This post is a slight deviation from my travel stories, but I was deeply moved by a stranger that I met and felt compelled to record the encounter.
I was out for a walk today when a young man called out to me. At first, I thought he was an Amazon delivery driver shouting a friendly hello, but as he started walking more quickly from a front porch to catch up to me, his gait suggested that he was a salesman. I stopped and turned to him and paused the audiobook that I was listening to.
“Hi! I’m just putting out some Trump campaign material. Who are you voting for?”
I was dressed in black knit pants and a black T-shirt emblazoned with “Let’s Begin With Justice!” in white painted over-sized letters. It is one of a few ‘statement’ shirts in my wardrobe. A pretty turquoise one begs people to “ vote as if your”…and lists various upsetting situations or conditions a person could be faced with such as if your land is on fire, your water is unsafe, your child is gay, your parents need health care. A royal blue one has images of the four female Supreme Court justices (Ginsburg, O’Connor, Kagan, and Sotomayor) and above them, large black letters declare “The Supremes”.
Every time I dress to go walking or bike riding, I wear one of these shirts and more than once, total strangers have commented on the Supremes shirt and asked where I got it.
“From my mom, who sent me two of them for Christmas!”
“Good on Mom!” they reply. The Vote shirt is just as popular. But today, Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in state at the Supreme Court, so I chose the “Justice” one.
I looked straight into his eyes and said, “Biden.”
“Oh!” he said as he exaggerated a comical gesture, grasping at his chest as though his heart was wounded. He was good-natured and young, and I chose to engage him.
“What are the issues that are important to you?” I asked him. “What issues do you want to resolve in this election?” I was curious about what would inspire this young man with the friendly, smiling eyes, and deep olive-toned skin to campaign for Donald Trump? He had an accent and features that I could not place—hints of Latino and Asian. This was an opportunity to speak to someone personally–not through keyboard warfare or Twitter bots.
His shoulders rounded and he looked away from me. He looked up at the sky, then down at his feet his gaze resting on a few orange leaves that have just started to fall from the trees. He shrank.
“A job, a way to support myself and help my family,” he said humbly.
I wondered what he was hearing from Trump that resonates with him? What motivates him to walk around neighborhoods and to the front doors of homes to hang Trump campaign swag? Four years ago, many votes were won with the pledge to reopen steel mills and coal mines—unrealistic feats in industries forever shifted by technological advances. Even more votes were secured with the promise of a great border wall—to keep people who look like him out of the country. What is the missing link in this chain of reason?
“That’s important to me too. And so is health care,” I said. “Do you know that the Affordable Care Act will be in front of the Supreme Court a week after the election? And that it is the GOP and Trump who pushed it through the court system to get it to that level to try to get it struck down? And if it is struck down, 100 million Americans could lose access to health care?”
“What?” His eyes widened. “I don’t watch much TV…”
“Yes. This is a major issue. The ACA—Obama care is what you’ve heard it called the most, but Obama did not name this law or insurance after himself. The Republicans started calling it that to place a negative nickname on it to press people to hate it,” I started.
“But it came out while Obama was in,” he said. “He didn’t name it that?”
“No, he did not. He only started referring to it that way because everyone else did and it was recognizable. The law, as the Democrats wrote it, is called the Affordable Care Act, and what it did was make health care more affordable and accessible to people of lower-income who may not have otherwise been able to get it. It also stopped insurance companies from being able to refuse to cover preexisting conditions,” I continued.
He squinted as he looked at me and I took it as an invitation to explain more thoroughly.
“What that means is, let’s say you have an aunt who is forty years old and she just battled breast cancer. She had good health care, had treatment, and seems to be in the clear. But, for some reason, she either loses her job or gets hired somewhere else. If the ACA gets struck down, then the law about covering preexisting conditions goes away.”
I explained, “If that happens, in a year or two when your aunt finds another lump, her new insurer can look at her and say, “Well, you have had breast cancer before, so this is a preexisting condition and we are not covering any tests for this, no chemo, no radiation, no surgery, no treatment.” If this ACA gets struck down, her new insurer could deny her coverage if her cancer comes back. That was the norm before the ACA which includes this protection. The Republicans have fought it from the start, and they have taken it all the way to the Supreme Court. They promise a replacement because they know that this is a huge voter concern, but they clearly do not intend to live up to that. They refuse to explain how they will prevent people from losing this protection when they are the very ones taking a sledgehammer to it.”
