Tuesday, May 01, 2012

May Day Reality

I missed my exit due to heavy traffic while returning from work today. After driving in a meandering loop, I finally got on the freeway, only to see a "work in progress" at the other exit that would take me home. A policeman stood guard to make sure no stray motorist was tempted to ignore the sign.

Not my day, I sighed.

It was a long detour and the expressway was dense with traffic. Road rage is not my thing but this departure from routine agitated me. It took all of about fifteen minutes for me to finally come to the intersection from which home was more or less a straight line. Relax, I told myself.
That’s when I saw her. I have rarely seen so emaciated a woman in America. She was standing at the corner, holding up a sign that read, “Hungry and homeless. Just trying to survive.” Sitting on the pavement was her dog, panting under a sun that was still burning brightly in the late afternoon.

Normally I don’t carry much cash with me. We are, after all, progressing toward a cashless society in which our phones will soon become our wallets as well. But I had some money with me, thank God, so I called out to her and handed over what I had. I noticed that she seemed not only hungry but also in some kind of a trance, as if she wasn’t aware of what was happening to her. The dog watched her intently as she walked toward my car, wary perhaps that she might slip and fall.

Afterwards, I thought about my missed exits. Few minutes of inconvenience had led to a shattering encounter. The image of this woman crystallized for me what was happening to my country.

Today being May day, people have been busy rekindling the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. The 99 percenters are holding protests in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Jose, Oakland and other major cities. Actually it is from coast to coast and continent to continent. Protesters have massed in front of banks and other financial institutions. They have also shut down ferries, bridges, harbors, ports.

The economic situation remains grim. Almost 13 million Americans are out of work. After showing some signs of life, the recovery has begun to sputter again. Away from the enclaves of wealth and abundance, the sense of gloom and doom is palpable. As Justice Louis Brandeis put it, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

The wealthy – the 1 percenters - apparently made a killing on Wall Street today. Their bank accounts have swelled by millions of dollars on May Day while hard-up worker-slaves are toiling to make $4-$10 dollars an hour doing meaningless and degrading “web-based” work, if they are lucky to find such jobs. Talk about irony!
Mortality rates have risen dramatically among the unemployed, as has the suicide rate. Unemployment rate now is a full 3% higher than the postwar average, and the percentage of working Americans has not been this low in 30 years.
Anton Chekhov wrote in one of his short stories: “The scoundrels are sleek and well-dressed, while honest men feed on crumbs.” But this is America, not Chekhov’s 19th-century Russia!
Tomorrow the Internet and the newspapers will be full of pictures of protesters laying siege to symbols of inequality and injustice in America. For me, though, the image of a lone woman holding up a heartbreaking sign of despair at a busy intersection in the heart of Silicon Valley summed up the immorality of what Wall Street and the banks have wrought with their greed, arrogance and outright thievery.

May the better people win.

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