A Day in the Life of My America

american-flag

American Flag. Photo by Callen Harty.

Most days, even on the weekends when I don’t have to, I tend to wake up by 6:30 or 7:00. Today I was able to sleep in until about 7:30 or so, and then I was able to lounge in bed for another hour or so. I watched a little television, checked Facebook and other things online, and generally just relaxed before getting out of bed and taking a nice long hot shower. On days like this I realize, though maybe not always as consciously as I should, that I have it pretty good compared to others. I have a bed and house when others are homeless. I have a job I’ve been at for more than ten years now that pays me a decent salary (not great, but enough to live on and have spending money), while I know there are those who have been unemployed or underemployed for months and years. I have a car and enough money for gas when others can barely afford public transportation. I am well-fed when others are hungry. I have privilege by virtue of my color and my gender–although I lose some of that due to being a gay man–when others are oppressed because of their color or gender. I have family, friends, and a life partner who love me when there are countless others who are alone in this world. Overall, my life is good and I am comfortable.

But I also see the world in which we live. I understand that some of my comfort comes at the expense of others. This is why I am politically active. I believe that government should not be for the rich or the majority but for the least of us and those in the minority. It is why I often join marches, rallies, and movements, because those in power will not concede their power, or any part of it, unless the people speak up and speak out, and act up and act out. There are strong forces aligned with the rich and powerful so that they maintain both their wealth and their power. Without groundswells of popular support against wars and injustices the wars and injustices are destined to continue.

On the way to meet my niece for some tea and lunch I passed by a display of eight life-size purple cut-out figures with the words “Domestic Abuse Affects Each of Us” printed on cut-out clouds lying low to the ground. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it occurred to me how sad it is that we have to dedicate entire months to raise awareness of issues like domestic violence, sexual assault, gun violence, bullying, and more. Our society is so violent that we set aside months at a time to remind people about how widespread the violence is and hope that at least a few people are drawn to an awareness that was not there before. It is not acceptable that so many in this country are victims of so many kinds of violence, yet as a whole we settle for it. We raise awareness for a moment or two in a month or two every year and then we drift back into complacency and care more about reality television than the reality outside our doors and windows.

After meeting my niece I headed over to Hudson Park to join people gathering in prayer to be followed by a march to the Wisconsin Capitol as a show of support for the Water Protectors at Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota. Sacred Stone camp is the epicenter of an incredible grass-roots resistance to a pipeline that has united a couple hundred Native American tribes and thousands of people from all over North America. Unfortunately it has also mobilized the protectors of the rich and of corporations–the police, private security, National Guard–who have also descended upon the site with military force to try to subdue those who want to protect the water, the land, and sites that are sacred to the Native Americans who live there.

When I arrived I was disappointed to see two men and a boy holding small hand-written signs and holding one small drum. It seemed to me that there should be hundreds, or at least dozens, or at least a dozen. They greeted me warmly and were glad to see someone else join them. There had been some communication issues and some conflicting times and locations reported for the event, so it appeared we might be it. After a while I realized it didn’t matter. We would put out positive energy. The one drum would beat the energy of the earth. We would do what we could in that moment to raise awareness of the Dakota Access pipeline and those trying to stop the destruction associated with it, and perhaps a few fellow citizens would see those signs or hear our words and come to an understanding that was not there before.

Hudson Park was chosen because it is the site of effigy mounds. There are more native burial mounds and effigy mounds in Dane County, Wisconsin than almost any place in the United States. The spirits of native ancestors are everywhere around the county, so it seemed like a good location from which to march downtown.

As we waited a handful of others joined us. One had a bullhorn that they offered up for the march. Another brought sage. Before deciding to begin the march Rebecca Kemble, a Madison alderperson who had already been to Sacred Stone Camp and had been arrested along with other citizens there, led us to the shore of Lake Mendota where we gathered to offer prayers at the water’s edge. Water is indeed life and it is sacred.

Prayers, thoughts, and positive energy were offered up for the water, for those working to protect it, and for the earth beneath us. As that was wrapping up Rebecca’s phone rang and she said she had to answer it as it was someone who was in North Dakota. She put her phone on speaker and we all listened to Barbara With, an activist from La Pointe, Wisconsin, talk about what was going on out there. She talked of the sacredness of Lake Superior, where she is from, the recent arrests at the protests, and how a hundred of those arrested are unaccounted for at this time. She also shared that some of those arrested were put into dog kennels and that arresting officers were found to be leering at the young Native women. One could feel our genocidal past in her description of the ecological genocide being inflicted upon the same people today.

