For some reason, these two memories popped up in my head tonight and won't let me sleep until I write them down. So here goes.
Memory 1: Boy with accordion
My family was walking in downtown Chicago one winter; I was maybe 11 at the time. As usual, there were folks on the streets looking for handouts - unshaven guys with dogs, Vietnam vets in wheelchairs, an old man who rattled the coins inside his plastic cup and didn't say anything.
Then there was this boy. He was probably in his early teens, not much older than I was at the time; he had glasses and neatly trimmed dirty blond hair and was bundled warmly except for his fingers, which were red with the cold and playing the accordion. To his right was a tired but determined looking woman with the same blond hair and a guitar, probably his mother; to his left was a little girl around my younger brother's age with a tambourine. There was a sign that said "Homeless, 3 kids to feed, please help." I wondered what happened to the third kid.
Both of the children looked loved; clean, well-groomed, not hungry, warmly dressed. The little girl was happily shaking away at the tambourine (probably a little bored, too). The boy didn't look embarassed, or desperate, or even unhappy. But there was an expression on his face, the kind that people have when they understand something they don't want to understand and shouldn't have to be ready to face, but choose to take it on for someone else's sake. He seemed like a nice kid. It didn't seem fair.
It still doesn't. I wonder what happened to him. He'd be in his early twenties now. Did they get back on their feet? Did he make it through school? Maybe their fortunes turned around and now he's graduating from university. Or maybe things got worse, and he's out on the streets still with an accordion and a cardboard sign. I don't know.
Memory 2: Ship's worker
My first big boat was a short cruise to Alaska when I was 16. It was a stunning luxury; I'd never been somewhere that fancy before. Though the ship was American, the staff on the ship was virtually all Asian, mostly Malaysians and Filipinos who spoke English.
I was reading in one of the ship lounges in the wee hours of the morning and one of the staff workers, a young Filipino, came by. He said hello, I said hello, he asked me if I was studying at this hour of the night and was I a student somewhere. I told him I was going to go to college in a few months to study engineering.
"Ah," he said. "I also went to college to study engineering." I must have looked surprised, because he went on to explain that he had studied and saved as a teenager to get into university, and was accepted - not a small feat for a public school kid (Filipino public schools are notoriously bad). He wanted to become a professional engineer, but after a few years of studying all day and working two full-time jobs at night to support both his education and his siblings, he couldn't keep going; he was just too tired, couldn't stay awake in classes, concentrate on schoolwork. So he dropped out a year short of graduation and took this job vacuuming on the night shift.
I asked him if he'd ever want to go back to school. Yes, but he probably never would. Sometimes he'd read textbooks at night in his bunk belowdecks to try and improve his English, but school was a distant possibility now that he had a family of his own to feed. "Will you go back home to see them when we get back to Seattle [in 3 days]?" "Oh no, we go back to Alaska with new passengers; the season ends in two months, I go home and see my family then."
Yeah. The questions you ask when you're young and don't know anything about the world. God, I felt bad afterwards when I talked to my dad. He told me that this job - waiting tables and cleaning the rooms of rich American tourists - was a lucrative opportunity for college graduates from those countries. They'd leave their homes and sail away for months at a time, missing their wives, their children, the births of their babies, all because they could earn an order of magnitude more pay this way. I asked why they didn't get better jobs if they were college graduates; he said there weren't any.
I don't think I'm any more deserving of a good education or a house or a good shot at a good job than that kid with the accordion or the man on the ship. They worked harder. They kept trying. I certainly don't work two full-time jobs to pay for my engineering tuition, and sometimes I slack completely at it because I know it won't go away if I do. I don't play music on the street in order to get a place to live; I even complain when I have to shovel the walk (and we own a house with an actual front walk! driveway! a car!) Even if I'm lazy, even if I take the easy route, I'm practically guaranteed at least a warm apartment and a decent industry job that'll pay me enough to get a computer, pay for a car, and let me vacation on some nice beach two weeks a year. And it'll be a "good" job, a desk job, not a vacuuming job or one picking up pillowcases.
To quote an old saying,"To whom much is given, much is expected." And man, is a lot expected of us. And we try to live up to it, we really do.
But I still don't understand why we were the ones who were given to in the first place.