Two days ago I received a last minute email early in the morning from my favorite non-profit group at the moment: PCRM. I was asked to come into their Washington DC office to help out. Since I am in love with this organization, I went straight away. So this was my task: to put together a bunch of petition letters to be send out to house of representative members, put them into envelops and labeled them with address stickers. My first reaction was a slight irritation at the idea of doing something so menial, I know that was what I expected but when I sat down to it, I couldn't help being annoyed.
Luckily my face didn't betray me and I proceeded to toil away in an unremarkable conference room without windows. For hours I assembled letters and petitions, and only half way into the monotonous work did I bother to read the letter itself. The letter was written to urge congress members to support and cosponsor a bill to put an end to animal testing in the military. Hold on a minute, I am all for that! Now I am not American and I have no idea how the system works here, even though I live near Washington DC for more than six years, I didn't acquired much interest in the workings of the government. So naturally I am somewhat naive.
"I hope these letters work." I said out of nowhere, breaking the silence. There were three of us volunteers and we were a quiet bunch. I secretly had a mind to kiss the letters before putting them into the envelops.
"I don't think they will." A fellow volunteer next to me said, he was in the process of arranging petitions from the concerned citizens of California. "The Congressman gets thousands of petitions from interest groups everyday, these are likely to be lost in the pile." He told me. But then he added, "But read some of these petitions, the point is it gives people a chance to speak up, and that's good enough for me."
Now this volunteer is a young guy, maybe in his mid twenties. He wore a Green Peace type shirt and he seemed to me an edgy sort, or just young and full of indignation at the world. I cannot blame him, so I chatted him up. In the past I may have ignored this guy the minute I got a hint of a diatribe coming my way, but I have since learned to judge a conversation by it's content and so I find him actually rather knowledgeable. I don't think he liked me very much though, or perhaps he is unable to drop his 'edge' for anyone, he talked to me like I was most definitely on his other side.
It was five o'clock when we headed out, time flies when the conversation is good. Now I had a long drive home to from Washington DC to Northern Virginia, and the traffic is horrendous during that hour, so I asked if there is a Barnes and Noble around to pass the time.
"Oh, have you heard of Politics and Prose? It is real close by here, it is an independent bookstore and they have a talk there every night." The PCRM lady suggested. I thought I caught a disapproving grin from the young volunteer when I mentioned Barnes and Nobel, somehow I didn't think he was too tolerant towards big corporations. On second thought, it isn't so bad to visit a more local place, so I resolved on going to Politics and Prose.
As I left PCRM I wandered the classy neighborhoods near the office, which was just south of the Friendship Heights metro station. The houses in the area are like from the picture books, with Halloween decorations perfectly displayed against the backdrops of fall colors which made the place looked like an outdoors theater set. I always thought that there is a great difference in mentality between those with old money and people with newly acquired wealth, and one can generally tell by their gardens. I live in the suburbs in Virginia, and the landscaping of the McMansions in my neighborhoods are invariably hideous and artificially manicured. Not like the elegance of these properties, where both nature and house enhances the beauty of the other, I meandered through small streets to admire as much as I could before sunlight faded.
When I arrived at the bookstore, I was just in time for the night's talk given by a Jewish friction writer Myla Goldberg. I didn't know anything about her beforehand, and I have never been to a reading before, but I love literature so I was intrigued. She started off by declaring that the adage "I think, therefore I am" as inaccurate, but instead that "we are what we remember." I like that, it is a provoking thought and it raises a lot of questions, the sort of reflection writers love.
I looked around the audience and I saw many well-to-do couples, they formed the exact picture of a Jewish literary crowd in my mind. I was the only outsider I think, and I enjoy that. Being an outsider is a healthful thing sometimes, simply being there made me feel like I have discovered something precious. And as Ms. Goldberg read her story, I thought about how different was this day compared to my days in the company when I hid inside a cubicle, an isolated entity among rows and rows of similar cubicles. I may not have made any lasting connections in my day of sorting letters and attending a reading, but I think that in the end it was a fruitful day, one I longed to experience for years.