Long ago I saw a film called The Way We Were. This was not some small time indie – no this was the full-blown Hollywood love story. Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford starred and headlined this film. Though, on its surface, it was a romance between two people, two different people, it was really about all of us. What drove us at a point in our lives when we thought that what we cared most about was all that really mattered. Looking back, the phrase rang true – the way we were.
In Show Me a Hero, the HBO miniseries created by David Simon and directed by Paul Haggis, we sat through the first two-thirds of this six-part series, and watched as what apparently all that mattered in Yonkers, New York, in the late 80’s until 1994, was the color of your neighbor’s skin.
I pointed out the story line switches between seemingly unconnected various minority characters seemed both jarring and unexpected. We were asked to absorb stereotypical characters of the political persuasion, And we were tasked with feeling repulsed by characters who cloaked racism in terms relating to property values.
It was both difficult and disappointing. I mean it was hard and unsettling to absorb that some Caucasian residents of Yonkers referred to the black people of Yonkers in a variety of unsavory ways: Those people – they don’t want what we want…or they live like animals, or what others yelled from passing cars, N—— go home!
Or politicians who placed harmony in the community well behind grasping and keeping power.
Yeah, then factor in the fact that much of this was set in City Hall meeting rooms, bars, court rooms, judges chambers, or in the streets. As well as the homes of the pols, the white majority, and the black minority.
Nick Wasicsko was a City Council member, a lawyer, and a former cop, who ran on a platform opposing the federally mandated housing, got elected Mayor of Yonkers. But once in office, he saw that opposing Judge Sand would be both impossible, and cost prohibitive. So he switched gears and eventually plans were not only submitted and Yonkers was going to put in 200 units of low-income housing.
But things were far from over. Another City Council Member, One Hank Spallone, who had always been against the housing, vowed to continue to fight. So he won the next Yonkers Mayoral election. Mayors in Yonkers serve only two-year terms. Spallone was in and Wasicsko was out.
But Spallone was destined to be unable to overturn or overcome the law. So construction began.
That’s where we picked up in the last two episodes. Mary Dorman had by now had a change of heart. She was now on the side of the those who supported the housing. Spallone was voted out, and was replaced by Tony Zaleski. Wasicsko had challenged, but on the basis of promises made, he stepped aside, and joined Zaleski’s campaign.
But the fires still burned brightly within Nick Wasicsko. So as the housing units went up, Nick Wasicsko got caught in a downward spiral of his own making. Hubris, ego, or whatever you want to call it, Nick was now on the outside. He had played politics and it is a zero sum game. You either win or you lose.
Meanwhile those disparate stories of the minority women continued on their separate paths that would ultimately intersect. Norma, Carmen, Darleen, and Billie all would eventually get their own chances to take their families to some place different. To a place that did not have good stairwells and bad stairwells. To a place where they could be called residents rather than tenants. To a place where they felt a part of a community.
But what opened my eyes to the value of this series came in the last third. Low income did not mean low-class was a statement we heard. We also heard that the Normas, Darleens, Billies, and Carmens were not ‘those people’.
They were just like us. They took pride in their homes, they liked sunlight streaming into their kitchens. They were embarrassed when a guest was served tea in a chipped cup. And they were happy and excited to be able to unwrap brand new cookware that had been saved, and not used until they had finally gotten the chance to do something different with their lives.
We finally got to see that they were the same as we were.
Mary Dorman warmed to her neighbors, as did the haughty poodle lady. As sunshine entered into so many new homes, as well as the homes of the neighbors just across the street, elsewhere things got dark.
While we had no specific clues about Nick Wasicsko, there was plenty of foreshadowing. After all, as the famous American novelist F.Scott Fitzgerald wrote so many years ago – Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy…
This series turned a corner in the last third. Not all of the people behaved to expectations, and not all of the story lines were successful. But this tale of Yonkers, though it lacked the star power of a younger Barbra Streisand and a Robert Redford, was indeed a tale about all of us. In short: it was a collective – the way we were, and a series that was ultimately most satisfying.