“Wait. That could go away?” he asked, genuinely befuddled.
I tried to not let my frustration show. Oh, my God, how many of these voters are out there? How can anyone still be so unclear on these issues? On the other hand, I was glad that he asked that question—it showed that he was hearing the information with discernment.
“Yes, it very well could. If it weren’t for Trump and his party, it would not be in front of the Supreme Court now and at risk. Democrats fight for your health. I have good health care because I’m in a union and have a good contract— ten years ago I had a major back surgery that cost $250,000 and I only paid $150.00. That is why I vote the way I do. They aren’t always firm and successful, far from perfect, but they are much more dedicated to that platform than the GOP. I didn’t even want to be in a union, but now I can say it ended up being a really good thing.”
“You had a surgery that cost that much, and you only had to pay what?” he asked, stunned.
“It was $150.00 out of pocket for me because my union negotiates strong benefits. But Republicans are union-busters. It’s not that they want everyone sick, they don’t care if you’re sick or not, except if they are making money off the drugs you need. It’s just that they are more concerned with keeping large insurance companies richer and richer. Insurers don’t pay your bill because they care about you. They don’t want to pay your medical bills. They are in the business of trying to take more premiums and pay for fewer patients.”
“Democrats are not Communists or Socialists like conservatives want to overwhelmingly label us,” I said. “We just believe that everyone has a human right to better resources. The less fortunate should have opportunities that improve their quality of life.”
Friendly Eyes Guy looked around and with his chin tilted, looked up at me from a furrowed brow.
“I mean, I found this job on Indeed. I didn’t even know what I would be doing when I got here. They offered to pay for my airline ticket, put me up, pay me,” and he gestured to the nice car he was driving. “I needed a job. I didn’t even know what I’d be doing until I got here.”
“Where did you come out here from?” I asked him.
“Well, I’m from the Marshall Islands, but I came here from Las Vegas. Do you know about the Marshall Islands?”
“A little. I know that since World War 2, it’s been subjected to dangerous bombs and tests that have left horrific radiation. I can’t believe that anyone has been able to live on those islands since the war. The radiation—the danger in the air and water, the fish. How old are you? Are you registered to vote? Or can you vote?” I asked.
“I’m 25. I’ve never voted. My passport isn’t US,” he said. “I don’t remember much. I was really young. We left there on a ship to go to Hawaii and that’s where I grew up. Then we moved to Vegas. Hawaii is too expensive. Vegas is too hot.”
“What kind of ship did you travel on?” I wondered if they took a cruise and settled on Hawaii or had they been evacuated.
“I don’t remember, I think it was like a…some business ship. Everyone was sick at the islands. Everyone had cancer, cancer everywhere,” he said as he waved his hand over his chest and abdomen. We couldn’t find food, you know, nothing was safe. We had to wait for US ships to bring canned food,” he said.
My heart broke in that moment. Here was a guy who had to leave behind his beautiful native island—to live in one of the countries that made his island unlivable. Warmongers used it as a nuclear bomb testing ground, and now the only job he can find is one campaigning for the man who currently has the power— and the temperament— to gleefully wreak the same destruction anywhere on the planet.
I may only have this one chance to open this man’s eyes and what he learns, he will hopefully share with others.
“You need to understand,” I started, “that Trump and his party want to shrink or stop most foreign aid. They always say that under the guise of ‘we need to take care of our own before everyone else’, but the truth is, there is still a lot of homelessness and poverty and hunger here. He is a power and money grabber. His family can’t even run charities in New York state anymore because they got caught skimming money away from funds that were intended for wounded veterans and kids with cancer—they spent that money on luxuries and his campaign. Those fliers you have were paid for with money that may have been meant to go toward sick kids or wounded veterans!”
“Oh, man, I’ve seen homelessness! Man, what is homelessness here? I lived in a hut!” This sweet man, an immigrant, has a perspective that I, nor a single one of my acquaintances will ever have. There was no way to bridge that gap, but I wanted him to know that I recognized the disparity. I shared with him a scene that I witness every day at my job—not a Facebook post, not Twitter, and not through an Instagram filter, but a personal experience.
