“Prepare yourself. It’s like no place you’ve ever seen.”
This was the unsolicited advice I received before a working trip to Harlem. As a reporter for my TV station’s daily magazine show in Rochester, New York, I was traveling downstate to interview a “Fresh Air Fund” kid. An 11-year-old girl was one of hundreds each year that would be transported for two weeks from the Harlem streets to live with families in faraway suburbs. Dave Lyman, one of the program’s videographers, and I were going to interview her and her mother and follow her around for a day, and then do a follow-up story when she reached our sleepy home base of Monroe County.
“The poverty…” they said, shaking their heads. “ You just won’t believe it.”
I shuffled through my mental snapshots from the early 60’s; the Karachi market streets in Pakistan; the off-kilter quilt of stilted hovels on the banks of Bangkok’s river; the tin shantytown of Safwa in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. I was prepared, but not expecting what I saw.
The temperature in Times Square read 101 degrees, and we drove uptown on one of the avenues toward East 148th Street. So far so good: the streets were still paved, and the stoplights all worked. The first Harlem I remember was “Haarlem,” a cool and rainy place in the Netherlands where the Droste company made their chocolate pastilles. (That brand and Cadbury’s were the only chocolates we could buy in Saudi until I was a teenager: I still prefer them.) We pulled up in front of a four-story apartment building in the middle of the block, and unloaded our gear. We walked down a long corridor made narrow by all the coats of dark paint on the walls, and the air was close with all the past and present cooking smells. It was dim and hot inside the apartment, shades pulled, fan going and an early supper was simmering on the stove. In the stuffiness of a city summer, the TV lights were torture during the interview with the girl’s mother. Why weren’t we out front on the stoop at least? I thought, years later. And it was slow going, gently pulling comments out. Need and privation are tender subjects and I was trespassing on fragile ground. Nobody wants to talk about having less than. I tried to ignore the carefully applied make-up that began to melt down my face.
It was a strange trip for me. The States appeared to have its own particular face of poverty and it was different from the one I had seen as a child. The level of need had come to rest a bit higher on the scale; with a roof, but maybe a leaky one; with utilities, but sometimes they failed; with a stove and food to cook on it, but sometimes barely enough. It was disconcerting to see echoes of the Third World in the middle of this First World city. As we headed back downtown to our hotel, the heat finally fading with the twilight, I thought of other “poster-kids” I had seen and the holiday that made good things happen.
At our house in Dhahran, Halloween began several months before the end of October when my father’s errands started including weekend trips to the community Dining Hall, the only “restaurant” in town besides the Snack Bar at the Recreation Center. He’d pull the family station wagon around to the back door and we’d walk through the kitchen to a part of the place I was used to seeing from the other side of the cafeteria line. Waiting for us would be stacks of empty coffee cans still with their plastic lids on. From there, my father would haul them to a storage room in the house that served as the offices of the Dhahran Protestant Fellowship, which was right next door to the Roman Catholic House and the Canterbury Fellowship House — “Religion Row,” they called it.
For us, poverty had many faces. We saw them every Thursday morning when we stepped off the bus in Khobar: a mother draped in a black and dusty abaya with a fly-covered baby in her arms; a one-legged man sitting on the ground a little too close to the door of a shop; an old man staring at you out of white, unseeing eyes. I was told they had “beggars’ permits.” After all, giving to the poor was one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. And my parents’ work was not confined to the Eve of All Saints. My mother spent long hours at her Necchi sewing machine, fashioning baby gowns and stitching quilts for the expectant mothers in outlying Saudi hospitals. My father led other campaigns in his Sunday School department, raising money to pave the playground of a Beirut orphanage, raising money for wheelchairs for Vietnamese men whose legs had been blown away by American and Vietnamese bombs. My family and many others did this. These people needed your help so you gave it.
Pretty soon it would be time to do the labels. Using a ditto master, my father would letter the label in his impressively even hand, and trace onto it the emblem of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. It would up to me to cut the sheets in half and stack them into piles of 50 labels each. The labels would be distributed by the various church groups the week before Halloween. The kids would color them in with care and imagination because there was always a contest for each grade to see who had the best-decorated one. The labels would then be affixed to the coffee cans. These were our UNICEF “boxes.” No puny containers of orange cardboard for us. We were the most intrepid trick-or-treaters in the world. We needed coffee cans!
After dinner on October 31st, with the determination of fierce soldiers, our campaign would begin. It was a safe enough town — after all, there was a fence around it — so what began at around six o’ clock, often would not end until after ten. Bigger kids would chaperone littler kids, the littlest kids chaperoned by their mothers, and the march was on. It never occurred to us that people wouldn’t have piles of qirsh and riyals along with the cookies and caramels. You didn’t just trick-or-treat, you “trick-or-treated for UNICEF.” To go out and simply get candy would have taken the challenge out of it. Hours later, we would end up on the big patio next to the swimming pool at the Recreation Center, treated by the company to tuna salad sandwiches and Pepsis. It was there that you turned in your cans, which were always full. The hardened veterans of this annual march — the fifth, sixth, and seventh graders –would turn in one can, grab another and go out for more. They would stride out into the warm night once again, another UNICEF can tucked under one arm, tearing into a tuna sandwich.
November 1st marked the end of Halloween for most of the town, but not for our family. After the make-up had been washed off and the costumes discarded came the real work. For days afterward, our dining room table would be piled high with Saudi currency, qirsh and riyals of every denomination. On the floor would be white canvas bank bags and a pile of rubber bands. We ate out for three days, while my mother, my father, and I and maybe a few brave friends would count the money. Our fingers and hands would be black with grime as we carefully sorted the coins and paper. My mother’s bathroom towels suffered, the doorknobs suffered, the corners of walls suffered, as we all resigned ourselves to living with the dirt.
A few days later would come a trip to the bank, and my father would come home with a piece of paper in his hand, proudly reporting the enormous sum that had been collected. He would wave the paper around the living room, telling us the amount, as enthused by the magical success of it all as some child in a sheet with eyeholes. My mother would celebrate with him, then turn to me with a bottle of cleaner and some paper towels to wipe the grime of generosity off our walls and fixtures. My father would sit down and carefully type his report to UNICEF and my mother would stuff the bathroom towels into the washing machine with a cup of bleach. The dirt gone and the money sent off, we could relax for another year. I don’t know what happened to all those coffee cans.
In my father’s obituary in the oil company newspaper, along with his Masonic membership and leadership of the Boy Scouts, my mother and I requested donations in his name to UNICEF. When he’d retired from Aramco in 1975, his friends and colleagues had signed a large scroll, a scroll that held sketches of the scenes from his life in the desert; him standing in front of a refinery control panel; him walking his beloved dachshund; him tending his flower beds of zinnias and nasturtiums.
The last sketch of remembrance was of a small child in sneakers and jeans, covered by the familiar sheet of a ghost, her hand outstretched holding a labeled coffee can, the familiar acronym spelled out in letters of gold and black.