Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Barack Obama - Dreams from My Father 46

  It was Dr. Martha Collier who eventually lifted me out my funk. She was the principal of Carver Elementary, one of the two elementary schools out in Altgeld. The first time I called her for an appointment, she didn’t ask too many questions.
  “I can use any help I can get,” she said. “See you at eight-thirty.”
  The school, three large brick structures that formed a horseshoe around a broad, pitted dirt lot, was at the southern border of Altgeld. Inside, a security guard showed me to the main office, where a sturdily built, middle-aged black woman in a blue suit was talking to a taut and disheveled younger woman.
  “You go home now and get some rest,” Dr. Collier said, throwing her arm over the woman’s shoulder. “I’m gonna make some calls and see if we can’t get this thing sorted out.” She led the woman to the door, then turned to me. “You must be Obama. Come on in. You want some coffee?”
  Before I had a chance to reply, she had turned to her secretary. “Get Mr. Obama here a cup of coffee.
Did those painters arrive yet?”
  The secretary shook her head, and Dr. Collier frowned. “Hold all calls,” she said as I followed her into her office, “except for that good-for-nothing building engineer. I want to tell him just what I think of his sorry ass.”
  Her office was sparsely furnished, the walls bare except for a few community service awards and a poster of a young black boy that read “God Don’t Make No Junk.” Dr. Collier pulled up a chair and said, “That girl just leaving my office, she’s the mother of one of our kids. A junkie. Her boyfriend was arrested
last night and can’t make bail. So tell me-what can your organization do for someone like her?”
  The secretary came in with my coffee. “I was hoping you’d have some suggestions,” I said.
  “Short of tearing this whole place down and giving people a chance to start over, I’m not sure.”
  She had been a teacher for two decades, a principal for ten years. She was accustomed to skirmishes with superiors-once all-white, now mostly black-over supplies and curriculum and hiring policies. Since coming to Carver, she’d set up a child-parent center that brought teenage parents into the classroom to learn with their children. “Most of the parents here want what’s best for their child,” Dr. Collier explained. “They just don’t know how to provide it. So we counsel them on nutrition, health care, how to handle stress. We teach the ones who need it how to read so they can read to their child at home. Where we can, we help them get their high school equivalency, or hire them as teaching assistants.”
  Dr. Collier took a sip of her coffee. “What we can’t do is change the environment these girls and their babies go back to every day. Sooner or later, the child leaves us, and the parents stop coming-”   Her phone buzzed; the painter was here.
  “I tell you what, Obama,” Dr. Collier said, rising to her feet. “You come in and talk to our parent group next week. Find out what’s on their mind. I’m not encouraging you, now. But if the parents decide they want to raise some hell with you, I can’t stop them, can I?”
  She laughed cheerfully and walked me into the hallway, where a wobbly line of five- and six-year-olds was preparing to enter a classroom. A few of them waved and smiled at us; a pair of boys toward the rear spun around and around, their arms tight against their sides; a tiny little girl struggled to yank a sweater over her head and got tangled up in the sleeves. As the teacher tried to direct them up the stairs, I thought how happy and trusting they all seemed, that despite the rocky arrivals many of them had gone throughdelivered prematurely, perhaps, or delivered into addiction, most of them already smudged with the ragged air of poverty-the joy they seemed to find in simple locomotion, the curiosity they displayed toward every new face, seemed the equal of children anywhere. They made me think back to those words of Regina’s, spoken years ago, in a different time and place: It’s not about you.
  “Beautiful, aren’t they?” Dr. Collier said.   “They really are.”
  “The change comes later. In about five years, although it seems like it’s coming sooner all the time.”   “What change is that?”
  “When their eyes stop laughing. Their throats can still make the sound, but if you look at their eyes, you can see they’ve shut off something inside.”
