On the last Saturday of September, as I was driving out from Costco on my way to Kroger, I saw a man holding a sign — only one lane of traffic away — asking for help. I was driving fast enough that I couldn’t fully read the man’s sign, and before I could do much else, I was already on the intersection’s other side.
Part of the reason I wasn’t able to read the entirety of the long message on the sign was that my attention was drawn elsewhere in that brief, passing moment. Only a couple feet behind the man, on the grass, sat who I can only presume to be the man’s wife and young children. In that moment of seeing a family out on the streets, I confirmed some tragic sense of compassion in my pain, my sadness, my near anger at seeing other people in such a situation of desperation.
It also wasn’t lost on me that the differences that let me consider these people as separate and not as my own family were the result of incredibly fragile differences in chance. I think of the chance my maternal grandfather had to move in with his aunt in Mexico City so he could go to college, and I think then of how only with that opportunity and everything that followed from it would I today be at Princeton. In fact, my walk through Costco in the preceding hour had been full of reminders of just what separated me from also being out on that street corner.
I’ve always preferred walking along the side aisles of Costco because it lets me avoid any slow crowds down the main aisles. These days, it’s a preference with even more reason behind it due to the need for social distancing, and it’s also a preference that lets me see what Costco has in excess stock. That Saturday, it was toilet paper and paper towels — two products which had nearly disappeared entirely only a few months earlier.
They’re products, also, that feature heavily in my life, not because I use them (though I do, in fact, use them), but because the brands Costco had piled multiple pallets high down the length of its never-ending aisles were brands I hear every day while walking past my mom as she works from home, managing various projects at the factories that actually make these paper products. So it also wasn’t lost on me that every single mega-pack on those pallets meant a little extra separation between me and the curb just outside where that family stood.
The separation goes beyond just having and having nothing. Those paper products don’t translate only to more in general for my family. They also represent a longer history of my family’s well-being. Before paper products, it was detergent and fabric softener my mom worked on at the same company. It was that detergent and softener that carried my family easily, safely, quickly across borders when I was only four years old so my family could find a new home — so I could have the life I have today, the one where I can spend my time comfortably writing for a newspaper with both no pay and practically no worry. I mention this only because that young family on the curb looked much like me: the same brown skin, the same dark hair. Of course this assumption of this family also being Latino, immigrants, or both is based on split-second observations alone, but even the remote possibility of this assumption being correct shook me. Unsettling doesn’t begin to describe the conflict between being similar to that family in some ways yet still drastically worlds apart.
As I write this, I’m not totally sure of what all I want to say because I don’t have an answer. I don’t have a solution for that family, and this isn’t a feel-good story of being in the service of others, either, because I just kept driving that Saturday afternoon. This, if anything, is a story of the frustration I felt in those moments in the car, driving. I was frustrated because seeing that family felt like a failure. Indeed, it was a failure of our society to take care of that family’s most basic needs: food and shelter. This frustration was also very familiar to me after the recent months during which I’ve watched this country dramatically fail to respond to the pandemic: little to no effort to contain the virus, little to no effort to support those most affected.
But maybe the most crushing realization as these two frustrations mixed in my mind was that in the following weeks, months, those families calling out for help would likely only become more common on my drives between grocery stores. The family I saw that Saturday afternoon still seems like foreshadowing, but of the worst, most tragic kind.
One reason my mind went to my mom’s employer and its products as I thought of that family and what they symbolized is the current crises are only a few of many times those paper products and detergents have kept me separate, safe. Of course, there’s the aforementioned help with immigration. Well before the governor made masks mandatory, my family received packs of disposable masks from my mom’s job. I was wearing one of these masks during that grocery shopping spree that Saturday.
Later, the company even provided artwork to the state’s mask promotion campaign. Further back, that same company helped keep my family from buckling under medical bills (thanks to great insurance) and from the stress of my dad’s many years of lymphoma treatments that incurred those bills (thanks to incredible flexibility that allowed to my mom who had to juggle all this). This all has been on my mind and burst into focus during that drive, because these past months have subtly been infused with an uneasy sense that my present well-being, my separation from all the suffering elsewhere, is practically and exclusively dependent on a few private organizations.
And that includes Princeton.
I know the current semester is far from ideal and has even put some community members in very tough situations to say the least. At the same time, however, I texted a friend as the semester began to say that I was very grateful to not be going through what students at other schools are dealing with: large outbreaks, terrible isolation conditions.
I’m relieved that my professors adapted their courses fairly well to succeed given the circumstances, even if they aren’t fully the same as what I’d get in person — this when my social media feeds are filled with other students showing their classes that barely surpass the quality of basic YouTube tutorials as well as emails from incredibly rude, uncompassionate professors.
And from the few Princeton professors I follow on Twitter, like history professor Kevin Kruse, it seems a fair number of University employees are grateful to not be sent into packed lecture halls and offices with measly panels of plexiglass, or even just flimsy saran wrap to protect them, like I’ve seen in photos of other schools. This disparity feels similar to that between my family and the family I saw that Saturday in that all the surrounding factors to these situations are largely out of my control, yet I still greatly benefit from them.
All this seems to boil down to a semester that has been defined not by assignments and grades but by the worry and heartbreak of seeing so many people across the country desperately suffer while I’m relatively alright at my desk, clicking through Canvas, Zoom, and Google Drive.
I’m alright only because I’ve been given a lot — so much so that the family I saw waiting on the side of the street is asking for only a small fraction of a small fraction of what my family has. As I write this, I can’t seem to find a satisfying conclusion, and likely, that’s because there simply isn’t one. I don’t know where that family will sleep tonight while my warm bed is right behind me as I write and revise this. At this point, the only way for me to know how they’re doing is to see them again the next time I buy groceries, but this would only mean bad news.
There’s not much left for me to say other than this: As we all get ready to tackle a brand new year, let us not forget everything this past year has revealed to us about the world around us. But it should not simply be a revelation; it should also serve as a call to action to help those most impacted by this earth-shattering year, like those still in need of food and shelter while so many of us begin cooking holiday feasts. Hopefully, this year we’ve survived will shake us all into being even more deeply committed to each other.