The Widening Gulfs that Separate Us

It rains all night, and by morning the water splashes against the plank over which we cross the creek to the car. We wind our way over South Brank Mountain, then eastward along Lost River, past West Virginia farms and villages and general stores, just waking up. Past Hanging Rocks, we ascend into George Washington National Forest. On the nether side we pass into Virginia, where we pick up I-66 and whisk on to D.C.

“Such a short distance from country to city,” we always remark on trips to Washington. Then we wonder how much the superhighway, Corridor H, will violate that distance, corrupt the pristine Potomac Highlands landscape with too much traffic, too many trucks hauling off our trees, too many land speculators, developers, toxic waste dump entrepreneurs.

My interview is at the Embassy Suite Hotel on M and 22nd. Over Roosevelt Bridge, the rain subsides and morning sun shines through the mist on the Washington and Jefferson monuments. How brilliantly gleams the newly washed showroom side of our capital. Driving past stately white museums, monuments and government buildings, one momentarily forgets the grisly back rooms, the poor and homeless, the criminals, drug pushers, prostitutes, government arms dealers, selling to whomever can pay.

We arrive early at the Embassy, so we wait in the lounge and soak in the visual luxury: 10 stories, dome-topped, towering over an interior terraced court, with restaurants, shops, gardens, fountains, wishing pools, glass-bubble elevators that shuttle guests to their floors.

“How ironic,” I comment to my spouse. “I am interviewing at a hotel in which we can’t afford to spend the night.”

“We can still enjoy ourselves,” she suggests.

It is checkout time, and guests are milling around the lobby. Members of a family reunion are gathering to wish each other goodbye. I observe how much at home the children feel, teasing one another and running around.

Two of the boys start wrestling near where we are sitting, and neither grandparents, parents, aunts nor uncles bother to correct them. When they bump into a maid, who is on her knees polishing the telephone stand, they don’t excuse themselves.

The maid, a Latina, takes the insult with a patient smile. Her serenity reminds me of numerous such peaceful faces I see in my bus travels through the Mexican interior. I recall many a peasant family lying all night side by side on their blanket on a bus station floor. For hours and hours with nothing to entertain them, the children are perfectly relaxed, their brown faces alert and open.

How odd it strikes me: two human families born roughly with the same potential (given equal encouragement and opportunity) with such starkly contrasting destinies. In nature’s eyes, or God’s, the peasant families and this more prosperous one at the Embassy are equals in body, heart and mind—yet in society’s eyes, they are so far removed as to be beyond comparison, never to touch except rudely.

These wrestling boy cousins, barely pubescent, are already being subtly groomed for elite schools and executive training; the Latin boys to sell Chicklets at traffic stops, to shine shoes, to work in factories for a few pesos a day, at best to chauffeur rich men’s cars.

“Why do you struggle with class all the time?” my wife queries me. “You spoil a good time.”

“I didn’t used to,” I confess. “When I was growing up in rural Michigan, I had no class awareness at all.”

“You’re kidding.”

“With a big middle class, as we had there and then, it’s what one made of one’s self that was noticed. Wealth, social rank—they were relatively even, so we saw a human being first and social status a distant second. To these boys, that maid has the same value as a piece of furniture. And what does that say of the boys?”

“Kids are careless by nature,” my wife protests. “You make a mountain out of it.”

“They’re growing crooked,” I say. “They’ll be bumping into people all their lives, and not even knowing it.”

Eleven o’clock and the time for my appointment arrives. I ride the bubble up to the eighth level, Room 802, to meet the school’s hiring committee. How much can one reveal in an hour about one’s philosophy of education, one’s hopes and fears for the future generations. If anything, I say too much, try too hard.

I ride the bubble down, and my wife and I spend the afternoon and evening enjoying bookstores, the Corcoran Art Museum, a Thai restaurant, a French movie at Dupont Circle. A day in the nation’s capital is a cultural treat, yet how satisfying, by bedtime, to be reapproaching the mountains, the West Virginia countryside.

How long can we keep it, I ponder, as we cross the state line near midnight. It is raining again, hard, and in my mind’s eye I see the plank across the creek to our house already washed away.

 

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