The blocks of concrete sidewalk in between two rusty, red brick buildings prickle my skin. I lay out my piece of brown corrugated cardboard and am comforted by its smoothness. It provides insulation on a breezy summer night. I curl up, cramped, in the fetal position; my limbs grow limp as my eyelids weigh down over two chocolate eyes. I can feel my fuzzy black dreadlocks falling down the nape of my neck and into the collar of my thin cotton t-shirt. I pull my white tube socks up to my knees with the help of my toes; only the space between them and the bottom of my shorts is now left uncovered and open to the wind. I deliberately position myself in an attempt to conserve energy before morning comes and invites my stomach to turn into a ferocious growling beast. The storeowner will harp about me finding another stoop by prodding my body with a cobweb-infested broom. I will worry about that tomorrow. For now, I escape into a deep, silent slumber. I begin to dream of another life with a different social setting.
My dream becomes a nightmare as fingers of the city's darkness wrap around my body. A lady sitting on the roof of a white stretch limousine wears a frilly red dress and beckons to me with pouting lips and longing eyes. Her haughty body language dominates the natural surroundings and commands that all who gaze upon her know of her superiority. Her pink skin is pulled and pierced and stretched by massive amounts of beaded pearls and jewels. Everything of beauty at that moment is ruffled by a gentle wind. Tree branches, the clouds, and billowing red fabric move without restraint. The mysterious woman's twiggy figure and peroxide-blonde hair remain rigid, unmoved, and stoic. The mental image is finalized by white stencil letters of the "HOLLYWOOD Hills" sign sitting on the edge of the landscape line in the distance. Those happy letters scream and spit in my face the vicious words, "Look at me—I'm wealthy and therefore life is good! Don't you wish you could be me?" My eyes grow weary at the sight of such a lost and twisted outlook on life.
On a purely physical level, she disgusts me to the point that my eyes begin to burn. When I peer just inside the limousine door, I see an array of beverages on ice. Breads, fruits, meats, and cheeses are displayed on trays, and there is a mini-fridge for her convenience. My mouth waters, but then my eye catches a medicine bottle labeled "dieting pills" with elaborate medical subtitles that I can't even pronounce. At that moment, I realize that not a crumb of these delicious foods has ever passed through the red lady's wet mouth and bleached teeth. The vision of swelled bellies and emaciated faces of the children and mothers I share the dirty streets and sidewalks with flash before my eyes. I doubt that the red woman has ever thought of those who work eleven-plus hour days, enduring physical labor for the sole purpose of feeding their malnourished children. The mentality of achieving the "American Dream" shines brightly in this woman's face as a veil of ignorance masks the dire circumstances of others. The red lady must not have seen this because she begins bubbling over with laughter and presses a cigarette to her lips. I squint and see her lungs filling, turning a deeper shade of charcoal black with every casual puff of nicotine.
Suddenly, I shuffle in my sleep when I feel a jolt of an elbow poke to the ribs from the little girl lying next to me. She begins coughing and sneezing uncontrollably. The local hospital has turned the child away for the second time this month due to her inability to afford health insurance and medical care. She walks several miles everyday to get medication and cough syrup in order to ensure a decent night's rest. That is what one does when she wants more than anything else to be healthy. I am torn by the little girl's hacking cough as my exhaustion takes control over my body, and the red dream woman pries back into my dreams. The red woman speaks up and rattles on about her perfect balance of caloric intake and exercise routine. This is what she considers "healthy behavior." The two lives I've observed contrast each other drastically. I must question which of the two lifestyles is actually healthier. Physically, the sick child is most unhealthy, but she is mentally willing to do, say, or consume anything to save herself from illness. The young woman is clinically healthier, yet substitutes well-balanced meals for diet supplements and trades medication for cigarette butts.
I snicker when I avert my eyes upward to the roof of the limousine. I ask myself why the red lady in a frilly, expensive ballroom dress is sitting as if her posing is an everyday occurrence. Then, as my face brushes a manufacturer's staple still left in the cardboard scrap, I know why the lady is perched so high with such austere demanor. I cannot hold back my emotions any longer. I scream to the red lady, "Why must you sit so high above the rest of us? Are you able to fool yourself into thinking you are made of something other than human flesh and bone?" The red lady uncrosses and then crosses her legs again. She looks around, shocked by the betrayal of her subjects.
"I beg your pardon? Dahlin' please, of course I know why you must look up to me. Don't you see that your anger is proof of great envy over my position? You cannot even fathom the great hardships I go through so that I can lead your people in a positive direction."
