(Published in Silicon Valley Debug on June 2, 2005)
I remember when they used to throw snowballs at me.
After school during those winter months, the boys of my neighborhood would appoint me their moving target and walk behind me, throwing snowballs in my direction during the walk home. My mother always told me to ignore them, but I couldn’t help but take it personally. To them I was always invisible until it came time to find someone to pick on. Then somehow I would become significant, a mere target for teen-aged aggression. Those boys, who now, only six years later, are almost all either in jail or dead, were my first real education about what urban life is really like and how it affects people. I grew to hate snow, and eventually distrust men, so that even now as an adult whenever a guy tries to capture my attention, half of me can’t believe my good fortune, and the other half is wondering whether he’s just another boy holding a snowball behind his back.
Connecticut is one of the top ten riches states with one of the top ten poorest capital cities. According to the Economic Research Service website, as of 2002, almost 9 % of all Hartford residents live in poverty. That is more than 75,500 people who may be homeless, hungry, unemployed, or all three. Our recent resolution to this problem has been to build an elaborate shopping and convention center, Adrian’s Landing, which, according to our recently incarcerated governor, is supposed to help ‘enrich’ Hartford’s downtown area. And thought a convention center may be a good idea for the city, you can be sure that the money is not going directly to those who need it the most.
Do the math: Our current minimum wage starts at $7.10 an hour. If you work forty hours a week at said rate, you would gross a mere $1,136 a month. That totals to $13,632 a year, well below the poverty line for single parent families.According to the Housing Authority, only 30 percent of your income should go to rent, but Hartford residents have to pay as much as 40 and 50 percent, sometimes having to choose between paying the rent and buying groceries.
Though there are programs available to balance out this problem, the waiting list goes into the thousands, so your chances of wining the lottery are higher than getting the assistance you deserve. But no one wants to talk about the dark side of it all. To some living in a Hartford ghetto is like being infected with a cancer that slowly eats away at your soul.
Don’t be mistaken. This is a state where politicians are corrupt, girls get pregnant more often than they graduate high school, and boys get killed inside of fast food restaurants.
And yet our values remain the same. More people appeared to protest against gay marriage than they did to rally against violence in Hartford’s neighborhoods. I’ll let you guess which one got the most media coverage. And while the public rallies to save a convicted rapist and murderer from capital punishment, hundreds of young lives are being lost every day to drugs, guns, and disease.
I guess that’s the problem with urbanization. There are more people per capita in the city than there are jobs for them, so that someone is bound to be unemployed, someone is bound to get laid off. Someone is bound to maintain the precious balance of rich vs. poor, have and have-nots.
But we continue to show surprise when the public reacts, when children form gangs to gain some sort of control and flip their fingers toward the government that is supposed to protect them, so that in the end we punish the criminals we ourselves create, fighting ignorance with ignorance. But how do you explain to a person that their only crime is nothing more than serving a function in a society that feeds on the weak and defenseless? Like Oedipus Rex, who in the end of the play punished himself for committing the crimes that the fates had destined him to commit.
And yet it continues to happen in cities all across the world, not just here at Hartford.
Tragedies are being portrayed every day during thirty second slots on the night time news while the rest of us get to sleep safely and worry about the important things: runaway brides and Hollywood breakups. Injustice and inequality happen so often that it has overridden our ability to recognize that it shouldn’t be happening at all. That children should never come to realize that how they’re treated in our society is directly correlated with the shade of their skin. That our government should value the voices of all of us and not just the ones that have pockets deep enough to influence it. And our current role models should include more than those shooting hoops, singing rhymes or posing nude.
And at night when I close my eyes, I pray for those boys, the ones who threw snowballs at me, because I know now what I didn’t then: That they were only being what society had long told them they could only be.