By Martha Anne Toll
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello”
“Hello In There,” John Prine
And then I turned sixty. I don’t know how. I was just beginning to reconcile myself to leaving my teens when I found myself hurtling past middle age.
My father died the following year at age 93. I was now parentless. Daddy was mother and father to me, even growing up, even as Mom was smart, energetic, caring, sensitive, creative, and a superlative manager of our family of six. It was Daddy who awoke during the night to treat my asthma attacks. It was Daddy I called with upsetting news or big decisions I needed to work through. He was a people person who never “passed anyone by.” He was a guy who always said “Hello in there, hello.” He was on intimate terms with the crossing guard at the elementary school where he jogged and good buds with the bus driver who drove him downtown on his daily commute. His piano teacher was like a daughter to him.
The day after he died, sitting on his back porch desperately trying, along with my niece, to find a venue large enough for his funeral service (350 people came; he was beloved), I was surprised by an onrush of euphoria. It came in a sudden gust, the thought that I could give it all up, throw everything overboard, ditch the career in social justice that I truly loved and that was close to forty years in the making, and do what had been calling me for decades: write full time.
Mine was a circuitous route to becoming the leader of a social justice organization. My first job after law school was with a corporate law firm in Philadelphia. On day one, I was warned never to enter the chairman’s office alone as he was known for assaulting women. My immediate supervisor was a loud, offensive man who summoned me by telephone to see what I was wearing.
At the firm, the name of the game was to bill as many hours as possible. Stress was not only endemic, it was prized. I had a secretary who was a single mother. Her other boss, the highest biller in the firm, habitually threatened to keep her at work past the deadline for picking up her six-year-old from afterschool care.
Early on, a mid-level associate took me into his smoke-filled office (in those days, you could smoke in the office) and shut the door. He cautioned me never to ask for help because: (1) I would look stupid, and (2) I could charge for the time figuring out how to do tasks that would take a more senior lawyer under 30 seconds to explain. I was scolded for working through dinnertime rather than clocking my time eating takeout which I could have charged to a client—both the food and the time.
I found a kindred soul in the Polish woman who came after hours to empty the trash. Her uniform was a light blue dress with a white collar. She had two gold teeth and spoke no English, but we exchanged smiles when she showed up at night. She was surely the nicest person in the building, but no one else seemed to notice her. When I left to move to Washington, I bought her a box of chocolates and gave her a hug. We both cried.
I kept up with my secretary for decades. Soon after I left, she quit the firm, moved with her daughter to California, found a career-track job as a state paralegal, and retired in comfort and happiness. I get chills thinking about it.
My work in Washington was rewarding—honors attorney at the Treasury Department—but I continued to feel disconnected from anything that mattered. I decided to volunteer at the 2nd and D Street shelter established by activist Mitch Snyder, who became the face of homelessness by staging hunger strikes in front of the White House during the Reagan presidency.
Asked to clean the women’s bathroom, I wheeled in a yellow bucket and mop and started in. The door opened, and a woman whose eyes were rolling into the back of her head grabbed me around the neck and started to strangle me. Fortunately, someone walked in and pried her off. It didn’t occur to me not to return the following week.
At the shelter, an old woman purloined a rickety office chair to use as a wheelchair. One night, I wheeled her to the laundry room and she told me her daughter lived in town but didn’t visit.
I wrote my first story about that. It was never published.
I continued volunteering in shelters for years, occasionally bringing fellow attorneys with me. None of my friends lasted past their initial visit.
In 1990, Mitch hanged himself in the basement of 2nd and D.
After a few more legal jobs, I was hired to run a social justice philanthropy. I was the founding executive director, tasked with designing grant programs in housing and criminal justice.
One of my duties was to identify organizations working to prevent and end homelessness. America could have solved this problem a long time ago, but we have a strong national ethos of avoidance and denial. Racist government policies as well as policies that grossly favor the rich have everything to do with our current housing crisis. (I never get over the fact that we’re still arguing about whether people deserve housing. I’m certain I was never asked if I deserved “permanent” housing.)
In the midst of our current health pandemic, we see the lid ripped off the real pandemic—structural racism that dates back to before our country’s founding. It was the greatest privilege of my life to work in criminal justice. Day after day I had my eyes opened to the endless inequities and injuries suffered by BIPOC at the hands of white people. The most inspiring human beings I have ever met are the advocates and activists on the front lines doing the hard, uphill work of fighting for justice with grace, passion, persistence, smarts, humor, and generosity. They never cease to astonish.
On my way to work I’d pass a woman outside the 7-Eleven on the west side of Farragut Square. She was missing a few teeth and was rarely clean. I kept a dollar in my purse for her as I passed. “Thank you so much,” she’d say. “Have a blessed day.” She went on occasional benders, took lovers, but always returned to the 7-Eleven, a little worse for wear. I’m worried about her in this time of COVID-19.
At the end of May 2020, after 26 years, I transitioned from my job at the foundation to write full time. As I write this piece, the country is alight with protests in every corner of the map, insisting that Black Lives Matter, that cops stop killing Black people. Now. Yesterday. Last Year. Always.
We white people are being called to atone for our sins in a meaningful way—to stop talking and beating our breasts and act. Change our laws and our culture. Make police accountable. Stop using the criminal justice system to “solve” every social challenge from addiction, to truancy, to mental illness, to immigration, to outright despair and oppression. Dismantle the whole prison industrial complex. Tax corporations and the wealthiest people to pay their fair share for the myriad benefits and favors they reap from the public. Cut taxes for the people who work hardest on the lowest end of the income scale, who don’t get to work remotely or have employer-paid childcare; who don’t even have health care for God’s sake. Say yes to reparations so that every Black person in America has a real chance at good health and an education and decent housing and a job that pays and a safe neighborhood to raise their families.
And yet. Here I am writing this, in the comfort of my study, embarking upon a new career as a writer, wondering how I am really and truly going to make my contribution. There’s one thing I do know. Whatever is next, I need to say, “Hello in there, hello.”
Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel, Three Muses, is forthcoming in 2022 from Regal House Publishing. Her books reviews, essays, and short fiction can be found at NPR Books, Washington Post, The Millions, and elsewhere.
Photo by the author of her father, Seymour “Spence” Toll, taken at his favorite haunt–Mid-Coast Maine in 2007.