Personal reparations

A post from my wife, Jane Brown

She calls me her “angel,” “Mom,” or “my only friend.” I’ve asked her not to. Sometimes I’m flattered, happy to be an angel for someone. Other times I feel like it’s just part of the con – a way to get to me, a way to get the money she always so desperately needs.

I first met Mary when she was a housekeeper on campus, responsible for part of the building I worked in. She stayed late one morning to apologize for dropping my wooden horse statue out the window. She said she had opened the window to let some air in and accidentally brushed the horse out the window. It splintered on the bricks below.

I appreciated her apology. She didn’t have to own up to that. We learned each other’s names. She had a big smile and a happy sense to her even though I wondered how she made ends meet. The housekeepers had been in a fight for a living wage for years. Mary was just happy to have a job.

The next time I saw her she wanted to show me handbags she was selling. She thought my daughter would like to have one. She was so enthusiastic that I bought one, thinking my daughter would be thrilled. But she immediately saw that the bag was a fake Coach, that the stitching was wrong, and the interior lining was a cheaper material than a real Coach bag. Mary returned a couple of times with more bags, and admitted they weren’t original Coach bags, but why did that matter? They looked just as good and were certainly a lot less expensive. I thought she had a point.

Then one morning I discovered someone new emptying my wastebasket and learned that Mary had been fired for anger management issues. A mutual friend who went to the same church as Mary, said Mary had told off her supervisor one too many times. She warned me to stay away from Mary because she was always getting in trouble. In retrospect, I think some of the warning was because the mutual friend had also asked me for money and didn’t want Mary competing with her.

Over the years I have given money to both women when they’ve asked. It is always a story of immediate need – tires for the car or I can’t get to work; rent money or they will put a lock on my door; grocery money cause I don’t get paid till the end of next week. I ended up paying most of the tuition for the mutual friend’s son to go to college. That felt like a more reasonable thing to do, it was about the future.

I’m retired now, but Mary won’t stop calling. I don’t know how to extricate myself.

I’ve blocked her number. I’ve told her I can’t be her only friend. I don’t answer her phone calls, even though she’s left urgent messages every five minutes for two hours.

And then I relent. She unloads a torrent of woe. I believe her. I have seen her rent-subsidized apartment. It is clean and tidy, the furniture that’s too big for the tiny living room and the bed that takes up the whole bedroom is from when she was married. She says that’s all she got a decade ago when she discovered her husband was sleeping with another woman. She is glad she never had children because she is afraid she wouldn’t be able to take care of them just like her mother wasn’t able to take care of her. “One too many,” her mother has said of Mary.

Mary could be Exhibit A for all that is wrong with our system that keeps the poor poor and the rich rich. No one in her family has anything, so she cannot turn to them. She has not inherited anything from an old uncle or grandparent and never will. She works two jobs five days a week, at least when school is in session, but neither gives her enough weekly hours to provide any benefits.

She makes just enough to not be eligible for Medicaid in NC where we didn’t expand the eligibility requirements, so she and half a million other working poor people have no health insurance. Now she has bone spurs in her heels and needs treatment that will cost at least $2,000, and two months recovery. Bone spurs. The irony is breathtaking.

It’s classic Catch-22, she can’t work without the treatment because she has to stand up to work, but she can’t afford the treatment without working. Even if she had the money for the treatment, she won’t be able to work for two months. If she doesn’t pay her rent on time, they will padlock her apartment door. If she’s five days late, they make her pay a late fee and if she’s later than that she has to pay court costs to stop eviction.

Mary has no bank account … and can’t have one with the employee-friendly credit union because she didn’t finish paying off a car loan she had with them. So she has to cash the check I send her at a check-cashing service that charges $20-$30 every time.

And then there’s transportation. She tried taking the city bus but it took at least an hour and two transfers to get to her first job, and another hour to get back in time for her second job. So we bought her a car for $1,500 that had a cracked windshield and looked like it had been lived in. It had to have new tires to pass inspection. Two months later the car died and she abandoned it on a back road. She did get someone to buy the tires.

The next time we insisted she get someone who knew something about used cars to help her buy a reliable car. She loves her 20-year old white Honda with 150,000 miles on it. But who is going to pay for the insurance? And now someone has stolen the license plates.

I don’t know what the answer is. I know she knows about and uses all the social services available to her. She wants to “get ahead,” to not have to call me with some new crisis every week. She’d like to just be my friend. There have been times when the finances were working and she’d text me to just say hello with no request for money. She bought a bouquet of roses for my birthday but I was upset with her for asking me for gas money one too many times and spending anything on me. But her instinct is right that a friendship is more reciprocal than what we have.

We have given money to other folks we know who don’t have families to ask, but in each case we knew them in other ways (nanny, student, tour guide) before we helped them. We know they ask only in the direst of circumstances. We know their children, their good news as well as their bad.

Some days I think of this as personal reparations. That I am a privileged wealthy white person who has had all the advantages of family and system that is set up to reward those who can take advantage of education, mobility, and contacts. That we should be helping those who have not had those advantages for generations, that have been faced with racist obstacle after obstacle, even when they are working their hardest.

But, I’m afraid of being pulled under by this drowning woman. I can’t be the one who takes care of her when she is finally thrown out of her apartment, when she is too incapacitated to work a low wage job, when this car breaks down. I walk a precipice of being glad I can help her, but angry about needing to.

I don’t know a way out. I confessed all this recently to a new friend, a professor who heads a center on poverty and social justice. She said she didn’t know how I can disentangle. But what she and her family and students focus on is changing the system that perpetuates such inequities. When she was going to school in New York she realized that giving a couple of dollars to a homeless person did little but help her feel good about herself as a generous person. In the long run, though, the donation should be to the organizations that are working on the root causes of homelessness – access to affordable housing, health care, public transportation, education, jobs with benefits.

We make those donations, too. But in the short run, what happens to Mary if we abandon her? We might hope the system changes fast enough for her, or that she’ll find another angel, but isn’t it more likely she will finally be pulled under by a system that doesn’t really care if she survives? How will we feel then? We probably wouldn’t even know.



It's real easy to say

"you have to draw the line," or toss around phrases like "tough love." But if Jane wasn't a deeply empathic person already, this relationship wouldn't have even started, much less continued. When (or if) you go against your nature in order to solve a problem, it can end up causing just as much grief as the problem solved.

That's probably not helpful at all, but maybe writing it out as she did will be.