  I began spending several hours a week with those children and their parents. The mothers were all in their late teens or early twenties; most had spent their lives in Altgeld, raised by teenage mothers themselves. They spoke without self-consciousness about pregnancy at fourteen or fifteen, the dropping out of school, the tenuous links to the fathers who slipped in and out of their lives. They told me about working the system, which involved mostly waiting: waiting to see the social worker, waiting at the currency exchange to cash their welfare checks, waiting for the bus that would take them to the nearest supermarket, five miles away, just to buy diapers on sale.
  They had mastered the tools of survival in their tightly bound world and made no apologies for it. They weren’t cynical, though; that surprised me. They still had ambitions. There were girls like Linda and Bernadette Lowry, two sisters Dr. Collier had helped get high school equivalencies. Bernadette was now taking classes at the community college; Linda, pregnant again, stayed at home to look after Bernadette’s son, Tyrone, and her own daughter, Jewel-but she said she’d be going to college, too, once her new baby was born. After that they would both find jobs, they said-in food management, maybe, or as secretaries. Then they would move out of Altgeld. In Linda’s apartment one day, they showed me an album they kept full of clippings from Better Homes and Gardens. They pointed to the bright white kitchens and hardwood floors, and told me they would have such a home one day. Tyrone would take swimming lessons, they said; Jewel would dance ballet.
  Sometimes, listening to such innocent dreams, I would find myself fighting off the urge to gather up these girls and their babies in my arms, to hold them all tight and never let go. The girls would sense that impulse, I think, and Linda, with her dark, striking beauty, would smile at Bernadette and ask me why I wasn’t already married.
  “Haven’t found the right woman, I guess,” I would say.
  And Bernadette would slap Linda on the arm, saying, “Stop it! You making Mr. Obama blush.” And they would both start to laugh, and I would realize that in my own way, I must have seemed as innocent to them as they both seemed to me.
  My plan for the parents was simple. We didn’t yet have the power to change state welfare policy, or create local jobs, or bring substantially more money into the schools. But what we could do was begin to improve basic services in Altgeld-get the toilets fixed, the heaters working, the windows repaired. A few victories there, and I imagined the parents forming the nucleus of a genuinely independent tenants’ organization. With that strategy in mind, I passed out a set of complaint forms at the next full parents’ meeting, asking everyone to canvass the block where they lived. They agreed to the plan, but when the meeting was over, one of the parents, a woman named Sadie Evans, approached me holding a small newspaper clipping.
  “I saw this in the paper yesterday, Mr. Obama,” Sadie said. “I don’t know if it means anything, but I wanted to see what you thought.”
  It was a legal notice, in small print, run in the classified section. It said that the CHA was soliciting bids from qualified contractors to remove asbestos from Altgeld’s management office. I asked the parents if any of them had been notified about potential asbestos exposure. They shook their heads.
  “You think it’s in our apartments?” Linda asked.
  “I don’t know. But we can find out. Who wants to call Mr. Anderson over at the management office?”
  I glanced around the room, but no hands went up. “Come on, somebody. I can’t make the call. I don’t live here.”
  Finally Sadie raised her hand. “I’ll do it,” she said.
  Sadie wouldn’t have been my first choice. She was a small, slight woman with a squeaky voice that made her seem painfully shy. She wore knee-length dresses and carried a leather-bound Bible wherever she went. Unlike the other parents, she was married, to a young man who worked as a store clerk by day but was training to be a minister; they didn’t associate with people outside their church.
  All this made her something of a misfit in the group, and I wasn’t sure she’d be tough enough to deal with the CHA. But when I got back to the office that day, my secretary passed on the message that Sadie had already set up the appointment with Mr. Anderson and had called all the other parents to let them know. The following morning, I found Sadie standing out in front of the Altgeld management office, looking like an orphan, alone in the clammy mist.
  “Don’t look like anybody else is showing up, does it, Mr. Obama?” she said, looking at her watch.
