It’s that time of the month again and the Sheriffs are here because evictions are starting. Alabama law requires a Sheriff to be physically present during an eviction and today, the Sheriffs lounge in the oppressive late summer heat, cracking jokes while others, the apartment complex staff, do the actual dirty work. Because of the time it takes to move these possessions out – the couches, the beds, the endless black plastic trash bags stuffed with clothing and kitchen utensils – usually only one or two are scheduled on any given day. The apartment complex staff – maintenance crew and leasing agents – wear gloves and while no one feels particularly glad about what they’re doing – it’s a tedious distraction from more important work – the show must go on.
They are evicting someone who lives on the floor above and I can’t figure out who it is. I know most of my neighbors and my mind races. Is it this one? Or, maybe that one? Slowly the black bags come down by staff relay, some just tossed over the stairwells. Soon, a jumble of clothes, a coffee maker, end tables, chairs and a box of hangers with a Bible on top will pool at the bottom of the steps.
I see my neighbor on the third floor grab a bag or two and take them to her car. That in itself signifies nothing. When people get evicted, often passersby and other neighbors will have first dibs at what’s out unless the evictee is present. It’s a far cry from the unemployed movements of the thirties when squads of unemployed activists would take people’s furniture back in during evictions. But as we all know, people are more on their own these days.
Yet she keeps coming back and her walk is not the walk of someone who’s happy at getting something for free. It’s the sad, defeated walk of someone to whom this is happening. It suddenly hits me – she’s getting put out.
We had always been on good terms. “S” had my number and I had hers. Before she had a car, I would ride her on errands. We were on Facebook. Sometimes, she’d come down and I’d pour some wine in her glass for her to take back up.
I didn’t know a lot about “S” except that she was a late 50s African-American woman who had been in the Army at one point. She had a severe stroke, which left her on disability and with a speech impediment that mangled her speech, making her difficult to understand. Her Facebook posts were always reposts of smiling people with BMWs in the background holding wads of cash, insisting God had blessed them and if you shared the post, you would get blessings too.
But even though we had more contact than most, what strikes me now is that ”S” is refusing to look at me, even though I am sitting on my balcony and she knows I am sitting on the balcony. I see her once cut me a side glance and then turn away. She doesn’t want me to know. I stop myself from saying anything; I decide to respect her wish for me not to acknowledge her.
By this time, her brother has come to help her load things. She told me once she loved him – but didn’t like him. Her brother had been in and out of prison, homeless and living in the woods until “S” took him in. Once he got on his feet, he wouldn’t help and would charge outrageous sums to ride her anywhere. But today, forget the past, he is here when it counts. Her brother has the intense burning eyes of a serenading R&B singer – or a serial killer on the prowl – and alone is willing to express anger at what is happening.
He shouts to the staff, “Why don’t you give people a chance?” Because that’s the way it works and you better get with the program. Because if you don’t, those Sheriffs or other armed men with badges will help you get with the program. And then his voice trails off, perhaps suddenly aware of the Sheriffs. He and his sister are moving what they can move, leaving most of it at the bottom of the stairwell. It will sit there for a day, people will pick over it, then it will get tossed in the dumpster.
I haven’t heard from her since.
This deeply internalized sense of shame and fear of failure is widespread in America and they are yet more de-solidarizing factors promoting passivity and resignation. A sense of shame that during the 2008 Great Recession saw foreclosed families in Baltimore – and surely elsewhere – move out at night so no neighbors would see them. In one case, the minister of a church was living in her car after being foreclosed and no one knew about it, even those in the pews who were also foreclosed and keeping their own troubles to themselves. Everyone struggled to keep up pretenses.
This American fear of failure arguably was the central motif of all of Nelson Algren’s novels and a book has even been written about it, “Born Losers: A History of Failure in America.” I haven’t read John Sandage’s book, but I did read James Morone’s “Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History” and I don’t believe you can separate the two, sin and failure. As Morone argues, this sense of sin was embedded in the beginning, with the Puritan emphasis on failure and poverty as being signs of God’s displeasure. It still remains deeply rooted in the American psyche, reinforced in today’s Evangelical Gospel of Wealth that is little more than Puritanism Photoshopped in suburban polyester leisure suits.
This sense of failure as personal flaw has its secular counterpart as well, the myth of meritocracy, that if you don’t get ahead, it’s only because you didn’t try hard enough and there will always be people at the bottom who didn’t have those traits of success and if you don’t like it, well, just suck it up. After all, nobody likes a whiner. Failure is the unwanted bastard offspring of the American Dream, to be kept inside and never mentioned too much in polite society.
But until this privatized suffering becomes public and shared, it will remain part of the inertia that keeps things the way they are, not because of peoples’ active consent and belief in the system, but because they don’t see other alternatives. Uncovering these alternatives however will be key to any future project of emancipation from the mess we’re all in.