Poverty: the elephant in the room

Savannah Morning News column

Sun., Sept. 6, 2015

Poverty: it’s the elephant in the room. It’s the seven-ton creature no one wants to look at, the 10-foot tall impediment we can’t do anything about anyway, right?

So what if one in four people you stand next to every day in the supermarket, sit next to at the doctor’s office or pass on the new half-million-dollar walking path the city just built around Daffin Park are never going to inherit any money from their family (or get a holiday bonus at work), were never given a piggy bank as a kid or a dollar for every A they brought home on a report card, don’t know how to walk into a bank and negotiate a new bank account for the first time because no one told them they could, don’t know they can get a GED if they never finished high school or were never taught how to look a teacher in the eye and say with confidence and good manners, “I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Can you explain that again?”

They do not have mentors who can pave the way, people who can help them fill out voluminous forms to borrow tuition money or introduce them to people in the know. If they move to another city they don’t have people taking them to lunch and filling them in on the lay of the land.

Poverty, a hydra-headed problem, is all just too much to think about. Maybe that’s why so few candidates running for office this season bring it up in their cocktail-heavy launch parties or talk about it on their beautifully designed website. It’s not a sexy subject; it’s not an easy subject.

But there are things we can do to help that are not rocket science. That’s what Mary Willoughby says anyway. Willoughby was one of the early members of Step Up Savannah, an anti-poverty initiative that is celebrating 10 years – God bless them – of parsing, analyzing, scrutinizing and just plain scratching their head trying to figure out what we can do to even the playing the field just a tad because when one out of those four fellow Savannahians is better educated, better prepared to enter the world of work, then – kaching, kaching – more companies will want to come here for the better prepared workforce that some may argue we don’t have right now. And that, bottom line, again, means more money will start flowing around the circuit.

“We can fix some things,” says Willoughby, a native of New Hampshire who earned her Savannah stripes when she worked at Youth Futures with former Mayor Otis Johnson, about whom she had nothing but great things to say.

It has to be a collaborative effort, “which Step Up is very, very good at, “ she said, “getting people around the table to talk, but let’s face it, the opportunity to move up the ladder is just not there the same way it used to be in this country. There’s less stability in the employment area, more disparity. People are holding on to their money.

“Plus, fifteen or 20 years ago we spent $7 on juvenile detention centers and $700,000 on outside school activities,” she said. “Those figures,” which have increased exponentially, I’m sure, “should be reversed. Yes, we have peewee football and high school football but what about activities for middle schoolers? What about lightening up on the way we kick kindergartners out of school so quickly? One study I saw showed that something as simple as a five day absence from school over the school year is a huge academic inhibitor.”

Willoughby called Youth Futures an “irritating voice back then.” The problem is nonprofits such as Youth Futures and Step Up can only be so irritating since they get a lion’s share of their budget from organizations like the City of Savannah and United Way.

But that’s what they’re supposed to do, I countered. To be the irritant. To make the situation real. To keep reminding the rest of us about the 26 percent – 26 percent! – who live in poverty.

“To discomfit the comfortable,” Willougby said. “One of the best things Step Up can do is keep the issue in front of everyone. It is an issue for the whole community. But they can’t get discouraged. They have to realize it’s a hard needle to push. Thirty people in an apprentice program out of a population of 30,000 in the poverty level doesn’t sound like much but it’s a great start and that’s how they have to look at it. We need them and they need us.”

Poverty: it’s the elephant in the room.




Talking old memories and brisket


Savannah Morning News Sunday column

Sun., Aug. 30, 2015

With Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, coming up, we are reminiscing, we are talking food because in between the religious significance of the holiday, the trips you may or may not take to the synagogue or to the river to throw away pieces of bread as symbolic gestures of ridding yourself of accumulated sins over the year, there is eating, there is dinner, there is a gathering of friends and relatives, new and old, Jewish or not Jewish.

“Your brisket is the best,” I say to Sylvia Dane, remembering the juicy, succulent and moist meat dish with the beautiful dark brown gravy. “Definitely not ausgetrikent.”

Ausgetrikent is a Yiddish word Sylvia taught me. It means dry, withered and juiceless, kind of like my mother’s brisket, may she rest in peace. Ah, but Sylvia’s. Her brisket makes you want to leave the table and drift into the kitchen to lift just another piece, another morsel, from the pan.

But Sylvia, to her credit because no one wants to give up a compliment, is quick to correct me.

“I may have cooked it, it may have become known as my brisket, but it wasn’t my recipe,” she says.

“The original recipe belonged to Bailee Kronowitz,” a well-known and loved Savannah cook, artist and personality who passed away five years ago.

That may be true but the Yiddish, the stories, the chuckles, the Brooklyn accent (still as thick as the day she arrived in Savannah decades ago) all belong to Sylvia who still holds forth and still writes thank you notes with her return address on the envelope reading, “The Great Dane,” which reminds her of another story.

“You know David, right?” she says of David Collison, one of the trainers at the Jewish Educational Alliance. “Every time I used to come into the gym with my walker he would announce, ‘The great Dane and her gold Cadillac is here.’”

Sylvia is 97 and still peppering her conversation with Yiddish, the language writer Leo Rosten calls the Robin Hood of languages because it steals from the linguistically rich and gives to the fledgling poor.

Sylvia’s grandparents came from Lithuania. Her grandfather, who lived in lower Manhattan, sold newspapers, pickles pulled from barrels and herring. After his death Sylvia shared a bedroom until she was 20 with her grandmother, who spoke Yiddish.

“The floor was red linoleum,” Sylvia said. “I’d say, why red? She said red is a passionate color.”

Moving on to her mother, she said, “Every day when I got home from work it was to a message that said, ‘If you don’t come here immediately there won’t be a Fanny Finklestein. Come over, eat something,’” and then, because we both knew that wasn’t entirely true, she grinned, slowly, slyly.

“Now when my grandson calls the first thing he says is, ‘Je t’adore’ (I love you) and I say, ‘Don’t shut the door.’ Between him and my granddaughter, I hit the jackpot as a grandmother.” And then for good measure she throws in, “Shep nachas,” Yiddish for deriving pleasure and “gutskeit,” used to describe someone who is good, sincere.

For a while Sylvia was commandeered into teaching Yiddish in Savannah or at least helping to form a class. She and David Rosenzweig, who ran a grocery store with his brother on Bull and 40th streets, and Izzy Karp were in the class, “although the only Yiddish Izzy knew were the words to Yankee Doodle Dandy. But I interrupt myself,” said Sylvia, moving on to another subject.

Every week Sylvia still talks to three friends she met in first grade in Brooklyn, Sylvia, Lillian and Roslyn. “PS 48,” she said. “Then I went to Seth Low Junior High. Then Utrecht High School. We lived at 1829 66th street in Bensonhurst, but I was born at 388 S. First Street in Williamsburg. All in Brooklyn. And I can still count from one to 10.”

One of these friends volunteered at a library until she turned 90 when she thought it might be time to leave.

“So they said to her, ‘If we pay you, will you stay?’ My friend said, ‘I’ll be there tomorrow at 9.’ She just recently quit. She’s 97 and a half, six months older than me. I never let her forget that, either.”

Sylvia never learned how to drive. “Why would I?” she asked. “There was a bus stop at every corner.” She likes people, “but with politics I could get nauseated.” And when she can’t remember a name she looks for her telephone book for a memory nudge.

But can she remember her first phone number?

“Sheepshead 3-1179,” she rattled off, faster than you can say, “Please pass the brisket.”