After the phone call ended we headed toward downtown Madison. Along Willy Street we met up with a sharply dressed African-American man with a cap indicating that he was a veteran who had served in Afghanistan. He was leaving the Social Justice Center when he saw us and asked what we were doing. When we explained it he decided to march with us. The small band of activists walked from there to the Capitol with our little signs, a young boy speaking into the bullhorn about protecting water and his future, and an occasional passerby giving a thumbs up or a car honking their horn in solidarity. Still, I couldn’t help but notice how easy it was for so many to turn the other way, not look at the signs, not hear the message, and just go on with whatever was happening in their world. Those who would build pipelines across burial grounds depend upon that kind of apathy in order to finish their work. Those who would stop them depend upon those people waking up before it is too late.

Downtown Madison was bustling with red-shirted fans of both Nebraska and Wisconsin, scheduled to play a big game at Camp Randall. We stopped on the corner of Mifflin and Wisconsin, having picked up a couple more marchers and signs. Using the bullhorn, chants about the water were shared with those on the streets. At one point an elderly woman with two dogs came up to us and said that we should stop what we were doing. When I asked her why she pointed to about ten or so red-clad people staring at us from benches several yards away. She said, “They’re from Nebraska and they’re scared. They’re from out of town. You shouldn’t be scaring them.” I asked her why they would be scared of our small group of people and she responded with something about the noise, then turned with her dogs and walked away. Based on her appearance and demeanor I presumed she was heading back to one of the high-rise gentrified apartments that have priced most common folks out of living too close to the Capitol Square. If the Nebraska fans were scared they didn’t show it. In fact, they showed little interest at all.

After a bit we moved a block down to the top of State Street where a stage and fencing were being set up for Freak Fest, an annual Halloween celebration held every year in downtown Madison. What used to be an open street party where more than a hundred thousand people in costume would show up along the entirety of State Street is now a closed gathering and music festival with a price tag. The top of State Street is a space where many homeless gather during the day. They are usually chased out by night or harassed and sometimes beaten by cold-hearted young men. When there are events like Freak Fest happening they get removed and have to go elsewhere. Madison doesn’t like to look at its homeless people very closely because it tweaks the guilt centers of those who like to shop, dine, and party downtown. The mayor, who used to be a radical, then a liberal, and now seems to be nothing but a shill for the gentry, has been trying every trick he can think of to remove them from public view. Of course, removing them from downtown doesn’t eliminate the problem of homelessness. It just makes it easier to pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

Freak Fest was just being set up by mid-afternoon so we were able to be there without paying or being told to leave. Our group stopped next to a brightly chalked message that said, “Be a true American. Stand up for Standing Rock, North Dakota.” Some additional people joined in and others stopped to ask questions or chat. At one point we heard music and saw a good number of people marching up the street. It turned out to be members of Primates Incorporated, along with some members of the Forward Marching Band, a group that appears at many left-leaning events around the city. They had come up State Street to draw attention to the plight of primates that are used for scientific experiments. Primates Inc. is raising money to create a sanctuary for primates retired from this work. They saw the “No DAPL” and “Protect the Water” signs and stopped and joined the rally. It seemed a perfect union–a group working to protect animals and a group working to protect the earth and water–joining together as one for a brief moment in time.

As we were chatting my friend, Jessie, who will be heading to North Dakota in the morning, saw a man fall to the ground and get back up again. He was a middle-aged to older African-American man and nobody else seemed to notice him. He may have been one of the street people; he had come from the direction where a group of them were sitting. When I first looked he was holding his chest as if in pain. He started to walk and seemed to be staggering, but it was impossible to tell if he might be drunk or disoriented from a health issue. He rounded the corner and sat down on a window ledge. I asked Jessie if we should go check on him. I felt we should and she did, too. We walked over and asked, “Are you okay?”

