Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Different Occupy Story

I recently fell behind in my rent and found myself earlier this week presented with written notification from my landlord that they would begin the legal eviction process if I did not pay $500 by the end of the business week.  That's an amount of money that in my world seemed as accessible by me before the deadline as $500, other words, not at all.

I've been homeless before and the prospect of being so again has been terrifying, so much so that my way of dealing with it has included periods of choosing straight up to simply disassociate.  Being homeless in one's 20's or even 40's is no party for anybody, but is one thing for men, another for women; I've allowed myself only very short intervals of contemplating what it would be like as a 65 year-old woman.

During the times when I did try to examine what sort of concrete problem solving I could do to come up with this money, I spoke with several people, but I didn't speak with much detail to any friends I thought might actually have $500 to give me.  I purposely chose to speak about particulars only with people I was pretty sure could not help me in that way because I've lived in relative financial poverty for a very long time and I learned along the way that money between friends often complicates things and poverty embarrasses everybody.  It gets messy.  It has seemed to me like people think you're asking them for money sometimes when what you're really trying to do is get support and feedback in your problem solving process, so I've learned to pick and choose who I discuss what with.

By the time I tried to get some rest Thursday evening, with my deadline looming, I had no answer to my dilemma, but it was soon clear I was too stressed to find any sleep either.  I ended up all night and that's how I came to be awake at six this morning when a friend who is also a neighbor called and wanted to come up and speak with me.  So help me, she said she had the answer to my problem.

My friend and I (I'll call her Mary) have both lived here for almost eight years.  We live with addicts (recovering and otherwise), felons (practicing and not), registered sex offenders, as well as some good people who consider themselves damn lucky to be here because they really have no place else to go.  There are plenty of one bedroom apartments here that are home to four or five or six people; those who can afford to live somewhere  So, while this isn't the tony side of town and the accommodations are a bit sparse, I must acknowledge there have been countless times this week when I've found myself assessing my humble little apartment and looking at all of my personal things in it, then having to stop myself from considering how truly devastating it would be to lose it.  There aren't a lot of places to go if you get kicked out of here.  Those moments were frequently accompanied by visions of my neighbors picking over my belongings in the grass after the sheriff's department emptied my apartment while I was who knows where.

Mary came to my apartment within minutes of her phone call and told me she had a plan that she thought would save me from losing my apartment.  Mary is one of the people I had talked with a great deal about my predicament, including for hours as recently as the day before; I had no clue what sort of "plan" could emerge at this point, but Mary said she had one. 

Her plan was for her to call the executive director of the organization that owns the property where we live and ask if they would allow her to pay my arrearage for me in five installments of $100, with the first being paid before the end of the day.  I would repay this money by assisting her doing some of the work she does to help others, via my writing, photography, and speaking on issues relative to women and poverty.

I felt no real optimism this was a plan that would be acceptable to management.  I believed that both Mary and I had going for us the fact that we enjoy a good relationship and reputation with management here and that, other than this arrearage (my first) in rent, we were considered to be the sort of tenants they wished they had more of.  But I was also cognizant of the reality that those of us who live here do so on a budget that most generally assures any sort of unexpected or added expenditure puts everything up for grabs...I just saw not a lot of reason to hope that this was a plan that would fly.  I couldn't find in myself any real confidence that Mary's financial circumstances would enable her to follow through on such a plan and I saw no reason to think management would see it otherwise.  But, Mary went back to her apartment to do what she said she was going to do and I tried again to get some rest.

Mary was more successful than I was, because I was still awake when she called later to tell me that the plan she proposed to our landlord had been accepted and she needed me to take her to Kroger where she could buy a money order that we would then take to the rental office.  Relief doesn't quite describe what I felt, but I hadn't had a lot of rest and was mostly running on autopilot by this point.  I just did what I was told to do.

My friend Mary has post polio syndrome and must use crutches to get around, so I dropped her off at the door when we got to Kroger and circled the parking lot a few times as I watched for her to exit.  When she did, I drove up and stopped in the fire lane to pick her up.  Mary put her crutches in the floor of the backseat, got in upfront on the passenger side, and handed me a money order, saying to me, "Now, you just have to fill it out."

The money order she handed me was not for $100, but was instead for $498...the total amount I owed in back rent.  I don't know exactly what to call my response, but incredulous would have to be in the description somewhere.  I think I recall saying something like, "How did you do this?" I know I said, "You can't do this."  She advised that yes she could and that she just did.

By then, I couldn't stop trembling and sobbing.  That's all.  I simply collapsed behind the steering wheel.

At some point, Mary spoke and told me that the policeman wanted me to roll down my window.  What policeman?  I'm still sobbing and can't stop shaking at that point.  But I looked to my left and, yes, there was a Metro police officer who wanted my attention.  I am, after all, in the driver's seat, with the vehicle's motor running, obviously impaired in some way, obstructing the fire lane.

