I live in a small town. Some people I see regularly, but for the most part, most people avoid each other except to exchange the random awkward greeting and give general updates on the lives of anyone other than their own. Small town America.
I rank among those residents in this quaint little village, who were not born and raised here, but I’ve shown my face enough now around the local shops that some people have learned my name and even noticed that I don’t work a traditional schedule.
Yesterday, a tightly knit gaggle of elderly women struck up a friendly conversation and mentioned that the new manager of the convenience shop down the road needed a sandwich maker who could close up after the night shift. I asked which shop. They gave me the name. And the one amongst them with white pixie cut added omniously, “It’s something to think about. I believe she’s paying $10 an hour.”
Before my brain had enough time to instruct my teeth to bite my tongue, I said, “Oh no, I’m not asking for me. There is a fifteen year-old in my home who is very eager to start work.”
At that moment, it turned into one of THOSE conversations as the women all scowled in unison. The disapproval felt interminable, finally proving that the space time continuum itself was not a thing of uniform glory, but punctuated by experiences that pass too quickly and moments that don’t end, regardless of how much you’d like them, too. Eventually, one of the ladies helpfully made quick mention of the importance of working for at least 3 to 6 months just to get started. I nodded.
“Yes, it’s hard for a person her age to get her first job,” I said. “Her father and I have suggested volunteering to get that experience.”
Most of the scowls on the old ladies’ faces remained fixed within their crape-like wrinkles. Don’t get me wrong here. I like these women, but times have changed and they haven’t. And that could be a problem. In small towns, a person’s reputation tends to begin before the individual does anything worthy of notice and it tends to outlive them through generations of random banter. These are a very bored people.
Attempting a little damage control in the conversation, I sputtered out a little information about myself, “I actually started in libraries when I was fifteen back when we sill had to type records on card catalogs. In fact,” I continued brightly, “I have a Masters of Information Studies. Now, libraries are all managed by ALS. That’s the, uh, automated library system. I supposed that’s why I made my career in libraries until I was disabled. I like technology.”
I was sunk. I never learn. Against soft bigotry, I lose every time.
Sure, I could have told them that I write books and that I paint, but that was another pothole I hoped to circumvent in order to manage the impression I presented to these virtual strangers. I’m not famous and not rich enough for most people to accept that having a creative occupation is legitimate work.
The friendliest one moved position to face me in the middle of the crowd, “I changed careers halfway through my life. First, I worked in offices, but then I went back to school and became a nurse!”
Oh, yeah. I was getting a pep talk.
Before I could dig myself into a hole deep enough for a grave and much higher than I could pull myself out from, I thanked them sweetly and made a dash for the exit.
I used to hope that New Englanders of all ages and backgrounds would stop challenging me to prove my work ethic. I wished they would quit trying to wedge unwanted assistance into my life. I fantasized about someone teaching them to access the internet and self-educate, crush the dated stereotypes they learned via television broadcasts and multi-volume encyclopedias and accept that someone who doesn’t look like or act like them may truly be an honest, responsible citizen.
I don’t have to validate my medical conditions or my invisible disability to strangers. I don’t have to carry my diplomas, passport and CV around in my pocket to prove my experience and background. I don’t have to justify my choice to work online or show anyone my bank statements and credit reports to demonstrate that I am financially fit if not famous.
One constant of human nature is that people see and hear what they want to see and hear. They see what validates their world view. They hear what makes them feel good about themselves.
You might imagine that these old ladies helped elect Donald Trump, but I can assure you that A) I know they didn’t and B) the problem in America is much deeper than superficial politics.
The US runs on a culture of manufactured superiority. Many of us still think equality means allowing people we perceive as disadvantaged to participate even when we doubt their merit and ability. Not so. Equality requires us to reward merit and ability regardless of where it originates. And um, we’re not very good at that, but that will continue to change simply because the demographics of the country will not support the skewed vision that dominated the landscape of previous generations.
I feel bad for the old ladies that will never see it happen, not because they aren’t here watching the developments unfold, but because they don’t know how to divorce the evaluation of personal merit from archaic and painfully false stereotypes even those that apply to themselves. It can’t be easy getting old.
I wish I could help them. You see, all you have to do is walk to the nearest mirror or hold up your camera and face your reflection. If you can find your self worth in there, you will never need to look outside at others and filter out the truth that we are all much more than we appear.
Of course, it takes balls to accept the good and the bad, but it’s a lot better than being bigoted and bitter.
Redo: it takes a vagina to accept the good and the bad, but it’s a lot better than being bigoted and bitter.