I’m in Richmond for a few days to advocate for Coalfields Appalachia. Introvert that I am, trekking up and down the Halls of Power leaves me whacked.
I totally understand how important it is to know, respect, and talk with your legislators, particularly about things that can help your community: roads, school policies that play fair, healthcare access to close a coverage gap. Witness West Virginia; eyes might not have looked the other way, balls might not have been allowed to drop, and the blame game might not now be flowing faster than poisonous water.
So I’m not a cynic about the process of democracy–although when one of the legislative aides I know well winked and said, “Time to make the sausages,” we both cracked up. You know the famous quote, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”
It’s not cynicism that leaves me exhausted, but introvertism. (Is that a word?) I’m shy, and advocacy is important, so I do it. At each desk, the secretary asks which axe you’re grinding and the legislative aide wonders what you want; you smile and tell them, shake hands, move on. Smile some more. Once a Senator’s aide could be heard through the wall, saying in an exasperated voice to the secretary, “Well, just find out what she wants and tell her we’ll support it.” I get it, sweet child; it’s a hard job, dealing with people coming all day with their hands out. It’s a hard job, spending the day with our hands out. As one does one’s spiel and watches others do theirs, the place feels like a food warehouse with a thousand hungry people storming it.
Having spent the morning doing what feels vital rather than natural, I went out at lunchtime to recharge. Several restaurants nearby serve everything from barbeque to Middle Eastern lunches. A Liberian diner? Yes, please. Stepping into the tiny “Africanne on Main,” I beheld a steam table laden with Cassava Leaf and Smoked Trout and Oxtail Soup. The concept was simple; take what you want, $6.99 per pound. Behind me in the payment line waited a man with skin the color of caramel, salt-and-pepper dreadlocks reaching past his knees. When I turned, we almost collided; I smiled and apologized; he smiled and released my elbow where his hand had steadied my plate.
The meal proved delicious, fresh, hot, and calming (despite its fiery peppers). As I sat enjoying my out-of-the-comfort-zone comfort food, the First Lady spoke from the diner’s TV, rolling out an initiative to help disadvantaged students enter colleges. I thought of my morning in the Halls of Power, of the number of needy people in the Coalfields and other rural places who would honestly give back if given a chance, of the obstacles standing between them and a fair shot. And it felt like swimming upstream, to go back to the Halls of Power and ask, again and again, humbly with my hand out, for help for a whole bunch of people who wanted to give back, if only they could be given to.
And the man from the food line appeared at my table. Without preamble, he said, “Hi, I just wanna say, in this era of school shootings and people on the make, with all that’s happening in the world, when I see someone with a warm, genuine spirit, I like to say, ‘hey, good for you, someone gets it.’ You have a great day.” And before I could swallow to speak, he was out the door.
Sir, you have no idea how much better you made my day. I flew back to the Halls of Power on wings of golden light because of you.