Barbara: 'Victims poor anyway'
Barbara Bush, the former first lady, courted controversy by pointing out that many of the people forced out of their homes by Hurricane Katrina "were underprivileged anyway". Mrs Bush, who joined her husband, George, on a tour of the Houston Astrodome, said: "And so many of the people in the arena here were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them. What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality."
Wow. I mean, really. Wow. For a minute there, I thought I'd actually never seen that level of painfully stupid ignorance. But after a minute, it picked the scab off of some old memories. Once, a long time ago, I actually ran into that level of cluelessness.
It was back in the early nineties. David Dinkins was the major in New York, and I had a summer internship at the Mayor's Action Center, where I worked on a consituent complaints hotline. It was kind of fun. We had a primitive call-routing voicemail system - "Push one for welfare issues, push two for parking violations" type thing. I was usually on button six - "For all other complaints". Some of the issues were legitimate. Others involved reassuring people that we had nothing to do with the CIA and their mind rays.
About this time, someone on the mayor's staff came up with the idea of having "City Hall in the Boroughs" weeks. The principle was that the city was big, and it would look good if the mayor went out and worked in the parts of the city that weren't Manhattan. For "Mayor in Staten Island Week", things got interesting. The Staten Island Borough President and the Mayor were not on good terms, so when we went to Borough Hall, we didn't get good quarters. My unit - me, another guy, our boss, and sometimes his boss were all quartered in a large janitorial closet. I'm serious. There was even a slop sink in there - smelled like it hadn't been cleaned for the better part of a decade.
Anyway, I'm working the special hotline that we've got set up. It wasn't well publicized, so there wasn't too much work for most of the first day. About one, the phone rang, and I picked up. On the other end, there was an older lady who absolutely needed to get the mayor to pay attention to an absolutely critical problem.
Apparently, a change in the landing pattern for Newark had resulted in flights over her house, and a lot of noise. What, exactly, the mayor was supposed to do about it I'm still not sure. We might have been a big city, but we didn't pack a hell of a lot of clout with the FAA. I start to tune the woman out a bit, pick up a pencil, and get back to the Times crossword puzzle while she's talking. Then, a phrase snuck in my ear and grabbed my attention:
"And do you know that we have black people on Staten Island, too?"
The pencil broke. The other call center guy, Allen, picked up the other phone, covered the handset, and started to listen in. My boss joined him. Just then, his boss and the first deputy mayor arrived, saw the huddle, and leaned over to listen in, too. I did my best to maintain a level tone.
"We are aware of that, ma'am."
"And, young man, did you know that lots of them are poor?"
I'm practically chewing a hole in my lip this time trying to keep a straight face. "I think I've read something on that, yes."
"And all those poor folks have it so, so much worse than we do."
I relaxed for a second. Maybe she wasn't as completely out to lunch as I had been thinking. "Is that right, ma'am?"
"Yes it is, young man. You should be able to figure that out for yourself. After all, with all of those tall buildings where they live, the airplane noise reverberates and it's much louder than it is here."
Nope. I was right the first time. Totally out to lunch. Allen and my boss are trying to keep their hysterical laughter inaudible over the phone line, Michael and the Deputy are singing "New York, New York" complete with can-can kicks, and I'm trying to figure out if I can drown myself in the slop sink. The old lady goes on for another fifteen minutes, and I get stuck trying to get some pro forma answers out of the FAA. No good deed goes unpunished.
The whole incident seems kind of funny now, but when I look at it in light of Mrs. Bush's remarks, it also seems to be sad and a little scary. The disconnect between social groups in this country has grown so large that it seems like some people are simply unable to comprehend the difficulties that others are faced with on a daily basis. The people who live in the Stapleton Homes and other public housing projects have a huge number of concerns. Airplane noise simply doesn't make it past the first cut. But at the same time, home is home, and losing it is not easy. Nor does finding a nice, comfortable homeless shelter make up for the trauma of having suddenly become homeless, no matter how poor you are.
This is yet another weakness in our society that Katrina has illustrated for us. We have become so divided by background and class that there is a lack of comprehension about what the real problems are that people face.