In the early 80’s I was president of a labor union and was presented – along with veteran trade-unionist, the late Victor Ruether – with the Key to the City of Flint, in recognition of our work in the labor movement. Of course I was honored to be even mentioned in such venerable company. Having received that big gold, symbolic key, Flint has a special place in my heart. Since the water fiasco has exploded on the national news, the urgency of the question of water there – and everywhere – is ever more tantamount.
In 2014, I was asked by Detroit artist Christina de Roos to contribute a writing on Water for an exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Institute of Detroit (CAID). The show was in recognition of the intense struggle over water rights taking place all over Detroit and beyond. I thought about a situation that I faced in the 90’s, when, as a newly wed to my then-husband, we experienced a water shut-off.
So in the midst of poems and spoken word on spa baths and love in a tub, I presented the first version of the piece below – about being without water. I dedicate this piece to the people of Flint – who have been living without any usable water for over 2 years.
On my birthday, in my forties,over twenty years ago,
Rushed from work,to have a party, thought I’ll wash the dishes first.
Turn the faucet, but – No Water! Oh my Lord! How can this be?
Unbelieving, so I’m bending, o’er the faucet for to see
What’s the plumbing caused this problem? But the obvious is clear
There’s just No Water.
How can there be no more water? This is home! With lights and gas
Water is like floors and ceilings! Standard part of all homesteads!
At the sink, I make a phone call and it seems my husband then
was disputing with the landlord, and they’d been at war for months
Water bill was in our lease, but the landlord, tired of beef
stopped his paying on the water; oh yes, unbeknownst to me.
This landlord fight was not a rift that seemed would be soon healed
yet we could not go pay the bill, ‘cause we just had a lease
So first, I prayed for rain, and yes, by dark, there was a deluge;
a storm it came, the night was saved – oh yeah, some Happy Birthday
In my fury at our drought I ran myself all through the house
and searched for every pan and pot for water catching round the yard
Make it rain, make it rain.
I’m deep in I Love Lucyness, in all my frantic waterlust
grabbing buckets; want to laugh but can’t;
I’m mad and scared and chastened ‘bout my foolish naiveté,
finances which I’d surely no idea.
Our waterbed – yes, emptied out, the noxious water from it ran for days
Ironic waste of preciousness, it really humbled me, I never want that kind of bed again.
I didn’t dream of telling, ‘bout the drought in which we dwelled
my pride about it all too much to bear.
Come morning, washed in last night’s rain,
It now was time to start my day.
So I arrived to work in time to cleanse
I washed in ladies lavatore, before the other workers came
I never told them of my dire straits,
of household’s lack of H2O,
I bathed in office bathroom bowls
and hoped to God my hygiene didn’t say.
Each day we really sought to find
another place to rent or buy
And I survived with rain and workplace flow
Surreptitious washings just wherever we could find
At sinks and facebowls everywhere we’d go
This was before the days of bottled water,
always seeking ways to slacken thirst.
and finding bathrooms totally preoccupied our minds
and thoughts of bowel and bladder filled our days
But there was joy in every storm or deluge
Grabbing pots to catch the gift from sky.
A Belle Isle swim was heaven in that waterless hot June
a blessing in the midst of high and dry.
Ten weeks of this – we moved; ran first to shower,
and though we had another place to live
those tears that flowed from me on that dry birthday
the marriage’s beginning of the end.
I sympathize with those who face the shutoffs
As they confront the ones who caused their grief
And what about the people who’ve been poisoned?
For whom no water there is fit to drink.
So when I read about that tragic desert
T’was made in sister Flint, an hour’s drive
I think about those days I spent a summer,
Missing water when my well ran dry.