As I focus on our body language, it becomes clear that even movement is selective in portraying our positions in society. Neither of us would ever be able to realistically reverse roles because our personalities are clearly rooted in the surroundings and material belongings, or lack thereof, that we possess. Each of us stubbornly focuses on our own perspective, ignoring the plausibility of another's view. "Cartography of the privileged" is created to differentiate between the "haves" and the "have-nots," rendering the latter invisible (Hesford 254). Everything about her presence is exaggerated and presented in a manner where an onlooker is forced to cast upward glances. The split levels of one lying on the ground in a city street versus one positioned to literally "look down upon" subjects below speaks volumes not only in the present situation, but in historical hierarchy. The red lady subconsciously refers to "moral economy" in relation to her thought-process in dealing with lower classes (Hesford 254). She believes that it is morally acceptable to become wealthy from the labor of others. The current American society relies on this premise to provide blue-collar labor for their manufacturing needs. Thus, the red lady has no reason to question the error of her ways from a moral stance. I am taken aback by the brash realization that the upper-class idea of "bettering society" is to role-model materialism and superficiality to those in a lower class.
I attempt a second jab at the red lady and calmly voice, "No, I think you have neglected reoccurring patterns in the mindset of the arrogant upper-class system. Anytime one of my people, those in the lower-class level, challenges a higher power there evolves ‘a built-in resistance to reform'" (Gupta 155). This is evidenced not only in visual images, but also historically during the social reform of the last century. I digress, thinking of the stories my grandparents would tell me as a child. "Even then any attempt to create reform within the caste system was concentrated on the bettering of the Upper-class" (Gupta 155). I wrap my fingers in a tight fist and watch my knuckles turn white. Similar to today, "the social evils prevalent among the lower castes [were] also grievously ignored" (Gupta 155). I stifle a gasp, recalling my grandfather's employment in a rural farm setting. He was burdened physically with backbreaking labor, lived from paycheck to paycheck, and always silenced his true opinions in the presence of his employer. Not once did this employer inquire about his happiness or his family's well being. He was assigned a task and then ignored as a contributing member of society.
"You may say that your people are an example to follow; however, a concrete wall is built and reinforced to prevent an overthrow of power." In response to my defiant words the red lady exemplifies the essence of my theory. "Oh naïve one, you must be mistaken. We want your kind to feel welcome and encourage them to mirror our actions. Don't you see that our life of wealth and beauty is the life that everyone desires?"
The red lady begins choking on her words and takes a swig of her dry martini. I smile as she struggles to finish a thought that relates to no one I know in my class level. The red lady seems to sense my waning attention and interest in her ideas. This infuriates her and before I turn away from the limousine, she shouts out: "You should know that your existence means nothing in the eyes of many! You are the type of person that functions as a means of labor, yet reaps none of the benefits. By taking this position during the current generation, your role holds no place of esteem in America. My class may not be able to accomplish as much without your body's physical capabilities. However, you stand for the persons that society has long forgotten throughout the passing of years; your usefulness is depleted. Many of your kind have attempted to rebel against us. They have always failed! Your kind has tried through racial, ethnic, and financial venues to weed out people of power due to jealousy."
A ringing sensation floods my ears, and it is clear to me that the woman is infuriated because her culture has failed her. The bitterness that she has for my lack of respect for conformity is a cultural "site of contestation" (Hesford 255), or the struggle that the red lady has in proving her success to the world. She may feel it is her social duty to push her own value of materialism onto others so that they can emulate her lifestyle. Ironically, in demonstrating this belief through arrogance, I flee from embedding any such value in my mind. At that moment we both realize the role each level of society must uphold in order to keep the caste system alive. We rely on each other to exist. Simultaneously, we glare into each other's eyes, full of malice in knowing that we are subject to the actions of others in determining our own future position in life.
The lady clears her throat and then stammers, "Well child, I can see that we have both met our match. I may actually concede that my life is not what many would want or could handle. I will never allow myself to live in the squalor of your daily life, but will carry a certain amount of respect for you when I pass your way again."
I am taken by surprise at this response, but feel genuinely pleased with the outcome of our conversation. With her last words the red lady blows a light, grayish puff of smoke in my direction and my eyes begin to twitch. My two brown eyelids flutter awake, and I slowly become aware of my surroundings. It is a late night in the city, and I can hear the streetlight buzzing above me. I roll onto my stomach and find the little girl in the same state as I had earlier, coughing incessantly. My stomach growls, and the car tires circle rhythmically on the warm, wet pavement. I awake from one nightmare, and continue to combat the real struggles in my life.
Gupta, A.R. Cast Hierarchy and Social Change. New Delhi, India: Jyntsna Prakashan, 1984.
Hesford, Wendy. "Memory Work." Critical Convergences. Boston: Pearson, 2002. 253-263.
Kirkland, Douglas. Brigitte Nielson, Hollywood. New York: Southward and Hawes.
Richards, Eugene. New York Beggar. Chicago: National Geographic.