There are times when only poetry will do.
The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 42: Of Hurricanes and Langston Hughes
by Steven C. Day
It was a particularly dreary evening outside of The Last Chance Democracy Café; a temperamental on-again, off-again storm had been stalking the city for most of the day. Heavy winds, with gusts as strong as 40 miles per hour, slapped raindrops against the windowpanes, giving off a crackling sound much like bits of gravel flying into the windshield of a fast moving car.
The atmosphere inside the café was, if anything, even drearier than that outside, though to someone looking in through the window it might have appeared as though one hell of a party were going on. The lounge was overflowing, with customers packed in like lobbyists in Tom Delay’s anteroom. It had been that way since Katrina hit; Horace, Tom and Winston, who generally only come on Wednesday evenings, for example, had been here almost every night. Zach had been here a lot too, although I’d been running him out early so his studies wouldn’t suffer too badly.
I suppose it makes sense that when something this awful happens people will tend to reach out to others they know well and trust; people they can count on to share their pain and, where appropriate, share their rage. And as odd as it may seem to those who have never frequented a tavern where the people are like family, or at least close friends, to many of our regulars, the café provides that haven.
So we sat there, smashed together like a can of emotionally distraught sardines, watching it all unfold in living color on the café’s televisions: The death of an American city; the death of hundreds and perhaps thousands of Americans; and something else — the death of our national innocence.
The approved talking point, of course, is that we lost our innocence on Sept. 11, but that’s a crock; we simply replaced one form of innocence — the assumption that America was safe from the violence of the greater world, with another even more dangerous one — a particularly rancid and militaristic strain of American exceptionalism: The childlike faith that we somehow had the power, not to mention the wisdom, to bend the entire world to our desires, and, even more, that we could do so at little cost to ourselves.
That illusion had already been on life support as a result of the mess in Iraq. Katrina put it out of its misery.
Sitting there in front of the television for days on end, watching Americans suffering and dying in the waters that had been New Orleans, while our government committed blunder after blunder, it was hard to feel very exceptional.
Hell, it was hard to feel even modestly competent.
The date was Sept. 1, 2005, four full days had passed since Katrina first made landfall, and people were still dying in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast.
Winston shook his head. “I just don’t get it.” His voice sounded almost numb. “The television crews can get there. Why can’t the government?”
Tom, staring blankly at his half empty glass of scotch, merely shrugged in response; his eyes, usually 90 plus percent of the personality of his face, were blank now, as lifeless as the Big Easy itself.
“It’s a crime,” someone else said. “It’s a God damned crime.”
None of this stirred much reaction in the rest of the lounge: We’d heard it all before — said it all before ourselves, as far as that goes. Four days now of staring in disbelief; four days of watching human misery on an unimaginable scale; four days of screaming at the television set, of demanding that something be done.
“Where are the helicopters?!”
“Where are the boats?”
We could see them there, right in front of our eyes: The desperate faces on the screen, the children, the elderly, suffering and in many cases dying — dying almost as though we were holding them in our arms. They were thirsty; they were hungry; they needed medical help. We could see it. We could feel it. Why in the name of God couldn’t our government?
Even given the contempt I held for the Bush administration, I would never have expected anything this bad, not in a million years.
“Where is the government?!”
“Where the fuck are they?!”
Zach, back in town for his senior year of college after the summer break, looked like he wanted to cry. Hell, we all did.
“I can’t believe this is happening in America,” he said.
And then something, well, something extraordinary and very disturbing happened: Without warning, Horace tore into Zach.
Now, as regular café visitors know, it isn’t in Horace’s character to respond rudely to anyone. But for him to be rude to Zach was almost unthinkable.
That Horace regards Zach as being something akin to a son is one of the least well kept secrets in the café.
But there he was:
“That’s bullshit!” Horace slammed his fist down onto the table. “Absolute unmitigated bullshit! I can’t believe you’re saying that!”
“Excuse me . . . ?” mumbled Zach, clearly rattled.
