Hello again, Paterson.
So much has changed since the last time I’ve written… as I’d hoped, Andre Sayegh is our new mayor and it seems an exciting new dawn is upon us. I think when any change comes, especially one as major as this, there is an opportunity for reflection as well as for hope. This election taught me quite a bit, seeing some of the best and worst sides of Patersonians shining brightly.
I had to think long and hard about where my actions surrounding the election fit: while my intentions in asking the infamous “who is the vice president” question were well meaning, afterward I had to step back and ponder that outcome. My head told me: you asked a valid, simple question, it’s not your fault that some didn’t know the answer. My head told me: public officials open themselves up to questioning, and this was my right as a a voter. My head told me: Paterson needs to know who has done their homework. But here’s the thing, now that the election is over, my heart is telling me something else, and I can’t shake it.
So I asked my friend Zellie for advice, figuring he’d be a solid person to council me after having been in the race himself. I asked him if he thought what I did was wrong. He said it didn’t matter what he thought, because clearly it was troubling me. I asked him if he thought it would be a good idea to send Mr. Jackson a note. He asked me to consider that a public humiliation was better righted by a public apology, at least that’s what he would want if something that visible had happened to him. I realized that he was absolutely right. So here I am.
Mr. Jackson answered my fateful question with honesty and integrity. He didn’t try to dance around it, he didn’t snap back at me. This was only the third time I had spoken with the man. Maybe it’s time I told you about our first encounter. I met Michael Jackson at a neighborhood association meeting where community members were gathered to talk about crime, safety, and animal control. I mentioned to the group that sometimes I felt afraid when someone suspicious was parked in front of my home late at night, when I could see them drinking or using illicit substances from my daughter’s window. My additional fear was that if I were to call the police, I might welcome some sort of retaliation. Also, to be honest, I actually don’t care about people drinking or smoking pot, I certainly don’t believe they belong in jail, I just don’t think they should be driving… and I especially don’t need my daughter waking up to empty bottles tossed on our sidewalk.
I was torn, looking for a good solution. It was suggested to me that I knock on the door of the car and ask something along the lines of, “Is everything okay over here?” My gut told me this was a particularly dangerous idea, but I sat quietly and listened to the advice of neighbors and experts. Mr. Jackson spoke, after allowing everyone else to voice their concerns. He said he just didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of suggesting to a citizen, especially a smaller woman, to knock on a drug-user’s car window at midnight. He said he worried I could be hurt, and that there were surely better ways to address this. Both my fiancé and I felt relieved that someone was concerned for my well being. Michael seemed sincere, like he cared. Mind you, this wasn’t even in his ward. And no, he didn’t seem to show up just for political gain; in fact, if I remember correctly, that comment was the only comment he made.
So, let’s jump forward again to Mike Pence. I really wanted all the candidates to know that answer, though obviously a part of me suspected that might not be the case. It’s why I picked a fairly simple question. I truly hoped in my heart they would not let me down, as that did not bode well for Paterson, and I thought as a voter and tax payer I needed to know the caliber of people in power. But this election, as I said, taught me a lot. A lot about how things that seem simple are actually quite complicated. I would see posts on social media that were just low and full of hate. I’m not talking about biased political posts, or the revealing of possibly damning truths and evidence, those are to be expected in any election. I’m talking about outright unnecessary bullying, true hate speech. Islamopohobia. Homophobia. Racism. Just the lowest of the low. I couldn’t help but wonder how the candidates’ wives and mothers must have felt seeing these things, how their children felt.
It had to hurt, all of us feel pain when we see the ones we love attacked. What if that happened, after I had asked that one question? What if I caused someone shame? Shame is a particularly cruel tactic, and I suppose I hadn’t considered that. I was wrong to not weigh that out, and I am sorry to anyone who I hurt. Especially Mr. Jackson, who by all accounts had been nothing but kind to me and my family. In fact, I’ve seen him here or there since then, and he still shakes my hand. I think that’s mighty big of him, and speaks more about his character than what made the paper. At least that is what I’m going to choose to focus on.
That’s the point, I guess, in all of this.
We get to choose how we see things, how we treat each other. We have this incredible opportunity every day to learn and evolve, to shift when we allow our empathy to show us that even when we are correct we can be wrong. There are a lot of candidates who I didn’t agree with politically, ones who I felt or still feel are unfit. Ones whose lies, tactics, exaggerations, or deeds I thought were off-putting, perhaps even worrisome. But the truth is, someone can be a bad choice for office but a good neighbor, a good person. Our mutual love of Paterson is absolutely greater than our differences, it has to be. And the larger truth: I am by no means perfect. There are plenty of things I’ve said or done that I wouldn’t want to be judged for, that I wouldn’t want my daughter to read about.
What I would want for my daughter? The belief that as she grows up in Paterson, her community will care about her safety, the way Mr. Jackson did for us that day at that meeting. I want to believe all Patersonians would do that for each other, and in fact, I’ve seen that to be true. This city is made up of some of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met.
I hope that our lives really change for the better under the new administration. I hope that all of the candidates, all of our community, can warmly reflect now that the dust has settled. Perhaps things got ugly this election, but that’s maybe not who you…we…I are or am. I want to think that all of our officials might be ready to be a part of the beautiful renaissance I believe Paterson is long overdue for— it's here and now!
Like me, maybe our politicians have some things to atone for, or at the very least reflect deeply upon. I want our leaders to imagine themselves, heaven forbid, in a danger that only their fiercest opponent happened to be able to save them from. I believe in my heart of hearts each of them would do the right thing for one another. Maybe, yes, there has been unkindness, a vibe of discord and animosity— but can’t we swallow some pride, today, tomorrow? Save each other daily in small ways, in gestures of cooperation and respect, not wait for a disaster to show our true, decent selves? I just want us to begin this new season of Paterson in that spirit. With humility and kinship. And I had to woman up and do my part, here and now.
I’m sorry Mr. Jackson… I am for real.
Elizabeth “Lizzie” Valverde is an educator, poet, mother, and Paterson resident.