CHICAGO--I stood in the flickering light, warming my hands by a trashcan that a few men in line with me had stuffed with wooden sticks and assorted debris--anything that would burn.
The night was cold, sometime during the Reagan years when there seemed little hope of trickle-down economics ever reaching ghetto America. And yet, we had hope that night, if only a glimmer, raised by the prospect of a new company opening.
So we stood, scores of men, all night long, warming ourselves as best we could. Motivated by the prospect of a job, we hovered, smoke seeping into our clothes and nostrils as we awaited daybreak just to put in an application with no guarantees.
I have seen superwomen, children in tow,
braving the elements and life's circumstances alone.
I was about 20. But I never forgot that night, how the smoke lingered in my skin for weeks and hung stubbornly on my clothes, like the stench of poverty.
The necessity of my presence in that line was for me at the time a source of shame. I thought I deserved better than a near minimum-wage job. I was smart. I had big dreams of being a professional someday. Except dreams don't pay the bills or put shoes on my children's feet.
I learned a long time ago that a man's got to do what a man's got to do.
And yet, I am reminded by the stories of far too many sisters and by the cold hard statistics on single working mothers--that far too many men aren't doing what we are supposed to do.
I am reminded that we live in a time where many men check in for the making of babies but check out for the taking care of them; a time when full-grown males--of voting and working age--and other sorry brothers, now nearer to social security than to their high school prom, have grown accustomed to leaching off some hardworking sister--in some cases, their own mamas.
They simply exist. No job. No prospects. No plan. No drive. And no shame. Only excuses.
I have heard some sisters' tales of sons, husbands and lovers exercising their daily ritual of chilling in the basement, smoking blunts and drinking forties and thumbing the Xbox 360 or PlayStation while the woman of the house "holds it down."
Or it is like a scene from "Baby Boy" where the spoiled mama's boy, who is the movie's main character, drops his girlfriend off at her job--in her car--then joyrides for much of the day.
In real life, maybe a sister takes the bus. At dawn, she arises to get the kids fed and dressed for school or the babysitter, then trudges off to work, managing a smile for yet another day while the "man" in her life plays a disappearing act. And when she arrives home after a hard day's work, there is no scent of hot supper spilling from the oven, or of bleach and pine cleaner--only nothingness.
Some sisters are enablers and trifling too, I know. But that is a story for another day. All I know is that brothers have no excuse.
And yet, I have seen superwomen, children in tow, braving the elements and life's circumstances alone. And I can think of a few choice words for my trifling brothers and other irresponsible men of all races: If you're a man, stand up. If you're in the basement, get up. And if you really care, man, show up.
That night I warmed my hands until by the fire I never did get a call back, not even an interview. But I'd do it again a thousand times. Whatever it takes to man up.