  “Call me Barack,” I said. “Listen, do you still want to go through with this? If you’re not comfortable, we can reschedule the meeting until we have some other parents.”
  “I don’t know. Do you think I can get in trouble?”
  “I think you’ve got the right to information that could affect your health. But that doesn’t mean Mr. Anderson is gonna think so. I’ll stand behind you, and so will the other parents, but you need to do what makes sense for you.”
  Sadie pulled her overcoat tightly around herself and looked again at her watch. “We shouldn’t keep Mr.
Anderson waiting,” she said, and plunged through the door.
  From the expression on Mr. Anderson’s face when we walked into his office, it was clear that I hadn’t been expected. He offered us a seat and asked us if we wanted some coffee.
  “No thank you,” Sadie said. “I really appreciate you seeing us on such short notice.” With her coat still on, she pulled out the legal notice and set it carefully on Mr. Anderson’s desk. “Some of the parents at the school saw this in the paper, and we were worried…well, we wondered if this asbestos maybe was in our apartments.”
  Mr. Anderson glanced at the notice, then set it aside. “This is nothing to worry about, Mrs. Evans,” he said. “We’re just doing renovation on this building, and after the contractors tore up one of the walls, they found asbestos on the pipes. It’s just being removed as a precautionary measure.”
  “Well…shouldn’t the same thing, the same precautionary measures, I mean, be taken in our apartments? I mean, isn’t there asbestos there, too?”
  The trap was laid, and Mr. Anderson’s eyes met mine. A cover-up would generate as much publicity as the asbestos, I had told myself. Publicity would make my job easier. And yet, as I watched Mr. Anderson shift around in his seat, trying to take measure of the situation, there was a part of me that wanted to warn him off. I had the unsettling feeling that his soul was familiar to me, that of an older man who feels betrayed by life-a look I had seen so often in my grandfather’s eyes. I wanted to somehow let Mr. Anderson know that I understood his dilemma, wanted to tell him that if he would just explain that the problems in Altgeld preceded him and admit that he, too, needed help, then some measure of salvation might alight in the room.
  Instead, I said nothing, and Mr. Anderson turned away. “No, Mrs. Evans,” he said to Sadie. “There’s no asbestos in the residential units. We’ve tested them thoroughly.”
  “Well, that’s a relief,” Sadie said. “Thank you. Thank you very much.” She rose, shook Mr. Anderson’s hand, and started for the door. I was just about to say something when she turned back toward the project manager.
  “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I forgot to ask you something. The other parents…well, they’d like to see a copy of these tests you took. The results, I mean. You know, just so we can make everybody feel their kids are safe.”
  “I…the records are all at the downtown office,” Mr. Anderson stammered. “Filed away, you understand.”
  “Do you think you can get us a copy by next week?”
  “Yes, well…of course. I’ll see what I can do. Next week.”   When we got outside, I told Sadie she had done well.
  “Do you think he’s telling the truth?”
  “I don’t know. We’ll find out soon enough.”
  A week passed. Sadie called Mr. Anderson’s office: She was told that the results would take another week to produce. Two weeks passed, and Sadie’s calls went unreturned. We tried to reach Mrs. Reece, then the CHA district manager, then sent a letter to the executive director of the CHA with a copy to the mayor’s office. No response.
  “What do we do now?” Bernadette asked.
  “We go downtown. If they won’t come to us, we’ll go to them.”
  The next day we planned our action. Another letter to the CHA executive director was drafted, informing him that we would appear at his office in two days to demand an answer to the asbestos question. A short press release was issued. The children of Carver were sent home with a flyer pinned to their jackets urging their parents to join us. Sadie, Linda, and Bernadette spent most of the evening calling their neighbors.
