September 9th, 2020
“Hans plays with Lotte, Lotte plays with Jane
Jane plays with Willi, Willi is happy again
Suki plays with Leo, Sacha plays with Britt
Adolf builts a bonfire, Enrico plays with it
Whistling tunes we hide in the dunes by the seaside
Whistling tunes we’re kissing baboons in the jungle
It’s a knockout
If looks could kill, they probably will
In games without frontiers-war without tears
Games without frontiers-war without tears”
from “Games Without Frontiers” by Peter Gabriel
Ayuda Mutua MKE has its act together. It’s a grassroots community group, and I had never heard of it until a few weeks ago. Ayuda runs a food pantry on the south side of Milwaukee. Most of the people involved are young; well, younger than me. A friend of mine, Joanna, told me about the organization. They need volunteers to work in the pantry, and they need people to deliver food to people who, for whatever reason, cannot get to their location.
It is my understanding that Ayuda Mutua MKE came into being as the pandemic started. The COVID virus hit the immigrant communities on the south of Milwaukee very hard, at least in an economic sense. Many of the inhabitants of the south side are Latinx, and some of them may be undocumented. These people not only lost their jobs, but due to their immigration status, they cannot access government resources to alleviate their financial distress.
Ayuda does almost all of its organizing online, mostly through Facebook and a site called “SignUpGenius”. The people at Ayuda have an email address which they check infrequently. They also have a phone number which they seldom, if ever, answer. Their operation is very 21st Century.
I signed up with them to deliver food to families on Tuesday evenings. On Tuesday morning, Ayuda electronically sent me a list of drops. The list consists of addresses and phone numbers. No names. Ever. Typically, a volunteer is given five to ten deliveries. Whoever is assigned the drops routes them for the driver. I am impressed by that. If a driver follows the order of the deliveries as presented by Ayuda, it is pretty efficient.
Ayuda wants a driver to follow COVID-19 protocol: wear a mask when delivering, use gloves if you have them, etc. The idea is to drop the food/diapers on the porch of the recipient. The driver sends a text to the family just prior to arrival, and then sends another text after dropping off the supplies.
For example, since nearly all the recipients are Spanish speakers, I first send a text saying: “Te traigo comida de Ayuda Mutua. Diez minutos.”
I set the bags on the stoop at their front door, and then I text:
“Está en tu porche!”
Some of these areas are a little sketchy. Something left on a porch may not stay there very long. Hence, the texts.
Then off I go. I seldom see or meet anybody. With the virus, the deliveries are planned to work that way. I have occasionally spoken with a recipient, but the conversations have always been brief, partly due to my limited Spanish vocabulary. However, I do get texts back from people:
“¡Gracias!” or “¡Que dios te bendiga!”
This Tuesday I got a list of nine drops. I have a good understanding of Milwaukee’s geography, so I often have at least a vague mental image of where I am going. My grandparents lived for years on the south side, back when the population there was primarily Slavic. Now it is mostly Latinx, but the landmarks are still the same. St. Josephat still proudly stands at the corner of 6th Street and Lincoln. St. Stanislaus towers over the freeway exit on Mitchell Street. The south side is familiar turf, and I have an deep affinity for the area.
The neighborhoods on Milwaukee’s south side are not all the same. I can look at an address and tell what it’s going to be like. The neighborhood on 6th Street near Ayuda is solidly middle class. If I go north to the streets near Lincoln Avenue, they are more struggling working class. If I keep going north toward National Avenue, I am in the midst of poverty.
I like to drive my beater when making deliveries. It’s a car that my son, Stefan, rebuilt. My ride is a 2005 Ford Focus. It’s dark blue with bright orange rims. The front bumper is slightly askew. Stefan installed a turbo and a kick ass sound system. I have never dared to turn the music louder than halfway up the dial. He put in an industrial strength woofer for added bass. The car belongs in these neighborhoods, even if I don’t.
Stefan is a welder. He often works with Latinos. Stefan told me about a conversation he had with one of these guys. The Latino lived on the south side, and he was a bit concerned about white gentrification of his neighborhood. He didn’t want these outsiders taking over his place. The guy told Stefan:
“You know, my neighbor and I, we take turns. Every once in a while, at night, one of us pops a couple rounds in the air. That keeps those people away.”
The man was joking. Maybe.
Anyway, when I looked at the list, I saw that my last stop was near 48th Street and North Avenue. That is not on the south side. That is across the viaduct on the near north side. I immediately had a racist moment.
“Why the fuck am I going there?”
The north side of Milwaukee is predominantly Black. The odd thing is that I know this area. We have friends that live near that address. So, why did I have this twinge of irrational fear?
It goes way back. They say that nobody is born a racist. True, but the training for that starts really early. I heard from early childhood that the north side was bad news. Even after fifty years, that twisted information still sticks with me. It doesn’t matter how rational I try to be. I still get this flutter in my gut when I go there.
Years ago, a Black man at my work place asked me point blank if I was a racist. I told him “no”. Upon reflection, I would have to say that I am. How could I not be? The prejudice is buried so deep in my psyche that I will never uproot it all. That’s just a fact.
On Tuesday evening, I went to Ayuda to pick up the food and diapers for my deliveries. There was a nearly endless line of cars full of people waiting to get the groceries that they could not afford otherwise. I waited in the queue for half an hour. Then I pulled over to the side as the folks at Ayuda got my stuff. There was a car behind me with two older white people in it. The car was a new-ish Subaru. It was a classic white, liberal vehicle. Now that car did not belong in those neighborhoods. It made me laugh.
I did my drops on the south side. Then I drove up to the last location north of the viaduct. It felt a bit like going to a place on the ancient maps where it was written:”Here be dragons”. My logic and my emotions wrestled on the drive.
I got to the house and made the drop. I sent the family a text in English.
As I walked back to my car, I saw a young Black man on the other side of the street. He was eyeballing me, as I was with him. Our eyes locked for a moment. He didn’t smile or wave. Neither did I.
I was a stranger and an alien there. He knew it. I knew it.
Is it all in our minds? How do we learn to see things for what they really are?
As Peter Gabriel wrote, “If looks could kill, they probably will.”
On the way home, I got a text from the last family. It said,
3 thoughts on “No Names, Just Addresses”
Great post, Frank. Good on you for volunteering and also for acknowledging and being willing to struggling against the ingrained racism all of us white folks possess.
Racism is not exclusively a white people problem, although we seem to have the virulent version of this spiritual disease. Why is it so hard to see the person for who they really are? Why can’t I see clearly? I’m am glad we have our practice. That helps.