A woman stands in the grass, the hem of her long cornflower skirt rustling, her dark skin soaking up sunlight. She has black hair, fine and thick and curled, and a nose that seems to be a story in and of itself.
My fiance and I stop at the light on 175 and Snowden. I stare at the woman - not at her face, but at what she has in her hands. I look in my purse for money that I know isn't really there. Her sign is simple - white with black block letters, and the words, "Please, in the love of God," make me hate myself and feel ashamed.
I hadn't really seen people beg on the streets in Columbia until the recession hit. It hit hard. I suddenly saw women - well-dressed, beautiful, mothers - with signs and hunger and bitterness and somehow still the desire, the strength, the need to protect their children. Women you might meet at work, or at the dentist, or in Target.
Homelessness in Columbia is a shock to me - not because I'm shocked by poverty, having grown up in Baltimore and staring at the pavement and away from the desperation of urban life. I'm shocked because I - perhaps like many others in Howard County - just don't think it could be true. We're a community of suburbanites, yes? Of minivans. Of good schools and government jobs and computer programming. How can poverty happen here?
It happens. I see it, and working in the school system I saw it, and I felt the floor open up under me as my outdated delusions of 'burbhood became irrelevant. We do not live in paradise. Maybe some of us do - maybe there are people in Columbia who are living the magical and, to most, unobtainable dream of being financially secure, but I think that there aren't as many of those people as we are supposed to believe.
Columbia was an idea, a vision of intermingling, of wholeness, many races, many religions, and true happiness like marshmallow on a snowball. But we don't really see it that way - at least not now. We're trained not to see or not to accept the differences. The "I don't have enough," or the, "I have too much;" the "I don't speak English," and the, "I think you should;" the "I need help," and the, "Stare at the pavement." I've lived in Columbia since I was twelve, and it took me at least ten years to realize that there is so much disparity in this community of blind-eyed, candy-coated idealism.
I'm not trashing the original concept of this planned community. I want us to be multi-ethnic, to have different jobs and names and village centers and identities. That's great. That's what a city is.
What I'm questioning is this - why did it take so long? Why didn't I see before that there are differences in the lives of Columbians, and that we're all not doing enough to be good neighbors?
Why didn't I see that this place is turning into a city? We've got poverty, and homelessness, and I (so help me) look in my purse because I can't face what's right in front of me. Columbia is changing, and I think that instead of closing my eyes and maintaining the peace of a child with fingers in its ears, I should look up and say, this is what change means. Instead of calling for new restaurants and theatres and the glitz of urbanity, maybe I should look up at the beautiful woman, for the love of God, and become a citizen of the real Columbia.