The Woman Who Is My Country
She was already in tears when she walked into the waiting area.
She was already in tears when she walked into the waiting area. I caught sight of her as I was finishing up paperwork from the case before hers. She was fourth in line and I kept glancing up at her as I worked my way through the people in front of her.
Criers are hard to deal with. Most people who come into the office are upset and on the defensive to begin with; they are either in the process of being evicted or they're in the process of being sued. Even those who are on the offensive are agitated. No one wants to sue or evict someone. It's a tiresome, tedious and sometimes heartbreaking process - and they're usually angry when it comes to that point. When someone is already crying when they enter the lobby, I know I've got a tough customer ahead of me. It's not my job to determine if the tears are real or not; I always go on the assumption they are. There are times when I'm proved later on to be wrong, but I would rather err on the side of being empathetic.
I finished up with the person before her - a mother evicting her drug-dealing son from their house - and called her to the counter. She launched into her story.
She was being evicted. She'd lost her job a few months back when the company she was working for slashed their workforce and she hasn't been able to find decent work since. She had never been out of work before. She'd had a job since she was 16. Her husband died five years ago. He was self-employed and didn't leave much. She's lived check to check for a long time, supporting herself and her young son. She fell behind on the rent. She had applied for assistance, a process that humbled her. Her landlord filed a proceeding against her. She said she was never served with the petition that would tell her of the court date. She was marked as a non-appearance and her landlord was awarded a default judgment and a warrant of possession. She woke up that morning to find a 72 hour notice from the Sheriff on her door.
It's a story I hear ten, twenty times a day. It's always the same story. And I always believe them because I am not the Judge. I am not there to decide their cases. I just help them fill out the forms to move their case on, to get a stay of eviction or to vacate a judgment. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt because it's what I would want if I were in their situation. I know they aren't all telling the truth. But sometimes I know. Sometimes I can tell.
I was showing her how to fill out the forms when a man stumbled into the office. He was using metal crutches, his left leg sort of dragging behind him as he walked. He was trying retrieve some papers from a plastic bag while keeping his balance and not having an easy time of it.
The woman I was helping stopped what she was doing and walked over to the man. She led him over to a bench, helped him sit down then asked him what he was there to do. He had a thick accent and spoke in half English, half what I assumed was French. She knew his language and they conversed fluently as he showed her papers, explaining what it was he wanted to do.
She came back to me and I looked at the clock. It was nearing 3:00. I told the woman that she needed to finish filling out her order if she had any hopes of a judge reviewing it today.
"It can wait," she said. "Your own things can always wait when there's someone in need."
She asked me for a small claims form for the man. I briefly explained to her the rules for filling out a form, firing off the same questions I ask everyone who is filing a claim "Is he a corporation? Does the defendant live in this county? Is it a car accident? Is it under $5,000?" She fired off the questions to him and there was obviously some issue as they went back and forth. She sat down again, started filling in the form for him as he dictated his information to her.
She was no longer crying. She shared a laugh with the man over something as they worked together to get his claim filled out. She was in her element, I could tell. Helping someone. Being kind and courteous, going out of her way for a stranger. She came back to me, asking what to do if the person he was suing was not a resident of the county, but he worked here. I told her we could try to serve them at the work address. She went back, related the information to the man in his native language and they completed the form together. She helped him walk up to the counter, holding his elbow to steady him. After I processed his form and he paid filing fee, she told him to sit down again.
"Is it ok if he waits here? I'm going to help him walk to the bus stop when I'm done."
Of course it was ok.
She finally finished her own form and I explained the rest of the process to her. I told her apologetically it was probably too late to get an answer from a judge today, then thanked her for helping the man.
"No, I should thank him for letting me help him. It's good to feel useful when you have been feeling like a drain on society."
I didn't know what to say. I told her we would give her a call when her order was ready, explained the different possible outcomes and what she could do after each one. I saw the tears well up again. She thanked me and left before she started crying again.
I thought about her as I watched the Republican National Convention. I thought about her being an immigrant, a woman, a welfare recipient, unemployed, possibly homeless. Who in this party would embrace her? What did their vision of American have in store for someone like her? What would their vision of her be?
They would see a person asking for a handout. They would see someone who was indeed a drain on the system. They would call her entitled, someone looking to benefit from socialist ideas.
What they would not see is a human being. A selfless, caring human being who puts the needs of others ahead of her own. They would not, could not know that she has a big heart and helping hands. They would not, could not know the circumstances that led her to be in a place where she is asking for help.
The America I know and love is an America where people help each other. It's a country where everyone does the heavy lifting together. It's a place where we don't forget there are people are less fortunate than us, where those who have lend a hand to those who don't. You can talk all you want about the community of your town and church, how you grew up with that sense of belonging with the potluck dinners and Little League games, but it means nothing if you don't want to make that small community broader, to be inclusive and encompassing.
Too often people don't venture outside their own views of the world. They see what they grew up with, what they are living with and they have no idea how the other two thirds live. Yet they are quick to pass judgment on those who don't live like them. They ignore whole communities, shun those with less and think it's so simple and easy to get more. They are the people who would take away rather than give. They are the people who think asking for help is weak and giving help even weaker. The sink or swim mentality.
When you tell the citizens of your country to sink or swim, you run the risk of sinking with them. We are a country. We are a country made up of varied communities and when those communities sink and we do nothing to do offer a hand or a rope, we sink with them. Without helping each other, we doom each other.
That woman I encountered this past Thursday is a symbol of what I want my America to be. Giving of ourselves to help others get by. When we do that, we help everyone. We are a nation of people uplifting each other instead of watching while others fail and flail. We can not be a nation of people who have swooping in to feed off the carcasses of those who don't. We must be a nation of helping hands in order to become one. When we become one, when we embrace all, when we include all, when we see we are all part of the larger community, that's when we rise above.
That woman is my America.