Snow and vacation has left me wide open. On train station platforms and in grocery lines, I’m talkative. I meet a man from Florissant in the snow of the metro stop at Lambert Airport, a woman from Atlanta in between Civic Center and Union Station after work, a woman in Schnucks, a man under the heat lamps beside the Stadium. They tell me about their flat tires, doctor’s appointments, missed trains, how they’ve encountered the world with its snow and spillage, and I tell them about slippery stairs and soul food. Without actively prompting it, conversation blurs around me, engages me, and leaves me encouraged, reaffirmed, as if all I could know of joy is contained in one feeling: connectedness.
When I leave my practicum on Thursday, it does not take long for a woman to bustle onto the metro and I clear my bag for her to sit beside me. “You’re fine,” she says and chooses the empty row behind me. “Just got done at the clinic,” she says as she sits, and we’re off, launched into stories about her nasty divorce and her 94-year-old mother who is dying of cancer. I like these chance encounters because they make nice stories. I am catching glimpses of souls in places I might not otherwise try to reach them. I’m just telling her about North Carolina, and she’s lamenting the weather when her phone rings. “Calm down, Jennifer. Calm down,” she says. “What do you mean, ‘she’s gone’?” Then she is crying and I’m watching St. Louis pass outside the window. It is overwhelming how my heart is sinking. When she finally hangs up, she touches my shoulder, and I reach back to hold her arm in return, “She’s gone,” and I already knew that her mother’s body is in Georgia, empty. I believe when people die, their spirits rush around the world one more time, kissing everything goodbye in a gust of unfelt wind, but I don’t remember that I believe this until hours later. In the moment, I’m telling her only that I am sorry and “be strong.” Would there were better words for consolation.
We get off at the same metro stop, and I’m walking her with our arms linked as she leans heavily on me. She stops me halfway up the stairs to the Delmar loop and says, “Do you have $20? I need to take the bus to Atlanta.” I feel trapped and helpless. Literally, I have nothing on me, and I am $7 from an overdraft on my bank account as I wait for my student loan to come through. No, no, no, and she’s crying — please, help me.
When I walk away from her, I am ridden with my own grief. Then, I’m angry. Why did she have to ask me for money? Why couldn’t this just be another nice story? I feel played, and I feel guilty for then thinking her entire story was a ploy. Deception aside, even if I give everyone I meet the benefit of the doubt, I want to listen and share humanity but not the real parts, not a bus ticket, not desperation. I feel my own poverty of soul more acutely than ever before. I am selfish. I walk a privileged and comfortable life, rarely exposed to true cold, despair, sadness, or hopelessness. I’m readily joyful and happy to publicize the many wonderful benefits I enjoy in life because of my privilege (a top education, ability to travel, loving family and friends, and the list goes on). No, I do not have money in my bank account at the moment but I know in a few days, a student loan will be applied and I will live comfortably until (not if) I get a job after graduation. No, I do not have money at the moment but it’s because I went to Paris and bought dinner out in New York City. I don’t have money but I have a stocked fridge, a warm house, and I could always call my father and ask him for $25 if I needed to. I am angry at the woman for making me say no when in three days, I could have said yes. I am angry because she said she needed it. I’m angry because I felt like a liar telling her I couldn’t help her. I’m angry because I wanted a nice story to walk me home, not guilt and madness over my own comfort.
I want nice stories. I do not actually want to be asked to share in her pain or her suffering. Give me something pleasant to think about, not a real window into your life. Show me just the outside. I want to laugh about a divorce or a flat tire with resilient people who have managed to survive, not meet them in their weakest moment. Selfishly, I want a superficial connectedness without actually connecting.
Earlier in the day, before a woman’s mother died, before anyone asked me for twenty dollars, the attorney in the office beside me is watching a clip of homemade child porn, and I can hear it. The child is crying. It is a standard day in the human trafficking and child exploitation wing. As I hear it and think nothing in particular about it, I am struck by what we do. How many people could watch that (I hear the attorney replay it; she has to watch it twice, today). Much less, how many people could look at these things every day for a year? a career? I am moved by our own ability to be combative and engaged in this field. If the people with strong stomachs don’t do it, who will? My first day at the U.S Attorney’s Office, my supervisor says, “I hope you have a strong stomach.” And I grin. “I do.” What is the difference, then, between the grotesque details of horrific sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and child exploitation cases and a woman crying in the metro? Why does one make me feel capable of doing something to effect change and the other leave me terrified and sad?
Perhaps it is because I am not holding anyone’s arm when I sift through papers. When I sit at my desk, I am doing my job and not being a human. I write nice stories about how I helped put a pimp in jail and not stories about how his victims still can’t sleep at night. I do not want to see people in their moment of grief because I am afraid that their ability to be vulnerable will render me sensitive to my own humanness. I am afraid it will prompt me to cry. If I let one person in, will all the walls come crumbling down? Will letting them in make it impossible to do what I do?
I am going through hundreds of pictures on a seized computer to put together exhibits for an upcoming trial and I am quickly locating pictures of one of the victims and printing them with a hurried, matter of fact manner. If I finish this before 4:30, I can go home early. Then, I open a file and it’s a picture of a woman holding a baby. It’s sepia toned and she’s wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and tossing her hair back, and the baby is crying. Half of the picture is ceiling and legs, but I’m frozen as I look at it because I see people. I do not see “evidence” or victims whose names we initial until I only remember them as the alphabet. There’s a raw spontaneity and innocence to the picture, mixed in amongst graphic pictures of exploited women. I could be looking at anyone’s family in that moment.
Everyone wants nice stories. That’s why Nicholas Kristof created a formula for writing articles to make people care: We want to “be cheered up with positive stories of success and transformation.” We want a superficial picture of what the world is really like. No one wants to feel the pain; they want to give $20 and move on. On the days we can’t give $20 and move on, we are faced with something more troubling and that is what I face today: heartbreak. I am not hopeless… just heart broken that I’ve put myself in a glass box with one round hole for me to stick my arm out and reach other people, even as I beg them not to crack the glass and come inside.