Every morning I walk by one of our community’s strangest memorials. I’ve looked at it and read the plaque for years, but recently I have been thinking about what it means in the larger context of our polarization and the government’s takeover by corporate interests.
The memorial is a bust of a street-dependent person, Norman Lane, who lived from 1911 to 1987 and spent the last 25 years of his life in downtown Silver Spring. Known as the “Mayor of Silver Spring,” he was born into a prominent DC family, but his mother, who had TB, died giving birth to him, resulting in problems with his own health his entire life. Norman ran away from school at age six and grew up an outcast, working at odd jobs. The plaque below the bust, entitled Remember the loving kindhearted forbearance of the people of Silver Spring, describes him as an odd-shaped piece that never quite fit into society’s jigsaw puzzle.
Norman was the picture of misery. Often wearing his shoes on the wrong feet, his rumpled clothes hung off of his 90 pound frame like a scarecrow. He looked like a gargoyle peering out from under a hard hat. After returning to the DC area, he spent the winter of 1966 in Glenmont, sleeping in the fire department coal bin. The spring he wandered down Georgia Avenue.
In Silver Spring he found a home. The Phillips family set up a cot for him in the back of their autobody shop. For 25 years Norman lived in that back alley garage, which was directly behind this statue. It was the only real home he ever knew. After his death, Norman’s alley, “Mayor Lane” was named for him. Silver Spring’s business community, the shoppers, the police and fire departments were his family. They accepted his drinking, his coarse manners and came to love his quirky, Tom Sawyer sense of humor.
“Don’t worry ’bout it” was Norman’s answer to everything. As our “Mayor” made his rounds, he generously shared a bit of his permanent vacation with us work-a-day shut-ins. He owned nothing. He shambled through these streets, happily living out our worst fears for us. After seeing Norman, we really “didn’t worry about it” quite so much. Fridays were his big day. He retrieved armloads of flowers from the flower shops’ trash and passed out bouquets to the ladies (Norman loved the ladies). His weathered, toothless face look like a rusty ax stuck in the midst of those brightly-colored flowers.
One day he put out his last cigarette in his last beer and just like that he quit. But the truth is he wasn’t much different sober. Silver Spring’s loving care allowed Norman to live out his life on his own terms. Silver Spring’s finest hour lasted 25 years.
I didn’t know Norman Lane. We moved to Silver Spring in 2000, when the city was still struggling to come out of the economic doldrums that hit many inner-ring suburbs during that period. But as I’ve walked through downtown almost every day since my retirement from full-time work, I’ve seen change that makes me think of Norman.
I’ve watched the new construction rising, the reliance on “public-private” partnerships to do the work that the community should be undertaking, the changing diversity that has long been a hallmark of Silver Spring, the ongoing privatization of public space, and the struggles of those who were called “essential” workers during the pandemic but who feel “bruised and beaten by years of promises unkept, real wages and benefits cut, and jobs eliminated.”
Most importantly, I have watched the impact of a 40-year government experiment to push those who don’t quite fit into our jigsaw puzzle out into the streets and out of mind.
On my morning walk, I usually see two gentlemen — about my age — who have found themselves in tough circumstances yet still keep a bright outlook on life and the things that matter. I’ve written here and here about Gilbert America Carter (who goes by Carter) and Barrington Harold Fair (who goes by Barry). Carter and Barry always have a smile and often have stories and quips to share with those around them.
For roughly three hours each morning, Carter and Barry are Silver Spring’s ambassadors at the Whole Foods parking lot. They share subsidized housing in a nearby apartment, but both are disabled and depend on the kindness of strangers to help them make it through the day. Carter and Barry sit in their walkers, unobtrusive but within eyesight of everyone who heads into the store. They never ask for money, but many who pass give them cash or provide various articles of clothing or other everyday items that we take for granted, but which they would not have without the generosity of those who see them every day. Some of us also buy a piece of cornbread when we can, which Carter uses to feed “his” birds.
While most of the security guards, Whole Foods employees, police and neighborhood residents like me know and enjoy checking in on Carter and Barry, recently a new management team for the downtown developer (one of our public-private partnerships) has decided that they cannot allow Carter and Barry to sit at their posts by the Whole Foods lot. Since this is Washington, Barry knows a couple of attorneys who stop by regularly to chat. They’ve stepped in to see what can be done, and for now the situation seems to be addressed.
It strikes me that “forbearance” is one of the key words in Norman Lane’s tribute, the forbearance of the people and leaders of Silver Spring of the time to someone rough around the edges, who is dealing with issues often not of their own making and exacerbated by our harsh policies to “punish” those perceived as “takers.” The push to favor the wealthy and business owners over the working class and the poor has been part of our country’s history since its founding. How we treat those less fortunate than us and the forbearance we show ebbs and flows with the times. Beginning with the Reagan revolution in 1981, our federal government decided to stop providing housing and treatment to millions of fellow citizens like Barry and Carter. Some of that we turned over to the private sector, with predictably disastrous results. But many of us just turned our eyes away…unless and until we were forced to face the humanity of those just like us in so many respects.
The top 0.1% is working hard to obscure the fact that it is in the best interest of 90% of Americans to seek out what Heather McGhee has called a solidarity dividend that supports workers and those who need a hand. To achieve their goal, those at the top want us to forget that these individuals are human beings: real, breathing, loving people, striving to advance — or just make it — and meet their own American dream.
The late Senator Paul Wellstone once put it so well: “We all do better when we all do better.”
We can all do better, with some more forbearance.
More to come…
UPDATE: Several readers sent emails, Facebook and Linked-in messages, or called to say how much they appreciated this post. One neighbor said she chats with Carter and Barry and was worried when she hadn’t seen them recently.
This morning, Carter was playing Otis Redding CDs on his portable player, and people were coming by and dancing. We started talking about the disc jockey who was famous for playing R&B and Soul music, and Carter said, “You mean Wolfman Jack?” I mentioned to Barry that Carter was the “Wolfman of Whole Foods”, and he immediately gave a pitch-perfect impersonation of that famous voice. That’s what you get with some forbearance.