Thursday, June 25, 2009

Privilege

It was nearing 11 p.m., and I walked into the restroom at work, and she was there, beginning to wash the sinks. On some nights, she and I are the only two people left on the 14th floor at this hour. We never speak.

She is older than I am. Maybe in her early 40s, maybe older, maybe younger. She has frazzled hair, cut into a messy bob, dyed a dark honey blonde color. But it's fading. And her roots are gray and black. She is heavyset, 5'2'' at most, and she has dark, sad eyes. She has deep wrinkles around those eyes. Rough skin. And she wears an ill-fitting, shapeless blue dress -- her uniform -- as she cleans our office at night.

I was wearing heels. Pants. A cashmere sweater. I was thinking about whether I had time to get a manicure before visiting my niece tomorrow and whether I should bring my flat iron to Italy when I went on vacation Friday...

And I felt like a terrible person, watching out of the corner of my eye as she wrung out a rag. I don't know what language she speaks, but she knows little English. We look away from each other a lot. As I edit our Web site, she tries to vacuum around my bag on the floor. I feel torn between picking it up to make it easier for her and feeling like picking it up makes it worse.

"You missed a spot."

See? That made you cringe. I feel like an ass having written it.

But so often I forget exactly how privileged I am in this world, and this woman brings it to the front of my mind, mostly because the look on her face every night, tired, worn out... We work in the same place at the same time, but I have never less "together" in someone's presence. And its particular to her. I wonder what it is that I see in her that makes me feel so... so much like I need to apologize to her for existing.

I have not had an easy life, but compared to most of this planet, I was born into a life of ease. I will likely never be truly hungry. I have a home. I have a good family that loves me that would take me in if I needed them to. I have money to travel to interesting places. I can spend $13 on a cocktail just because it looks delicious. I have an amazing education and have been given and earned extraordinary opportunities... I work in a fancy building. Eat in fancy restaurants. Can spend hundreds on a handbag and it just makes me feel embarrassed. It doesn't change a thing about my life.

Sometimes I dwell on the things that make me grouchy -- I almost wrote "unhappy," but its hard to really claim to be "unhappy," even with my current set of tribulations. And I have the luxury of walking away if the cost begins to outweigh the reward.

I am a fifth-generation American living in a posh neighborhood of New York City in the 21st Century.

I am what my ancestors came here to give their children the chance to become.

I wish we could show them.

There is a photograph of me as an infant. We are on the balcony of my great-great grandmother's apartment, above the family's bar in Manayunk, in Philadelphia. In this photograph: my great-great grandmother Sophia, my great-grandmother Helen, my grandmother Doris, my mother Karen, and me, Jennifer.

Five generations of women. Mother and daughter. From Poland to Philadelphia. From the Old World to the New. A chain of hope and optimism and striving to give your little girl a life without the things you endured.

Sitting in my grandmother's house in Saturday, in between my cousin's wedding and the reception, another photograph was taken.

My sister held her two-week-old daughter, Diana, sitting between my mother and my grandmother. Four generations of my family, smiling as I snapped my camera, looking at an echo of my own life, captured in a moment full of hope. Marriage. Birth. Future. Past. All at once.

And our wee girl, my beloved niece, has also been born into a world of privilege. She sleeps in safe, secure homes. She doesn't go hungry. She has more than enough clothes. When she is awake, around her family, we can't put her down.

We will do whatever we can to teach her, and to teach her cousins, my own children, and the rest of her generation, how to be compassionate and generous and loving. And to strive to be better and to leave things better than they found them. To encourage all that is noble in ourselves and to try and hide the ugly things until they must be confronted. She will someday squirm, forced to deal with who she is and how she fits into the world. And we will try to make that easier.

Until she was born, my thinking on these things centered on myself. On what I could do to feel less guilt over feeling I'd gotten off easy in this world in so many ways... But now I wonder how to make it even easier for someone else. But also question how to make sure she can still see. Can still know that what she has took generations to achieve. And that everyone that came before her built the world as best they could so that she could sleep peacefully at night, well fed on a soft pillow.

No comments: