Most people get information through well-greased channels: The press. Social media. Gossip in your business/social circle. Gossip from people with wide ranging connections, such as your barber or hair person, the cab driver. Chatter at parties. Presentations and side bar discussions at conferences.
Of course, a lot of what we learn is through observation, such as figuring out how to manage a difficult boss by watching someone else handle him or judging the state of the town by how busy its stores and restaurants are.
But we also learn things via what amount to social transgressions. If you live in a big city, getting panhandled is a (probably genuine) show of desperation. Even if we try not to look or think too hard about their circumstances, some of the message still penetrates.
It may just be coincidence, but I’ve had a couple of the transgressions recently, and I wonder if they are another sign of stress in our society.
One was at my gym, which is in a large community center. I come late in the day, and the receptionist most days, of the week, who we’ll call Mary, is a woman in her late 50s. I had worked out she was living alone. She’d been friendly and we’d had some short conversations.
One day, she mentioned the death of her son, in a way that it would have seemed insensitive for me not to ask for more. I got a twenty-minute account of how he and, wound up going from Oxycontin to heroin because it was cheaper. She said she rationalized it was not that bad because he smoked heroin rather than injected it, but he had had a form of intermittent childhood asthma (I can’t remember the clinical name) that had kept him from pursuing a basketball scholarship, and the smoking brought his lung problems back. He tried without much success to get off, had started stealing to support his habit and wound up in prison for two years.
He’d moved in with her, worked at off and on jobs, and was still not clean all that often. She described him as a lost soul, someone who’d never had a driving interest or tight relationship with a girlfriend.
He’d come home one evening in August and went back to his bedroom. He came out a while later for a snack, grabbed a beer, spoke to her briefly, and returned to his chamber. A bit later, she heard a crash. She guessed as to what he’d knocked down and figured she’d better not intrude.
The next day, he hadn’t emerged by midday and she went to check on him. He was dead on the floor. She was crying so hard at this point that I wasn’t clear on whether he died of an overdose or from the item that crashed, a bookcase, falling on him.
She then recounted what happened next: her distraught call to the police, their cold treatment and hostile questions when they arrived, how she had nowhere to go and the only solace was a neighbor she barely knew coming over that day to sit with her and listen to her.
She didn’t have enough to afford to bury him. She had to beg people she knew at the community center for $200 so she would have enough to cremate him. She still didn’t have enough to buy nice urn but she had his ashes on her mantle along with his photo.
She told me this story the day after Kobe Bryan died. She said it meant a lot to her that three of her son’s friends had put on their Facebook pages that he would be shooting hoops with Kobe now.
I feel I’ve led a sheltered life, since I don’t know anyone personally who died of opioids (I do know one who died from meth, but he was the very good friend of a very good friend, so I was still a bit removed). So I also felt a bit uncomfortable at getting an education of sorts from hearing about her tragedy. And yes, this was her only child.
I have a feeling the management is trying to force her out, which I find appalling given that she clearly would have difficulty finding other employment. They have moved her off the afternoon/evening shift. They seem not to see her, an older woman with a heavy-ish accent as not the sort they want representing them; I now see younger people, more top 10% friendly, at reception when I go there.
I’m new there but I did give them a not-trivial donation to buy some extra equipment, so I in theory have more pull than your average Joe. However I’m not sure how to say, without looking like a pushy Yankee (which is even worse coming from a woman), that them giving her worse hours looks like age discrimination.
The other incident was on my way back from Dallas. There was no traffic that day, so wheelchair attendant had parked me close to the gate. I pulled out my laptop and started working.
Before the gate agents arrived, another wheelchair attendant came up, apparently my next minder. This was unusual; at best, they show up shortly before the plane starts boarding.
She was a short, very blonde middle aged woman with a round face and oversized, rectangular horn-rimmed glasses. She immediately started telling me she was a photographer and how digital cameras had really cut into her business. At the end, she gave me her card: Tammy Cromer.
Tammy then gave a long-form account of her role in shutting down a toxic plant run by Gibraltar, Inc. and her book about it: Fruit of the Orchard: Environmental Justice in East Texas. From the Amazon summary:
In 1982, a toxic waste facility opened in the Piney Woods in Winona, Texas. The residents were told that the company would plant fruit trees on the land left over from its ostensible salt-water injection well. Soon after the plant opened, however, residents started noticing huge orange clouds rising from the facility and an increase in rates of cancer and birth defects in both humans and animals. The company dismissed their concerns, and confusion about what chemicals it accepted made investigations difficult.
Outraged by what she saw, Phyllis Glazer founded Mothers Organized to Stop Environmental Sins (MOSES) and worked tirelessly to publicize the problems in Winona. The story was featured in People, the Houston Chronicle magazine, and The Dallas Observer. Phyllis Glazer was voted one of the 20 Most Impressive Texans of 1997 by Texas Monthly because of her work in Winona. The plant finally closed in 1998, citing the negative publicity generated by the group.
This book originated in 1994 when Cromer-Campbell was asked by Phyllis Glazer to produce a photograph for a poster about the campaign. She was so touched by the people in the town that she set out to document their stories. Using a plastic Holga camera, she created hauntingly distorted images that are both works of art and testaments to the damage inflicted on the people of a small Texas town by one company’s greed.In the accompanying essays, Phyllis Glazer describes the history of Winona and the fight against the facility, Roy Flukinger discusses Cromer-Campbell’s striking photographic technique, Eugene Hargrove explores issues of environmental justice, and Marvin Legator elaborates on how industry and government discourage victims of chemical exposure from seeking or obtaining relief.
Tammy’s account had much more detail on the horrific health problems in the community and the concerted efforts by the owners to hide evidence.
Tammy said her photographs had been turned into a show designed for an exhibition at a university that could fit into a lot of categories, such as art, environmental justice, and journalism.
She also described another East Texas project that might gel, a possible documentary about a woman who had slid into prostitution (she had clearly been groomed, first recruited to be a photography model, then paid more to dance, then offered much more to go make a patron “happy”, and she’d worked her way into a high-end clientele). She was “rescued” by a Christian and resisted his interest in marrying her. But he did help her buy an abandoned nursing home and turn it into a transition center for women who’d been sex trafficked. Tammy did give me the name of the woman in question but I didn’t record it. I gather this founder has gotten kudos precisely because her institution has a better success rate than others by virtue of being run by someone who had been in the trade.
Tammy also cheerfully told me about her divorce and how she was going to be working again at one of the local arenas for some upcoming concerts (which she liked, even though the tips could be terrific or terrible, getting to see the acts was a treat).
And then I had to board.
While Tammy was so extroverted she could carry off her presentation well (she was very engaging), it was still sad to recognize that someone who would ordinarily be able to pursue her craft, or have a job that might be more amenable to keeping it going as a sideline (say as a low-level administrator in a college or private school) instead was selling to everyone she met in her physically taxing day job.
I did order her book.