There are people who grow up believing the world to be a fair and just place. Bad guys will eventually get what’s coming to them. Good guys win in the end. If someone is doing wrong in your neighborhood, the good guys can be called, and the bad guys will be taken care of accordingly. We are a democracy, we are told. Justice will always win in the end.
For some people, this kind of life exists for them. They grew up in the right neighborhoods, went to the right schools, came from the right families. They got into the college of their choice, or maybe their second choice, but that wasn’t so bad. They got that job they were counting on, maybe their father called in a favor to an old colleague. Maybe that summer internship paid of in the end. Perhaps that letter from their professor helped open the door.
For many of us, we know that life isn’t always fair, in fact, it seems that rarely is it ever. We grow up in poor neighborhoods. Our clothes always seem to be a bit small, no matter how we try to hide it. We are picked on in school, and no one ever seems to come to our defense. There is violence in our school, our neighborhood, sometimes even in our homes. Sometimes we hide beneath dusty beds or in musty closets to get away from it. We have parents who both need to work to make ends meet. We sometimes go to school hungry, and sit in the corner, trying to not show our hunger as the other kids go on eating their lunches. Our schools lack funds for enrichment classes, art classes, music classes. P.E. classes, once a daily staple, have become a one day a week event. Kids aren’t allowed to play tag, for fear that someone might fall and get hurt, and in our sue happy society, their parents might sue the school for damages. Instead of being urged to develop our critical thinking, and use our imaginations, we are fed a constant barrage of information that we must retain, so that we can pass The Test. Because if we don’t do well on The Test, the school loses money, and another teacher might lose her job. If we fall behind, there is no reviewing information, for we must stick to the carefully laid out plans for the testing, always forward to the next subject. Sometimes our teacher has to spend a lot of time with the kid with the learning disability who has trouble keeping up, because the school budget doesn’t allow for a teacher’s aide any longer. We managed to make it home somehow avoiding the bully who stalks us after school. College? Just to make it through to high school graduation is an accomplishment where we come from.
We are then thrown into real life, where supporting one’s self is a challenge that’s even more dire. There was a time when high schools offered shop classes and hands on skills, where you could learn a skill that could be utilized in the labor market. You could go and become a mechanic, and make a decent living at the local garage, forever having a dull dirt beneath your fingernails from the endless hours beneath a car hood. You could work in a fabrication shop, working with tools. Now, jobs are hard to find, even with a college degree. In fact, many kids coming out of college are not only horribly in debt, but the job market seems to offer them jobs they could have gotten right out of high school. Many jobs they are deemed overqualified.
We look around, and see our neighborhoods suffering. Shops closed down for business. Houses that were foreclosed on, standing empty, landscaping that was once plush and proud, left overgrown, grass dead and brown. Roads need repairing, but there’s no money for fixing them, not in this economy, we are told. A giant superstore comes into town, with prices fixed so low, all the other shops in town, small businesses owned by locals in the community for years, are forced to close down, unable to keep up with the competition. The large supermarket union job, that guaranteed a living wage and a valuable benefits package, becomes a thing of the past as all the residents in the community choose instead to stretch their dollars at the giant superstore. The once living wage, 40 hour workweek is reduced to minimum wage, minimum hours, and the only benefits package is in the employee area, where the managers at the giant superstore advise you on how to apply for food stamps, because you don’t make enough money to feed your family. Factories closed down, because the corporation realized it’s better for their bottom line to run a slave labor factory in Bangladesh and pay a 10 year old girl twelve cents an hour instead of what the labor market demands of them in the U.S. So what if that child dies in a fire, or a building collapse, or a vicious gang rape. There’s another bus load of little brown kids ready to take her place in no time.
We sit and watch our wages become smaller and smaller while the cost of our basic needs goes higher and higher. The big bosses decide it’s in their best interest to make the job of two or three people into one job, so you are stretched to your limit to do the work of two or sometimes three people, but you are never paid more for your work. You pray you don’t get sick, or your child does not become sick, for a sick day could mean not being able to have enough money for your rent and basic bills. You have to work 2 jobs to meet the demands of having a roof over your head. You live one paycheck away from sleeping on the street.
You are told by the big energy company, here you go, here’s tens of thousands of dollars, we’re gonna do a bit of drilling over here in the corner of your property, don’t mind us. You are safe from any harm. Oh, they would never let anything bad happen to us, your neighbor says, as he shows you his contract. Who can resist, you think, as you sign your name on the dotted line. I can put some money away now. I can have some breathing room.
