Saturday, July 9, 2016

Flag House

“Okay, we’re recording now.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Everything you say from this point forward will be on record.”

“Right. I understand.”

“Great! Why don’t we start with letting us know who you are? Your name, and your position.”

“Sure. My name is Alex Ortiz. I’m a Secretary Director in the Office of Family Assistance, a part of Administration for Children and Families, a division of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.”

“I think we have that cleared up. Now, let’s move on to why you asked me here. How can I help?”

“I’m resigning. I’ve had enough. I’m leaving.”

“With all due respect, Mr. Ortiz, people leave their government jobs everyday. Unless you’re a cabinet secretary, quitting your job isn’t a big deal. I mean, unless there’s some juicy scandal involved. Did you get caught embezzling, Mr. Ortiz? Did you sleep with someone you shouldn’t have?”

“No! Nothing like that.”

“Well then, why should I care? Why should anyone care?”

“Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Nobody does care, do they? I mean, some care. For a minute. If it makes it into the news cycle. Don’t get me wrong. There are a few, like me, who care plenty. Care too much. Maybe that’s because we hope that we can care enough for the rest of you, but that’s not true. There’s not enough of us for that.”

“Care about what?”

“About what’s tearing up the very fabric of this country, the cancer that eats us from within.”

“I’m sorry. Don’t you think you’re being a bit cryptic and hyperbolic?”

“Sure! Sure. Let’s be real. We can’t cure a disease we don’t understand, can we?

“So, let’s take a look at what’s happening out here. Poor or low income families make up half of our country. More than a quarter of all blacks live in poverty, nearly as many Hispanics. A third of the families on welfare are black, but Hispanics and whites each make up nearly just as much. But it’s the African American community that bears the brunt of the blame for the need for social programs. When anybody says welfare, the image of the unmarried, black mother who’s too lazy to work, but can’t stop doing drugs and having children we have to pay for is the first one that comes to mind for a lot of people. For some, it’s the only image.”

“So you’re quitting because poverty has an image problem?”

“It does. 37% of people on SNAP, or what we used to call food stamps, are white compared to only 22% of all recipients made up of African Americans. Of course, that might be different if we had a living wage and didn’t have to supplement incomes for so many working families. You know, about 60% of people on food stamps work but just don’t earn enough to cover their bills and eat. But the myths persist, and they create enough resistance for anything to truly change. But, no, that’s not why.”

“So, why then?”

“Because nothing changes. Nothing seems to ever change, not where the change is really needed.”

“And where is that?”

“In the very communities we want to blame for the problem. If they’re not killing each other, the people we pay to protect us are killing them or locking them up, and for some reason, that’s just fine with plenty of people. One less thug on the streets is an improvement.

“But they’re wrong. I may work in Washington, but I still live in Baltimore. I grew up in Baltimore, and I’ve had a front row seat to the devastation that systemic poverty has wreaked in large pockets of that city.”

“So this is about Freddie Gray?”

“No, man! Freddie Gray is about this. Do you want to know why I got into this line of work?”

“Only if it’s relevant.”

“I could point to a number of thingsbeing raised on welfare by a single mother who struggled with drugs and alcohol, never really knowing my father or even having had a strong male role model in my life; but to be perfectly honest, my childhood wasn’t as bad as it was for some.

“I was dating a girl named Sol when I was still at Temple. Her father named her that because when she smiled, it was like the sun suddenly appeared in the sky. Sol had two young daughters, and a deadbeat of an ex-husband. She was living in Flag House at the time, one of the high rise housing projects we finally began tearing down in 1990s. It was notorious as the type of housing that would be taken over by drug dealers, like you’d see in Homicide or The Wire. She would usually meet me at the room I rented during summer breaks from school. But we were eating in Little Italy, one time, and it didn’t make sense to go across town to my place when we were already right in the shadow of the towers.

Flag House was so close to the Inner Harbor, I’d walked past them plenty of times, but walking up to them, at night, under the gloom of street lamps? It was intimidating, even to a kid with my background. This is what my mother was always hustling to keep us out of. The gauntlet of angry, young black men all staring you down as you walk past didn’t make it any easier.

