As the Secret Service checked cars for guns and bombs on Saluda Street, not 50 yards away, on her feet as she always is, Belinda Ashford was elbow deep in a lady’s head – the lady’s hair actually, at The House of Beauty, across the street from the AME Zion Transformation Center.
A real neighborhood, not some political venue on a campus or civic center hidden from where people laugh and cry. The cops checked, the throngs waited to get in, and on every side around the center were people who work, walk, live and hope in the south Rock Hill neighborhood. And almost all of them are black or brown.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke to those fortunate enough to get away from work for a midafternoon event for Democrats.
Ashford left the hair for a minute to talk. Just a minute. The hair was wet. And time means money.
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“I may not be able to get there because I am working, but I would sure like to shake his hand,” Ashford said of Biden who was speaking so close if the windows were open she could have heard the speech. “I’m glad to see all the action so close on Saulda Street – he is right here.”
But so far away, when work calls.
A man driving a fancy Mercedes pulled up and asked “Ma’am, may I park in your lot?’ as he pointed at the event across the street.
“Of course you may,” said Belinda Ashford.
Good neighbors and manners are her life – even if she didn’t get to see the vice president who was so close she could have touched him. Ashford closed the door and went back to the hair that pays the bills while the man bounced across the street in his fancy suit to hear the political words.
At Saluda Street discount store, and Arch Mart a hundred yards to the north, a few officers the clerks believed were Secret Service bought water but did not stay. The stores had a steady stream of people buying cigarettes, snacks, lottery tickets and hot dogs – a hundred yards from politicians who talked of what they say is real America.
Real America was right outside the doors of the event center.
“I gotta get to work,” people said over and over as they rushed out with coffee and chips.
“I just finished work,” others said rushing in.
They were asked about Biden and politicians, but these hard-working people talked instead about bills, rent and kids who need clothes.
Lawrence Sanders, known to many as the “Mayor of Saluda Street,” went up and down Saluda Street in his truck 20 times in front of the AME Zion center. He stopped and talked to everybody. When traffic was halted he got out and talked. He spoke of how important it is that Biden came to Saluda Street.
“I live right here all my life and it matters,” Sanders said. “This is important to Saluda Street and its people.”
Watching the Biden motorcade pull in from across the street from the event center stood Richard Hemphill, Pat Hoyles and Irving Fletcher. Cousins, they all grew up and have lived within site of the event center for six decades. They waved and nobody in the motorcade of cops and politicians opened a window to wave back.
The men still waved at the motorcade and joked and laughed. And then they became serious and hopeful about how the world has changed so much on Saluda Street in a section of Rock Hill that is almost all black that the vice president of the United States would campaign for candidates on their street.
“The day Joe Biden came to the ’hood,” said Fletcher. “Dig it.”
All three men, like others on the street, were asked who they were voting for. Hemphill spoke quickly: “Not Trump.”
The men each said that having a vice president visit Saluda Street meant more than politics. They needed no talking head political pundits on TV for their genius. They needed no newspaper columnist, either.
“It means somebody who wants votes is paying attention to the people around all the Saluda Streets,” Hemphill said in the most brilliant political statement of 2016.
Yet so close to hear Biden yell, at MYMN Restaurant, directly across the street from the event center, an Ethiopian immigrant owner by the name of Merom Dege took orders while others cooked and served and cleaned.
A full 20 years in America, and Dege was so close to the second most powerful person in the world that she could read the license plates of the Secret Service vehicles. But she was separated by a street and labor a million miles wide. Still, she smiled.
“I would love to meet the vice president – but I have to work,” said Dege. “I love America.”
Business was brisk at a liquor store across the street from the event center. Owner Urmila Desai, an immigrant from India like her husband, in this country more than 30 years, talked of how her husband worked as a chemist in textiles for three decades until textile plants died and they opened the store.
Theirs is the song of Rock Hill and the Carolinas. Tens of thousands work in textiles until the rich take their plants to other countries so they can be richer. The rich run this country. The workers find a way to pay for college for the kids – even if it is 14 hour days in a liquor store.
The Desai parents raised two children – one an engineer, the other a doctor. Professional children built on textiles first and now selling Chivas Regal.
“I love this country,” Urmila Desai said.
She, too, wanted to meet the vice president. She said the same thing as the others up and down Saluda Street – as the vice president’s motorcade left and passed by: after the rush of a vice-president speaking to the fortunate: “But I have to work.”