American and global citizens face seemingly irreconcilable divisions in their lives, divisions between the “haves and have-nots,” the knowledgeable and those who don’t (or are prevented from) knowing, and neighbors and strangers, to name a few. Let me describe a moment in my journey from poverty to self-sufficiency illustrating my experience with this phenomenon of two sides.
I was in front of an old, dilapidated farmhouse in rural New York State during the hot summer of 1982. In the front yard was an old, rusted-out Chevy Impala and other junk scattered across the yard. I was there to assist a local animal control officer who had tried earlier to investigate a complaint of emaciated cows but was prevented from doing so by the farmer, who brandished a shotgun and ordered the officer off his property.
Together we walked into the house. The air was thick with the stench of urine and rotting food; it filled the humid summer air like a fog. The sink overflowed with dirty dishes. Hanging from various spots on the ceiling in the kitchen were old rolls of flypaper coated with dead flies. I swatted at flies buzzing all over the room, the sink, and the garbage can, and like kamikaze pilots, some of the flies dove straight at my face.
The farmer asked me if I wanted to sit down and offered me a cup of coffee. I declined. I asked the animal control officer to begin her investigation. She asked the farmer to take us to his barn. As we walked out of the house, I was still struck by what I had seen and smelled. I realized that while I had grown up in deep urban poverty and had experienced hunger, this farmer and his family were experiencing a level of extreme poverty I had never seen or imagined.
The wretched smell in the barn was worse than in the house. Cow manure covered the muddy ground; piles of rotting hay were everywhere. Cousins of the houseflies were diving at us even more fiercely. The farmer led the way and muttered how unfair this all was. The farmer asked out loud why the animal control officer needed the assistance of a New York State trooper. She immediately said, “You pointed your shotgun towards me, that’s why.”
He stared angrily at her but said nothing; he just glanced over his shoulder at me. We stopped by one of the cows. The animal’s bones protruded against its taut skin. I had worked as a butcher to put myself through college and knew the difference between healthy cow carcasses and this nearly dead, neglected cow that was starving.
Suddenly the cow’s tail rose, and a forceful stream of steaming urine was coming right for me in a high arc. I looked at the farmer and the animal control officer as I backpedaled as fast as I could. Luckily, only my highly polished boots and the bottom of my uniform pants got wet. The farmer and the other officer tried very hard to restrain their laughter. Annoyed, I told them both I would buy them a ride on New York City’s A train and a sign to hang around their necks proclaiming, “I am a tourist.” We laughed. They could have warned me but chose not to share their knowledge. I again realized you don’t know what you don’t know. If you are lucky, someone will take the time to teach you the “hidden rules.” Otherwise you are bound to make mistakes, not gain access to resources you may need, inadvertently offend, and/or be injured by not knowing.
I, like you, struggle with navigating the reality of the two-sides dilemma. Those in the know and those who are not, those who have and those who do not. We cannot know everything, but with the help of others, we can gain the information we need to access the resources we need to navigate this world. This access can lead us to social mobility and move more of us from being on the “have nots” side to the side of having enough to feed, clothe, and house ourselves. Maybe we can welcome more strangers and turn them into neighbors. We can heal one family at a time, which in turn can improve a neighborhood, a community, a city, this nation, and the world. Is that too much to ask?
No, it is not too much to ask as you and I exercise whatever privilege and knowledge we have been granted or have earned. Let us not forget that someone shared their knowledge with us, opened doors for us, broke down barriers for us. It is our turn. Let’s bring more individuals, families, communities, and institutions into the fold, hopefully reducing the unfair, two-sides tribalism running rampant across the globe.