“Look, I’m a flight attendant. I’m on a leave right now but I am a flight attendant on private jets. I fly the wealthiest movers and shakers of the world. Have you ever seen a parent who can’t afford a bowl of berries or an orange or apple as a healthy snack for her kid? Well, I’m up in the sky serving sliced fruit from a silver platter. Someone paid $500.00 for that tray of fruit— and they are laughing at people like you and me, out here working. They laugh. They watch the news, they watch movies—they see the way most of the country live, but it doesn’t affect them!”
“Five hundred dollars for fruit!” he gasped.
“That’s only one example of the disconnect. They can afford any meal or doctor’s appointment. They can call up a flight to go from Vegas to Aspen just for lunch. Now, a lot of them are very philanthropic and do a lot of charity work—but they put people in office who install laws and regulations that allow them to keep getting richer and richer. The problem is that poor people often don’t get that same benefit. A lot of the measures that make rich people richer are directly responsible for keeping poor people poorer.”
“Poor, sick people can’t afford insurance, so they are limited to cheap medicines, so they get sicker instead of getting real help to heal. I know people who can barely afford to take a sick kid to the doctor, a car, gas, food—the $300 or so that got taken out of their paycheck for taxes would have covered some of that. I wish they could see what I see when a millionaire has a plane all to himself and pays a far lower percentage of taxes compared to the average worker.”
His eyes were wide, his mouth agape. I think the point of income disparity was getting through.
“Now, let’s talk about security. Trump has thumbed his nose at the norms. He has rebuffed oversight, such as security staff listening in while he talks to foreign leaders. He has ordered the translators to destroy notes taken when he’s speaking with foreign leaders. He’s got properties and business interests that give other countries—hostile ones like the Middle East—leverage over him because he wants to keep making money from those while he’s president. He has ignored all the previous standards set by previous presidents.”
“A hundred or so of his administration people— some high-ranking military officials and those in international security roles— have left and are coming out in public saying how dangerous he is. Professionals who have worked for Republicans their entire careers are saying that he is a menace, has no idea what he’s doing, but even worse, knows how destructive his acts are, but has no regard for the country, only his business and bottom line.”
“There are ways that other parts of government are supposed to be able to oversee or investigate these risks to keep our elected officials in line and keep them from being vulnerable to foreign influence. He is decimating all those measures. If it looks like he’s falling short of winning a court case, he fires the attorneys, prosecutors, or judges. It’s a slippery slope to autocracy.”
He was still rapt, and if it weren’t for this raging virus putting a stranglehold on warm social norms, I would have invited him to come have a beer on the porch where I could show him where to find sources to read.
“Your islands are what they are because of Hitler. We are at risk of Trump being able to wreak similar damage to many, many more areas. This is not the candidate to work for. Please watch Rachel Maddow. She’s overwhelming, but you’ll see how some of these issues are covered. She has scholars on, documents from courts— there are resources for you to look at, so you don’t just let someone tell you what to think. Anderson Cooper is great too. He’s on at 8:00 on CNN.”
Oh, Lord. He’s never heard of Rachel Maddow or Anderson Cooper. And he is putting out fliers for Trump.
“Watch AC and Rachel, CNN at 8:00, MSNBC at 9:00.” I’m sure he is drowning under my blue wave.
“Rachel Maddow and Anderson,” he repeats.
“Now, let’s talk about voter suppression. For example, Florida is in a fight to keep convicted felons from voting. The law says that after they’ve served their sentences, they are supposed to have their voting rights reinstated. They are out of prison and trying to rebuild their lives and should have a say in their society. But in Florida, the GOP is trying to keep people from voting if they owe any fines or court costs associated with that sentence that they had to serve.”
“In court, it was argued against as a poll tax, intended to prevent lower-income people from voting, because the GOP realizes that this is a demographic that leans to Democrats and they don’t want that population to be able to vote. Consider the kind of people this most affects—black men and lower-income. That is the overwhelming demographic incarcerated. They are the ones that could possibly be prevented from voting. Poll taxes are illegal, but the side that wants to keep lower-income people powerless get around this by holding these outstanding fines over their heads.”
