A Day in the Life of Poverty

   You roll over and look at your clock. It used to be a cell phone. Now it’s just a clock. 6:30AM. Time to get out of bed. St. Vincent’s starts getting rowdy around 7AM, so you need to rally and get there fast if you hope to be seen by 5PM.

This isn’t waking up. You’re not sleeping. You haven’t for days. Anxiety prevents lids from lowering. Brokeness has also informed a wheat heavy diet. When you had money you were allergic to gluten. Now you know donut boxes drop to $2 after 8PM. The food bank down the street offers early morning day-old giveaways: cakes, pies, donuts, bagels. Your arms, legs, and back reflect on the food and return with a bumpy, itchy rash that actually swells on occasion, making you feel like you’re wearing a bright red saddle. Without health insurance, the ointment to treat it is $40; the doctor won’t fill the prescription again unless you come in to see her.

It’s raining hard and mixing with hail, but you ride your bike to the food bank because it’s faster, and taking the bus would cost you $5.

$5 = a can of tomatoes, garlic, onion, ginger, beans and rice.

When you get off your bike you’re coughing like a smoker with a two-pack a day habit; you’re fighting a cold. The outside of your body is wet from rain, and under that layer you’re wet with sweat. The biggest problem, however, is your shoes. The zippers on both of your boots are broken, and water poured into them during the ride. This cold is going to get worse.

It’s 7:15, and the line is already a grey snake that curves around the outside of the building. The people at the front of the line are drunk. The bottles around them suggest that last night they hit a liquor store just before close and elected to drink their purchases right there. A flash of judgment and scorn hits you hard, and then you notice that you wish you were drunk, too.

You become fast friends with the woman directly in front of you, Marciela, when she notices your cough matches her daughter’s. She has two children with her. The older one is four, and is carrying a copy of It’s Not Easy Being a Bunny. You’re hoping you can read it with her once inside. The other daughter is bundled in a collapsible baby carriage of plastic and wobbly wheels that you’ve seen some children use for their baby dolls. She’s fast asleep and wrapped in a blanket decorated with orange ducks, a bright knit cap covering her ears and tied just under her chin. She has the longest eyelashes you’ve ever seen, and after a few minutes of staring she blinks her eyes awake to look at you, and smiles. For a second, the world feels okay.

The doors open at 8AM and the whole crowd surges forward. A man nearly knocks over Marciela, who shouts at him, “I’ve got children, here!” You stand on the other side of her daughter so she doesn’t get knocked to the ground. She doesn’t thank you, and why should she? This is something you shouldn’t have to do.

Inside, a giant man over six feet three huddles behind protective glass and shouts to take a form and sign in. Everyone knows the drill: if you’re not in the top 20, this is going to be a bad day. If you’re after 20, you might as well go home, and try again tomorrow. You’re number 11. With a little luck, they might see you before lunchtime.

You should have got there earlier.

The seats are all taken and this is okay, because you’re able-bodied and need to dry out anyway. You shift back and forth on your feet, because the four year-old likes the squishing sound of wet sock meeting wet shoe. There are other children in the waiting area, eager to play and aware of the importance of not making their parents angry. A Russian girl looks up at her mother several times, and then pulls a green ball from her pocket. She rolls it across the room to the four year-old. A quiet game is on.

It’s a downtrodden rainbow tribe. An elderly black man with a Vietnam Veteran cap offers his seat to Marciela. A couple trades what sounds like insults in Russian. A white woman with a nice purse and nice rings wears a face that reveals she no longer cares if people think she looks like someone who belongs elsewhere. Some college students. A man who talks to himself in song lyrics. You keep gloves on your hands so no one sees your skin and wonders if you’re contagious. Within thirty minutes, people are talking, and not the shallow conversations of people greeting each other in a grocery line. No one is here because things are good. It’s a volley of unpaid child support payments, being screwed out of unemployment, delayed financial aid checks, money tied up before an estate is settled, an employer who just announced there wasn’t money to meet payroll. Each story is chased by surprising phrases of hope and gratitude. No one bangs on the glass and asks them to hurry up. It’s the patience of a forgotten era, infecting any new comer who arrives to discover no seats, and nothing but time in front of them.

After 9AM everyone who comes in walks away angry. The sad-eyed man behind the glass repeats the same refrain: “You can wait if you want to, but you probably won’t be seen today.” Every time he says it, his face accumulates another shade of age. He reminds the people who walk away angry that they have to come early. They just have to. People try to negotiate, offer long stories about when the power will be shut off and how they have kids at home and they’ll be in the dark today. Some of the people in the top 5 were these people yesterday. Every time one storms out, the woman closest to the door laughs, and the man next to you says: “They should have come early.”

It’s getting close to lunchtime. The panic in the waiting room is rising. Every day they close at noon and reopen at one. They’re on number 9. Marciela is number 10. Her panic is so thick she will no longer talk to you, or anyone. Her son is released from school at 2, and she has to be there to pick him up. She walks up to the window at five to noon, and asks if he thinks she can get in. She says she has to get her son. The baby has begun to fuss, and the four year-old is trying not to look bored by feigning being hypnotized by a carpet stain. The Russian girl can’t find her ball. She whispers, “Can you help me find my ball?” You help her look, and notice a slimy looking man. You think he has her ball, and too many demons.

