HOW THE 'OTHER HALF' LIVES
THE YEAR WAS 1987, and over a decade had passed since the Vietnam War had ended. I was three weeks into my first foreign foray as a filmmaker — and I was hurting — and hurting badly.
Our trip began innocuously enough, fueled by a curious mix of anticipation and discovery. We were six thousand miles from home, but my friends on the production crew helped me celebrate my 30th birthday as the clock struck midnight in Bangkok. Eighteen hours later we landed in Hanoi, and before long we bounced along an endless series of dirt roads in the back of an old Russian school bus that served as transport to our hotel, far outside the city and near the Gulf of Tonkin.
I had moved back to Cleveland a few years prior, after living in Boston for five years, but my NBA loyalties still lie with the Celtics. As the sun set over Hanoi it became uncharacteristically chilly, so I put on my luminescent Celtics jacket, in all its’ Kelly-green glory, to fight off the brisk wind blowing from the South China Sea. Within minutes, as I braced myself on the back steps of the bus, I heard children cry out, “Larry Bird. . .Larry Bird,” which made me smile and wave enthusiastically to the smiling natives.
“Not bad,” I recall thinking. “I get to enjoy my birthday in both Thailand and Vietnam. What a way to ring in a new decade of life. Not bad at all.”
Little did I realize what awaited me in the days and weeks ahead.
THIS WAS ALL VERY ODD FOR ME, as I suppose it would have been for any American. I was on a historic journey, of sorts, as we were among the first 200 U.S. citizens allowed to visit Vietnam in the post-war years. For a kid from Cleveland, this was pretty ethereal stuff.
One of my brothers, Martin, had served near the so-called DMZ, or “de-militarized zone” in DaNang. All I knew of Vietnam came from scratchy audiotapes sent home by Martin during the war, from my hero Walter Cronkite, and now, from a group of Vietnam vets who had decided to tackle their demons by heading back to the belly of the beast: Vietnam.
I was about to confront some ghosts of my own, thousands of miles from where I first experienced their inescapable and indelible impact.
I GREW UP AS A WHITE middle-class beneficiary of the greatness of America, in a time and place when all of my peers seemed to enjoy stable families and live in homes built in the 1920s and 30s. My place in the Miller hierarchy was second-last-of-seven kids, and while growing up, I had never truly known what it was like to live life on the edge. This was partly due to my own cluelessness about money or the challenges of balancing a budget while raising seven children, but it was also partly attributable to the seeming dearth of “poor people” living around me during those years.
That would change when I got my first real job in the 1970s, popping popcorn for the tens of thousands of rabid Cleveland Browns fans at Cleveland Stadium. I was 14 at the time, and as I walked down from the bus towards the Stadium, I literally stumbled on a group of men who greeted me with vacant eyes and tattered clothes. The smell of urine pummeled me with such overwhelming power that it lodged in my senses. . .and to this day I still recall the smell of the misery that was unveiled to me that day.
As I have described elsewhere in this blog, however, I was born with an innate, inquisitive nature — some might call it naïve. . .so I stopped to talk to the men who were huddled together on that very cold November day. One of the men had ice-blue eyes that popped out from shrouded and wrinkled skin. He spoke very softly and asked, “what are you doin’ down here, kid?” When I replied that I worked at the Stadium, he muttered, “well good for you, kid. Maybe you can bring me somethin’ to eat.”
Uncertain — and perhaps even frightened — I had no idea how to respond. So I took off and sprinted down to work. When I reached the concession area, I told my boss, “Big Jim,” a wonderful African American man in his 50s, about my experience. “There’s lots of them down here now, son,” he said with a measure of both sadness and disgust. “Lots of them since the steel plants closed. You be mindful, now…some of them are crazy on liquor.”
It was the first time I had confronted poverty with my own eyes. . .and it left a mark. Week after week I would see the poor gather outside St. Malachi’s Church near the Stadium. Week after week I would talk to the men on the streets. And week after week, “Big Jim,” one of the kindest men I have ever known, would help me forage for hot dogs and coffee after work, often by asking favors of some of the vendors, even though he was concerned about his young lilly-white employee and his rather idealistic notions about “helping the men on the streets.”
