The expression, “the other side of the tracks,” has been around for as long as I can remember. Bloomsbury International (like a number of other sources) notes that, “Some claim that it derives from the fact that in the time of steam trains, the wind blew the soot from the train to one side of the tracks (the railway tracks) meaning that one side would become more polluted and, in turn, this side would then become the poor, industrialised area.” Perhaps. It certainly has become a powerful metaphor for describing the disenfranchised, the poor, and abused. Even today, our communities bear the scar of that distinction. I can’t recall how many communities in rural Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Illinois, Tennessee or Texas where I have seen that dynamic at work.
But now a new set of tracks is carving its way through the world, and it is far more dangerous, in part because it silently divides the world: access to the internet. It is the very thing that puts you, me and the engineers who created this modern-day railway on one side of the tracks and puts billions of people on “the other side.” We have computers. We have wi-fi connections. We work with words to one degree or another – if not for a salary, for some feature of our recreational time. And the debris from that railway blows toward the far side of the tracks, where internet connections, if they exist at all, are unstable.
Today “the other side of the tracks” is a place where people cannot afford an updated phone. Where people still rely on landlines or flip-phones. Where life is so taxing, so exhausting, so enervating, that even if going online at the end of the day were possible, its residents could not muster the energy to “post” a picture of their pet, never mind pontificate on the events of the day.
But, here we are, secure on the right side of the tracks, making decisions for everyone else, in much the same way that people once made decisions for the rest of their community. The difference is that this modern day railway runs around the world and through the lives of everyone who inhabits the planet, and the power that “the right side” of the tracks is unparalleled in human history.
Which is why – in the face of a pandemic – there are those who have continued to work, exposing themselves to the vagaries of this virus. Which is why – they have watched their businesses evaporate – helpless to do anything about it. Which is why some will never recover, never pay for their children’s education, never enjoy a secure retirement. Which is why there are children who have disappeared from our nation’s schools and may never return. Which is why – an increasing number of people turn to drugs and alcohol, reach out in blind rage, and take their own lives.
The U.S. is still recovering from the spring catastrophe when the jobless rate surged in two months to 14.7%, the highest since the Great Depression.
Tens of thousands of businesses closed and many will never reopen.
A quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds have reported suicidal thoughts and increased substance abuse.
Half of them reported symptoms consistent with a depressive disorder, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey in June.
Some 13% of Americans said they started or increased substance use to cope with the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the train carries information through the center of town, promising freedom from infection, wealth without exposure, work without an office, salaries via auto-deposit, and groceries without in-person shopping. It all seems so deceptively simple. So rational. So reasonable – and all about the science.
But if you watch carefully, the train still carves the town in half. Oh, there is no visible line through town. No whistle. No crossing. No lights. No gates. No sound. You can’t be clear when you have passed to other side. But there are people living on the other side of the relentless divide. Without jobs, without salaries, without a sense of self-respect or control, without a means of keeping their homes or providing for their families. Our handouts will not erase their sense of loss or restore their futures. And the debris of our progress will drift over their homes, their lives, and their children.
So, do we believe in justice? Do we believe that the distance between every soul and the throne of God should be the same? Do we believe that we are invited to stand upright, to walk tall, to own the full stature of the children of God?
If we do, then in the middle of our fear, in the middle of our bitter conflict with one another, in the middle of our posturing, and our binary decisions, we should stop. We should stop and realize that the railway that we are building in our own day is leaving people without homes and hope. That their needs cannot be met by throwing money at them as we pass by. That we cannot shelter in the smug condemnation that “they” should know better. Nor can we shelter from this virus, leaving others to pay the price.
We will need to find a way, together. The strategies will need to be holistic. We will need to share the risks. Anything less will increase the distance between here and the other side of the tracks.