“Now, former New York City mayor Bloomberg has raised funds to help those released felons pay off those fines so they can have their voting rights reinstated. It is just to clear their debt so that they can vote—they are not obligated to vote one way or the other, this just allows them to have a clean bill so that they can go to the polls and exercise their rights.”
“Republicans are mad that he did that and are trying to accuse him of illegal campaign financing, but it’s no different from paying off a bill so you can get more credit. Or a bar bill so you can start another tab. This is important because there may be some people out there who only owe less than $100, but that would keep them from voting if they can’t pay that fine. And there is enough to worry about when you’re fresh out of jail—housing and food—if you have no friends or family to help you. And the friends who may be able to help may be friends who you were involved with before you went to jail—or be part of the reason you ended up in jail. If that’s all you have, you may go back down the same road and end up back in jail.”
“Oh, man, I need to read up on things. I don’t know about any of this,” he said. I felt bad about overwhelming the guy, but how often do you get a chance to engage like this?
“I mean, I don’t get the whole Black Lives Matter,” he said.
“I don’t either, to a point. I don’t like how the message has been twisted. Marches and protests are fine, but the rioting is awful. The violence and looting just have to stop. It is ridiculous to destroy neighborhoods and businesses—it kills families and creates more hardship for anyone who lives there. They are only making things worse for themselves. But it’s a cycle we can’t seem to get out of. Are you familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird?” I asked him.
“Mockingbird? I… think,” he searched the sky for what to say. He obviously didn’t know the story and I didn’t want him to embarrass himself by pretending that he did, so I lunged right into it.
“To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most beloved books in American literature, widely taught in schools. It was written decades ago but will forever be a relevant lesson. The story is set in a small southern town in the 1930’s. It’s about how the town reacts to a respected local white lawyer when he stands up to defend a black man who is falsely accused of raping a local white woman. Even when Atticus’ argument in court proves that the woman lied, the townspeople were so determined in their racism and bullishness, that they will not back down. They won’t acknowledge that the man is innocent. They want to kill the black man and they want revenge on Atticus. His kids are attacked. It’s a tragic story—this shirt I am wearing is from when I went to see the play in New York, but I’m sure that as neighbors see me in it, they assume it’s from Black Lives Matter.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” he repeated.
“These issues are still unchanged. The candidate you are helping to promote is no friend to people of color—not just blacks, but people like you. They are pursuing measures and legislation that will be detrimental to families like yours. They act like if more people have better rights, it decreases the rights of the rest of us. It just doesn’t have to be that way. I’m not saying Democrats are perfect or that there aren’t any crooked ones—there are bad players, even criminal—all across the board. But the platforms are rooted in trying to improve the lives of everyone, those who can’t fight for themselves, who don’t have access to information or resources that could help them, civil rights, human rights.”
“On the flip side, I’m not trying to say that all Republicans are bad. I know a lot who cry their eyes out at other people’s suffering. But the major weight on the issues for Republicans in power always leans more to the “I got mine. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” Well, not everyone has the strength or opportunity to make those efforts.”
“When someone can’t walk, you don’t leave them alone in a basement. They need help getting up the stairs. No, we can’t just be giving out all kinds of handouts. No, it’s not okay for some of us to be expected to work and fund a lazy person’s sloth without them expected to make some effort. I’ve worked my butt off, I’ve had twenty-hour duty days and I agree that it’s not fair to be expected to hand it all over to someone who can work but refuses to. But there has to be a balance of effort here, just some common sense.”
“Oh, man.” He put his hands on his hips and surveyed the neighborhood. Large two-story houses with richly manicured and landscaped lawns, three-car garages, and rose bushes exploding with pink and crimson blossoms surrounded us. Every occupant over the age of 10 likely had his own smartphone and a world of information within a few taps of his fingertips. The homeowners here are people who likely decided their votes long ago and no new flier or sound bite will influence a change of heart. I was relieved at that. At this point in 2020, after nearly four years of Trump and just days into the chaos and heartbreak of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, I can’t imagine that there are many who can be swayed to vote for a candidate just because of the freshness of a piece of campaign material presented on their front door.
“What about this COVID thing? I mean, I don’t understand about this whole virus,” he expressed.
