The civic duty of every citizen, I have decided, is to kill three hours a year re-certifying or signing off on some new regulation or another. This is how I spent my Monday morning. The service center is located in a part of town that went from wealth to dire poverty and back. Now it is home to loft apartments and trendy coffee shops. Streets are regularly paved these days, the way only capital can.
Residents being pushed elsewhere at once wish they'd held onto properties and houses that could once be had for nearly nothing. At the back of the room, they talk about old times, the way Washington used to be. Conversations focus on soul singers and long-shuttered venues. Sooner than I might care to think, I'll be having my own conversation about the good old days when everything made sense.
The real face of poverty are a young mother and her ten-year-old daughter. Because I was the only other white face in line, she struck up a spontaneous conversation. I couldn't help but notice the way she'd treated her body over the years. Drug addiction had left her skin leathery, her facial features slightly off-center like a shattered window pane. I wanted to look away because the spectacle pained me, but wanted to be polite enough to grant friendly eye contact. My best friend growing up had an alcoholic father, and I watched the years of drinking finally catch up with him.
Mother and daughter were inseparable. They were more like sisters, a curious dynamic that could be both beneficial and harmful to the younger of the pair. They had each other and I got the feeling there were few other people in the lives of either. It was them against the world. Now they had embarked on a great adventure, driving halfway across the country to settle in Washington, DC. When asked for the reasons why, she noted with a straight face that she intended to help President Obama out with the job.
I didn't realize at first that she was actually quite serious. This was the stuff of delusions, but I hoped that it was harmless enough. I hoped she'd recognize the folly of her ways and make different plans. She was enough of a trusting soul that I could see how someone might take advantage of it. This is what concerned me most. Likely, many already had. Washington, DC, can be a very unfriendly place without a guide, and it certainly isn't Colorado Springs.
The daughter addressed me very innocently, believing that if I'd just spent the last twenty minutes talking to her mother, she could be comfortable in my company. I'm usually very uncomfortable around kids, never knowing what to say or what not to say. In a survivors' group, I remember a seventy-year-old woman talking about her own uneasy relationship with children. It was different with her own, she noted, but she was never going to volunteer to supervise or spend much time with anyone else's genetic contribution to the free world. Nods were seen in many of those sitting across the room.
When it was my time in line, the female workers behind the counter smiled at me. To them, I was fatherhood material. The news quickly spread across the center. For the rest of my three hour stay, I was treated with incredible politeness by every female worker. Children usually like me, and yet I push away from them as quickly as I can. I wondered what I truly represented to mother and child, or the women who saw me as paternal in a good way.
Lives like I have described above are not uncommon. I enjoy observing people from the other side of town, a reminder to not intellectualize who the poor and needy really are. They are a young mother and her daughter uprooting and replanting with few resources, no friends, a roof over their heads, but not much more than that. In a way, it's the immigrant experience made over again for our times. We provide a few basic services here and there, but fathers and caregivers cannot be measured in dollars and cents.