A Story of the Stages to Being Homeless

I always say that cab drivers are like high school students in that drivers form cliques and some groups don’t like other groups. Personally, I don’t really fit into any of the main groups (immigrants, angry white men who listen to Michael Savage and flirt with right-wing extremism, surly bald-headed black guys, old-timers, etc); but here in St. Louis there is a core group of drivers that I would say I am friendly with.

Perhaps none of these drivers have I spent more time talking to and sharing thoughts with more than a guy I will just call B.

B is an interesting character. He was born and raised in the Bronx and worked in factories in New York until he graduated from City College with a degree in education and English (he would later get a graduate degree in both fields).

From there B would become a teacher in the New York City Public Schools and he married a Dominican woman who taught him to speak fluent Spanish. The couple had two or three children, I am not really sure, but somehow ended up in a divorce.

Around this time B’s sister was transferred to a job in St. Louis and B decided to give the city a try to get away from the problems with his ex. He first worked as a teacher in St. Louis; but because of the child support and alimony cuts in his check he deiced to go into the cash economy and become a cabbie.

This is when we met and we hit it off. B is a big reader and always has something around to read and we would often trade magazines and books to read in our cabs. Both of us also listen to a lot of NPR and BBC and we would often talk to each other about stuff we had heard on the radio.

When we first met B had a nicely furnished apartment in North St. Louis County, a cell phone, and was well-dressed and well-groomed. He was optimistic about life and planned to save up money and either move back to New York or out to the West Coast.

I left St. Louis for New York and when I came back B no longer lived in the apartment but was in a boarding house in North County. Some people may look down on boarding houses, not me, I have lived in them before and think they fit the needs of a lot of single males pretty well, so I didn’t look down on this move.

During this time B was writing a screenplay and I was kind of helping him with it (although he never took any of my advice) and was talking o a Jewish woman in California. The woman is a lawyer and seemed to like B from what I could tell. He also had a woman in Louisville he was talking to and I think his plan was to move to one of these places and live with the woman.

The woman in LA cut ties with B and he focused on the woman in Louisville. He bought her gifts and flew down there to spend time with her. She decided to break it off with him when he visited and he was pretty much crushed and even asked her to reimburse him for all the gifts he bought.

A little while later I left to DC for about a year to work with Imam Mahdi Bray. When I come back I see B again and this time he does not have an apartment and is not renting a room. Instead he was living in his cab and when he had a good day he rented a motel room by the airport.

B was no longer writing and his grooming was slipping; but he was very enthralled by the Presidential election and told me he would stay in the motel all day watching MSNBC and CNN coverage and would not even go to work. He seemed to stop living his life and to be living through the life of Barack Obama.

Now he told me that he planned to move back to New York or to Portland, OR after the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in July. That was before it came time for his license to get renewed (around $250) and he did not have the money.

He lost his job a couple of weeks ago and knowing that he was sleeping in his cab and had now lost that I wondered what happened to him. On Saturday night I found out. As I was driving up to the valet of the upscale Chase Park Plaza Hotel I heard someone yelling my name from the bus stop on the corner.

When I looked over it was B who ran towards my cab sweating and looking a mess saying “yo Umar I haven’t eaten in two days brother”.  I decided to give him some pocket money and took him to Taco Bell and I asked him what he had been doing. He said he had been living in a homeless shelter but had gotten a two day “time off” because he spent too much time in the shower and was now trying to hustle up the money to get his license.

Later that night I drove by that same bus stop and I saw B again. He did not see me; because he was reading a book at the bus stop and seemed to be into it and I am sure that to all of those passing by looking his direction he was just another big homeless black man, but I knew he had a story.

A man is going to do what he is going to do. If I was him I would just get out of St. Louis and live closer to family; but there may be things I do not know. For me though, what the story of B illustrates is how a man can just slowly devolve over the course of years and then finally hit rock bottom. It also leads me to believe that there are other nameless homeless faces out there who have their won stories-maybe not so different than B.

Obama The New President, America Far From Post-Racial: A Drive Down MLK

This Tuesday, the day after the national observance of the Martin Luther King holiday, Barack Hussein Obama, an African-American, will be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States of America making him the most powerful man in the world.

I am not someone who is overly pessimistic and believes that the election of Obama means nothing in terms of race-relations. The election of Obama is a sign of the progress in race relations that have been made in America and if you do not believe that just try and imagine an African-American 40 years ago, when half of America was segregated and the other half semi-segregated, even coming close to winning he office of the presidency no matter how qualified they were or how much they sold out.

However, I think that the talk of many in the media, the “netroots”, the young and idealists, conservatives, and liberal activists about the election of Obama making way for a post-racial America is absurd. It should come as no surprise that most of these people are making this argument are white ( or at least not black) and would like to absolve themselves from any racial introspection.

Obama will be inaugurated on Tuesday and hundreds of millions will be watching the event. In St. Louis there are going to be parties thrown all over town especially in the African-American community.

