It is here. Bush has signed his last executive order, commuted his last sentence, embedded his last employee. People have swarmed into Washington; my television pans over colorful masses of cheering, shouting, crying people. Noses and cheeks are red, collars turned up, hats pulled down. As a nation, we are not at our sartorial best; we Americans have never really gotten the hang of cold-weather hats, it seems.
And still, we are beautiful. The joy in our faces makes us so. There are a few angry notes; part of the joy today is joy that at long last, Bush’s reign is over. The past two months have been a long exposure of a presidency’s-worth of shady business, good old boys, environmental rape, the politics of fear, the obscenity of a war for profit, and torture. More, they have been an exercise in cynicism—open acknowledgement of criminal acts followe by a shrug, and a “so what?”
Today, a handmade sign in the crowd reads, “BUSH: Get the Hell Out!” and when Cheney and Bush are announced during the ceremonies they are booed. Booed, by people who are here to celebrate their joy. But then, that’s part of their joy—that at long last Bush, Cheney and their vicious policies are behind us.
The swearing in is shorter than I expected; I have never watched one before. I understand that the true transfer of power happens behind closed doors, with the signing of documents, but this moment, the moment in which the President swears to honor the Constitution and lead our nation honorably is the heart of it, and somehow I expect it to last longer. It’s just a few words—words that I miss because a collection agency employee chooses that moment to call my telephone and ask me to go tell one of my neighbors—“Maxine,” she calls her (no last name) that she should call them (the Collection Agency) about a “very important matter.” I am no a fool; like everybody else, I know that’s code for “send us the damned money.”
I ask how she got my name.
“Your neighbor gave it as a reference,” she says.
“But I don’t even know the person you’re talking about,” I protest. (It later turns out that I do, it’s the nice old lady who lives across the street in the old farmhouse where she’s raised a family and from which she’s buried a husband. I do not know it’s her because I always call her “Mrs. –,” as I do all women older than I am unless invited to do otherwise. Good manners die hard.)
Good manners die hard, so I don’t just hang up on the vulture, even though I can see that the swearing-in is over and the speech has begun—a speech I very much want to hear. I take the time to explain that I am watching the Inauguration and do not wish to undertake collection agency duties on anyone’s behalf at this very moment.
“They’ll show clips tomorrow,” she insists.
I say maybe later and hang up as quickly as I can, but it is too late; I have missed the moment that may well be one of the most significant moments in American history—the moment that my teachers told me was impossible. We have elected a young, relatively inexperienced man of African-American descent to lead us. A man who a generation ago would have had to drink at a separate drinking fountain, who would have entered the movie theater through a different door, who would have gone to a separate school, who might well have had a hard time voting—and could well have been beaten for it afterward. A man who might well have been illiterate not because he could not learn, but because he had no opportunity. A man who, had he been alive when the White House was built, might well have been helped build it as part of a slave labor force.
The times, they are a-changing. The irony is that while that national history lies behind us, President Obama seems remarkably untouched by it. When race was raised, his response was that we live in a post-racial America. Our history was our history; this is now. I realize that while those of my generation still bear the scars of our racial divides, my son’s generation does not. Obama is my son’s President because they live in the same world, a world where everyone is polyglot—a little of this, a little of that, and what matters is what you do and how you act, rather than where you started out.
He is my President because I, like millions of others, chose that it should be so. I became involved. I donated to his campaign. I read the coverage. I haunted the fact-checkers. I started this blog. And I did it because then-Senator Obama reminded us all that we can be more than we have been, that we hold the power of change in our hands, and that our leaders rule by our will, and only by our consent. He reminded us all that we are necessary—every one of us—to the rebuilding of America, and that, with our help, America can be rebuilt stronger and better than it was before. But it will take all of us, working together. None of us can cede responsibility to another.
I change my mind about ignoring the collection call. I go to my neighbor’s house, knock on the door and tell her it. “I’ve got the number at my house,” I say. “If you’d like it, I’ll pass it on.”
“I’ve been getting these calls for a while now,” she tells me. “I’ve never heard of the company they say I owe. I don’t even know whom they’re trying to reach. They just keep calling me, and they won’t stop.”
“That’s odd,” I say. “They told me you’d given my name as a reference.”
“I don’t even know your name,” she says indignantly. “And it’s not my bill.” It’s true, she doesn’t know my name. We have been waving-across-the-street-and-shouting-hello and occasionally dragging-her-trashcan-to-the-curb neighbors. I know her last name because it’s on her mailbox. My name is not on my mailbox. How would she know it?
The light dawns. The agency has called me not because my neighbor lady gave them my name, but because they have obtained my address, my name, and my telephone number by some means, quite possibly illegal, and decided to turn me into their local branch collection office. And if they’ve done it to me, quite possibly they’ve done it to everybody else on the street. The thought of this woman being shamed—and it is shaming to get collection agency calls—throughout the neighborhood for a debt she has not even had the pleasure of incurring makes me angry.
I am also concerned. The collection agency has enough information about me to quite likely obtain credit card and bank information. They are clearly not hampered by rights to privacy. It is hardly surprising, I think, in a nation where President Bush and his minions set the bar so very, very low in that regard.
