My first job at 14 years old was working at a family-owned franchise root beer and burger stand. Stewart’s Root Beer was iconic at the Jersey shore. It was a 50’s style drive-in.
When you started at Stewart’s, you were stationed at the fryers. It was the lowest job on the totem pole. You had to endure the hot (un-airconditioned) kitchen for long shifts in front of the fryers. I remember my face, hair, and white uniform and apron was filled with grease when I left for home after those long shifts. Disgusting.
But that part-time job, even at minimum wage ($2/hr), paid for a full year’s tuition at the local Catholic High School. I saved all summer, and was able to pay for my tuition and a 10-speed bike.
Of course, in those days social mobility existed, and kids like me knew Stewart’s wasn’t a career. It was an entrée into the workforce. Almost all the kids I knew took part-time jobs. Many of them worked on the Seaside boardwalk.
Now, in my golden years, I make no excuse for taking full advantage of my in-home robot services (Siri, Alexa) to turn on my lights, play my podcasts, tell me the news, and create my grocery list.
Acknowledging that technology and globalization are the fundamental drivers for income inequality, I do find myself wondering (worrying about) what will happen to those at the bottom of the income scale who have no social mobility options.
When my international and coastal elite friends ask me why I’m in South Dakota, I start by telling them the story of how my brother and sister wound up here. So, that family is here seems like a logical reason why I’d be here.
But, if you’ve been casually paying attention to this blog and my Instagram, you know it’s something else. For me, this part of the country is a petri dish for the changes that are taking root in other areas of the world.
I was drawn to stay here in South Dakota because of the landscapes. The incredible scenery. These scenes are teaching me about myself, about our society, and about America’s place in the pantheon of world history.
Tomorrow concludes voting in the U.S. Presidential Election. Early voting records are suggesting this will be the highest turnout ever in the country’s history. There have even been early voting lines here in South Dakota.
In August, when I was driving down one of the state’s beautiful country highways, I spotted this line of dead trees to my right out in a field. On my mind was the concern that America was careening toward autocracy and a full-on dictatorship. It was likely I was listening to a podcast at that moment. But suddenly, those trees spoke to me in a loud voice.
I pulled the car over, grabbed my camera, and started shooting.
Later, I posted this on Instagram:
“I posted about these trees on other social media. I called them, “Dance of the Dead.” I will say more about them here. These dead trees slay me. Their stark presence on the lush landscape is pure poetry. Proud, resilient, transcendent, beautiful in their post-relevance— I love them dancing in rebellion. Refusing to lay down and die. I stood on the edge of the highway taking photo after photo of them, thinking about how maybe they’re a metaphor for America today. The rest of the world may be mocking us, writing us off for dead, irrelevant, a failed experiment. But these dead trees that populate the expanse of the frontier out here hold the ghosts of the pioneer spirit. I am praying I stole their souls by capturing their images with my camera. It emboldens me to fight for democracy. If even with a camera, and a metaphor in a field.”
Now, in the fall of 2020, I’ve been working on a campaign for a Native American and his family. I’ve learned more about how sacred these lands are for the people who once had the luxury of living here without us. That pioneer spirit I mentioned above murdered a lot of innocent people here so that white Europeans could colonize this beautiful countryside.
I still have a lot to learn about our country’s history.
Tomorrow, American voters will determine our path. People who dare to hope diverse communities can begin to understand each other, live peacefully together, respect one another, and rebuild America in a new image are hopeful for a reset. The current administration has surfaced with unflinching clarity the ugliness embedded in our society.
The American experiment is still new. Still morphing. We must forgive ourselves our trespasses. I’m hopeful our resilience will save us all, and lay the foundation for the next generation/s to seed a more perfect union.
My daughter stood in a long line this morning to vote at her West Harlem neighborhood polling booth. She said she was tearing up, as she started texting me and sending me photos. This little girl said to her: “I’m voting for my family.” Her Mom told her, “That’s what we’re doing here, voting for our family, for sure.”
My daughter said she expected to wait at least an hour in line to vote, but “all these New Yorkers are, like, smiling at each other.”
She’s voting for my family. And for our future. I remember a favorite song of my sister’s during the heyday of her generation. It was by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: Teach Your Children. I’ve taught my children well. They all voted this year for American values and principles deeply held.
You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye.
Teach your children well,