  But when the day of reckoning arrived, I counted only eight heads in the yellow bus parked in front of the school. Bernadette and I stood in the parking lot trying to recruit other parents as they came to pick up their children. They said they had doctors’ appointments or couldn’t find baby-sitters. Some didn’t bother with excuses, walking past us as if we were panhandlers. When Angela, Mona, and Shirley arrived to see how things were shaping up, I insisted they ride with us to lend moral support. Everyone looked depressed, everyone except Tyrone and Jewel, who were busy making faces at Mr. Lucas, the only father in the group. Dr. Collier came up beside me.
  “I guess this is it,” I said.
  “Better than I expected,” she said. “Obama’s Army.”   “Right.”
  “Good luck,” she said, and clapped me on the back.
  The bus rolled past the old incinerator and the Ryerson Steel plant, through Jackson Park, and then onto Lake Shore Drive. As we approached downtown, I passed out a script for the action and asked everyone to read it over carefully. Waiting for them to finish, I noticed that Mr. Lucas had a deep frown carved into his forehead. He was a short, gentle man with a bit of a stutter; he did odd jobs around Altgeld and helped out the mother of his children whenever he could. I came up beside him and asked if something was wrong.
  “I don’t read so good,” he said quietly.
  We both looked down at the page of crowded type.
  “That’s okay.” I walked to the front of the bus. “Listen up, everybody! We’re going to go over the script together to make sure we’ve got it straight. What do we want?”
  “A meeting with the director!”
  “In Altgeld!”
  “What if they say they’ll give us an answer later?”
  “We want an answer now!”
  “What if they do something we don’t expect?”
  “We caucus!”
  “Crackers!” Tyrone shouted.
  The CHA office was in a stout gray building in the center of the Loop. We filed off the bus, entered the lobby, and mashed onto the elevator. On the fourth floor, we entered a brightly lit lobby where a receptionist sat behind an imposing desk.
  “Can I help you?” she said, scarcely glancing up from her magazine.
  “We’d like to see the director, please,” Sadie said.   “Do you have an appointment?”   “He…” Sadie turned to me.
  “He knows we’re coming,” I said.
  “Well, he’s not in the office right now.”
  Sadie said, “Could you please check with his deputy?”
  The receptionist looked up with an icy stare, but we stood our ground. “Have a seat,” she said finally.
  The parents sat down, and everyone fell into silence. Shirley started to light a cigarette, but Angela elbowed her in the ribs.
  “We’re supposed to be concerned about health, remember?”
  “It’s too late for me, girl,” Shirley muttered, but the pack went back into her purse. A group of men in suits and ties came out of the door behind the receptionist’s desk and gave our contingent the once-over as they walked to the elevator. Linda whispered something to Bernadette; Bernadette whispered back.
  “What’s everybody whispering for?” I asked loudly.
  The children giggled. Bernadette said, “I feel like I’m waiting to see the principal or something.”
  “You hear that, everybody,” I said. “They build these big offices to make you feel intimidated. Just remember that this is a public authority. Folks who work here are responsible to you.”
  “Excuse me,” the receptionist said to us, her voice rising to match mine. “I’ve been told that the director will not be able to see you today. You should report any problems you have to Mr. Anderson out in Altgeld.”
  “Look, we’ve already seen Mr. Anderson,” Bernadette said. “If the director’s not here, we’d like to see his deputy.”
  “I’m sorry but that’s not possible. If you don’t leave right now, I’ll have to call Security.”
  At that moment, the elevator doors opened and several TV film crews came in, along with various reporters. “Is this the protest about asbestos?” one of the reporters asked me.
  I pointed to Sadie. “She’s the spokesperson.”
  The TV crews began to set up, and the reporters took out their notebooks. Sadie excused herself and dragged me aside.
  “I don’t wanna talk in front of no cameras.”
  “Why’s that?”
  “I don’t know. I never been on TV before.”
  “You’ll be fine.”