Marciela is told no, and the announcement for lunch is made. The man behind the glass offers juice for the baby as consolation. She can’t talk. He offers a cell phone so she can call somebody. She takes it, looks at the ground, hurries her children outside.

The man on the wall trades “They should have come early” for “Lord, have mercy.”

You follow Marciella outside. She’s talking on the phone, crying. She’s trying to find someone to pick up her son. The first option doesn’t work, and she shields the side of her face with her hand as she tries to remember the number for the school. The baby is officially wailing. The four year-old is rubbing the baby’s duck-covered belly, trying not to look at her mother. You know in an instant: she will remember this.

She will remember all of this.

You go back inside and pound on the protective glass. A sad-eyed woman has traded places with the sad-eyed man. You say, “There’s a woman outside crying. Number 10. She needs to pick up her son. You have to see her, or she will have to go home.”

She looks at the clock, and back at you. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they made these rules for a reason. It doesn’t take a genius to see her anxiety that one exception could lead to five or accusations of unfairness. You repeat again, “You have to see her.”

Another person behind you says, “See her now, please.”

Another says, “Please help the mother. Please.”

It’s too much “please” for one food bank. Marciela is brought back in, and led to the back. You’ll see her when you return, the four year-old eating dry cheerios and the baby sleeping all over again, each side of the stroller weighted with plastic food bags.

You will never see her again, and you’re glad.

At 4PM the man with the Veteran’s cap is building a cough that mirrors yours. It is this hour that you’ll discover you’re not qualified for rent assistance. $800 a month in income is too much, even if your rent is $750.  Your mind scrambles for options and before it locks on one you burst into tears. There’s a box of tissues on the desk. There’s a full box of tissues under the opened one. He tells you that you can still get food. You can always get food. Everyone gets a juice box.

There are better foodbanks than this one, ones that sometimes have bread or cheese or meat that isn’t very, very expired, and sometimes even oil or vegetables, but you don’t have time to go to two different places and fill out two different sets of forms. You can’t go home empty handed. You’ve stopped crying, and remember to thank him when he hands you two heavy plastic bags. Your sleeve slides up as you reach for the bag and he spies a sliver of rash and drops them. You pick them up from the floor instead.

Back home the whole house reeks of depression, and the two bags are two more bundles to bloat it. Your partner is at his computer, applying at temp agencies; with only a few years of college and two full years of unemployment, he’s completely given up on Craig’s List. He’s going to make dinner while you work a $10 an hour online job you got only because you have a master’s degree, until your neighbor turns off his internet connection. If that happens before midnight, you’re going to cry for the second time.

However, there’s a problem: you’re out of cooking oil. A house-wide change hunt puts you within 50 cents of your goal, so if you can find ten glass bottles on your walk to the store, you can do it. If you can find 20, you can also get a head of garlic. You cough some more. You really need the garlic. This mission will steal another two hours.

When you get back, the internet connection is turned off. The library is closed. You burst into tears. That’s two.

Your partner reminds you that you stole a coffee mug from the nearest coffee shop, and if you take it you can probably wander in and fake like you bought coffee earlier. Perfect.

While there you check your email, and there’s one message after the other from friends who haven’t seen you out in a long, long time. The whole, “Sure I’ll come…drinks are on you, right?” is only funny if you can actually afford your own drink. A lot of your friends are doing really well. They are having children. They are buying houses. Jobs are turning into careers. Trips are being planned. You decide you will write them back when you can think of something positive to say, or when you relocate the sarcasm many of them find charming. Then you can joke about how you and your partner both spend time inspecting the other’s possessions for stray items to sell. That you understand why money is the number one cause of breakups. That you understand why money was the first thing Virginia Woolf said she needed before she could really start writing.

Instead you don’t respond to any of them, and decide it’s okay if they hate you a little for it. You hate you a lot for many little reasons, anyway.

Late at night the coughing that has chased your day escalates to an asthma attack, and your partner is angry. With a monthly income of $800 the emergency room is not an option, as this is too much to qualify for their medical assistance. You start cycling through the pilgrim-like solutions you cooked up when the $20 over the counter inhaler became illegal: coffee and eucalyptus tea. Your partner wants you to take a shower, but you can’t take hot water on your back or anything touching your skin. You hack into the evening, your partner slapping you on the back to loosen you, furiously knitting so that your hands are too busy to scratch. Crying for the third time. Tomorrow you’ll send an email to a friend with health insurance to see if he’s managed to convince his doctor that he has a respiratory disorder yet. This is the only way you’ll get a rescue inhaler for less than $45.

