FAR FROM EQUAL

Unequal Terms

Did you know today is Blog Action Day? Join bloggers from around the world and write a post about what inequality means to you. Have you ever encountered it in your daily life?


While I was growing up, mostly in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I knew there was plenty of inequality to go around. Whether you were non-white or non-Christian … or female … there was plenty of prejudice and bigotry to give everyone a healthy dose.

Although it was no longer fashionable to be (at least in New York) a blatant bigot, it didn’t eliminate bigotry itself. Many of us felt the effects. It was subtle, always leaving a question mark. What had really happened? If you were a member of any group that suffered from social and workplace intolerance, you had to tweeze apart encounters to make sense of them.

There was what had been said aloud. Then, there were the innuendos and attitudes that left you trying to figure out if it was personal … or something else.

I remember talking with my mother about this following an unsuccessful job interview where I had gotten the distinct impression the real issue was not my education or experience, but my plumbing. Or maybe it was the hook in my nose. Or both. What did she think?

96-Mom-May1944“When I started working,” she said, “I was only 14 … so I guess that was 1924? I didn’t look particularly Jewish. Blond hair, green eyes. But in those days, they didn’t have to guess. They just asked. It was legal to ask about religion and race.

“They gave me a form to fill out. I filled it in. Name, age, address, school. Where I had worked before. Then they asked for my religion. I wrote Jewish, then handed back the form.”

“That was legal?” I asked. It seemed incredible to me that this had gone on, but of course I was naïve and young. I would grow more cynical as years went on. “And then what happened?”

“He looked over the form,” continued my mother. “Then he mumbled Jewish. He took the paper, tore it up, and threw it in the trash. Right in front of me. At that point, I decided I would write “Protestant” when ever I was asked. No one was ever going to do that to me again.”

Things have gotten better, at least on the surface. Prospective employers can’t ask about your race, religion, or suggest that being a parent would make you unsuitable for the job. But whether or not they ask, people get fired (or not hired) every day for having children. For being the wrong sex, wrong color, wrong faith … wrong being whatever the person doing the hiring deems it to be. You can make prejudice, race hatred, and gender bias less visible, but you can’t make people be genuinely unprejudiced or fair.

Inequality is every time a woman gets paid less than the guy next to her for doing the same — or more — work. When the white kids applications rise to the top of the pile and those of the non-white applicants somehow remain on the bottom. When anything but who you are, what you know, what you can do are the issue in the workplace or in our culture. That’s inequality or worse.

You can rail about “political correctness” and how it’s being overdone, but I disagree. It’s bad enough so many people have to suffer the indignities of bigotry in this world. The least we can do for them is make it illegal to shove it in their faces and down their throats.

Like that guy did to my mother so long ago.

KILLING TRAVEL NOSTALGIA

I’ve read a lot of posts that wax nostalgic about the old days, of trips down country roads at a slower pace. Driving through little towns. Past farms, fields, woods, and streams. No super highways with their sterile rest stops and fast food outlets. Driving through the real America.

Leaving Jackman, Maine on Route 201

Leaving Jackman, Maine on Route 201

Those were the days, we say. The good old days which we remember from the back seat. Where we were pinching and pummeling our siblings while nagging our parents to stop for ice cream. Or asking the deathless question: “Are we there yet?”

Everyone who ever waxed poetic about the good old days of travel should take the drive from Jackman, Maine to Danville, Vermont.

It’s 231 miles from Jackman to Danville unless you travel through Canada, which we did not want to do. Just going through the customs checkpoints would have added hours to the journey. Unless you go through Canada, there’s only one route. Take 201 from Jackman to Skowhegan. Hook a right on route 2. Drive. Keep driving. Behind pickup trucks and aging SUVs veering erratically while never exceeding 28 miles per hour … the exact point at which the car changes gears. The engine lugging relentlessly as it tries to find the spot.

There is food to eat and gasoline to be pumped as you pass through all those little towns. There’s always someplace selling pizza, baked goods, sandwiches, and cold drinks. Usually a toilet, too. You will get a chance to visit every little town in the mountains between Maine and Vermont. I found myself staring at the map, hoping a faster road would magically appear.

Talk about ambivalence. It’s the middle of October. The trees look as if they are lit from within. The mountains are covered in Technicolor autumnal glory. It is so magnificent it doesn’t look real. Combine that with an overwhelming urge to find a high-powered weapon and blow one of those pokey drivers to kingdom come.

Route 2 through the mountains, heading west

Route 2 through the mountains, heading west

“Wow,” I say, “That’s incredibly beautiful” as we loop around an especially breathtaking curve in the road. I’m trying to control my peevish aggravation with the current slow driver riding his brakes in front of us. It’s as if they wait for us. As we are about to pass, they pull out in front of us and slow to a crawl. The beauty of the mountains, lakes, streams, trees, sky, clouds, villages, farms, towns morph into a seamless continuity as we endlessly follow bad drivers whose feet never leave the brake pedals.

It’s nearly a religious experience. Aggravation wars with appreciation for nature — and a passionate need to get where we are going before nightfall. Garry is exhausted, irritable, frustrated. I’m empathizing with Garry to the point of offering to drive. Whoa! It took most of a day to make the trip. A crow could have done it in an hour and a bit, but we don’t fly. We crawled through Maine, crept through New Hampshire, limped into Vermont. Maine is a large state.

Our most startling moment was looking up and seeing a sign — a huge, brightly painted sign — that said: “WELCOME TO MEXICO.” Mexico, Maine. There were no Mexican restaurants, or at least none we could find. Lots of Chinese, though. After we drove out of Mexico, we came upon another huge, bright sign. “WELCOME TO MEXICO,” it said.

“Didn’t we just leave Mexico?”

“Maybe,” says Garry, “this is the village and that was the town?”

“Or something.”

“Or something.” I wondered where the rest of North America had gone. Never mind. It was time to face the inevitable. Garry and I had to fill the gas tank. Ourselves. Without help. Oy.

Me, Garry, the road and an atlas

Me, Garry, the road and an atlas

Back home — a town which had seemed rural and quaint, but now seemed sophisticated and metropolitan — the stations provide service. This was not the case in wherever we were in very rural New England. Together, Garry and I pondered the problem. We had to remove the gas cap, which was stuck. Garry looked at me. He was doing the driving, so it fell to me to deal with the gas cap.

I pressed. Twisted. It was the child-proof lid from Hell. Eventually, it came off. Whooping in triumph, I fed our bank card into the pump’s reader and selected the grade of gasoline. Garry, feeling his moment had come, removed the pump from its hook, stuck it in the hole and pressed. Gasoline started feeding into the tank. When it snapped loose, Garry looked at me.

“Does this mean it’s full?”

“Yes,” I exalted. “We did it. We put gas in our  car!”

We gave each other a high-five and continued our journey.  We have developed a deep appreciation for the interstate highway system. And lost every trace of nostalgia for the old days of travel.


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