“I’m just so tired of hearing this crap! But, hey, let’s say it one more time! What the hell? It’s simply unbelievable that this could ever happen here! It’s just so shocking! That’s what everyone’s saying, right?! That’s the politically correct response! A bunch of poor black people were abandoned by society, left to wither away and die like so many crabapples on an untended tree. No, that could never happen in America! Why it’s simply unthinkable, right?!”
It’s hard to say which element was stronger in Horace’s speech pattern right then, the searing anger or the unbridled sarcasm.
“I mean, it isn’t like the rate of unemployment among blacks runs more than twice as high as for whites! Don’t be silly, this is America, right?! Nothing like that could happen here! Or that the typical black family earns less than 60 percent of the income the average white family earns! Oh, certainly not, that couldn’t be: So just move along folks, there’s nothing here to see! And it isn’t like the infant mortality rate for black babies is two-and-a-half-times higher than for whites! Or that the percentage of blacks without basic health insurance is almost twice as high as among whites! Or the fact that most of these disparities, far from getting better, are actually getting worse?!” Oh, no . . .”
Zach tried to break in, “Horace, I wasn’t saying . . .”
“. . . no, no, no, it’s unthinkable that anything like the betrayal of the poor of New Orleans could happen in America! It’s just so shocking, so unbelievably shocking!”
“Horace!” Zach tried again, raising his voice a little. “I don’t disagree with any of that. I’m not saying that this was . . . well that it was . . . ”
Horace, who I don’t think had even heard Zach, slammed his fist down a second time, this time hard enough to splash several of the drinks onto the table. Then he stood up violently and turned toward the door, looking for all the world as though he was about to storm right out of the café.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he paused, and then after a few moments, he sat down again; and then as I’ve seen him do a few other times when he’s been upset, he just sat there silently, for a good two minutes, staring at the bubbles rising in his beer until, at last, he appeared to have calmed himself.
Then he spoke.
“Zach,” he started again, this time in a slow, barely audible voice, which then gained speed and volume as he went along, “you know I think the world of you . . . and I know there isn’t a racist bone in your body, but I have to tell you something; the truth is that this is something you’ll never completely understand. You can’t . . . you can’t because you’ve never lived as a black man.”
Zach nodded cautiously.
“Let me see if this story helps to explain it . . . maybe it will even help you to forgive me for the terrible way I just spoke to you . . .”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Of course I should worry about it . . . I took my frustrations with the media and the politicians out on you, which stinks. I owe you a proper apology, but first let me tell my story: Do you remember when my new grandson was born about nine months ago?”
“Sure. His name’s Andrew, right?”
“Thanks for remembering. Anyway, it was the day after Andrew was born and the whole family was in the waiting room of the birth center, gathering up things to go home. My daughter, Coretta, was sitting in the reception area holding the baby, waiting, I suppose, for the rest of us to get our act together. Sitting next to her was another young woman holding her newborn son . . .” Horace smiled softly. The memory clearly touched him. “I can still remember his name, Daniel. Now, I’ll tell you, it made for quite a picture: Two beautiful little baby boys, one black and one white. Andrew and Daniel, standing . . . well, not exactly standing, but laying together, fellow travelers starting out on their long, or I at least I pray it will be long, journey into tomorrow.”
Tom, who had now regained a little of the old sparkle in his eyes, slapped Horace gently on the arm. “I can see how something like that could move an old grandfather’s heart.”
Horace returned the smile. “It did that, alright, but it also took my mind back: I couldn’t help but remember Reverend King at the National Mall . . . I was there, you know . . . I heard it myself when he said, ‘I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.’ And I wish I could tell you that somehow that lovely image, of Andrew and Daniel stationed side by side in brotherhood, made me feel that the promise of Dr. King’s words had been redeemed, but . . .”
Horace’s voice was beginning to crack. The rage was gone, but the emotion was still there.
Winston started to say something supportive, but Horace waived him off.