But, when we all wake up in Wednesday, we will still be waking up in a very segregated city. The vast majority of whites will not venture north of Delmar and there are many neighborhoods in St. Louis where African-Americans will still not feel safe after dark. Having a black man in the Oval Office will not change that.

Recently I had an older man in my cab that I guessed to be around 75. I was taking him from the trendy upscale urban neighborhood of the Central West End to the airport where he was catching a flight to Florida. I decided to take him straight up North Kingshighway to Highway 70 which at that time of the morning is the quickest way to the airport.

The man, who lives just blocks from the boundaries of North St. Louis, told me he had not driven through the North Side in at least 20 years and everything looked strange to him. There was a new streetscape, new stores, and new restaurants. The neighborhood we drove through is virtually 100% black and this was a white man.

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Auto Industry Bailout Causes Rift Within Obama Coalition

Tariq Nelson has talked a lot about the auto bailout recently and I will attempt to approach it from a different angle Insha’Allah.

President-elect Barack Obama brought a coalition of diverse groups of people together to win the election. It will be impossible to get all of those groups to come together on every issue during his presidency; but you would think they would wait to disagree until at least Obama has been sworn into office.

However, in its unique way, the crisis in the American auto industry and the requested bailout by Washington has already caused a rift in that coalition that brought Obama to office and exposed major fault-lines on the Democratic Party.

Three of the major groups that brought Obama in are educated white yuppies, union-members (who are of all races), and minorities. Listening to NPR and watching cable news cover this topic it is easy to see this rift although it has not been discussed openly in the media to any degree.

Quite simply, for the most part, yuppies hate American cars. Look at parked cars in Manhattan, gentrified sections of Brooklyn, Adams Morgan in DC, Kenmore Square in Boston, Hyde Park in Chicago, the Central West End in St. Louis, Austin, Madison, Boulder, Berkeley, and any other such place and tell me how many American cars you see on the street? Driving an American car is a fashion no-no in these places that fancy themselves as being hip and creative; but in reality are very conformist and monolithic.

We all know that there was a time between the 1970′s and the early 1990′s that Detroit stopped putting out quality cars; but most auto experts, not just some globos gargling latte who don’t even know how to change a flat tire or check their own oil, will tell you that Detroit has closed the gap and for the most part American cars are on par with Asian competitors. (See this article by Mark Phelan of the Detroit Free-Press).

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Where Does Everyone Go From Here?

A day or so after the monumental victory of President-elect Barack Obama in the presidential election life still goes on in America.

Those who simply disagreed with the policy positions of Obama are chalking this up as a loss and moving on with their lives.  The racists, the Islamophobes and right-wing nuts (see Freerepublic) are not taking this easy. You see they have thought, well forever, that they had the monopoly on what an American is and looks like. Now a black man with a Muslim name will be the commander in chief of the armed forces and the face of America to the world.

Many of these enemies of Obama will seethe in private and with friends and family. I am sure there are thousands of neighborhood bars throughout America from Staten Island to Simi Valley from the northern suburbs of Atlanta to Orange County full of talk about how America went wrong. Most will just run their mouths in private and are law-abiding if bigoted; but let us not fool ourselves there are going to be those who will turn to extremism and violence in this period.

It is no mistake that an upswing in right-wing violence occurred under the Administration of Bill Clinton. The right was angry and unlike most of the angry left under Bush it was armed, trained and many had military backgrounds. I expect such a thing to occur again although this time with a decidedly more racial tone. This will come from the Christian Identity Movement, Minutemen types, and even neo-Nazis; but while all of these groups can cause death and suffering on a small scale they are incapable of becoming a major threat due to a lack of popular support. Some of these people have the potential to become “dead-enders” meaning instead of seeing themselves as the ultimate Americans because of their whiteness and Christianity they may see themselves as an oppressed group and drop out of the mainstream they once defined. This type of thing has a greater chance of occurring in a bad economy.

My biggest concern, by far, is the widespread existence of right-wing extremism within the armed forces and federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies throughout America. If there is any real threat to Obama I think this is where it will come from. A vast majority of those in these agencies will do the right thing; but there are more than a few bad apples in these barrels and they have been known to step out of line

For the rest of us life goes on. Obama cannot do everything. He has to do his part and we have to do our part. We cannot have the failed “wait for the messiah” mentality that has doomed many cultures to failure. We cannot be utopian. As Muslims we have to realize that there is no utopia in this dunya and that this dunya is the lower life and utopia will only occur in Jinnah. Those who have came promising utopia in the past from the Soviet Union, China,  North Korea, Nazi Germany and even Libya under the Colonel have only succeeded in creating human suffering and misery. Man does not have the power to create utopia. What our leaders have the power to do, if we meet them half way, is the delivery of incremental change and on specific issues make changes that are better for the masses of the people while the society remains imperfect.

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