“Well, nobody does yet. We just know that it is spread the same way as a cold or flu—touching something that is contaminated and then getting it into your body by rubbing your eyes or touching your nose or mouth. If it touches your mucous membrane, it is in your system. It can also spread by breath if you are too close.”
“Think of the jetway that you use to board a flight. I keep a scarf to cover my face when I’m in that walkway between the airport building and the aircraft. All the passengers are crammed close together, everyone coughing and sneezing, and as the line moves toward the boarding door, you’re walking right into what they just blew out. The reason COVID is such an issue is because it is a strain that we have never dealt with before and have no natural immunity to, and it is breaking all kinds of predicted patterns. At first it seemed the most vulnerable people were elderly, especially those who may already have weak heart or lungs like with lung cancer, congestive heart failure, or asthma.”
“But it has killed young, healthy people as well,” I continued. Some people who would seem vulnerable to it have tested positive for it and never had even a mild cold symptom. It’s extremely contagious, spread by people who don’t even know they have it—which is great that they don’t get sick. But the person they spread it to in casual contact may be affected to the other extreme.”
“It’s the unknown that makes it still so dangerous. Even those who recover are seeing lingering effects, some severe. It turned out to not just attack the lungs and breathing, but is vascular as well, causing clotting issues, strokes.”
“And again, about that ACA? If the Supreme Court strikes that down, everyone who has had COVID—whether just a positive test with no symptoms or recovered from being down with it—will be considered to have a preexisting condition. Suppose someone had it and was in the hospital and had the vascular issues which leads to some kidney issues, which damages them badly enough that they lose some function, but the patient recovers. Suppose he lost his job due to COVID. He gets a new job in a few months.”
“A year later, his kidney issues are worse, or he has a stroke. That new insurer can refuse to pay for his care if they say, “You had COVID before you were insured with us. Your kidney and vascular damage happened before you got this coverage. Those are preexisting conditions due to COVID. We’re not paying for your ambulance, your ER, your MRI that diagnosed the stroke, your stint procedure, your blood thinners, your rehabilitation, your physical therapy.”
“This is the kind of situation that could happen if this law gets struck down. It was argued through the courts before COVID, but the GOP has not been satisfied with the lower courts’ rulings, so they have succeeded in getting it to the Supreme Court. The timing could not be worse. Over the summer, in the depths of the pandemic, they scheduled to hear it a week after the election. The actual decision won’t come right away, but we have to vote for president and Congress with this up in the air.”
“By the way,” I said, “You’re okay out here walking around outside, but you need to have a mask on to go into a building. And try to keep about 6 feet between yourself and anyone, especially if not masked. Everyone around here is pretty good about taking these measures. It was really bad here on the east coast, especially New York. People are tense.”
“I know, no one wants to look at you, say hello…” he lamented, looking sad and lonely.
“Well, this isn’t the friendliest area even in the best of times, but really, everything is just really bad right now between the virus and politics. I know nurses who are working with this illness. You don’t want to risk it. Please, just look into these things. At least look into the issues and learn how each candidate stands on them. Learn about what can affect you. Health care affects us all and that is one of the greatest risks right now.”
“I will! I’ve got a lot to look at tonight,” he said. “What’s your name?”
I liked the kid, but I gave him an initial instead of my real name.
“Betsi,” he said, and he reached out to shake my hand. I hesitated but reached out to meet his. It’s been months since I’ve shaken hands with anyone and I knew that I shouldn’t, but I did. And then I wondered how fast I could get home to wash my hands and hoped that he had some sanitizer in his car. That was stupid and another possible teaching moment, but I didn’t take it. I had already spent the last 30 minutes telling the poor guy how he was on the wrong side of everything— I didn’t want to leave him feeling that I thought he was dirty or dangerous.
“Okay, Betsi, you be careful out there and have a good day,” I said.
“Thanks, D, and enjoy the rest of your walk!”
I put the buds back in my ears and pushed play on my audio book again, even though I wasn’t listening to it through the storm of thoughts screaming in my head. A few houses down the street, I met my husband as he rode his bike. We stopped and I told him about Betsi. He got out his phone and looked up Marshall Islands and found an article from the LA Times that was published last December. It explained the possible vulnerability of its citizens who have come to the United States. They are able to come to work and go to school without visas—as long as we have the military presence there. If we leave, they will lose their legal status to live in the States.
