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What is equal?

April 20, 2006

I wrote this earlier in the week while Paul was in the hospital
recovering from his complicated appendectomy.  I’d been reading a
lot of non-fiction from my favorite magazine (The Sun)
while I kept Paul company, so I felt inspired to write some of my
own.  This was supposed to turn into a longer essay on the topic
of emotional equality, but, well, like much of my writing, it suffered
the consequences of my short attention span.

   “Welcome Home, Hon.”  I glance at the
construction-paper letters taped across the front and side walls of my
apartment as I drop my mail onto the kitchen table.  Sighing, I
reach into the refrigerator for my half-empty carton of skim
milk.  When will those letters greet the person they’re intended
for? I wonder silently as I sip my milk.  When will the surgeons,
the bacteria, the swelling release my fiancé from his (and my)
overspent week at the hospital?
    Riding the 34 trolley home that evening, I’d watched
from the window as college students prepared their porches for their
Friday night cookouts and beer drinking.  Friday night?  Oh,
yeah: the healthy and well-off of the city would be unwinding and
enjoying life on this beautiful spring evening.  On an average
week, I would be among them, perhaps strolling down Baltimore Avenue at
just this moment, heading towards Clark Park or the Green Line Café;
but tonight, as on every other night for the past seven days, I’m
heading home for a brief interlude before returning to the hospital to
spend my evening comforting Paul.
    As I’d sat on the trolley, I noticed the black woman
sitting in front of me looking out the window, too.  I’d wondered
what she was thinking to herself as she watched Philadelphia’s
up-and-coming generation preparing for their relaxing evening.  I
imagined her feeling much like I felt: partly righteous, partly weary,
partly envious.  Who were those kids to be flaunting their good
fortune in front of the eyes of those who haven’t such fortune? 
Why couldn’t I be looking forward to similar circumstances?  
    In assuming we might be thinking the same thoughts,
I was stereotyping the woman.  Perhaps she wasn’t heading further
up the line as I imagined, heading deeper into West Philadelphia and
its misfortunes; perhaps she was getting off at 47th Street to walk to
one of the nice, large homes in Spruce Hill instead. 
Perhaps.  But statistics would support my hunch.  She, like
most of 34’s black riders, was likely heading home to a rougher
neighborhood and a lower-quality house.  She’d probably worked a
long, draining week and would be turning around to repeat it again next
week, if not tomorrow.
    I felt a connection with this woman, a sense of
shared tiredness and longing.  I felt the same way with the
wearied faces I’d come across on the subway, the street, and in the
fast-food stores where I bought Paul’s comfort food during the
week.  I felt I had a right, due to my fiance’s circumstances, to
not be a cheerful and smiling customer; I felt I had a right to be the
one hurrying, the one cutting in and out of traffic on my bike or in my
car or pushing ahead to get on the trolley; I felt justified in
scowling at the expensively dressed executives and government officials
strolling around City Hall on their lunch breaks, chatting on their
cell phones or telling their colleagues how they’d be spending Easter
weekends.
    I felt I had a right, but did I?  Could one
week of worry, stress, and insufficient sleep possibly compare to a
lifetime of it?  Could I possibly feel the same way as the woman
on the trolley–assuming she lived the difficult life I imagined she
lived–felt on her way home from yet another in a series of overworked
and underpaid weeks?  
    I ponder this question when I have bad days,
wondering whether a single shitty day or painful experience can enable
me to empathize with someone whose days are mostly shitty and whose
experiences are mostly painful.  I wonder whether I ever have the
right to look at my milk carton as half empty as opposed to half full,
to be anything other than optimistic and hopeful about my life.  I
wonder, what can I consider an equalizing experience?

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