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moments with youth

The wall

Mark Krueger

Near my house, they are building a wall. I am watching it grow as I run past. The house around which the wall is being built is a short distance from my house but a world away. The soon to be newly walled in house is on a street (Lake Drive) that runs on the bluffs above the shore of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. And in Milwaukee, as most cities in the US, the closer you live to the water, the richer you are. The house around which the wall is being built is a mansion. It is part of the new landscape the owners are creating. It frames their property, and their garden, and is quite elaborate. A wall around their wealth you might say.

It’s not a big wall, really. But it is a wall. A symbol. It is being built by migrant laborers, who are paid minimum wages, and in part to keep-out the poor, I imagine, like the said migrant workers. On the wall is a sign that says the house is protected by an invisible security system. The owners are afraid that they will be robbed or even hurt by people like the laborers that are building the wall. Even though statistically they are more likely to be killed by food poisoning, which is also a very remote possibility given they have enough money to buy the best food.

Food poisoning is a more likely possibility for the laborers building the wall and their children, who do not have health insurance and have to buy their food from warehouses. Still the laborers are working hard on the wall so they can feed their children. It is taking a long time, the building of the wall. The owners are fussy. It has to be just right so it keeps the property value high.

Often when I run by the woman of the house is in the yard overseeing the building of the wall with a cool drink of some kind in her hand. She does not offer the laborers anything to drink, at least as far as I can see in the short time I pass by on the run. Instead she teases them with her drink and short shorts as she orders them around, suspiciously I imagine.

The wall must be costing a lot—once you add up all the hours of labor and the cost of the bricks and mortar it will run in the thousands, more than a hundred thousand, perhaps. Such a waste I tell myself, this walling off of rich and poor. How much better we could spend that money to make people happy and safe: schools, health care, better food for all. What a shame that my near yet faraway neighbors are walling themselves off here, and on the borders. What do these walls they build with the money they get from us create? Are they walls around our selves that keep us/them from seeing in? Out? Don’t the owners know what a blight they are on the landscapes.

I run in each day. Sometimes in the middle of the run when the endorphins kick in I can see a better world for children and the people who rear them. I get high on ideas. This wall near the end of my run brings me down. So I pick up speed trying to get high again before I arrive home, and go to work. I imagine a city with good schools, health care for everyone, nice parks, and safe streets with good public transportation for everyone.

Howard Gardner, the professor who introduced the idea of multiple intelligences, argues that there should be a cap on wealth. He says that when people accumulate too much the quality of life for the rest of us goes down. Some wealthy are generous, but for the most part the money, as we used to say, more or less “tinkles down” for kids in need of better schools, homes, families, and opportunities. I tend to agree.

My city, Milwaukee, used to have progressive, socialist roots. We had some of the finest schools, transportation, and parks in the country. Now the schools and parks and public swimming pools are falling apart. Young men and children are shooting each other at alarming rates. And the rich are getting richer.

The problems of course are not all due to the widening distribution of wealth, but it is more and more distasteful to have to go to the wealthy for the money many of them made from our sweat to meet the basic needs of our community. One thing is certain, expensive security systems and walls are not the answer. They never were, and can’t be built fast enough to keep out the problems because the people creating them are inside the walls as much as outside.

In a capitalist society when does wealth accumulation stop being an incentive? When does it have a reverse effect on the common good? This is an age old question? Right now I am on the side of the wall that says enough is enough. The tinkle has become a sporadic dribble in relationship to the need created by concentration of resources in the hands of a few. Howard Gardner is right about capping it off. He’s a smart man. If we don’t figure out a way to distribute the vast wealth in this country we’ll all be in the wall together.

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control…
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall

From Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall Part 2