  In a few minutes the cameras were rolling, and Sadie, her voice quavering slightly, held her first press conference. As she started to field questions, a woman in a red suit and heavy mascara rushed into the reception area. She smiled tightly at Sadie, introducing herself as the director’s assistant, Ms. Broadnax. “I’m so sorry that the director isn’t here,” Ms. Broadnax said. “If you’ll just come this way, I’m sure we can clear up this whole matter.”
  “Is there asbestos in all CHA units?” a reporter shouted.
  “Will the director meet with the parents?”
  “We’re interested in the best possible outcome for the residents,” Ms. Broadnax shouted over her shoulder. We followed her into a large room where several gloomy officials were already seated around a conference table. Ms. Broadnax remarked on how cute the children were and offered everyone coffee and doughnuts.
  “We don’t need doughnuts,” Linda said. “We need answers.”
  And that was it. Without a word from me, the parents found out that no tests had been done and obtained a promise that testing would start by the end of the day. They negotiated a meeting with the director, collected a handful of business cards, and thanked Ms. Broadnax for her time. The date of the meeting was announced to the press before we crammed back into the elevator to meet our bus. Out on the street, Linda insisted that I treat everybody, including the bus driver, to caramel popcorn. As the bus pulled away, I tried to conduct an evaluation, pointing out the importance of preparation, how everyone had worked as a team.
  “Did you see that woman’s face when she saw the cameras?”
  “What about her acting all nice to the kids? Just trying to cozy up to us so we wouldn’t ask no questions.”
  “Wasn’t Sadie terrific? You did us proud, Sadie.”
  “I got to call my cousin to make sure she gets her VCR set up. We gonna be on TV.”
  I tried to stop everybody from talking at once, but Mona tugged on my shirt. “Give it up, Barack. Here.”
She handed me a bag of popcorn. “Eat.”
  I took a seat beside her. Mr. Lucas hoisted the children up onto his lap for the view of Buckingham Fountain. As I chewed on the gooey popcorn, looking out at the lake, calm and turquoise now, I tried to recall a more contented moment.
  I changed as a result of that bus trip, in a fundamental way. It was the sort of change that’s important not because it alters your concrete circumstances in some way (wealth, security, fame) but because it hints at what might be possible and therefore spurs you on, beyond the immediate exhilaration, beyond any subsequent disappointments, to retrieve that thing that you once, ever so briefly, held in your hand. That bus ride kept me going, I think. Maybe it still does.
  The publicity was nice, of course. The evening after we got back from the CHA office, Sadie’s face was all over the television. The press, smelling blood, discovered that another South Side project contained pipes lined with rotting asbestos. Aldermen began calling for immediate hearings. Lawyers called about a class-action suit.
  But it was away from all that, as we prepared for our meeting with the CHA director, that I began to see something wonderful happening. The parents began talking about ideas for future campaigns. New parents got involved. The block-by-block canvass we’d planned earlier was put into effect, with Linda and her swollen belly waddling door-to-door to collect complaint forms; Mr. Lucas, unable to read the forms himself, explaining to neighbors how to fill them out properly. Even those who’d opposed our efforts began to come around: Mrs. Reece agreed to cosponsor the event, and Reverend Johnson allowed some of his members to make an announcement at Sunday service. It was as though Sadie’s small, honest step had broken into a reservoir of hope, allowing people in Altgeld to reclaim a power they had had all along.
  The meeting was to be held in Our Lady’s gymnasium, the only building in Altgeld that could accommodate the three hundred people we hoped would turn up. The leaders arrived an hour early, and we went over our demands one last time-that a panel of residents work with CHA to assure containment of asbestos, and that CHA establish a firm timetable for making repairs. As we discussed a few last-minute details, Henry, the maintenance man, waved me over to the public address system.   “What’s the matter?”
  “System’s dead. A short or something.”
  “So we don’t have a microphone?”
  “Not outta here. Gonna have to make do with this thing here.” He pointed to a solitary amplifier, the size of a small suitcase, with a loose microphone that hung by a single, frayed cord. Sadie and Linda came up beside me and stared down at the primitive box.
