Originally published in 2007 after returning from my project in Palestine.
“I’m already going to hell, so it don’t matter anyway!” yelled my shuttle driver as he argued with a man who was blocking his parking space.
God bless America.
The sights and sounds of Times Square filled my senses and reminded me that I’m home. Colorful billboards cluttered the sky, horns blared in rush hour traffic, advertisement for adult theaters and the smell of hot dog venders overwhelmed me as I realized there’s nothing quite like America.
The sounds of my driver and his nemesis engaged in the art of road rage, physically standing outside their vehicles yelling at one another was simply music to my ears. The driver glanced at me and I saw the look of confusion as he looked at the eagerness with which I watched this scene and the smile on my face. Anger at fellow drivers is universal, only I can not understand the comments when I’m with Arabic drivers.
We drove off and upon learning I was from the south, my van driver told me of his last visit to South Carolina.
“I didn’t want his money, only a little time.” The driver stated he just wanted a little acknowledgment of his existence from his father. A lifetime devoid of birthday cards and Christmas gifts was written on his face. “I guess he was just a sperm donor,” said the driver. “Here’s Penn Station.”
With six hours to burn until my train for North Carolina left the station, I set out into the neon saturated night to find some American cuisine. I stumbled onto a coffee shop and diner not far from the station and settled in for a meal and a little people watching.
“I need a minute,” yelled a tiny old woman occupying the booth behind me. “Waitress, I’m ready,” she shouted thirty seconds later, loud enough for everyone within a one mile radius to hear. She took a long time placing her order, with special menu requests and triple checking with the waitress to make sure she took down her order properly.
After her meal was finished, she asked the women at the table next to her what time it was, but they didn’t speak English.
“You don’t speak English?” she looked at the pair with despair and incomprehension. “Pity!” she claimed, shaking her head as she turned to me and asked for the time. I replied and she said, “Oh, that’s my father’s birthday. When’s your birthday? Mine’s in October.”
She muttered some more phrases to herself and shuffled out into the night wearing her pajamas and clutching her bag of food from the restaurant. She stood on the sidewalk, unsure of where to go, and shuffled back and forth for several minutes. She then walked out into the street and dodged the cars to cross to the other side.
Was she someone’s mother? Was someone waiting for her at home besides some fish or a house cat? Did she even have a home?
I returned to Penn Station to wait for the 3 am train to take me home. Most people would not consider an overnight stay in Penn Station to be desirable or even an option, but what better way to reenter your homeland than at its most raw and inhibited. Riding an Amtrak gives such an insight into so many aspects of American society and the variety of cultural differences; each station has a subculture, each train has a hierarchy of social status and functionality and each town that you travel through is so diverse. The view from the window shows you a tiny peak into other people’s lives; into their backyards, into their main streets and into their skid rows.
As a whole, Penn Station is quite safe with a strong police and National Guard presence and the seated area is regulated for ticket holders only, so sleeping on your bags is not an unsafe option. The only interesting times are when nature calls and you must venture into the dark realm of the public bathroom.
“Maybe she don’t have no family. Maybe no one wants her. I’m here now ‘cause I can’t get along with my family. But I won’t be here for long,” a young black woman dressed in a lace, see-through nightgown talks to the white woman cleaning the bathroom.
Another voice bellowed from the stall beside me. “I need toilet paper!” the anonymous voice screams. She then embarked on a tirade of garbled words in a language I’ve never heard before; some odd mixture of English, German and guttural noises.
As I exited the bathroom, I saw a group of young gangster teens playing games with a cop who pulled out his taser-stick device and began to run after the misbehaving youth. After boarding the train, I finally received a small gift from the travel gods, my own two seats with enough space to curl into a ball and get some real, horizontal sleep. Heaven
After arriving in Union Station for a three hour layover, I decided to take a stroll around the train station. I walked to the front of the building and see the Capital in the distance. I notice a protester holding a sign and passing out literature. ‘Its not Iraq, Bush let’s the CIA run the world!’
It is so nice to be home.
In front of Union Station, a large statue was erected in honor of Christopher Columbus. Though it never ceases to amaze me that in America we honor a man who committed such a mass and brutal genocide, I can not help but notice the irony that this particular statue is the temporary home to some of DC’s homeless people. A man stared at me with a vacant look and lit a cigarette and I see a multitude of people huddled under blankets strewn about on the statue.
In that moment, the profound sadness I felt upon returning to America begins to take form. In the Middle East, the people take care of their families, no matter how crazy they may be, and people are not allowed to fall into the personal despair that exists in the US. I look at people now and see a deep embedded sadness that lies on the surface of most of the faces I see. This sadness is not mine personally, I am quite happy to be returning to my home and my life, but the sadness is deeper, embedded within the fabric of the society in which I live.
People rushing to jobs that fill their lives with stress and remove them from their families, people that are completely alone in the world and living on the streets, sleeping in train stations, on street corners and on cold marble benches out in the night. So many people engaged in so much pain.
Americans have the ultimate gift, the thing that every Palestinian and oppressed person in the world longs for– freedom. And what do we do with our freedom? Maybe that’s part of the sadness. So much of our freedom is wasted. And I wonder just how wealthy we are as a nation when we let our children starve in the streets and our fathers and mothers wander the bus stations alone. How free are we when a grown man comes to the realization that his estranged father is nothing more than a “sperm donor.”
In a place with so much oppression and pain, Palestine had a richness that is difficult to find in America. Their greatest wealth is their families and their proximity to and relationship with these family members. Palestinian families, Muslim families in general, are large and close and everyone lives in the same apartment complex or on the same street. They all help to raise one another’s children. Brothers and cousins become one, sisters and mothers become one and fathers pass their legacies and their skill onto their sons.
We lack that in America. We go far from our families, choose to disown family members and even turn our backs on our families as conflicts and disagreements arise. This makes us a poor nation. This leaves our fathers on the streets, leads our sons into gangs, causes young teen girls to seek acceptance by becoming young mothers, it leaves our grandparents to die alone in nursing homes and leaves our cousins to wander the alleys looking to turn tricks for food. This poverty of family and belonging leads us, as a whole, to a profound sadness. It is despair we may not see everyday, in fact, many of us are insulated from this sadness. Some of us seek to embrace the sadness and work to bring hope to that one person’s life. But there is a cloud of palpable sadness that permeates the corners of our cities and the streets of our towns.
And it is a sadness that should not exist. For in the eyes of a Palestinian we have the ultimate gift; the one thing they know they will never possess and will go to their grave having never known what it tastes like, what it smells like, what it means to just leave—we have freedom.
How we use this gift– that so many have died to preserve—should be a reflection of our society; should be a reflection of our knowledge, our wealth and our abilities as a nation to embrace our gift and remove the elements of sadness from our society and others throughout the world. And how we, as individuals, use our freedoms should be a reflection of our engagement with the world and our desires to help those within this world, our cousins, our parents, our children– even strangers walking down the street in need of coffee and someone to share it with.