Jimmy Carter had been President for almost a year when he took his first trip abroad. I was detailed from the State Department to the White House to advance the trip. Advancing a President is much different than advancing a Candidate for numbers of reasons, not the least of which is you have military support and you are treated with diplomatic courtesy. At least that was the case in those years, now no one wants to be identified as an American diplomat—thank you seven years of George Bush. I had been divorced for two days when I boarded the plane to New Delhi India, where I stayed for ten minutes and then was reassigned to Paris. Oh poor me. In those years the dollar was strong and you could buy gifts for your family without having to sell your first born. But that’s not what I wanted to blob about.
It was three years before I actually went to India and stayed for three weeks. It was also a diplomatic trip but this time for the “people to people” diplomacy effort—which, as you can see by our relationships around the world, the State Department hated. But that’s not the point (I really do have a point). After I visited Calcutta I had an epiphany, which was that before anyone can become a journalist, they should be made to spend a month in Calcutta. And it’s not only about the poverty. It is about the color, the smells (which range from delicious spices to acrid body burnings), the sounds and the sights. You cannot go to Calcutta and stand apart from what’s going on. You are forced to get involved with all the life you see on the street.
I had another epiphany yesterday. It was about the New York City public transportation system. We have talked about some of this before, but this week I bought a weekly pass instead of a per ride ticket. For whatever reason, I have felt compelled to use the system no matter where I go. For a while I had difficulty with my pass and the bus. I just couldn’t put it in correctly but finally a patient (and adorable) bus driver gave me insertion lessons. Doesn’t that sound obscene—no such luck. Anyway, I have been making the most of my pass, but this is not without some issues and lessons. For example, yesterday at rush hour the subway was very, very crowded and there were two young women who got into a “space intrusion,” quite hostile conversation. It went something like “Stop pushing me.” And in response “I’m not pushing you -- if you put down your bag I wouldn’t be knocking into it.” And in response, “Why should I put my bag down and inconvenience all the other people just so you can remain untouched.” This makes it sound a little less hostile than it was, but I finally intervened by saying, “Girls, let’s get in the holiday spirit, it’s a crowded train, let’s all just be cool.” For a minute I thought they might haul off and hit me, but then I realized the train was so crowded that they would never be able to lift their arms. Nevertheless, I started to think this might be a career calling—like I could just ride the subways and calm things down. Then late last night, I took a bus across town and transferred to the subway. It was the 4,5,6, line. The 4 and 5 being express and the 6 – a local - which gets me two blocks closer. I just missed a 6 so I walked down the platform and noticed there were two guys who were standing on the stairs between the 6 and the 4 & 5. I asked if they were waiting for both trains and they said they were and would board whichever came first. “Why don’t you watch for the 6”, one of them said to me, “And we’ll watch for the 4 and 5.”
The 4 came first and we all raced down the stairs. We were very close to the first car so I jumped on without noticing that all the other people waiting with me, avoided this car. As soon as I got on I realized that this was the car the homeless got on late at night so they could sleep and ride the entire night. The smell was as bad as the body burnings in Calcutta, and I was stuck there for one stop. I raced off the train at 59th and threw myself into the fresh air, happy to walk the two extra blocks.
Relevant flashback -- In 1976 the Udall campaign ran out of money and we were forced to take all the press and VIP’s on public transportation because we couldn’t afford to rent campaign vehicles. We told the media it was an example of the way everyone could conserve energy. They might have believed us—but it was unlikely, they just liked Mo so they didn’t write about the lack of funds. Anyway, it was a disaster. We got lost on the subway, took the wrong buses and found ourselves in a neighborhood where no one in the campaign had ever been. We happened upon an outdoor church service which we turned into a political rally, basically stole the church’s chorus bus and got the press back to the hotel late and over tired. But, I am happy to report—we lost no lives. (It’s another blob).
I guess I should have realized way back then, that working people, without large sums of money, did not have an easy time. But I didn’t have to take public transportation to work and I was too busy trying to figure out how to keep the campaign alive. It all came back yesterday after hours and hours above and under the streets of NY.
Anyway, (I used a great many of these tonight but the transitions necessitated repetition). When I got home the epiphany caught up with me. Every person running for President should be made to spend a day riding the NYC subways and buses. No cars, limo’s or security—OK maybe one cop. But no one shielding them from the reality of what people all over the country (NY is just the most complicated and therefore a good test) have to go through everyday to get to work, or to take their children to appointments or just to buy groceries at a reasonable cost. What people who can’t afford an alternative must do to survive. Spending time on public transportation provides some real insights and education – one from which most politicians would benefit. We’re just sayin...Iris