“Sol had warned to keep my arm around her, and to keep my eyes straight ahead, or towards her until we made it into the building. Inside, there was just one working elevator. The other one had been disabled by the dealers to have more control over who went anywhere, and to make it easier to evade police.

“When the elevator finally arrived—maybe it was just the anxiety of so many violent eyes on me, but it felt like we were waiting for an eternity for it—the doors opened, and I had to steel myself so I didn’t gag at that rancid ammonia smell left from old urine. Fortunately, she lived on the eighth floor. I don’t know that I could have taken it if she had lived any higher.

“We stopped to check in on her daughter, first. The family across the hall was watching her. Sol introduced me to three women. The oldest was in her mid 40s. She lived there with her daughter, approaching 30, and her daughter, a pregnant teen who already had an infant daughter. Four generations of women, all living in the only home they’d ever known.

“I wasn’t surprised. I had just taken a course called The Sociology of Poverty, so I had read plenty about the vicious cycle that plagues many African American women. In a society where the men readily abandon their partners and children, the female parent typically exhibits resentment towards her own children, once the charm of being a parent wears off. If that child is a girl, she will seek intimacy in the arms of anyone willing to give it. Sadly, that usually ends up being one of the very black males that will disappear the very moment a new child comes into the equation.

“But that’s fine, because that girl’s going to have a child, someone she thinks will finally love her unconditionally. But then, the reality of parenting hits, and she has no one to help her, except the mother who drove her away in the first place. And sometime during the sleepless night and the endless crying, she ends up resenting her own child.

“They turn to alcohol and drugs to escape the loneliness, get addicted, turn to stealing or prostitution to feed the habit. And when they realize they need help, they have to wait for weeks before a bed becomes available in a treatment center. Weeks is too long to survive in that environment without giving in to the physical trauma of withdrawal and the desire to escape it. By the time the bed is open, the moment has passed, the desire to stop has been stifled. And on it goes.

“I understood the concept, but to see it, to meet the very women that had only existed in textbooks and research papers for me… That’s what put everything I was doing in perspective for me.”

“Okay, so I get why you do it. Why are you stopping?”

“I got up and got dressed early the next morning. I was fine in the safety of Sol’s apartment, but I was eager to be out of Flag House. Worse than taking forever, it seemed like the one working elevator wasn’t working at all. I thought, maybe the dealers disabled that one, too, once their workday was done. I decided to take the stairs.

“It was like descending a level of Hell. Most of the lights were out. The stench of urine and feces was overpowering. Once my eyes adjusted, I could just make out addicts, curled in dark corners, sleeping off their highs. I don’t think I was ever as happy to see the Sun as I was coming out of that stairwell.

“Just a couple of blocks west, there was this small field of bright yellow flowers planted on a large median just off the Jones Falls Expressway, a splash of beauty haunted by the shadow of those towers. I walked into it a bit, fell to my knees and cried. I’d walked past that very spot plenty of times, too, and never had the flowers looked so glorious. I got myself together, stood up, and turned back toward flag house. I could see someone looking down, hands gripped on the fence that wrapped around each tower like chainmail, and I wondered how the flowers looked from there. Could they even see them?”

“Like you said, they brought all those high rises down.”

“Yeah, but they just spread the problems out into surrounding counties. We eliminated the fortresses dealers used to operate a little more easily, but we also created easier access for addicts, especially white ones, migrating from Oxycontin and other overprescribed opiates. All we did is relocate their businesses to the suburbs, expanding their customer base”

“So you failed. That’s why you’re quitting?”

“We all failed. We continue to fail. We bicker about details and blame, and look for easy fixes instead of solutions. Look at the program I run, Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood. We’ve given out 150 million dollars in grants for programs to promote stable marriages and responsible fatherhood. Has any of that made a difference? We have our success stories. Most of these programs do. But you can’t force most kids who grew up in that environment, without fathers in their lives themselves, to want to be good fathers.”