  “You’re joking,” Linda said.
  I tapped on the mike. “It’ll be okay. You guys will just have to speak up.” Then, looking down at the amp again, I said, “Try not to let the director hog the microphone, though. He’ll end up talking for hours. Just hold it up to him after you’ve asked the questions. You know, like Oprah.”
  “If nobody comes,” Sadie said, looking at her watch, “we won’t need no mike.”
  People came. From all across the Gardens, people came-senior citizens, teenagers, tots. By seven o’clock five hundred people had arrived; by seven-fifteen, seven hundred. TV crews began setting up cameras, and the local politicians on hand asked us for a chance to warm up the crowd. Marty, who had come to watch the event, could barely contain himself.
  “You’ve really got something here, Barack. These people are ready to move.”
  There was just one problem: The director still hadn’t arrived. Ms. Broadnax said he was caught in traffic, so we decided to go ahead with the first part of the agenda. By the time the preliminaries were over, it was almost eight. I could hear people starting to grumble, fanning themselves in the hot, airless gym. Near the door, I saw Marty trying to lead the crowd in a chant. I pulled him aside.
  “What are you doing?”
  “You’re losing people. You have to do something to keep them fired up.”
  “Sit down, will you please.”
  I was about to cut our losses and go ahead with Ms. Broadnax when a murmur rose from the back of the gym and the director walked through the door surrounded by a number of aides. He was a dapper black man of medium build, in his early forties. Straightening his tie, he grimly made his way to the front of the room.
  “Welcome,” Sadie said into the mike. “We’ve got a whole bunch of people who want to talk to you.”   The crowd applauded; we heard a few catcalls. The TV lights switched on.
  “We’re here tonight,” Sadie said, “to talk about a problem that threatens the health of our children. But before we talk about asbestos, we need to deal with problems we live with every day. Linda?”
  Sadie handed the microphone to Linda, who turned to the director and pointed to the stack of complaint forms.
  “Mr. Director. All of us in Altgeld don’t expect miracles. But we do expect basic services. That’s all, just the basics. Now these people here have gone out of their way to fill out, real neat-like, all the things they keep asking the CHA to fix but don’t never get fixed. So our question is, will you agree here tonight, in front of all these residents, to work with us to make these repairs?”
  The next moments are blurry in my memory. As I remember it, Linda leaned over to get the director’s response, but when he reached for the microphone, Linda pulled it back.
  “A yes-or-no answer, please,” Linda said. The director said something about responding in his own fashion and again reached for the mike. Again, Linda pulled it back, only this time there was the slightest hint of mockery in the gesture, the movement of a child who’s goading a sibling with an ice-cream cone. I tried to wave at Linda to forget what I’d said before and give up the microphone, but I was standing too far in the rear for her to see me. Meanwhile, the director had gotten his hand on the cord, and for a moment a struggle ensued between the distinguished official and the pregnant young woman in stretch pants and blouse. Behind them, Sadie stood motionless, her face shining, her eyes wide. The crowd, not clear on what was happening, began shouting, some at the director, others at Linda.
  Then…pandemonium. The director released his grip and headed for the exit. Like some single-celled creature, people near the door lurched after him, and he broke into a near trot. I ran myself, and by the time I had fought my way outside, the director had secured himself in his limousine while a swell of people surrounded the car, some pressing their faces against the tinted glass, others laughing, still others cursing, most just standing about in confusion. Slowly the limo lurched forward, an inch at a time, until a path onto the road opened up and the car sped away, lumping over the cratered street, running over a curb, vanishing from sight.
  I walked back toward the gymnasium in a daze, against the current of people now going home. Near the door, a small circle was gathered around a young man in a brown leather jacket whom I recognized as an aide to the alderman.
  “The whole thing was put together by Vrdolyak, see,” he was telling the group. “You saw that white man egging the folks on. They just trying to make Harold look bad.”
