“I spy with my-little-eye the Mayor coming through the door.”
This was an attempt to wrangle and distract my four-year-old with the I Spy game. I caught him between my knees, one arm acting like a gate.
“What Mayor?” This was Cal’s way of asking both what is a mayor and which one was the mayor?
Three black men in grey, tailored suits walked into Spot Coffee. I should not have called attention to us by pointing out the mayor. Garden dirt garnished my knees; hair, a mass of tangles from the open-window car ride over the Skyway; no makeup; and raggedy gardening clothes. My only goal this morning had been to drop off my oldest son, Sam, at sail camp and return home, never getting out of the car. But, as he took his leave, Sam reminded me, “I don’t have a lunch.”
Course correction. Quick shot over the river to Spot Coffee for his favorite, a quesadilla. Plus, a latte for me and a muffin for Cal.
The new plan worried me. Cal and I had been working on how to behave in public spaces. Every morning we practiced for very brief periods in stores–buy one thing and out. He’s progressing, but I’m on countdown to kindergarten to teach him how to keep his body calm when presented with social stimuli. While some kids cling, Cal becomes a whirling dervish. He is small, fast, and difficult for this fifty-year-old mom to catch. A year ago I wouldn’t have dared to make a stop like this.
And we were a sight.
I am an overweight, middle-aged, white woman, which spells invisibility in our culture where youth, thinness, and white men are more likely to be prized, hold positions of power, enjoy the wealth, and take center stage. But this same inconspicuous woman adopted a Black/Latino child. Because he is hot-wired, beautiful, and usually pulling newspapers off the shelves, he demands the spotlight even if it’s not available to him. While I may be inured to his scene stealing, I notice people trying to find me, make me appear. I see the stress in their faces as they try to conjure a mom. “Where is that child’s mother?” And once I materialize in front of them, I take my place on stage, too. I notice their quizzical looks when I assert my role–how do these two belong together? The fact that I’m an older mom doesn’t help.
That day, because the quesadilla would take longer to prepare than our allotted five minutes, I employed a new strategy, the game I Spy: “Find the woman with the red purse.” “Who is wearing polka dots?” And then, “I spy with my little eye the mayor coming toward us.”
I wanted to explain to Cal about who the mayor was before we met him, but he was closing in.
My husband, older son and I are all white. It’s our job to find Cal racial mirrors. When we adopted him, we promised ourselves and him that his day-to-day life would include regular interactions with people who share his race–friends, classmates, his biological family, our adult friends, teachers, people in stores, at church, on playgrounds, etc. We are not the role models he needs to learn how to navigate this segregated, economically unbalanced, often unjust, racially tense society. We need community. And, who better to model a powerful black man than Byron Brown, Buffalo’s first black mayor. I wanted Cal to see what it takes for a man of color to succeed in a position of power.
But maybe not today. I envisioned a time when Cal was less inclined to yank the water jug off the counter. And yet, the mayor had established eye contact and was walking past the counter directly toward us.
Byron Brown looks people in the eye, even those of us with visibility issues. I haven’t seen a man who can so easily, directly, and casually greet as many people as Mayor Brown can just strolling down Canalside. I do not know the mayor but I have seen him everywhere–festivals, City Hall, parades, store openings, and coffee shops.
When I first moved to Buffalo in 2001, I was surprised by how often I saw local politicians out and about. I grew up in a small town and our politicians were often in a remote county seat or they were my friends’ parents. Their political presence was less important than if they allowed sleepovers or gave rides home. In the big city where I lived as an adult, local politicians were more podium players who only spoke to the press.
Before the new administration took over the White House, I never thought much about the visibility of politicians other than to notice how visible they were here in Buffalo. But now, organizations such as The Indivisible Guide on the left and The Tea Party on the right have stressed the importance of grassroots activism through local interaction with elected officials, and how important it is that our local representatives be accessible to their constituency. Activists seek to hold our politicians accountable and not just to special interests or the powers that be in Washington. We, the people, were always supposed to be part of equation.
While I stress and worry about national politics, I am enthralled about what is happening locally all around me. Michelle Schoeneman, whom I know from church, was asked if she would run for the Erie County Legislature. She ran a very successful billboard campaign, where she sought to make her particularly slippery representative accessible to his constituency either with office hours and/or at town meetings. Recently, I photographed her and her lovely family for her campaign website and palm cards. BuffaloVibe’s editor-in-chief’s father, who formerly ran the local branch of the FBI, Bernie Tolbert is running for Erie County Sheriff. The man running against Byron Brown for mayor, Mark “Bingo” Schroeder (who is a neighbor in our South Buffalo community) has championed the revitalization of the First Ward and has extended his efforts to the architecturally significant Central Terminal along with the East Side neighborhood surrounding it. These are citizens of conscious and good work who are willing to serve and represent us.
But, I still hadn’t answered Cal’s question, “What mayor?” The mayor was closing in. I held Cal’s hand in the hope that he would stand still and stay with me. I said, “This is our mayor.”
Mayor Brown introduced himself. I shook his hand. Cal and I were both a little star struck, a sensation enhanced by the mayor’s mesmerizing cologne–as if you could make perfume out of sunshine or a mountain meadow. He appeared to be not only ready for an encounter and recognition, but he welcomed us, as well.
He squatted down to Cal’s level and asked if he could pick him up. As the mayor touched Cal, his wide-eyed bubble of awe and wonder burst. My little guy became over-excited and thrashed about as if he were a frightened baby deer, diminutive but lithe and strong. The mayor carefully set Cal down and smiled at me without a hint of condescension or judgement. Being accessible to the public is challenging.
CNN may be able to control the optics, but here on the local level, people come as they are. Good politicians are available, photo-ready, and meet people where they live.
The barista called my name and I hurriedly grabbed the quesadilla. I appreciated the mayor’s effort but, in the moment, I was embarrassed. I was wishing I could have made it about politics instead of a personal encounter.
In the car, I could still smell his cologne. Everything about Cal and I should have warned him to keep his distance. Wind-blown, hyper, and harried, we were not the carefully coiffed mother and son who could provide that stereotypical “baby kissing” picture, and yet he went out of his way to connect with us. He came over, not to be seen, but to see us–his constituents. And this is the important difference. Our elected officials should not be celebrities to be ogled and followed. They need to take the time to see, meet, listen, consider, and represent us, their electorate. I may not be able to alter the outcome of elections or have a say about what happens next, but on the local level here is evidence of being seen and noted. I have no doubt that my vote matters.