“You’re leaving because you realize it’s hopeless.”

“I wouldn’t say hopeless. There are programs that have been shown to work effectively. Music and art programs that were successful in countries with similarly impoverished and violence-riddled urban populations have been imported into a few cities, here. Anything that uses up idle time and offers kids a healthy way to express themselves helps, including sports. Some school systems hire social workers to follow up on potential truants and make sure those students have everything they need to succeed in school. But that’s only happening in small pockets. It’s nearly impossible to get those programs funded with the political climate the way it is. Generally, we’re cutting arts to give these kids more time to study for standardized tests, a half-assed attempt to make up some of the ground we’ve lost to other students around the world. Not hopeless, just… not full of hope.”

“But wasn’t that what Obama was selling?”

“Sure. But he wasn't just the black president, he was the president. He can’t be seen as only partial to black people problems. Besides, Republicans have used gerrymandering and voter suppression strategies during midterm elections to entrench themselves in Congress and state houses. They opposed anything that could end up looking like a win for him. They were just coming around to the costs of mass incarceration, even if only from a fiscal perspective. 

“But even if they get out, what do they have to come out to? With few prospects, many will end up right back in a life of crime. They'll survive, whatever way they can.”

“So what happens, now?”

“Who knows. Maybe we’ll keep doing the right things. Maybe we’ll show them that we value them enough that they begin to value themselves. Only when they value their own lives will they begin to value the lives of others. Or maybe we keep dividing ourselves, keep blaming them for a situation we’re all responsible for creating. Or maybe we just keep treating them all like the dangerous criminals a few of them are. That seem to be the strategy of the new administration.

“If that happens, parts of the West Side will look more like the West Bank. Eventually, that deep seated rage they use to destroy each other will be turned outward. Black on black violence will transition to black on everything else violence. They’ll be primed for recruitment by terrorist organizations, if the gangs, themselves, don’t evolve into domestic terrorist outfits. We’ll be more scared. We’ll double down on the use of law enforcement and incarceration to try and restore order, kill guilty and innocent, alike, deepen their resentment of us, even further. And the spiral descends downward to... who knows where. But wherever that is, I don’t want to be around to see it. I can’t.”

“Where will you go, Mr. Ortiz. What will you do now?”

“I’m going home, Mr. Fitz. Puerto Rico. My family's from Ponce. I wasn’t born there, but I spent summers there. I have a profound connection to the people. They face many of the same issues, but they’re all worse off, financially, if you can believe that. They need me, and there, even small deeds can have large impacts.”

“So that’s it, then. You’re giving up.”

“Not giving up. Just giving in. This country hasn’t hit bottom, yet. Keeping everyone divided for the benefit of a few has proven to be an effective strategy. When America gets tired of shooting itself in the foot, over and over, I’ll be back. That is, if I’m not too in love with life in the tropics.”

“Ha! Well, if you know who wins, I might be right behind you.”

“Absolutely. Come check me out. I’ll show you all the great beaches the tourists don’t know about.”

“Well, I think we have enough. I'll get this to my editor, but to be honest, there's nothing new here. You realize, none of this will likely see the light of day?”

 “Sure. I get it. The information's been out there, but the people who need it most still don't get it. 

“And they won't. Unless you get Fox to put it out there, but you know that's not going to happen. I'm sorry. I can see how important this is to you. I wish there was more I could do. Before we wrap, is there anything you’d like to add?”

“No, I think you have the basics. Except, and I’ll leave it at this: We’ve figured out that addicts don’t have to hit rock bottom to finally decide to enter recovery. They only need a moment of lucidity powerful enough for them to realize that they are killing themselves. There's a large part of this country that’s addicted to fear. It controls the way they live, the way they vote, the way they think about, even treat the people they’ve been taught to fear. Let’s hope America has it’s own moment of lucidity, because rock bottom will come with unbridled violence and race wars. And let’s hope that when that moment of lucidity comes, there will be a bed available for us, before it all collapses.”

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