Have you ever heard of April Smith? Yeah, me either.
If things were different, everything would be different.
I was just grabbing an iced coffee on my walk. I saw a young man wearing a t-shirt from the nurses’ union where I got my first settled organizing job at age 23 in 1997. I became a Lead Organizer there, and worked there until 2002 when I left to become Director of Organizing at a different union.
This young man and I had a long conversation, and I learned that their Organizing Director just quit. Her last day was today. He said, “Do you want your old job back?” There is a part of me that does.
He mentioned a campaign he had been working on at a hospital I know well. “What’s the bargaining unit there, like 300?” “You got it exactly,” he said. Wow. I’ve still got it. Twenty-one years after my fellow organizer called me an organizing savant for my creepy ability to predict counts of all kinds, most importantly vote counts, I still got it. From miles away.
Then a friend of mine who is 13 years younger called. She had just been reminded that Al Gore won the 2000 election. She said she was depressed for a few days thinking about how things could have been different.
“But if things were different, everything would be different,” I said, quoting my old friend John, may he rest in power, one of the best organizers I ever knew. We used to often think about how things would be if things were different. But they aren’t.
If you change one piece of the puzzle, you change everything. I often wonder what things would be like if I hadn’t suffered a series of severely traumatic events in my 39th and 40th years. But if things were different, everything would be different. I would never have ended up in harm reduction, that’s for sure. And I never would have met the fine folks who will be attending my late birthday party in the little West Philly garden of my apartment. I never would have rescued Loviefluffy.
We tend to imagine that some alternative future would have been better, but there is no reason to believe that. It may as well have been worse. I do not think I would want to be the more high-strung, more judgmental person I was before age 40. I like this version better. Do I wish I had more money and fewer nightmares? Yes. I would happily trade nightmares and flashbacks (which are much better now) for more happy memories with family and friends. But would I change the 100 or so published articles or years working with HAMS or women I’ve been able to help? No, I don’t think I would.
I asked the young man I met at the coffee shop if he had ever heard of April Smith. I left that union in 2002 and that is many generations in the life cycle of an organizer, so I wasn’t surprised that he had not. Still, he knew me from my work, the campaigns I worked on where nurses still have the union more than twenty years later. That’s a legacy I can live with and be happy that my name is forgotten but the union lives on. That’s how it’s supposed to be for organizers. It’s not about us. It’s the never-ending chain of worker solidarity stretching back for a thousand generations and I believe going forward for more… even if in a different form.
I have always loved Carly Simon’s “Have you seen me lately?” and as I write, “Have you ever heard of April Smith?” I ask myself, “Have I seen me lately?” I spend a lot of time doing work either under an assumed name or ghostwriting. April Wilson Smith does not have quite as much time to publish right now under her own name, and as such starts to seem not to quite exist. I don’t mind much. As many freelance writers know, paying the bills can be better some days than seeing your name in print. We all want to do both, but being a full-time writer who can pay even my meager living expenses is tough.
In recent months I’ve reconnected with some old friends and made some new friends in strange contexts. When I look at the names that recur on my phone as texts or calls, the majority are people I didn’t even talk to a year ago. Loviefluffy pictures are eternal, and my Zen friends take up larger and larger shares of texts. At a time in life when many of the people I went to high school and college with are watching their kids come of age and reaching the top of their careers, I’m on my third (depending on how you count it) career and just figuring out what the hell I’m doing.
I wouldn’t trade a thing.