By Wendy Low
When I was asked to list my work-related-anxieties during AVODAH orientation, I wrote “clothing.” I have been wearing jeans and t-shirts for the past four years and have never quite felt myself in anything else. The work world requires a certain standard of dress and as the first day of work came closer, I found myself staring at an unfamiliar closet of black slacks and button-downs.
On my first day of work at Yachad DC, I dressed myself in my new clothing and told myself I looked appropriate as I ran out the door. Here in DC, it’s common to wear tennis shoes to commute to work and change to nice shoes when you arrive at the office. What folks don’t tell you is when it’s appropriate to switch to your work shoes. After much angst attempting to be not too early, but not late to work, I managed to arrive 15 minutes early, grab a tea from Starbucks, and awkwardly switch shoes in the store. I have no idea if this was appropriate, but no one glared at me.
During my first trip to the bathroom, I looked at myself in a mirror, trying to get used to this new look. In the reflection, I saw another woman looking in the other mirror and when I turned to smile at her, I realized it was me. I literally did not recognize myself from the back.
On my lunch break, I decided to walk to Dupont circle and eat lunch outside. My boss told me I could take an hour for lunch, but I don’t know if I need or want this much time. I realize I will have to learn to take the hour breaks and not over-work myself, but it feels weird to be on this regimented schedule with “lunch breaks” again. Breaks that I should take, but am worried about taking too generously.
I kept stealing glances at myself to get used to this look. I wonder what other people see. Am I seen as a fancy professional or can people tell how uncertain I’m feeling? Do I read as a young professional or an intern? Can people tell this is my first day at my first job?
Living in DC, especially Columbia Heights, can be problematic as a white middle class person; I am taking up a space that could potentially belong to a low-income family, while my presence and purchases push gentrification forward. Even though I’m working on these issues, I need to consider my impact to maximize the good and minimize the less good.
The park at Dupont Circle is an odd place for lunch. There are young professionals in their fancy business attire eating $15 salads and fancy vegan bowls next to homeless folks panhandling on cardboard boxes. The sun is high above and hot and I walk around for way too long trying to find a shady place to eat, before sitting down.
After eating a few bites, a man sitting a few feet from me asked for food and I froze.
My friend Samantha gives something to nearly every homeless person she sees, even though she is living on a student’s budget. It’s been a year since I learned this about her and now I can’t pass by someone asking for money without thinking of her and her generosity.
So now this man has just asked me for food. I’ve already given a lot this month, but I don’t see this as a reason to pat myself on the back when a hungry person is in front of me. I looked at him, then my food, then him, then the food, back and forth. I only brought a small amount of leftovers for lunch and would like to eat it. He noticed my hesitation and asked me if I was hungry; I don’t know what to say.
I thought to myself: Yeah, I am hungry. And I brought this lunch. But my hunger is probably quite different from yours. If I give you my food, I will still be guaranteed a delicious dinner tonight, and I could buy more, but I’m on a tight budget….If only I brought more or had a granola bar, but this is my lunch.
I gave him the small bit of pita I have. I had taken several bites out of it and it felt wrong to give him this bread, but also felt wrong to give him nothing. It was the only compromise I can make as my bowl of food can’t easily be divided and shared. He asked if I had a dollar and I gave him one, but he wanted 3. With my stipend, I can’t afford to give to every person on the street. I felt self-conscious as I handed the dollar to him. What do the other lunchers think of me? Can they tell I’m new by this interaction? Have they already learned to filter out those asking for money? Have I just marked myself as naive? I finish my few bites quickly and walk away.
I am brand new to this city, to the workforce, to AVODAH, and to the issues faced by this particular community. The AVODAH year focuses on the issues of poverty and racism, but my background is in interfaith and gender equality. I have a lot to learn when it comes to looking at issues like homelessness and gentrification, but I’m already finding it impossible to look at my neighborhood, my neighbors, and my interactions with them in the way I used to. I am excited to learn, but nervous about the mistakes I may make in the meantime.
On the walk back, I looked at my reflection in the windows of the fancy shoe store.
I still can’t figure out who I saw.
Wendy Low is a Program Associate at Yachad DC.