“But that isn’t the truth of it,” Horace fought on. “And as happy as that sight made me at first, the truth is that the more I looked at the two of them, the sadder I became . . .” Horace paused, breathed in deeply, steadied himself, and then pressed ahead. “I don’t really know why a statistic, of all things, struck me right then, but one did . . . it struck me like a blow to the gut from a prizefighter. Here were these two perfect little boys, absolutely equal in God’s eye, and yet, statistically, Daniel was likely to live almost a full seven years longer than our Andrew. That’s how little progress we had made in the fight for equality over the past four decades: That was the America I was bequeathing to Andrew.”
Zach, looking surprised, asked why that was true.
Tom stepped in, and, as always, he had the exact numbers memorized, “We’re talking about life expectancy, which is a statistical average; on average, based upon past experience, a white male born today will live a total of 74.6 years, while a comparable black male . . . again on average, will live only 67.8 years.”
“And although seven years may not sound like a lot to a young lad like you . . .” began Horace.
“No, I agree, that’s an incredible difference.”
“And especially so from the standpoint of life expectancy,” Tom jumped in again. “To help put it into perspective, I remember reading that life expectancy experts have calculated that if every form of human cancer were to be cured . . . in other words, if cancer were totally extinguished from the face of the earth, it would only increase the human life expectancy by 3.5 years.”
“Wow,” said Zach.
Horace sighed deeply. “And you know what the saddest thing about all this is? It’s that this huge gap between the life expectancy of white people and black people . . . you might guess that it’s gone down since Dr. King spoke those words back in 1963, but it hasn’t. In fact, it’s actually increased. So you want to know why I wasn’t all that surprised by the outrages that occurred in New Orleans, and why I get so mad when people claim that it was something totally out of character for this country? Well, it’s because it’s really nothing new. Poor black people have been dying from neglect in this country for as long as it’s been a country. They die from exposure to violence and crime; they die from inadequate health care; they die from overcrowded living conditions that breed illness; they die from poor diet; they die from drug and alcohol abuse. They die because they’re both black and poor, and in America that’s two strikes against you . . . Not that poor white people have an easy go of it either. No, this is a country where all poor people, white, black, red and brown alike, are invisible.”
“So invisible,” Winston added, “that when it came time to evacuate New Orleans, no one even bothered to figure out a way to get out those who couldn’t afford to get themselves out. They just left them to die, or only a little better, left them to rot without adequate food, water, sanitation and police protection in hellholes like the Superdome and the Convention Center.”
“And miracle upon miracle, this time people seem to be noticing,” said Horace in a voice that was now more thoughtful than emotional. “And thank God for that. Who knows, maybe some good will come from it. But please . . . and Zach this isn’t directed against you . . . but please, please, no more expressions of shock; no more pretense that this is somehow something new, something unexpected, something outside of the nation’s normal character. I’m sorry if people don’t want to face up to it, really I am, but folks this is America, maybe not the America of the patriotic songs, certainly not the America it should and could be, but it’s the America we have. Or at least, it’s the only America that millions of poor people of all races have ever known. And if you don’t like that . . . and I pray to God that you don’t, then change it. For the sake of all of the Andrews, and, yes, all of the Daniels too, change it and build the sort of nation America was born to be. Make the dream be true. For the love of God, make the dream be true.”
I hope you won’t think me too unenlightened, but the truth is that poetry rarely speaks to me anymore. I am much more likely to spend what little leisure time I have to myself surfing the net, reading some historical biography or vegging out in front of the tube. The likes of Frost, Dickinson, Whitman and Longfellow today only very rarely journey across the synapses buried under my skull.
But there are times when only poetry will do.
And as I tidied up the café after closing, somewhere in the dustiest portion of my generally dust consumed recollections of my studies in college, a memory started to stir; the memory of a poem, a poem whose title, it then occurred to me, had been used for a time by the Kerry-Edwards campaign — the perfect poem for the evening.
It was this:
Let America Be America Again (1938), Langston Hughes:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at [email protected].
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001