I got back to the house and went in to wash my hands and look up the article that my husband had pulled up. I copied down the link and went to the garage to get on my bike and hoped to catch Betsi before he left the neighborhood. The loop around our subdivision is a mile and a half. I rode all the way around it once, looking for his car on the side of the streets and down the cul-de-sacs. I looked to the front doors of all the houses in case he was walking around door to door, but he was gone.
There is another similar subdivision that I often walk and bicycle around that is separated from ours by a two-lane highway. If I were canvassing this area, that would be a reasonable place to go after exhausting my own loop, so I started in that direction. With the piece of paper that I wrote the link on wrapped on the handlebar under my grip, I thought, “This is stupid. It’s just a missed chance and I won’t find him. I probably upset him so badly that he’s crushed and decided to chuck the day.”
But then there was another thought. “I don’t believe all this awful can continue to happen. What does it say to those who have fought so hard and haven’t lived to see this ship get righted? What are John Lewis and John McCain thinking when they see what is happening right now— and how easily it can be changed if the right information gets power?” And then, as goofy and hokey as it sounds, I prayed, “RBG, lead me to this guy. I’m doing my part, I got back out here on a bike to find him when I could have stayed home, now just make it work. The energy of the universe says you’re going to do this.”
The other neighborhood is smaller than mine and I was about half-way around it when I glanced down a cul-de-sac as I passed it. There were several cars parked along one side, and a person on the sidewalk, texting as he walked. I rode on by. Was that him? What was he wearing? I don’t remember. He was wearing a ball cap, I remember that. Was that guy walking back there wearing one? I’ll go around the whole loop and come back around. No, he may get in his car and go. I should turn around now and go look again just to be sure it’s not him.
I slowed my ride and did a U-turn in the street. The person walking was wearing a white ball cap. Then I recognized his pants—a gray and silver camouflage pattern.
“Betsi!” I yelled. He looked up at me, shocked to hear someone shouting his name. “Betsi, I was looking for you!”
“You were looking for me?” he said with a surprised smile.
I rolled up to him and handed him the piece of paper. “Here. I want you to read this article. I was telling my husband about you and he found this.” I told him a little about what it said. “I don’t know what Trump’s plan is for the islands, but he’s pulling troops from Germany and has talked about pulling troops from Korea. If he pulls everyone out of Marshall Islands, you and your family may not be able to stay here. You’ll lose legal status, according to the agreement we’re under now. This could affect you. This is directly about your family.”He looked at the paper and looked at me. “But that would be like, I don’t know,” he said, confused.
“It would be like deportation. It would be deportation,” I said. “Look, this guy is trying to get rid of everyone here who came from somewhere else. DACA—these kids and young people who have amnesty because of Obama—they were brought here by their undocumented parents. But they are now adults and in college, working—the only life they ever knew is here. But the GOP and Trump are trying to kill that agreement. Some of these kids don’t even speak the language of the country they could be sent back to. You need to get this! Again, I know you’ve got to do today what you’ve got to do. But learn about this and try to find a different job. And if you want to give me all those fliers, no one is going to tell on you…” I offered, jokingly—well, halfway jokingly. I envisioned burning them in a trash can. Not in my fireplace. I won’t have that energy sullying the air in my home.
“Oh, now, I…” he started with a sheepish smile.
“I know, Betsi, I know, just kidding. But I want you to look at that article and find more information. These things could directly affect you. And another thing—don’t shake hands.”
Taken aback, he said, “Don’t shake hands? Why?”
“This virus. It is really dangerous. Very contagious. Everyone understands—it won’t appear rude if you can’t shake hands. Especially out here on the East coast. People here are taking the precautions seriously.”
“Can we fist bump?” he asked, putting forth his fist.
“Elbow bump is better,” I said and offered him my bent arm. “Okay, you be careful out here, okay?”
He bumped my elbow with his and laughed.
“I will. Thank you, Dee Dee.”
If I owned a business, I would have given him a job, any job—I don’t care what his background or skills are. I rode away with a heavy and anxious heart. He walked on as he held a stack of doorknob fliers bearing the smiling face of the man with his fate in his hands.