The Newman Occasional Journal

August 1, 1998

Introduction

This is likely to be an on-again, off-again journal of things that interest me from day to day. Many times over the past months I thought of doing something like this, now the thoughts have finally generated some action. I'll start with today and work my way back through some of the items (that I can still remember) that prompted this endeavor.

War and Peace

Today was the dedication of the Korean War Veterans Memorial at San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery (where my father's body was buried). What a mixture of memories and feelings that brought. As one who earns his keep, at least to some extent, by finding and fixing errors, I noticed the flaws in the printed programs and in the actual ceremony. But they did not significantly detract from the dignity nor the solemnity of the event. There were some moving moments -- even for a nominal pacifist like me. I felt like I belonged there because my father served in Korea during that conflict, and at the same time felt out of place among the warriors and their talk of war. There was a lot of talk by veterans about the "forgotten war" and an eloquent speech by an older Korean gentleman who said "As long as God remembers, we shall remember, what these brave Americans did to help our people" (if my memory has not obscured the actual words too much).

A lesson in history

Sometime during the week (I noticed it on Friday) the Historic Bridge on River Road at Orestimba Creek collapsed. I suppose that they will remove both the remains of the bridge and the highway signs calling attention to it. You might think that it could be restored, but I don't imagine its historic significance is so great that anyone will be willing to spend thousands of dollars to re-erect it. Perhaps they'll leave the signs and change the wording to "[Former site of] Historic Bridge, Orestimba Creek, 1889[-1998]." I wonder how long it will be before this, too, is forgotten.

It's progress, I suppose

Well, its been a couple of months or so since they finally turned on Newman's first traffic signals. The first few days were kind of scary as everyone who often travels that intersection adjusted to the idea of stopping or waiting there.

An item in the Modesto Bee today says that the population of Modesto is expected to surpass 400,000 in the next 30 years or so.

Can Newman remain a small town? It is a curious situation: most of us like living here because it is a small town -- and at the same time, we are eager to attract new businesses to increase the supply of jobs. (Oh, I'll have to write a piece now, I suppose, about work and jobs and career and being grown up; ask me about it if you can't find it.)

Or will the small town of Newman be a dim memory cherished by long-time citizens of the City of Newman? Oops, I nearly forgot, since we came here only four years ago to live in one of those new houses on the other side the tracks we are, ourselves, contributors to the demise of small-town life here. Deep sigh...

More progress

That reminds me... when we first came here our youngest daughter was in high school. She was pretty apprehensive during her first weeks at Newman High School. What's so unusual about that? Nothing. Except that a major cause of the anxiety was the lack of police officers on campus. She had transferred from a much larger school in a much larger city -- and that school had four or five city police officers on campus throughout the school day. She eventually understood and appreciated the reason for their absence from the Newman High campus -- they were not needed there. For us, that was true progress.

August 8, 1998

A common citizen

I was at the market yesterday -- an altogether common experience. When I got to the check-out stand there was a young woman in line ahead of me. She was accompanied by a boy about seven or eight years old who stood next to her silently, though not quite still. She wore the summertime uniform of citizens here: a light-colored t-shirt, faded blue denim shorts, and sandals. She was on the tall side of average, but neither too heavy nor too slim. She engaged the clerk in chit-chat appropriate to the occasion. She seemed just an average suburban soccer mom.

When the clerk announced the total of her purchases she withdrew her wallet from her purse and took out a book of food stamps (I suppose that officially they are known as USDA Food Coupons -- to satisfy the part of me which obsessively insists upon correctness) and tore out the appropriate number of coupons, dug in her coin purse to retrieve enough cash for the non-food items, and tendered it all to the clerk. He completed the transaction in same efficient manner as all the others before and after, all the while maintaining their casual conversation. Nothing about their conversation made me think that they had any other contact with one another than just then at that check-out counter -- I think they spoke of the merits of various home health remedies, in any case the discussion was not a matter that attracted my attention.

But what was there that made this more than just a common wait in the supermarket check-out line? It was my reaction to her use of food stamps. Now I often see people use food stamps for their purchases (though I must admit that I see it more often at other markets than this one), so that was not an event uncommon enough to warrant special attention. What was disturbing is that seeing the food stamps caused me to take a closer look at the woman.

First I thought: she is so young and (assuming the boy is her son) was perhaps one of those teen mothers we hear about. Now she is struggling to raise her son as a single parent. But she doesn't have the appearance of a "welfare mom" -- their clothes are clean, in good repair, and not outrageously incongruous with the styles which are in current fashion. They both seem to be well-mannered and pleasant. I wonder if it has been difficult for her -- has she suffered the prejudice and social stigma which were the lot of unmarried parents of previous generations? It has probably been difficult, but she seems to be succeeding.

Then I looked again. She was wearing a wedding ring -- so she is perhaps not a single parent, at least now. But this ring was more than a simple gold band, much more. It was elaborate, large, ornate -- whatever, it was much fancier than anything I would consider buying for my wife. And her other hand had three rings on it, her ears each held two earrings, and there was a lovely gold chain around her neck. I wondered, because I don't know anything about them myself, whether their clothes were the "designer" type purchased at the likes of Niemann-Marcus or if they were what I might find at Wal-Mart. I wondered what kind of car she was driving -- was it the two- or three-year-old minivan of the suburban soccer mom, or was it the ten-year-old compact of a struggling single parent, or is it a welfare Cadillac? Has my perception of her changed from "common everyday housewife" to "struggling single parent" to "welfare cheat" in 20 seconds time?

Or perhaps, I thought, there is another possibility. She did have her fist child young, while she was still in high school. She got married and their family enjoyed some success, which would account for the jewelery. But now they have encountered some difficulty which makes the food stamps necessary -- marital difficulties, a job layoff, a catastrophic illness -- there are many possibilities.

What now? She started as a common citizen, and this she remains -- nothing more or less. She is as any one of us: a unique individual who cannot be judged by a single glance or even by a lengthy application and interview for public assistance. She has dreams and desires and goals, and she has pains and sorrows and regrets. If I would know who she truly is I would have to learn all of those and so much more. So she will remain a common citizen, and I will remember that appearances are nothing more than that -- they can provide clues but they are of little value in judging who a person really is.

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