Sheryl J. Bize Boutte, Author
One day, a couple of years ago, as I took my usual walk around the neighborhood, I saw a moving van parked in front of the house at the end of the block. As I got closer, it became apparent that the people who lived there were moving out. As I passed the open garage, I saw the couple that had just moved into the house about a year before, standing side by side, eerily still and holding hands, as they watched all of their belongings being loaded into the truck. Having bought their house at the top of the 2007 market, it had only taken a short period of time for them to become one of the many victims of the foreclosure crisis still sweeping the nation. I wanted to stop and say something, anything I could, to give them some measure of comfort, but it was clear that they were trapped in a moment that was so private and painful my interference would have been the height of bad taste and hubris. After all, although we lived within a block of each other, we had never spoken and were complete strangers. No matter how honorable my intentions, they may not have been able to survive my interruption. They had melded together for the strength to remain upright and to keep from falling into a chasm too wide and deep to escape.
I will never forget their forlorn faces and shattered countenance as they stood there, fingers intertwined, looking at the scenery they would never take in again. I continued my walk and headed for home, all the while wishing there was something I could do, but I knew their problems were beyond of my reach. There was no help for them. There was no community that could rally to save their dream.
It had not always been that way.
Back in the day, which for me was the 1970’s, when people had financial problems, they were usually temporary and the community would gather to help. The “community” was made up of several people who had an affinity with each other through school, social interaction, church or neighborhood or any combination of these factors. Good people who had these markers were automatically a part of the group and could count on others for support.
One of the ways in which we provided this support was the “waistline party” where people would pay a dime or a quarter for each inch of their waist measurement to help someone in need. Usually it was to pay the rent, sometimes to buy gas to get work on Monday morning, or even to pay a utility bill to keep the lights or the heat on. People were not as embarrassed back then to admit they needed a bit of help and to ask for it during hard times. When hard times hit a member of the community, they usually hit us all in some way and that fact made waistline party explanations or justifications unnecessary. When someone threw one and we had a few dollars, we were there.
It wasn’t a one- sided proposition either. Those who paid to attend a waistline party were rewarded with a good time. In exchange for our donations to the cause, we were given the gifts of laughter, friendship, something smooth on the rocks, good music and a never-ending Soul Train line. We were always compensated in full, sometimes until the break of dawn.
Back then, the bigger you were in size, the more waistline party invitations you would get. People with small waists would brag about how little they had to pay to gain entry and larger people would hold up the line at the door begging for discounts that were usually granted. Everyone knew why he or she was there. It was to help someone make ends meet for the week or for the month. Everyone was supportive of that person and happy to oblige. After all, you might be the one who needed help next and if you attended and helped someone, the community would know and be willing to help you.
These parties did not raise a lot of money, but they served their purpose. They brought the community together to help one of their own fill in a temporary hole, thus assuring that they would remain among us and we would continue to enjoy their company, friendship and good spirits.
While I don’t mean to make it sound like it was utopia, bad things still happened during those times just has they always had, but the special regard we had for each other combined with the willingness to act upon it, has all but disappeared. We shared the belief that we are all in this life together and that we are our brother and sister’s keeper. We embraced the dogma that if one of us is in trouble, we are all in trouble. We internalized the unflinching commitment and understanding that if we all band together, no matter how much or how little our contribution, we can make a tangible and appreciated difference.
In more recent years, this type of “community” support gave way to things like “friends helping friends”; a pyramid scheme in which those at the top made a lot of money and people at the bottom had their utilities turned off, or worse, when they found that there was no payout for what they had put in. And the people who participated in this scheme and made a bit of money were perfectly happy with that outcome as they cruised the Mercedes Benz showroom or boarded a plane for the Bahamas with their ill-gotten wealth. Some of the same people who attended waistline parties in the 1970’s had no qualms about victimizing people in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
In the 21st century, we have grown older but not necessarily wiser, earned more and become more self-centered. We have subscribed to the “everyone for themselves” model for living. We have watched the big banks and other corporations undermine our sense of compassion, as well as our right to it. Our desire to keep up with the Joneses and to collect material things has left us without the simple way of living that once fueled our compassion for each other.
And although the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people, it does not ring true on the human level. The bank that took my neighbor’s house was not a person. As people we are still capable of benevolence and grace. As people we can choose good character over profit as our bottom line. If we are not our brother and sister’s keeper on some level, what does our future hold?
It is up to us to re-introduce ourselves to the genuine people we were at those waistline parties. And although it was too late for my neighbors, it is not too late for the countless others who may just need a little help sometimes, in whatever form we can provide it, just to keep on dancing.