I managed to speak, and ended up answering the officer's question about whether or not I was ok by assuring him I was, in fact, ok, but needed a moment or two to compose myself before driving off.  He kept standing there, watching me warily, and I suppose it's my civilian "guilt" and a lifetime of feeling a little intimidated by uniforms that made me feel compelled to offer further explanation.  Money order still in hand, I blurted out that my friend had just saved me from eviction and homelessness with that money order and that I was simply overwhelmed with emotion.  I told him I would move my car the few yards to a parking spot until I was ready to drive.  He told me to sit right there where I was as long as I needed to.

Then the officer told me he wanted to give me a gift.  You have to know that by now I'm just about beside myself.  I can hardly take in what's going on.  I've imagined, for weeks, myself sleeping in my car, I've just been saved from that, and now this policeman wants to give me a gift?!  Not a ticket for being in the fire lane?

The gift he wanted to give me was a small pouch made of perforated plastic and embellished with pink yarn.  The pouch contained a cross also fashioned from plastic and yarn and a folded piece of paper in explanation of the Pocket Cross Ministry.  The officer gave one to Mary too and told us that he and his wife make them.

He started to walk away, but then returned to my car window, a twenty dollar bill in his hand.  He handed it to me and told me, "Use this for whatever you want."

Now you know how I went from weeks of searching online for tips on how to be homeless and considering who had driveways where I might be allowed to park my car to sleep safely in at night to being overcome with so much relief that I needed nothing so much as to just get home and be still.  After we took the money order to the rental office, that's just what I did too.  Then I took a few minutes to make some calls and write short notes letting those I'd counted on for support so much in recent weeks know the dilemma was resolved.  When I was able to think clearly again, I knew I wanted to tell this story.  And, it wasn't long before I knew it was actually an Occupy story.

How is this an Occupy story?  Mary and I were part of the Occupy Nashville caucus of people who live where we do.  You never heard there was a caucus here?  There's a reason for that and that's precisely what makes this an Occupy story.  Allow me to explain...

I understood long before I became a part of Occupy Nashville that women are acculturated to ask for permission to do things when there's really no permission needed.  An early example of how this fact of life would manifest itself within ON occurred on Halloween night last year, less than a month into the occupation, as a woman was derided for being "divisive" for requesting in an ON general assembly to form a women's caucus within ON.  My approach to this would have been to make an announcement that I was forming a caucus, tell you where and when we'd gather, invite you to show up if you're so inclined, and that's that.  (Please note that this is in no way intended as criticism or anything akin to it for the woman who tried that night to get a women's caucus going.  It is not.  I watched her when she made that request and cheered her on from the ON live stream chat.  I admired her courage and forthrightness that night and still do.  I cite this only to offer a concrete example of what I mean about asking for permission and the difference between what I frequently see happen and what I think the more effective approach could be.)

My response to the denial of a women's caucus within ON was to within hours launch the Women Occupy Nashville facebook page.  I needed no permission to do that and, voila, there was a space where women who Occupy could gather in support of each other and share their concerns. 

And, if you've been following this blog, it will be no surprise to you to learn that by the first of the year, I was still looking for effective ways to be a part of working toward achieving the stated goals of Occupy Nashville but becoming increasingly frustrated in my attempts to be a part of the movement.  This was at the same time when Occupy all over the country was dealing with winter weather and the question of what next for Occupy.  To camp or not to camp.  Retreat and regroup in the Spring...or not. 

There were many things to be considered, but I kept coming to the point where I felt strongly that it was time to move Occupy out into the communities.  I wasn't the only one thinking along those lines, of course.  Many others were and not a few of them were talking about trying to make the Occupy presence better understood in wealthier communities, the thinking seeming to be that there could be both financial support and possibly participation by those with the privilege of time on their hands if they understood what we were about.  

I was looking at it differently.  I agreed that seeking participation and support from the "haves" was a good idea, but I was also really starting to think about those people who are at the bottom of the economic scale within the 99% this movement claims to represent.  People like me.  I knew I had met others like me online who had significant barriers to their participation in Occupy Nashville, but who, nonetheless, burned with desire to be a part of it because they understood it was about them.  I also assumed there were many others who would understand it was about them too if we could just find 'em and tell 'em.  I kept remembering that  Harriett Tubman said, "I freed thousands of slaves.  I could have saved thousands more, if they had known they were slaves."

I conceived the idea of launching a neighborhood caucus right where I live.  Lord knows, this is a group of people who have suffered under the policies and boot of the 1%.  And, by then, I had first hand experience with how issues of class and misogyny and ableism and more would manifest themselves within ON just as they do within the larger culture.  It only made sense to me to take it to the streets...our street, my street.

I put up flyers announcing a meeting to be held in the community room of our apartment complex.  I don't live with a lot of people who have the means to get to the plaza or elsewhere for GAs or direct actions, so I'd bring Occupy to them.  I wrote and made copies of an agenda of informational Occupy related topics to address at our meeting and made an Occupy fact sheet to pass out as well.  I told a couple of other people within Occupy Nashville what I was going to do and one of them, Dorsey, graciously volunteered to attend the meeting to assist in any way she could.