As I walk back across the street I realize that I am deeply angry. This stops now, I decide. At home I call the collection agency back at the number they asked me to pass on to my neighbor lady. I ask to speak to the manager. I tell him that one of his agents has been harassing an old lady for a debt she knows nothing about, and that they have now begun calling her neighbors and enlisting their aid in applying local pressure.
“This is wrong,” I tell him. “This lady is old. She’s in poor health. She did not incur the debt. She has little money. And your agent has not only been dunning her for a debt that’s not hers, she’s shaming her throughout the neighborhood. The only reason I was called is that I live close to her. I suspect several other people on our street got similar calls. This has to stop. Now.”
The clarity of it astounds me. There are some things in life about which there are no gray areas, and this is one of them for me.
“Let me check the file,” he says hastily.
And he does, and sure enough, several other numbers from our area code pop up as “contact numbers.” “I’m taking them out of the file now,” he assures me. “I’m taking yours out, too.”
Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. The company called expecting apathy, or cowed compliance. Instead they ended up sticking their hand into a buzz saw. I have not shouted, but I come from a long line of German people who can be very, very direct and very, very firm and still speak in well-modulated tones. There is a knack to saying, “You will…” and having people understand that they will indeed. I have that knack.
He asks respectfully that I have the neighbor lady call him on his direct line so he can straighten out the mess. He gives me his number and his extension. I offer the information to the neighbor lady. Then I call the agent who called in the first place.
I tell her what I have discovered, that it’s wrong, and that it must stop—no more calls. She tells me that I am “spying” on my neighbor lady. “You just had to know what was going on, so you called back. It’s none of your business.”
“You made it my business when you called me,” I tell her.
But she isn’t listening. She’s still talking about nosy people who can’t mind their own business and snoop into their neighbors’ private affairs.
When I try to speak she says, “So now you’re going to talk over me? Now you’re talking over me? “ And then she goes back to her remarks about my nosiness, and how I’ve inserted myself into a situation where I had no business being.
When I hang up I realize that I have done something that I never do—I have raised my voice.
I am not a shouter, and I never hang up on someone while they are speaking. I have been rude, and for a moment I am embarrassed. But then I look across the street at my neighbor lady’s house. It sags slightly to the right, and the paint is flaking off. I think of her inside, afraid to answer her telephone because she can’t know when it will be the impossible woman from the collection agency insisting that she pay money she does not have for a debt she did not incur, and I realize that there are some things worth shouting about, and that sometimes those of us can shout have to raise our voices for those of us who can’t.
The manager has been apologetic, but I have serious doubts about his efforts to “resolve” the situation. He may have meant them; he may have been saying what he felt would best suit his needs; he has, after all, simply made the same request that his obnoxious, pushy agent made: that my neighbor lady call him “about a very important matter.” While he has said that the “contact” numbers were obviously bad (I can almost hear him thinking that mine, in particular, had been very, very bad) the fact remains that his agency seems to routinely use numbers that result from invasions of privacy. I call the district attorney. They refer me to the police department. Before I call the cops I figure I’d better talk to the neighbor lady, whose business this was before the collection agency called me.
I cross the street again that afternoon. “Come in,” says my neighbor lady. I go in, and sit at her kitchen table, and I tell her about the manager, and how he’s asked her to call him directly so he can resolve the matter. I also tell her that I have called the district attorney, who recommends the police, that identity theft and fraud may be involved. She agrees, and seems happy for the help. Talk turns to other things: my son, her children, her health, my work, her lovely, dilapidated old house. The collection agency has turned us into sitting-at-the-kitchen-table-and-nattering neighbors. I leave her my number when she mentions that she sometimes has trouble catching her breath.
Back home, a news clip of the Inauguration is running. I sit down to watch. A choir from San Francisco is singing “America, the Beautiful.” The young faces and red hats are vivid in the icy air. A flock of white birds wheels around the Capitol Dome. President Obama slips his arm around his wife, smiles, and leans over to murmur in her ear. She cocks her head, smiles at her lap. The young voices of the choir soar with the white birds.
The pure, sweet voices pierce me, and suddenly I find myself crying. This is nothing new. I always get a lump in my throat when I hear the “Star-Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful,” and “This Land is Your Land”—songs that talk about the dream of America, the America we learned about in first grade.
I’ve always been that way—there is something incredibly beautiful and moving about a nation devoted to equality, to respect, to dreams. There is something powerful about the sweep and bounty of it, the scope of a vision that spans a continent, and a hodgepodge of peoples who when it comes down to it all want the same things: to realize their dreams, to feed their families, and to live with some degree of dignity and freedom. There is something about the phrase, “…amber waves of grain…”
That lump in my throat has been an embarrassment to me not because I thought the idea of America was foolish, but because I came of age in an era marred by a series of unjust wars, corrupt governance, and cynical, avaricious, money-grubbing politics. I was embarrassed because the gap between what we could be, and what we were as a nation was so great. We had lost our vision. The man I see smiling down at his wife has given it back.
I see her smile back, and I think of words she spoke at the beginning of the campaign—words that were used to smear her, to paint her as an “angry black woman,” and to discredit her husband. When he was nominated she said, “Today for the first time I am proud to be an American.”
I know exactly how she felt. Today, for the first time I am not only proud to be an American—I have always been that—but I am proud to be proud. I can sing our songs and know that they are not a lost past or an impossible dream. They can be real. They can be us. We can choose our better history, be our better selves. And today, we have made a good start.