Observation #1

The average minimum wage is $14.17. The average housing wage for an apartment is $35.84. I have never made that kind of money.

Observation #1

If we lived in a different city, my fifteen-year-old would take a city bus or train to school every day. We live in Denver, where revolutionary mass transit has often been proposed but never funded. The bus route that would get her to school would take an hour and a half each way. And that’s if all the buses show up when they are supposed to, which is never guaranteed. So I drive her to school every day. Thirty minutes each way, mostly spent on a stroad called Colorado Boulevard.

You know how some historians say The Iliad wasn’t written by a poet named Homer? Instead, the epic was written by generations of poets that we call Homer? Well, Colorado Boulevard is an epic constructed across generations of leaking auto industry lobbyists and suckling politicians. It is eleven lanes across at its widest point. 

The stroad cuts through neighborhoods and lifespans. It is part of Denver’s High Injury Network - a series of car-centered straight-shot urban roads that account for 50% of traffic fatalities in the city. In the Iliad, Hector dies because of Achilles’ rage. On Colorado Boulevard, people die because crony capitalism is king.  (Maybe that makes it a tragedy instead of an epic?)

On either side of Colorado Boulevard, there are front stoops, gas stations, and fast food restaurants. One red light is not always enough time for a person to cross the street. So crosswalks are sometimes bridged by traffic refuge islands. There are few pedestrians using crosswalks at the busiest parts of Colorado Boulevard. 

It’s just as well. Colorado’s refuge islands offer little refuge - packed dirt, broken by the occasional weed. Fast food wrappers provide whatever else can live in the dirt a bit of shade. Until the wind comes. (The wind always comes.) 

Sometimes, scarcity exists in one place because of the hope of abundance elsewhere. The Denver Parks and Rec flower budget was cut this year; the funds were diverted to help meet the needs of asylum seekers arriving in our city. Funds have been diverted from lots of other city department budgets too.

But it isn't enough. Denver’s more ambitious program, which included housing 5,000 asylum seekers in hotel rooms, has been cut. It was going to cost the city $170 million every year. That's one-tenth of the city's entire budget.

The Denver Asylum Seekers Program took its place. People seeking asylum aren’t allowed to enter the workforce during their first six months in America. Which is just...ridiculous. Anyways, this program provides six months of “wraparound services,” including rent, food, and legal services. This sounds really great—and it is. But there’s only budget to do it for 1000 people. It'll be about $90 million each year.

I wonder what else we can give up to get more funding for the project. I know the Denver Police Department had to forgo new furniture to help fund the program. I wonder if we could cut more from that department? Just a thought! Ahem.  

When I see the bare dirt, I remember that growing food on empty islands, medians, and lots is illegal in many cities. Guerilla gardening is treated as an occupation of public lands, met with force. Cops supervise city workers as they rip up tomato plants, cut down fruit trees, and dig up corn stalks. They’ll tell you it’s because the food goes unpicked, drops, and rots. But growing food is difficult, and the people who tend the plants don’t forget the crops. 

It shouldn’t be so hard to help one another. 

The islands are relatively rare. Colorado Boulevard’s opposing lanes are mostly separated by thin traffic medians covered in cracking asphalt. 

As I drove my kid to school, I didn’t notice the medians, the islands, the dirt, the trash, the gas stations, or the stoops. I was focused on the landscape inside the car. I mostly stayed quiet, listening to my daughter listening to her music, waiting for the sharp intake of breath that tells me she’s about to say something. It’s only once I drop her off, I love you, I am proud of you, that my attention shifts to the landscape outside the car. 

There are three golf courses between her school and our home. One private and two public. Each is over 130 acres. I heard once that an 18-hole golf course can’t handle more than 300 players per day. I was staring at a thin blue line bumper sticker on a Ford when I realized that shakes out to a half acre of land reserved per golfer, per day. Give less or take more. 

I drive past the Galleria Office Towers, a complex clad in gold-tinted windows. They reflect golden light onto the street. In the morning, when the sun is at just the right angle, I can see through the tint. The ceilings are fixed with fluorescent tubes. Fluorescent lighting pulses very quickly and can cause migraines, sleep disorders, cataracts, and depression. I don’t think the people in the gold building can open their gold windows to let in natural light. 

