Friday, March 11, 2005

How things are "outside the beltway."

Southwest Florida on a March afternoon is a bikers paradise. The sky was cloudless.
The temperature was about 65 and breezy, validating the decision to wear tights under my shorts. I rode for more than four hours, extending my trip when I got lost twice – and I didn’t care. Both the ocean and the lagoon that separates barrier islands and mainland sparkled.
But it is a conversation that lingers in my memory. A barbershop caught my eye as I pedaled along, after a lunch of oysters and stuffed mushrooms. It was empty and getting a haircut before embarking for Sri Lanka was on my ‘to do’ list. I stopped, locked my bike and entered. The owner was an attractive, if a bit careworn middle aged woman. Like an amateur Studs Terkil I sought to learn something about her and her life.
She had opened the shop a year ago, after spending more than 25 years working for others “which was hard.” Her clients were predominantly men; women who wanted permanents went to the mail “hair stylist” a few doors down. (he drove a sporty Miata, I later noticed). She had two grown boys – she had advised them not to go into the hair cutting business. Hair cutting was hard, because you were on your feet all day. Her back and neck hurt and she feared that the disks in her spine might be degenerating. I recommended chiropractic assistance, but of course could not refer her to my incomparable Dr. Cheryl Gottesfeld, who seems to have a remedy for most things that ail me. She was not complaining about her circumstances and was cheerful, for the most part. She accepted the pain that accompanied her working and many of her non working hours as reality.
But lack of health insurance, it became clear, was an overriding concern. “I don’t go to the doctor, or even to a chiropractor, because they would just tell me I need to do something I can’t afford,” she told me, “and I worry about what will happen to me if my back gets so bad that I can no longer work.” This was not a slick politician’s sound bite on the Sunday morning talk shows or part of a multi million dollar TV campaign by supporters or opponents of some health care option. This was simply the reality of a middle aged woman, who had raised two sons and opened her own business, worrying about her future on a beautiful Florida afternoon.
American is a rich country. In time of need or crisis, our political leaders can rise to the occasion. We found the wealth and the will to topple the Taliban and Saadam Hussain. We have the wealth to fund Super Bowl commercials and multimillion dollar political campaigns. Television adds (unlike me, my daughter has a TV, so I can expose myself to this facet of our culture) endlessly extol the virtues of prescription drugs, while reminding us, in the last sentence to “talk to our doctor?” As if most of us, even those with health insurance like me, had a personal doctor or if we did have one, that he or she had time for a conversation with us.
Yet here is a woman who, one day, may have the misfortune to be incapacitated by a physical condition that, in all likelihood, could be remedied by some decent medical attention. This is not a Tsunami victim, an amputee from Sierra Leone’s conflict, an AIDS victim in Botswana, young children left bereft by marauding militias in Darfor, an Iraqi policeman who took the job to feed his family blown to bits by a suicide bomber. These are tough problems; perhaps unsolvable problems. This is just an ordinary woman, a decent human being, with chronic back pain and a job that makes it worse.
Amidst the posturing, hypocrisy, dissembling and ideological wrangling that has become the norm of political discourse in Washington, our political leaders have not found away to provide many middle class American citizens, let alone impoverished ones with decent health care. It makes me sick – and ashamed. Where are our priorities? America’s two tier health care system, is an abomination and a disgrace. As citizens, we can at least acknowledge this reality – every day – rather than engaging in slick self-delusion.
Solving this problem is not my top priority, but it should be someone’s priority. It should be a priority of the Senators and Representatives we elect in our democracy to represent us. It should be a priority of our President.
My haircut cost $10. I paid my new acquaintance, left a $2 tip, promised to return when I visited next year, and went on my way.
That’s how things are outside the beltway, this Friday evening.

2 Comments:

Anonymous afreier@alum.american.edu said...

I stumbled on dormgrandpops bolg this morning! My daughter heard last night via email of her acceptance to AU. Her Dad and I are both AU alum and look back at those years with found memories. I am an SIS grad and am sure I know Dormgrandpop.
I've enjoyed reading some of your Blogs and applaud you for being "right" there with the students. Write on!

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