He said he had heart issues and knew that he needed a heart operation, but couldn’t afford it. My heart sank a bit at his words–we live in one of the richest nations in the world and our people cannot afford to get sick. Jessie checked his pulse and his heart rate and it all seemed to be okay. I could smell alcohol on his breath, but still didn’t know if he was drunk or ill. He seemed scared. As someone who has suffered a heart attack and survived I understood his fear. Jessie asked if he had had any water and he said no. She felt that he needed water, so I went across the street to a shop and bought a bottle and brought it back and opened it for him. He took a drink and I looked in his eyes, which were an incredible green color, and I saw that he was still in fear. We asked again if he were okay and he assured us he was. He looked at us both and thanked us for checking on him. “Thank you for noticing me,” he said, and as I walked away I thought of how many men and women on the streets and in our lives every day go unnoticed. They may have the most beautiful of souls but people walk by them every day, going about their own business, whatever that might be, oblivious to the souls in need and to all the beautiful people who pass through our lives.

After leaving the man I went back across the street to get a pasty, a type of meat and potato meal in a wrapped pastry that is the one cultural food from my home part of Wisconsin. Pasty is a known and appreciated meal in southwestern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, so I often buy one when I’m downtown. The place that serves it was started by a man from Mineral Point, a short distance from my home town, and it is served in every restaurant there. The smell and taste of it reminds me of my elderly mother who used to make it when we were kids (although she cheated and made it as a pie instead of in a folded pastry). A proper pasty should have meat, potatoes, rutabaga, and an incredible pastry crust and I don’t know if others did it this way or not but my mother always made it with suet. As I’m sitting outside eating it I think of her and how frail she is–she has been bedridden for several years–and how I’ll never have one of her pasties again. She can’t get out of bed, she sometimes doesn’t know who I am when I see her, and she is incredibly skinny. But she is also tough and keeps hanging on, now into her nineties, even though she’s been on hospice and removed from it and received last rites more than two years ago now. The thought of her makes me sad, but it also brings back good memories of her in her kitchen and the love she showed us as children. Pasty is a comfort food for me.

Halfway through the meal a man ran across the street, chased by the man from the pasty shop and a couple other people. He seemed disabled or tweaked out or something, as he wasn’t running very well. One of the men chasing him tackled him and he fell to the ground along with the sound of shattering glass. It turned out that he had grabbed the tip jar from the pasty shop and tried running away with it. When the jar broke at least one of the homeless people grabbed some of the money that fell out of it and got away with it. One of the protesters said to me, “I don’t have any big issues with people stealing from large corporations, but not from a small mom-and-pop operation like that. That’s just not right.” He then went on to say that the owner of the store often would bake entire trays of the pasties and hand them out to the homeless people near his store. I don’t believe it’s right to steal from anyone, but I think it is somehow more wrong to steal from those who have less. I agree that if you must steal it should be from those who can afford to lose it. I also wondered about the situation of a man who would try to steal a tip jar that probably had no more than twenty or thirty dollars in it, if that. What was his story? Why did he need money so badly that he would do that? Was he homeless? Hungry? What kind of society do we live in that people might need to steal from others just to survive? As I moved through my day I was reminded numerous times that our problems are so much greater than any one issue and that the solutions are going to require people with varying causes and different backgrounds to work together.

A short time later our small rally broke up. One of the men, Airto, offered Jessie and me a ride back to her house and to my car on the near-east side. He had a friend with a car just up the street. Airto and Jessie were going to Sacred Stone camp together. I wished him and her safe travels and peace on their way, then headed back home. Along the way I passed another set of the of the domestic violence awareness figures and thought of how I had come full circle in my day. As I continued to drive I noticed that many of the trees along the route were almost leafless, another circle and cycle of life in our world, and realized I needed to go on at least a short hike after my day just to reconnect with the natural world. It is where I always go to replenish my energy. Connections with nature are always positive for me. Getting away from people and being among plants and animals connects me with my humanity in ways that nothing else can.

After a short hike and a relaxing time alongside a pond I headed home. When I got there our dog, Cuco, was waiting eagerly to go for a walk, tail wagging crazily, jumping up and down in excitement, I think also wanting to connect with the outdoors where we all truly belong. I understood in that moment that this is why the fight against the pipeline is so important. It is a stand against the continued encroachment upon our natural world. It is a moment when an incredible amount of energy is being focused on saving one small part of our world so that eventually we may be able to save it all. I fervently hope that we can.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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