There are people on each side of the road. Some of them have nowhere to go; they sleep in bus shelters. Most of them have to get to work or school. They wait under and around the bus shelters, looking at their phones and down the road. Where is the bus?

Denver is a city in America. And so medians and islands at busy intersections have always hosted people holding out signs, asking for help. But it has been different since Congress chose not to renew the basic protections implemented during the pandemic. The eviction moratorium lapsed, SNAP benefits were restricted, the Child Tax Credit was revoked.

The medians have become crowded with people. And there are many more children there now too, holding the hem of their mother’s shirt, sitting in strollers, or on blankets carefully laid out on top of the dirt. 

Whether they get enough money for rent, food or medicine depends on the people in the cars and the timing of the street lights. Colorado Boulevard has become a kind of slot machine. A person who might’ve helped drives by on green and can’t easily turn around. A person who stares straight ahead gets stopped at the red. I’ve helped and I’ve stared. I’m always ashamed either way. But I am a little less ashamed when I help. 

On my drive home, I saw a teenage boy and his little brother standing on a thinning median at one of the busiest intersections. I got the red light, but I was on the wrong side of Colorado Boulevard. I watched them while I waited to drive past them. The teenage boy held the sign. They needed help paying their mother’s rent.

The average minimum wage in the Denver metro area is $14.17 an hour. The average housing wage for a two-bedroom apartment is $35.84 an hour. I have never made that kind of money. And I do not have the work experience or education required to make that kind of money. If I had to pay that rent right now, working overtime wouldn’t even get me there. I know there is just one intersection of circumstances separating my children from that median. 

The boys’ mother was probably already at work. But I could see her there in the middle of the street with them. They both had neat haircuts and matching socks. I know how much care work goes into keeping short hair trimmed and socks matched. 

The older brother held his little brother’s band while he tried to catch the eye of the people stopped near them. No one rolled down their window. The little boy shifted from one foot to the other, tapping two backpacks at his feet. School hadn’t started yet. I realized they’d both go on to sit at desks for the rest of the day, learning about math and manifest destiny after standing on that median.

I am glad school breakfast and lunch in Denver is free. But I worried they wouldn't get to school in time for breakfast.

The light turned green. The little boy looked up at his brother as I drove by. It’s a look I’ve seen my youngest daughter give her older sisters: “This person takes care of me.”

I turned around as soon I could and started back toward them. I realized I didn’t have any cash. So irresponsible. I have friends who keep naloxone hydrochloride nasal spray on them, just in case they happen upon someone who’s overdosed on opioids. A single dose is just $20 and can save a life. People need money to survive in America. So shouldn’t I always have a few twenty dollar bills on me, to give where I can, what I can? 

It was a quarter of a mile to an ATM. Because the ATM was not affiliated with my bank, it cost $5 to withdraw cash. I got back onto Colorado Boulevard and waited at three stoplights. It was just so frustrating. They didn’t know I was coming. What if they left? But I told myself that the red lights were good. The next stoplight was next to the boys. I’d probably get a red there, too. And I did. 

But the boys and their backpacks were gone. School started in fifteen minutes. 

How can we change zoned landscapes through collective action? How can we stop using Colorado Boulevard? Literally, sure. But metaphorically, definitely.

How are these three things going to interact with one another over the next five years?

  • The already limited social safety net has been shredded to nearly nothing by privatization.
  • Individuals are increasingly dependent on activists occupying empty spaces with things like mutual aid and guerrilla gardening.
  • Non-violent occupation is being met with increasing violence from militarized police.

Pay more attention, even when my kid is in the car. I don't know if those boys were on that median as I was driving her to school. But if they were, I might've been able to get them help on time. I was on the right side of the street.

I kept the twenty-dollar bills I took out of the ATM. They’ll stay in my fanny pack until I find someone who needs them. And then I’ll go back to an ATM and resupply my little fanny pack. 

Systemic issues can’t be fixed with my tiny supply twenty-dollar bills. I know that. I’m throwing myself into the policy process behind expanding access to affordable housing. (No, this is not an announcement that I will be running for office. I am trying to help my community, not blight it. Lol.)

My daughters and I sometimes volunteer at the local food bank. This summer, I’m going to make sure that sentence turns into, “My daughters and I volunteer at the food bank.”

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