Counting Dorsey and I, four people were in that group in the basement that winter afternoon.  This is a small complex, so even though I would have loved it if we'd had more, I was neither surprised nor particularly disappointed.  One elderly gentleman who is caregiver for his disabled wife stopped by before we  began to say he wanted us to know he was interested and glad we were doing this, but could not attend...he had to tend to his wife.  He asked us to advise him later about anything that happened at the meeting.  The other person who showed up was, of course, Mary.  

Mary and I talked again during the few days that immediately followed that meeting.  Mary had long been involved in helping people who live here in the ways that she was able to...writing checks for the blind woman who needed that help, making herself available at scheduled times in the community room for people who might simply need someone to talk to.  Mary is one of those wonderful people who manages to grow wherever she's planted and to find around her who needs what she has to give.  She's one of the most selfless individuals I've ever known and that's only one of the reasons it was her I'd donated my entire library to last year when I decided to let go of my books.  I knew Mary was only one person, but she was exactly the one person I needed to help me find a way to bring Occupy to some of those who most needed it, just as I understood that there were many others here besides Mary and I who have something to give, even if it isn't green and doesn't have dollar signs on it and we're among the most marginalized and overlooked of us.

I'll try to cut to the chase here...Within days, Mary and I had a plan that we believed would make life better for the people living here and would at the same time benefit those who were holding down the fort for the rest of all on the plaza with their presence as Occupy Nashville.  Nutrition and eating well on a food stamp budget has been an interest of mine for a long time and Mary and I had often talked about me doing some sort of classes or workshops here for the people who could use that kind of informational help.  Mary reached out to some other women here about our meeting and the conversations she and I were having in an effort to ascertain what interest there might be.

Before long, we had a plan.  We, our small group that by now was up to three (!), would meet in my apartment, cook simple but nutritious and delicious meals that could be prepared on a food stamp budget, then deliver the cooked food to the plaza.  We would use food we could get for free through resources we were eligible for because we couldn't afford to buy extra groceries, I would do the menu planning and gathering of the food, I would instruct about the nutrition of what we were preparing and provide recipes for the women who cooked to take home with them, the women who would come would benefit by learning more about how to feed their families on a tight budget, and people on the plaza would get a hot meal they might not get otherwise.  We'd record our work in the kitchen and our trip to the plaza to share with others here in a group we would invite others to attend and try to grow our humble start.  Mary was delighted because she had wanted me to do something about nutrition for the women here for a while.  I was thrilled because I'd found a way I hoped would work to bring more people into Occupy.  Winning...right?

But, you never heard of any of this before, right?  And, now, here's why...

When I attended the ON GA last week in which the Internal Restorative Justice group gave their report  and the assembled body ended the evening by deciding unanimously to shun Jason Steen, I hadn't planned to speak.  I mostly went to be support to the other women attending and to video record the event. As it turned out, I decided right before leaving to attempt to address something I felt had been perhaps not explained very well and that's the matter of why it's been so disastrous to have problems within the Occupy Nashville stream team.  My camera was already packed up and the recording the ON stream person captured of what I had to say is mostly inaudible on that video, but it's pertinent to why you have likely never heard of the Occupy Nashville caucus that was formed here months ago where I live.  

Here's the deal...If your circumstances preclude you from coming to the plaza for general assemblies or from showing up for direct actions, the means available to you for participation in this movement is online.  Online means social media and in Occupy Nashville, that has meant dealing with the guys who have had absolute control over ON related communications.  They shut out anyone they didn't want to hear and attacked anybody who carried a message they didn't like.  They were shunning before Custer even spoke the word relative to Steen last week, they just weren't admitting it, never mind calling it that.

They were, of course, doing a lot more than simply shunning.  Besides removing posts and banning from participation in chat, in the ON forum, and on the facebook pages, there were, of course, always, the attacks on those they didn't want to be heard...well documented elsewhere in this blog, so there's no need to rehash it all here.  We can tie this up very quickly here by my telling you that when the women here who wanted to help ON started watching GA and reading up on ON, they decided this was not something they wanted to be a part of after all.

In other words, the stream team routed more support that they might have sorely wished they'd had in the days that would follow.  And that, my friends, is why this is in fact an Occupy story.  There are a hundred, if not a thousand, Marys out here.  There are so many of us who wanted to do what we were able to do, to give what was ours to give.  We are Occupy.  If there are lessons from this long tale, at least one of them must be that we never know what we're missing when we presume to know what another has to offer or to assume that they have nothing to offer.  Occupy Nashville's forum on their .org page was littered all last Fall and Winter with posts from people trying to find out how they could hook in and help out...posts that would follow earlier posts askin' why nobody got back to them...some asking, didn't you need their help?

This is long...and I'm tired.  But this is an Occupy story as much as anything that's in this blog.  While I was out living this story today, the dredges of what's left of ON were online telling people this blog should be ignored because it's full of lies.  That's code for, "thou shalt not be aware."  I have words for you here too, just two...fuck you.