She only spoke a few sentences to me, but I remember them still. Her unwillingness to agree to be quoted, and her willingness to explain why not, taught me a lot about how we treat people and that treatment’s impact.
It was back in the days of print journalism. You remember. When if you wanted to read what was going on in the world or your hometown, you picked up a newspaper — either at your doorstep on in a box downtown.
The assignment is what we used to call “man on the street.” Sexist, I know. We should have called it “person on the street,” but it wouldn’t have been any less boring.
Who really wants to read what random people think?
Or, maybe we were just ahead of our time. Now when we log on to read our news — available fresh at just about any minute of the day — we click to read what lots of random people have to say.
In those days, though, reporters would ask a simple question to anyone who agreed to participate, write down the answer on a reporters’ notebook and take a headshot to publish.
So, on this chilly fall or winter day in maybe 1989 or so, I was out on Beverley Street, the main thoroughfare in Staunton, Va. The question was mundane, something like, “What are your holiday plans?” or maybe “How much Christmas shopping do you have left to do?”
Most people in those days were gracious with their time, and they would stop to answer the question, though a few balked at having their photo taken.
It was cold out, and I wanted to get my half-dozen interviews done. I noticed two women approaching. They both were in their 60s, wearing well-worn coats and carrying purses. I stepped toward them and asked I could speak to them a moment. I introduced myself and said I worked at The News Leader.
They listened to me, and when I asked if I could interview them for a short piece in the paper, one of the women stepped back. She looked embarrassed. Instead of just saying no, she said, “No one wants to know what I think.” She had a downcast expression.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, we do.”
I’ll be honest and say that I wanted to encourage her because I needed these interviews done so I could go back to the newsroom.
But I also was curious. I’d never heard this excuse before.
“Why wouldn’t we want to know what you think?” I asked her.
“I live back there,” she said. “The Stonewall Jackson. I am not the kind of person you want for the newspaper.”
It was one of those comments that stay with you.
The Stonewall Jackson Hotel, now once again a mainstay, upscale landmark in our beautiful hometown, was then a rundown lodging, a low-rent apartment house for people receiving assistance from the state. Many of them had been “deinstitutionalized” from the regional mental hospital. Others simply had no other place to go on their meager assistance checks.
Poor people, in other words.
I tried to encourage her, but this time not because I needed my half dozen people. I wanted her to know that yes, people want to know what she thinks. That she matters.
And further, people need to know what she thinks.
But my words fell on deaf ears. Gripping the arm of her friend, she walked away. Maybe I imagined it, but I think her head bowed a bit more as she walked away.
So … why is this tiny memory lingering still?
Because so often in a day I read why people like this woman are reminded daily that what she said is true. That other people (we are ALL the Others, by the way) take cheap shots at what Others have to say. We judge their grammar, their statements, their opinions. We judge them by their addresses, their occupations, their statuses.
And because we can toss out our opinions so easily, we just as easily can torpedo Others’ ideas of self-worth by rudely criticizing what they have to say.
To read Facebook threads and online comments, it appears we delight in knocking Others down, but I do not think there is delight in it. More likely, I think it’s a reaction to the last time we were knocked down or our fear that Others will knock us so we choose offense as a defense.
What struck me the most about this woman’s remarks is that because I either purposely or accidently missed what she thought must be obvious — that she lived in subsidized housing for the “downtrodden” — that she felt the need to correct me. That truly she was not worth my time. That truly her thoughts did not matter in the larger world. Someone, probably a lot of someones, had instilled that in her. The way we do when we cast about negative reactions to the vulnerable among us.
If I could see her again, these two decades later, I hope I would say, “you know what, ma’am? You are the one who is wrong. Many people in the world want to know what you think. You have the choice whether to share your thoughts, of course, but please never forget that it is your choice, not anyone else’s.”
As I write this, I also am reminded of the family who owned the Stonewall Jackson Hotel at the time. Allen Persinger Sr. purchased the grand building in the late 1960s when he left the U.S. Navy. The Persinger family operated it during tough economic times, but finally reverted it to a low-income rooming house. A contract with the state made room in it for many people who had been diagnosed with mental illness and others who received aid in their elder years.
The once stunning hotel had fallen into disrepair, until it was purchased by the city and a hotel chain and returned to an upscale lodging.
I’m reminded of Mr. Persinger, because when he died in February 2007, his family asked his memorial be kept private. He had become an important person in my life through a number of stories about his Beverley Manor High School Class of 1943 that he helped hold reunions once a year in those later years. He was a classy guy. We had a warm friendship. I was honored to have been asked to attend his graveside service.
And when I arrived at Thornrose Cemetery, I was delighted to find that the others invited to his private sending-off were his tenants, those who so many of us think of as the Others, but those who Mr. Persinger and people like him embraced as valued members of society.
I stood among many of them that chilly winter’s day safe in the knowledge that all of us are important, and our thoughts all are worthy.
The truth, as Mr. Persinger well knew, is that opinions are free and available. We do not have to listen to them, read them or see them.
But the better response is to disagree with the opinions, not reduce the person. When we reduce the Others, we reduce ourselves as well.
And when we lift Others, we lift the world in which we live.