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for people who care about the West

Selling peace on the street in Flagstaff, Arizona


I sat with a friend and her son outside the post office in Flagstaff, Ariz. The building has been there half a century; we felt as though we had been there eons. There was an icy mountain wind and an occasional icy stare. We were encouraging people to send George Bush a half-cup of rice with either a biblical quote about feeding the enemy, or the ecumenical message: "We are all one. When the enemy hungers, we hunger. When we feed the enemy, we feed justice and harmony."

The downtown post office can seem like the center of the Old West. Ranchers, Native Americans and teachers gossip while they stand in line. The postal clerks are anything but postal. We trade recipes and movie reviews.

Most days, someone on the steps holds petitions for signatures, a modern version of the “Elect” and “Wanted” posters that would have been pasted next to the old brass mailboxes. But on this block and others, Flagstaff is the New West. We are on the interstate conduit for homeless people: men, women and extended families. The main drag runs a block from the post office, and there is shelter from the wind in an alcove that holds a public phone.

My friend and I set up a table on the street corner closest to the front door. It was the sixth time we’d spread out rice and flyers, feeling like Girl Scouts selling peace instead of cookies. There was a glassblower who didn't want the biblical quote because, he said, "I'm circumcised,” a snowcat operator who said he was both a conservationist and a hunter, and a reservist set to go to Iraq the following week, who said, "I don't want to go over there. It's wrong."

About 4:40 p.m., I saw what appeared to be a gang of kids bouncing down the sidewalk, toddlers to teen-agers, bundled in secondhand jackets and being shepherded by a woman carrying a baby. They came close.

"Want to send some rice to George Bush?" I asked. "He don't need rice," the mother said, "he got everything. What I got here is 10 kids."

We explained. The kids clustered around the table, their dark eyes bright. "I want to bomb that old Hussein," the woman said. "He kilt all those people in New York."

"Uh uh," my friend said. "That was another guy. If Bush keeps us in Iraq, thousands of kids could die, just like these."

The woman frowned. “Plus,” I said, “more American moms and dads who have kids are likely to get killed or crippled.”

"Ain’t no way," Supermom said, "I want that to happen."

My friend made out an envelope; the woman's hands were full of baby. There was some confusion over an address. A slender girl corrected her mom. She was told to hush up in that voice that carries the strong possibility of a whuppin’.

The girl fell silent. A little guy asked me if he could have some rice. I filled a baggie. Another kid asked. I filled another baggie. The mom struggled to remember their motel ZIP code. The girl started to tell her mom, then put her hand over her mouth. Her fingers were long and slim, the nails shining with chipped fuschia polish.

I leaned in close. "When you're a woman," I whispered, "you talk up whenever you want, but now..." She grinned. Together we said, "Be cool."

I asked her name. "Dion," she said. "Dion?" "No," she said, "Di..." My hearing aids were useless.

"I'm a little deaf," I said, "let me turn these up." "Here," she said, "I can do this," and she signed her name with those incredible fingers, one elegant letter at a time. Diamond.

"Hello, Diamond." I signed, “I love you.” She signed back and smiled a smile more radiant than near any I have ever seen. I gave her a bag of rice, and then gave the same to her empty-handed brothers and sisters. They all said, “Thank you, ma’am.” The mom tucked two bags in the pockets of her coat. Diamond ran into the post office to mail her package. A Navajo man came up and told us his people are warriors. “But not for this one,” he said. I poured rice into a baggie. By the time I looked up, Diamond and her family were gone.

Mary Sojourner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].