I met an interesting woman in the woods last week. This may be a strange way to start my story, but it started as a routine meeting. She was an insurance adjuster and she was inspecting a boarded up building on some property my family owns in northern Westchester that we someday hope to redevelop. She needed to make sure the building was properly secured from trespassers – mostly local kids, hunters and some people who ride their ATVs across our vacant land. I knew she had come from a long way because when we arranged the meeting she said it would take her an hour and half to get there. She had come down from the border of Dutchess and Orange Counties in upstate NY.
As we walked up to the old stone house, I told her that we had planned to redevelop the property several years ago, but the economy changed for the plan we had intended and we were working on a few new ideas. After the routine inspection, I asked her how were things “upstate”. She said not very good, the poverty is staggering, drugs are everywhere and people are in despair. I had told her I was recently at a conference in Poughkeepsie about redevelopment, and although I could see the bones of a once vibrant City, time has moved on and left Poughkeepsie behind. It will take a lot to bring it back. She said it was like that everywhere upstate.
We talked about the drug problem and it opened up a huge personal can of worms for her. She was not shy about telling me her entire life’s journey. She was a twin. She and her brother were from a poor family and her father was abusive to she and her brother, especially to her. She grew up a pretty good athlete and was offered a scholarship to play basketball in college. She knew women made no money in professional sports so she decided not to waste the time. Instead she took a job and eventually became a partner in a company that installed ATM machines in gas stations, delis, laundramats, and other small businesses in the upper Hudson Valley. She had over 100 locations and put a lot of miles on her cars. She was making good money, and most importantly, she was out of the house she grew up in.
Her brother did not get out. Her twin brother stayed. He never left town. He got jobs and then lost them. He fell into drugs, went to rehab, got cleaned up, then fell back into drug abuse. He got married, had a couple of kids, and got divorced. He was in and out of the work force, on and off welfare, and back and forth between rehab and addiction. Both his sons also ended up on drugs. One of them recently died of an overdose of opioids. It is a tale that has become frighteningly too common.
She told me how she tried to help her brother and his sons, but addiction is a tough thing. She gave me her version of the problems with how the health care system treats mental health. It was not a partisan position, but rather her experience with why the system wasn’t working. She was an active volunteer in her community coaching young kids basketball at the local Y and trying to keep them out of trouble and away from drugs. Still many were in and out of rehab.
After listening to her long soliloquy, I asked her “So why not you? You and your brother are twins. You came from the same genes. You came from the same home and environment. You both confronted abuse – you even worse than him. Why did you make it and he did not?” She said she took a different path.
When she was 16 she decided to get out. She decided to get out and to keep moving forward. I asked did that mean she got out and did not look back? She said no, she is back and the caretaker for her dad. I asked why given the abusive past. She said because “I am bigger and stronger than he is”. She is all of 5’7″, but that is not what she meant. I told her she is one of the most remarkable women I have ever met and I had only known her for less than half of an hour.
Her story reminded me of a book my wife and I had read recently, Hillbilly Elegy. It tells the story of J.D. Vance, a young man raised in the poverty and the societal decay in Kentucky and Ohio. It is an autobiographical account of the despair and dysfunction in the middle of our country. Boarded up factories, struggling downtowns and economic dislocation have spread across the heartland. J.D. manages through it all to make some good, and given his circumstances, extraordinary choices and ended up graduating from Yale Law School. His book was a best seller on the New York Times list and the reviews say Hillbilly Elegy explains as good as any other book how we ended up with Donald Trump
Much of the despair described in the Hillbilly Elegy is mirrored in some of the upstate areas of our own Empire State. It is easy for us in Westchester County, a suburb of the great City of New York, to take a lot for granted. The confluence of finance, industry, law, medicine, technology, real estate, culture and the service industries that service all of these provides employment opportunities for anyone with a little education and a bit of hustle. That is not the case in other parts of the country and even our state.
That is not to say we are immune to the same types of despair and drug problems here in Westchester. We have had our own alarming number of opioids deaths. Are the drugs just too easy to come by? Has teenage and young adult experimentation turned into random deaths due to the strength of these drugs? Is it a sympton of a deeper dispair and dislocation? Why all the despair? Why such a feeling of hopelessness? Have we as a society and nation lost our common purpose?
We all make choices. Some decide to leave their home, some decide to stay. Some may have more limited choices than others for sure, but no matter our circumstances we need to make choices. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an article following our recent election about the “Anywheres” and “Somewheres”. It is an interesting read, but generalizes a .bit too much. If anywhere is everywhere, then nowhere is somewhere. Community requires some roots to take hold. Regardless whether one stays or goes, is mobile or stays put, we all make choices. Those choices can take us down different paths.
During the Presidential campaign, I was a supporter of Gov. John Kasich, the Governor of Ohio, the state where J.D. was raised and wrote about not always in glowing terms. By all accounts Gov Kasich has done a pretty good job in Ohio. He knows of the despair that some people in his state face. When he was running for President he gave a great speech he entitled “Two Paths”. In light of our current political situation, he re-released an excerpt:
One choice – the path that exploits anger, encourages resentment, turns fear into hatred and divides people.
This path solves nothing, demeans our history, weakens our country and cheapens each of us.
It has but one beneficiary and that is to the politician who speaks of it.
The other path is the one America has been down before.
It is well trod, it is at times steep, but it is solid.
It is the same path our forebears took together.
It is from this higher path that we are offered the greater view.
And, imagine for a moment with me that view.
Fear turns to hope because we remember to take strength from each other.
Uncertainty turns to peace because we reclaim our faith in the American ideals that have carried us upward before.
And America’s supposed decline becomes its finest hour, because we came together to say “no” to those who would prey on our human weakness and instead chose leadership that serves, helping us look up, not down.
This is the path I believe in.
This is the America I believe in.
And, this is the America I know all Americans want us to be.