The next thing you know, here comes the trucks, in an endless parade, with the drills, and chemicals, and God knows what else they’ve got. Smelly clouds surround your home, so awful that you keep your kids inside on what used to be a nice sunny day. You go to get water one day, and realize, it’s a brown, smelly mess that runs out of your faucet. You go to your local government agency, and demand some answers. You show them your water. You notice that your cat is losing his hair. The neighbor down the street says her cows are sick. You are told by the state officials, there’s nothing wrong with your water, go ahead and drink it. You cannot believe they are telling this to you with a straight look on their face. You demand that the friendly guy from the big energy company do something about it. They say, with that same straight face, it’s not our faults. Your sick child and your sick animals and your wife’s miscarriage has nothing to do with the drilling taking place 200 feet from your home. By the way, remember that paperwork you signed? That means you can’t tell anyone about any of this.
Suddenly, you’re not in your country any longer. Your land, your family, your children, your pets, your community, all you hold dear, are suffering, and there seems to be nothing you can do about it. You go to the place that’s supposed to protect you, supposed to care about the well being and safety of the community, and they seem to laugh in your face and say, sorry, buddy, can’t help you here. If you don’t like it, move.
Move where, you think, as you look around at the ravaged wasteland that was once your community, was once rolling green hills, dotted with ponds and lakes and rivers bursting with fish and frogs and kids, now some mysterious, unnatural color, filled with fumes so toxic you have to wear a mask to go anywhere near it. I grew up here, you think, as you survey the destruction with a tear in your eye and a lump in your throat. I swam in that lake. I fished in that pond. I grew up in this house. Where am I supposed to go?
Meanwhile, we are told, we need to fix the budget. We need to pay off the deficit. We need to take your Social Security to do it. We need to close your local health clinic. We need to close your child’s Head Start program. We need to stop the Meals on Wheels that feeds your invalid uncle in the next county over, because the government just can’t afford it. We must all make a sacrifice.
We are told, those big bankers on Wall Street have saved us from the big collapse that could have wrecked the economy. We are told, we’re just not bright enough to understand it all, even though, common sense would tell anyone that it makes no sense to pay the very ones who almost broke the economy in the first place millions of dollars in bonuses as reward money for what they’ve done. No one is putting money back into your pension, though. I didn’t do a damned thing, you think with bitterness, and they took half of my pension, and yet those guys get bonuses?
You watch in horror at the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, you say a silent prayer to those poor people who must be suffering. You are surprised to see, within days, the lights of the large Goldman Sachs building lit up like a Christmas tree, surrounded by the dark buildings all around it, dark and cold, and full of frightened, hungry people, and no FEMA to help them out.
You watch the horror stories of the families of small children, gunned down by another crazed maniac. Even though you are a gun owner, you feel it’s the duty of the country to restrict gun sales. Who wants some crazy guy getting out of jail, or a mental institution, to be able to show up at a gun show and buy an AK-47 without a back round check? You keep your gun under lock and key, in a safe place, and are careful any time you take it out and go down to the local shooting range. You watch stunned as, even though you know 90% of your fellow citizens agree to the simple idea that a dangerous weapon should not be sold to just anyone on the street, that any law abiding citizen should care about a gun being sold to the proper law abiding citizen, you cannot fathom how the legislation just got voted down. Shame on them, you mutter to yourself. Those poor little kids. Every day, another child is dead, at the hands of some irresponsible gun owner who looks upon these weapons as toys for kids to play with. Might as well give those kids keys to the car and let them drive on down to the local Toys R Us.
You hear on the news, another big company that didn’t pay one dime in taxes. How ‘bout them Apples? You start to see, the system is rigged, and it’s not in your favor. The country is one big Vegas scam, and they’ve got you betting the whole house, while they’re the ones that tweeked the slot machines, they’ve been counting cards, they’ve been hiding the secret switch beneath the felt covered tables. They’re not gonna stop until they’ve taken the last of your security, drilled and sucked every drop of fluid and gas from the land, poisoned every body of water, and leveled every mountaintop. The once majestic land of your youth has been sold off to the highest bidder, and you wonder who it is that gave them the right to do so. The big Wall Street banksters continue their fraud with no repercussions, no regulations, no retributions, and no shame. Large corporations continue oppressing third worlds for their big profits, while stashing their trillions in foreign banks in perfectly legal loopholes that they bought and paid for with their well funded ALEC legislation.
We read the recent news, another terrorist attack. More dead. More fear spills through the airwaves. We learn, somehow, that the freedoms we once held dear are a thing of the past. How is it that for reasons we are given, of safety and security, our homes can be searched without warrants? We can be arrested without being charged of a crime? We can be locked up indefinitely, we can be tortured, we can even be killed by our leaders, if we are suspected of a crime? What happened to our Bill of Rights? What happened to Habeas Corpus? What happened to freedom and democracy?
And we sit, in our aging homes, our struggling communities, our battered cities, holding our fist full of broken dreams, and wonder, what the hell happened to America?