BACK IN VIETNAM IN 1987, all of those emotions came flooding back. It hit me hard when we entered DaNang, where my brother Martin had fought some 14 years before my arrival. It was the first time I saw the sons and daughters of American servicemen. . .the ones who were left behind. Forced to live on the streets because they were “illegitimate children of the enemy,” or because they were not “pure blooded” Vietnamese, AmerAsian children scoured garbage cans for food and begged for whatever they could sell on the black market.
By this time, I was living on my own, trying to get noticed as a writer and filmmaker, and I had a better grasp of what the men and women on the streets back home encountered on a daily basis. I had lost some of my youthful naivete — I was struggling as well — but I felt like a millionaire compared to the horror of DaNang. Though I had only $50 in my pocket, I felt tortured by my wealth. Over the final two weeks of the trip, I gave away literally everything to children from DaNang to Saigon. My Walkman, my shoes, an earring, cigarettes, toiletries, and pads of paper — you name it.
I gave it all away.
FOR SIX WEEKS, following my return trip home, I was as melancholy and depressed as I have ever been in my life. What had I learned about poverty — and wealth? What was my purpose in experiencing all of this?
What I finally realized is that the prologue of my adult life came as a teenager in living in a suburb on the border with Cleveland. The events I witnessed, and the people I met during that time monumentally changed me forever. The recognition of poverty among us — and the challenge to do something meaningful about it — shifted me away from the carefree life of a 13 year old and morphed me into the being I have become. As a 30 year old — emotionally lost in Vietnam — I returned to the memories of the men on the streets of America. . .and realized that they were one and the same as the AmerAsians wallowing in poverty in Vietnam.
TWO YEARS LATER, IN 1989, STILL HAUNTED BY VIETNAM, I decided to try to affect change. I was working for my dear friend Ron Copfer, a philanthopist in his own rite, who allowed me to produce my first film for a non-profit agency based in Cleveland. KIDS IN CRISIS was the result, a mini-documentary about poor children in the city of Cleveland. One of the lines I remember most from the film catapulted me, once again, to the fateful days of meeting the men on the streets of Cleveland as a teenager. “The number of poor children in Cleveland,” the speaker said solemnly, “the number of children who go to bed hungry every night, could fill Cleveland Stadium. That’s 87,000 kids.”
Through KIDS IN CRISIS I also received a wondrous message by winning a Silver Medal at the New York International Film & Telelvision Festival. The reminder was not the lovely award, but the fact that I could indeed affect change. . .and so I have tried earnestly to do so ever since, by utilizing all of my God-given talents and blessings for a higher purpose.
I followed KIDS IN CRISIS with a fundraising video for the Cleveland Foodbank, which helped garner 15 million pounds of food from area residents, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash donations. Then I turned my sights to the homeless — including homeless war veterans — in my film THE PROMISED LAND. More awards, but more importantly, nearly $1 million in donations from Cleveland area residents, money that was used for job training and temporary housing for homeless families.
In the years to follow, there were more fundraising videos for the National Veterans Foundation, and many others.
YEARS LATER, a wealthy salesman-turned videomaker castigated me for my beliefs, and the fact that I had refused to produce numerous videos for him that did not align with my idealogy. “You could be wealthy,” he said, rife with condescension, “but no…you are some idealist who expects the world to conform to you. I’ve got news for you: it won’t.”
Today, the notion that many of us are “one paycheck away from poverty” is much easier to grasp — and there’s unfinished business here in the land of the free. Millions of seniors have lost their pensions, their retirement nest eggs, and their security. Countless others teeter on the brink of disaster, victims of their faith in the gods of capitalism.
Meanwhile, “How the Other Half Lives” is no longer a testimonial to the sins of the past century. Rather, it is the prologue of what has become the worst of realities for people throughout America and the rest of the world.
Perhaps my cynical critic was correct — I might never be the next Michael Moore, a filmmaker who enjoys $10 million budgets. But for me, that was never the point anyway.
I have lived a good life; replete with the joy and sadness of miracles and devastation that life brings every day to scores of unknown people throughout America…and lands beyond our borders.
As a filmmaker, I have dined with the wealthy and have been given uncommon access to the powerful. But my Brethren, it would seem, will always be the least among us. . .the men and women who deperately cling to the hope that we as a People will see our way through the madness long enough to care for our fellow humans, and to afford them them chance to eat and drink from an inclusive economy of dignity and goodwill.
So continue I shall, thankful for my epiphany. . .and grateful for the hard lessons I learned on the streets of Cleveland — and from the faraway faces of children in DaNang.