Pocketful of Change

Change has come, not quietly, the way you hope it would, like Sandburg's "little cat feet." Instead it's come in the roar of hurricanes and natural disasters, erupting volcanoes, tsunamis. Our diffi

Dec 7, 2005 at 2:06 pm

Change has come, not quietly, the way you hope it would, like Sandburg's "little cat feet." Instead it's come in the roar of hurricanes and natural disasters, erupting volcanoes, tsunamis. Our difficulties in Iraq have erupted in suicide bombings. Our government teeters on the brink in the flash of the photographers (click! click! click!) surrounding the special prosecutor in the CIA leak case.

Everybody's in a bad mood. And it's the holidays, with all the baggage that comes with the festive season, the coping with the changes that have come as a result of all the other changes.

We're dealing with more changes than the head of a bebop tune, and role reversals are rampant.

With Delta Airlines and General Motors on the skids, Wal-Mart is being touted for their heroic and organized efforts to get help to New Orleans when FEMA couldn't. Is Wal-Mart a sovereign nation yet?

My mother loves Wal-Mart and goes there most every day. Sometimes when she's worried she likes to push her cart up and down the aisles.

"Mother, they sell guns there," I tell her, but she only sounds puzzled. I can see her eyebrows knitting up at the other end of the line.

"Where?" she asks.

I have to admit I don't know where they keep the firearms. I doubt it would stop her anyway.

"What if somebody got hold of the guns and there was a big shootout in the small appliances department?" I have asked. "You could get killed."

I can tell by looking at her that she doesn't believe Wal-Mart sells guns. She is still happily wheeling her cart through the aisles "getting some good exercise," as she points out, and seeing some of her friends who work there.

This year, too, my old reliable network TV anchormen have disappeared faster than you can say "Wolf Blitzer," and I've started watching the talking heads on cable, even though my old friend Myra disapproves. "You can get just as much out of the McNeil/Lehrer Report," she says in her soft graceful voice, the same voice in which she once instructed me on the use of lipliner.

"As General Motors goes, so goes the nation," said the sonorous voices of my generation's talking heads. The day before Thanksgiving, GM laid off thousands of workers, enough to start a small town.

This couldn't have happened when I was a little girl living in Detroit. My family moved there in the 1950s from Tennessee, like a half-million other Southerners who relocated after the war for economic opportunity. This monumental migration shifted the world a little on its axis, and the air was charged with energy. Just like the survivors of this year's national disasters, families washed up in strange cities, driven by catastrophe into new lives.

The automobile industry was the draw for my family. We lived for a time on Eight Mile Road when we first moved to Detroit. We were afraid of everything and everybody. I laid awake at night before I started kindergarten, traumatized by the sound of ambulances, by city lights and city smells. I went to high school for one semester with Jimmy Hoffa's son. I see him on television now and think of the class we shared, which was choral singing, and what a beautiful boy he was.

My father and uncles bought little cottages on the G.I. Bill, and we learned to use cash money (something we'd seen only once a year when the tobacco was harvested). We got to know Tony, the Italian vegetable and fruit peddler, who brought his wagon to the neighborhood for everyone's convenience. He had a scale with balancing weights for potatoes and cucumbers.

The grocery stores were neighborhood affairs; they all sold meat in shrink wrap and homogenized milk in thick glass bottles. Many people in Detroit were Polish, and from them my father learned to love kielbasa. Once, at the dentist's, I saw a woman with numbers tattooed on her wrist. It wasn't until years later that I understood she was a survivor of the concentration camps. No one talked about that in those years.

I have read that those of us who are willing to change are more likely to survive. Many of the families who moved to the Astrodome in Houston after Hurricane Katrina kept on going, liberated by this catastrophe, impelled toward a new life, a new set of circumstances.

Just like the migration of the Oakies in the 1930s when the sun baked the overworked earth to a fine silt-like dust, and no rain came. They crammed their belongings in old cars and set out for California, leaving families and social networks, taking nothing but the clothes on their back and some crates of chickens tied to the tops of their old Model Ts. What they did was nothing short of heroic. Woody Guthrie saw their struggle and sang songs about it.

Today more money is in the hands of fewer people, but the pendulum will swing again. Meanwhile, don't neglect the poor or the sick and remember the stranger in a strange land.

When we numb ourselves to the suffering of others, we sacrifice the greatness of the human spirit that springs from the humanity we're capable of. We are all in this together.

CONTACT KATIE LAUR: Her column appears here the first issue of each month.