Glendora Press — Oct. 22, 1969
Off to India, Sensing the Travail of Life
(Editor’s Note: For several issues the Glendora Press has carried articles by Glendora High School teacher Dwayne Hunn, in which he describes his impressions as a Peace Corps worker in India. He continues with aspects of his Peace Corps experience and training while in New York.)
By DWAYNE HUNN
There was another startling, more personal, experience during Peace Corps training in New York. Rio and his family filled this niche.
In our field work we tried to find more job opportunities for the returnees from the Big House. We tried to take Negro and Puerto Rican mothers to the welfare center to apply for funds, a place whose impersonalness intimidated them, and, in youthful idealism, I tried to solicit funds for the Christian Damascus Church Of Christ (oUp up up ut of which we worked) from philanthropic organizations.
We were not very successful. Jobs for men of their skills were scarce. The New York Port Authority had a waiting list of between 10-30 months for school janitors, street cleaners, and refrigerator and air conditioner repairmen. These were not even jobs, but the waiting period to enter into training, after which there was usually another, perhaps longer, wait for employment.
We took a mother or two to the welfare center, and I could understand their intimidation. The welfare officials were rushed by poor, illiterate people all day long. They were tired of seeing this mob day-in-and-day-out, year-in-and-year-out and consequently were irritable and impersonal.
We were successful in getting a few tenants, who were afraid of their landlords, to complain about the lack of proper trash and garbage facilities and failing ceilings. In Rao’s case we had to go almost to the Landlord Commission before the landlord fixed the broken ceiling.
Rao hid been a good friend of the reverend, and had fallen into alcoholism, and then, since it started as a cheaper habit; took to drugs. The reverend, certain that Rao was sincere in his desire to clean up, sent him to the big house. Now the reverend was down on him, for Rao had returned from the house n a month rather than after six, the period the church wanted all addicts to stay.
Rao had reasons for returning. He had a wife and three children, had been out of work for two months, had few savings — as their furnishings and steady diet of spaghetti and beans reflected, and his wile had not been able to qualify for welfare.
His street was filled with old, bricked or cemented four story apartment houses. The street was fairly clean, but drab. There was little color other than that supplied by cement slabs, cement sidewalks, asphalted streets, Up up up up up up and what seemed to be when we visited, cloudy days.
Their hallway was about 10 feet long and extended by a bathroom on the left and entered into a bed-living room combination of about 10’x 20’ and then into a long, narrow kitchen. Rao and his family, though a little ill-at-ease, were pleasant to us on our first visit. While we talked, we noticed the fallen ceiling over the sink. They explained that when it fell it almost hit one of their children.
Earlier they had complained to the landlord, but he had refused to act. About six square feet of lath was now showing, and it looked like more plaster would soon adorn the sink below. We were lucky on this one. Before we left New York, this ceiling would be fixed.
Four days before we left for Bombay, we said goodbye to Rao and his family for the last time. We left hoping that Rao, still earnestly searching, would soon find a job. We had a few parties before departing from the golden shores. One was especially enjoyable. It started with a dinner between Bill, myself, and a Jesuit priest who had taught me in high school. During his 30 some years he had been a wild, swinging hillbilly, a war veteran, and now a Jesuit. It was our last night in the city, and he treated us to our last American steak and some beautiful talk.
We asked if he would come with us to our bon-voyage party. He said he would, under one condition… So we did not tell anyone he was a priest, and with his collar removed, his good looks, and his personality, he had a crowd around him all night. He had been so wrapped up in studying for his doctorate that he was fearful that he was losing touch with what the young were feeling. This was an opportunity for him to touch some of their feelings. He was a rich individual to bow out of America with.
That thrill and excitement of jetting across the ocean to a new, and what we felt was a great adventure, buried many impressions of training. The spirited, frank, often critical discussion groups… The probing, self-reflective talks with my roomy, who was not sure if his motives were the correct ones for joining the corps… The crowded subways to and from our work site — the man in the crowd acting sexually against Doris’ thigh on one of the few occasions Frank and I were not around her on the subway… The look of at leased disdain, and maybe malice, from the older Negro basketball players I’ve worked with in the ghetto gym… The bland looks from the younger Negroes… The happy smile, or perhaps contemptuous chuckle, from the youngest Negroes when they beat me at table tennis or checkers… The dimly lit, trash littered ghetto street with the barred drug store windows and two Negro kids squared off against each other with one viciously waiving a broken bottle in his hand… The dates with pretty girls and walks down cold, windy New York streets… The weekend visits to the special Vermont girl and the rupture of our parting… The experiences and general impressions of intensive training… NYC from the ghetto to Columbia to Broadway… The quick Christmas with the family I love dearly—these were all fading to the back as the hopes and expectations of a new adventure flooded our thoughts.
We all entered the plane buoyed with a hope and a certain sense of accomplishment. Little do I remember thinking of Rao and his family. Yet Rao’s attempt to break from his past into a better life did not end with our departure. First, it ended with word that reached us the day of our departure… Rao had been searching for a job. His wife was washing the baby in a few inches of bathtub water. She left for a few minutes to check on the boiling spaghetti. She returned to a drowned baby.
We may have been better people because of our experiences and training. We may have been better merely because we “experienced” the realization that many of the people we left behind were merely “sadder, poorer people” while we had the opportunity of beings some kind of “better, richer people.”