  A few feet away, I spotted Mrs. Reece and several of her lieutenants. “See what you done!” she snapped at me. “This is what happens when you try and get these young folks involved. Embarrassed the whole Gardens, on TV and everything. White folks seeing us act like a bunch of niggers! Just like they expect.”
  Inside, only a few of the parents remained. Linda stood alone in one corner, sobbing. I came up and put my arm around her shoulder.
  “You okay?”
  “I’m so embarrassed,” she said, gulping down a sob. “I don’t know what happened, Barack. With all the people…seems like I just always mess things up.”
  “You didn’t mess up,” I said. “If anybody messed up, it was me.” I called the others together into a circle and tried to offer encouragement. The turnout was great, I said, which meant people were willing to get involved. Most of the residents would still support our effort. We would learn from our mistakes.
  “And the director sure knows who we are now,” Shirley said.
  This last line drew some weak laughter. Sadie said she had to get home; I told the group that I could take care of cleaning up. As I watched Bernadette pick up Tyrone in one arm and carry his slumbering weight across the gymnasium floor, I felt my stomach constrict. Dr. Collier tapped me on the shoulder.   “So who’s gonna cheer you up?” she asked.
  I shook my head.
  “You take some chances, things are gonna blow once in a while.”
  “But the looks on their faces…”
  “Don’t worry,” Dr. Collier said. “They’re tough. Not as tough as they sound-none of us are, including you. But they’ll get over it. Something like this is just part of growing up. And sometimes growing up hurts.”
  The fallout from the meeting could have been worse. Because we had run so late, only one TV station replayed the tug-of-war between Linda and the director. The morning paper noted the frustration residents felt with CHA’s slow response to the asbestos problem, as well as the director’s tardiness that evening. In fact, we could claim the meeting as a victory of sorts, for the following week men dressed in moon-suits and masks were seen all over the Gardens, sealing any asbestos that posed an immediate threat. CHA also announced that it had asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for several million dollars in emergency cleanup funds.
  Such concessions helped to lift the spirits of some of the parents, and after a few weeks of licking our wounds, we started meeting again to make sure that CHA followed up on its commitments. Still, in Altgeld at least, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the window of possibility that had been pried open so briefly had slammed shut once again. Linda, Bernadette, Mr. Lucas-they would all continue to work with DCP, but only reluctantly, out of loyalty to me rather than to each other. Other residents who had joined us during the weeks leading up to the meeting dropped away. Mrs. Reece refused to speak to us anymore, and while few people paid attention to her attacks on our methods and motives, the squabbling only served to reinforce the suspicion among residents that no amount of activism would alter their condition, except maybe to bring trouble that they didn’t need.
  A month or so after the initial cleanup, we met with HUD to lobby for CHA’s budget request. In addition to the emergency cleanup funds, CHA had asked the feds for over a billion dollars to make basic repairs on projects all over the city. A tall, dour white man from HUD went over the line items.
  “Let me be blunt,” he told us. “CHA has no chance of getting even half the appropriation it’s requested. You can have the asbestos removed. Or you can have new plumbing and roofing where it’s needed. But you can’t have both.”
  “So you’re telling us that after all this, we gonna be worse off than we was,” Bernadette said.
  “Well, not exactly. But these are the budget priorities coming out of Washington these days. I’m sorry.”
  Bernadette hoisted Tyrone up on her lap. “Tell that to him.”
  Sadie didn’t join us for that meeting. She had called me to say that she had decided to stop working with DCP.
  “My husband doesn’t think it’s a good idea, me spending all this time instead of looking after my own family. He says that the publicity went to my head…that I became prideful.”
  I suggested that as long as her family lived in the Gardens, she’d have to stay involved.
  “Ain’t nothing gonna change, Mr. Obama,” she said. “We just gonna concentrate on saving our money so we can move outta here as fast as we can.”

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