture of unlocked handcuffs and read: "When you only get one phone call – 1-800-INNOCENT -- Legal representation for drug charges, assault, robbery, burglary and DWI." Or something like that.
Sitting on our right was another mother and daughter. They were older than the first pair and African-American. They appeared to be on their way to or from church.
The mother, who looked to be about 40, wore a red skirt and jacket and a matching, broad-brimmed hat. She clutched a bible in her hands.
The daughter was about 12, maybe 14. Her church suit and hat were a quiet off- white. She was intently reading a dog-eared, paperback copy of Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls."
Riding in this underground sauna that New Yorkers call the subway, these two were a study in grace. The heat and the rumble of the train didn't seem to affect them at all. The line we were on runs from Brooklyn to Harlem and I wondered if they had moved out from the latter but still dutifully attended their old church.
Time out for a Boston Globe/Mike Barnicle disclaimer: I'm sure some of the details I have filled in from my own imagination aren't accurate. But in this case, it doesn't matter. What does matter is they were a reminder to me that the problems of poor city dwellers, which we like to lump under the catch-all phrase "urban pathologies," are ultimately about the individuals they sting – and also about the gallant ways in which people sometimes try to overcome them.
School starts next week in Hartford. Like every year, several thousand kids won't show up for the first day of classes. The usual reason for the 25% or so of no-shows will be put forth: still vacationing in Puerto Rico, not enough money for new school clothes and a lack of emphasis in the home on the importance of education.
But when it happens I will think about the young girl on the subway reading Hemingway. There are parents in Hartford who work two jobs, go to church and do their best to make a decent hand out of the low cards they were dealt in life.
These folks are the "they" who are the "we." When most people talk about urban problems, they end up saying "we need to do something about this" when they really mean "they" need to do it.
Some of these "theys" are indeed the causes of their own problems, but there are lots of others trying to get past the obstacles.
We need to get to know them better.
August 21, 1998