Great oratory caromed off walls, caused spines to shiver, made hair stand up on end. The words came from under gray hair and blue hair and fake hair – even no hair.
The subject Wednesday was Medicare and Medicaid, politics and politicians, media and mediocrity – clearly the same thing this week when the Democratic National Convention is the topic.
“Doctor asked me what my secret for long life is. I said, ‘Hard work, and never stop digging,’ ” said Thelma Childers, 90, with a cackle that rends steel. “Doctor told me I musta done something right. No kidding – all I did was work since I was old enough to hoe cotton. Who is gonna tell me what people need when they are old?
“I’m old, and nobody asks me anything. They might get the truth about working all your life and being treated with dignity when you are older, and no politician wants to hear it.”
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Those words did not burst forth from the Democratic National Convention, 25 miles away in Charlotte. Where the smart of the world who write of yachts and work for big-city networks talk and type. Where so many get paid to make fun of the rubes.
Those people bore everybody else senseless while the thrilling speak at Formica tables.
No, these words of wisdom came from the Rock Hill senior center, officially known as the York County Council on Aging.
It is as tough as any boxing gym off the Grand Concourse, in the Bronx.
One table alone had three blacks, two whites and a Catawba Indian.
“We need a woman president – I don’t care which party – who knows how to balance a budget, handle a family and juggle a job at the same time,” said Velma Orr. “Neither candidate can do what every working wife does.
“A woman, she knows how to run things, spend what she’s got and not what she doesn’t have, and make sure everybody in the family is taken care of. Fairness for everybody. An equal shot.”
This is the stuff of political greatness, the reason for Medicare and equal rights and voting rights, and heard nowhere else.
The words came from people with “arthuritis,” “the sugar” and knuckles as big as walnuts from twisting yarn for 50 years in the textile mills.
These 112 people woke up Wednesday worried about whether some rich politician or college professor or media smarty would claim that Medicare should be changed after every one of them had put in a lifetime of hard work.
At the next table over sit six ladies playing dominoes. The game is more serious than a bypass operation, which some of them certainly have had – paid for with Medicare earned over those back-breaking lifetimes of work.
All are asked who is cheating.
“What do you think, we’re a bunch of New Yorkers?” laughs one grand dame by the name of Mary Frances McCaston.
McCaston, 76, doesn’t care when a woman who attends polo matches amongst the rich claims in the New York Post – owned by an Australian – that Rock Hill’s hotels are close to Guantanamo.
That column was done for a laugh, making fun of Southerners when covering the convention is supposed to be about covering Southern people struggling with the light bill.
But almost nobody among the national media types actually meets those people. People like Mary Frances McCaston.
She waves a hand, a hand that worked in three textile mills and is as tough as iron. She worked so long and so hard that her posture is not Fifth Avenue or Greenwich, Conn., or some other high-end suburb.
Her voice has the gravel of a mill filled with lint that clogs throats and lungs, but working there put food on the table and paid the bills and gave dignity that belied the size of the paycheck.
And she did it alongside people who looked like her and people who didn’t.
These people of greatness could care less about what anybody from New York says about them or where they live.
“Let me tell you,” McCaston said, “I was younger, and I didn’t have any insurance, and I was so scared to death – I liked’ta have died with worry that I would get sick before I was old enough for Medicare.
“I don’t complain about Medicare. People need Medicare. I, for one, would be mad, upset, if any politician from any party touches Medicare. Everybody in here earned their Medicare. They earned it by working.”
There it is, in one minute – the only speech on Medicare anyone could ever need.
And not a politician or a TV crew in sight.
At the next table words pour forth from Anna Daniel, 84, who worked as a nurse for 50 years and was the unofficial nurse of her whole Sunset Park neighborhood in Rock Hill.
“Nobody invited me to the convention,” said Daniel. “I worked all my life. I believe in work.”
The lady next to her says, “Nobody at the convention or the politicians works, anyways.”
At another table two great ladies named Joann Ghant and Linda Presnell bring up that the media doesn’t bother to talk to anybody real like them. Ghant worked 57 years until retiring.
“What can politicians or the media tell me about working all my life?” asked Ghant. “They can’t tell me a thing. The politicians, they know even less.”
Ghant got up to help serve tea and food – hot dog, beans, and slaw. The old cook was not St. Peter, but it sure smells like heaven.
Ghant, white, served black and brown and red and she was proud to do it, because at the senior center, there is no class but working class.
Presnell is disabled now after a lifetime of work. Her husband, a millwright for 40 years, is “on layoff” from the former Bowater plant, now called Resolute. Working people still call it “Bowater” when a rich company lays off working people.
“The news just puts on the air and in the papers what they want to hear and what they want to say,” said Presnell. “They interview each other and call it news. That’s not news. It’s nonsense.”
It is mentioned that the lady from the New York Post who writes about politics and polo and celebrities jabbed Charlotte as country and lacking all the amenities of New York. Charlotte deserves all mocking. Charlotte needs buses to shuttle the media. Charlotte does not have a subway.
Then again, the elites of politics and media never would be caught dead on a bus or subway in New York. Only a few ever saw and wrote about the blacks and Hispanics and working whites outside the subway windows or waiting in the rain at bus stops.
The Rock Hill senior center boasts a woman from the island of Grenada, in the Caribbean. Her last name is “Hope.” She stood in line next to Sarah Strickland, who worked forever in Rock Hill and at 84 says, “I vote for a man, not a party.”
Strickland put her arm around Mrs. Hope and said, “My friend, named Hope.”
That same word is used by politicians and the media, ceaselessly, in Charlotte, so close to Rock Hill where the New York Post lady has to sleep without proper room service because there are not enough hotel rooms in Charlotte.
The New York lady mentioned she was staying in a Rock Hill hotel that she said was not quite up to snuff and was close to Guantanamo for amenities.
Guantanamo does not have this senior center. Right next to the center – part of it, actually, as the buildings are joined – is a former textile mill. The Highland Park mill, where workers tried to escape the brutal work for years but still worked so hard for decades to feed families, is now senior housing.
There are hardwood floors and high ceilings, just like sparkling Park Avenue, New York. The view, like Park Avenue where the rich live, is of houses filled with people who work for a living, yet are unseen.
Rock Hill, all it has are these men and women whose lifetime of work has them bent. And they still smile with a grace that will not cease.
A volunteer leading exercises strikes up a song at the senior center. Everybody knows it. So many sang along in voices high and sweet. It was about Medicare, benefits for seniors, finding a smile after bills piled high as a $30 salad in New York are paid.
Yet it was written in the South around 1940.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy, when skies are gray. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away...”
People clapped. They swayed. They held hands.
One lady was missing fingers from a mill accident. She worked for 80 cents an hour all those years ago, and worked a second job, too.
“You make me happeee, when skies are graaaaaay...”
The lady from New York? Her name is Cindy Adams. I love that she bashed Charlotte and did it with such punch. I do it myself, often.
But if she has the time to leave her hotel before fleeing, Adams is welcome at the Rock Hill senior center for lunch. Anybody is welcome. The neighborhood is working class, certainly, but it is not Cuba. And lunch only costs $1.50.
And since she does not like pouring her own coffee, volunteers would serve her at the senior center, topping off the sweet tea with so much sugar the spoon stands up in the styrofoam cup without touching the sides.
Mink stoles optional.