This weekend I was introduced to a woman who had no patience for poverty peddlers. She didn’t understand the complexities or irrationality of embracing being poor.
She sat in a Burger King in North Philly watching a four year old toss fries at his brother, who couldn’t have been more than 3. “take that f*ck face! Take that f*ck face!” The toddler embraced his mantra with wild abandon and no discipline. The mother intermittently checking to make sure they hadn’t moved before going back to her conversation at the counter.
An African man of forty or so stared with open lust at the twenty three year old girl gathering her food, unaware of his piercing gaze.
A group of teens sat together speaking death, each girls hair and nails as fake and outlandish as the next.
Boy after boy sauntered in, each with pants lower than the next, clutching bundled waistband in one hand, greedily chomping on dollar menu burgers with the other.
Much older women wearing mummified make up and their daughters clothes, ill fitting and telling. Gum popping philosophies of “so the f*ck what” and “dat n*££er ain’t nuffin” fill the air. Hair, nails, clothes, phones, were in abundance.
The woman said “these women are only happy every two weeks. Thats when you can get your weave tight and your fill in, but the two weeks in between, the broke weeks, they are unhappy because they can’t maintain the illusion.”
I looked around and based on the sour faces and degree of new growth, I ascertained she was correct.
The restaurant itself was dirty, the floors unswept, tables unwiped, trash uncollected. A pitcher of Kool-Aide sat on the counter. Behind the counter waiting to serve you were sisters covered in street tattoos, popping gum and irritated at your presence.
The woman made a comment to herself, she sneered “everyone behind the counter looks like they are in work release.” She was not happy with what she saw.
I spoke with this woman. I asked her why she was so upset, after all it’s life, they are doing the best they can.
She turned inward and said “I have never had the best of anything. I have struggled all my days, made some pretty hard left turns off the road of life. I have never made excuses for my missteps, I have never looked for someone to bail me out. I’ve slept in the bed that I made, suffered the consequences of poor decision making and made the best of whatever God placed on me. I have been through the fire in my own right. Been burned almost to hell. But I never made the same mistake twice and I never allowed my situation or circumstance to rob me of my dignity, decorum, determination, of my purpose, nor my fight. My bleak surroundings didn’t own me, I never allowed it to own me.”
“This” (she spread her arms indicating our surroundings) “This is defeat. This is giving in and settling for crumbs at the table. This is disheartening and an insult to everything our people have endured.”
“This (she spread her arms wide) is an affront to mankind and sadly no one thinks about this dowry of disrespect and dishonor they are leaving for their children and their children’s children to inherit. Those children will pick at the bones of a broken black society. One day we shall be extinct because we no longer matter.”
I tried to console her by telling her “It’s okay, this is just the ghetto.”
She looked down then, tears cresting in her eyes, and she spoke her words softly “that is precisely the wrong answer dear, you see, it’s never about where you live, it’s always about how you live.”
I struggled yesterday with the two women living inside my head. One still fairly young, empathetic and understanding, the other, growing older, wiser and less willing to give a pass to a culture which seems happy dwelling in squalor and ignorance.
I quietly finished my meal and got back on the train to Center City leaving that now foreign world behind me.