You think about the papers you should be reviewing the first second the internet comes back on or a coffee shop opens — whatever comes first. You think about whether your partner will be called for an interview, whether he even has anything to wear, and whether it’s appropriate to press him to do even more, even if you don’t know how much he’s doing, exactly. You think about whether you should call your mother, and the shame that would come from such a phone call. It seems unfair to ask someone who has worked 35 years to support someone who hasn’t. You’re reminded of this every time you read an article about boot straps and the iphone you supposedly have and how people like you are trading food stamps for drugs, and a thousand other things that are true for maybe the drunks at the front of the line, but not the 50 people standing behind them. You think someone wealthy somewhere is cackling about how easy it is to convince poor people to hate other poor people, to hate the things and people who try to help them, just so they can feel aligned with unanointed kings, false prophets in political clothes and the black-hearted gods of talk radio. You think about all these things, and remember that you don’t get paid to think.

Outside the window, time passes. Inside it reverses, and a cell phone is still just a clock.

Author’s note: this story is based on actual experiences that occurred in 2012, though some names, locations, and personal identifiers have been changed.

The Falls Apart, or a Case for Hope

Headlines are murder to my eyes. Today’s reading allowed me to learn than the top 1% of the country now controls 40% of the America’s wealth — the highest percentage since 1927. These people send peasants in RVs to Burning Man ahead of them to establish elaborate camps they can parachute into, wearing the standard uniform of fuzzy legwarmers and cowboy hat and clip-in dreds for one-week of alt-culture tourism. The art they observe is also crafted by peasants who crowd-source funding to make the models they photograph and climb on happen for the adoring star-struck masses. This art is photographed by people holding Apple-emblazoned products envisioned into hand-held existence by a tyrannical man, and produced in factories so heinous that suicide is the only retirement plan.

Many Americans shed one-third of their bi-weekly income to taxes. They argue viciously against socialized medicine and government funded higher education, without realizing that they pay the same tax rate as most Canadians with none of the benefits. Medical care is either unavailable or discouraging of preventative medicine, resulting in Americans having the shortest life expectancy of any westernized nation. 36% of recent college graduates currently live with their parents, and cannot comprehend both eliminating student debt and paying a monthly rent. This is when they can get paid employment at all.

One percent of the country, those folks with the ability to take private fuel-wasting jets to exotic locations with tiny dogs trapped in purses, pay 35% income tax at most, and reduce the burden of this with a slew of deductions pushed through again and again by the wealthy politicians that defend the interests of their wealthy friends. They thank us for our labor by squabbling over the salaries of teachers, keeping the minimum wage a pittance, making bankruptcy laws more complicated while bailing out banks, failing to comprehend student loan forgiveness but allowing white collar criminals to walk, and considering the exposure of funds stashed in international locations a breech of privacy while having nothing to say about what Snowden sacrificed to expose how 1984 our world truly is.

Racism and sexism and anti-gay wackery and all its bullying offspring are all alive and well, and often captured on Youtube for international astonishment and horror that celebration of terrible exploits trumps desire to enter adulthood without jail time. Organized media outlets pay more attention to a legal-aged starlet gyrating on stage and singing about molly than they do young women still forced to grapple with virgin-whore dichotomies useless to modern society, and black women used as stage props for wealthy people unable to reinvent themselves unless it happens on-stage and thoughtless. Despite the disappointment expressed by parents about someone supposedly once a role model for young people, many would testify that they never saw themselves in the perfect skin and teeth and predictable hair colors of any of Disney’s darlings, and therefore emerge from the non-scandal gif-happy and undamaged. Young people who want to see themselves are better suited to Canadian television anyway, where the transgendered, queer, bi-racial, cancer-stricken, stoned, and gun-totting reality of the waking world happens on your pimpled prickled face, whether you ace the SATs or not.

Back in the world of guns and ammo and soldiers that aren’t supported during or after service, we’re prepping for an unsupported and unpopular war with a country most Americans can’t locate on a map, supposedly to defend citizens sadly murdered by chemical weapons. Our leaders seem downright annoyed by anything that slows bomb drop, and international news outlets can’t isolate a villain since we so loudly stormed the castle before facts were readily available for dissection, with a mission to solve killing people by killing more people more swiftly and brutally that their last best efforts. That’ll teach em.

Sometimes I fantasize about what would have happened if we’d made it all the way through WWII without dropping the Atomic bomb. Maybe we could have spared ourselves becoming the world’s hypocritical high-powered policeman in favor of actually developing our country and supporting art, the environment, and education. Instead we continue on as the final scene of Dr. Strangelove, a cowboy straddling a bomb like a bronco as it sails downward on the winds of mixed information and haste.

And honestly, I can’t even write about the environment at this point, as even the word threatens to squeeze the lump in my throat to cancerous proportions. Between the radioactive waste and oil regularly dumped into the ocean, to fracking, to the oil executives and big oil supported scientists that continue to deny climate change, to the few cities that can’t get their shit together enough to have a recycling program (the most basic of environmental efforts), to the dwindling rain forests and reefs…I just can’t. It makes my outsides cave into my insides to consider that there are still so many that can’t clock in to the simple fact that we share a common pulse.

So why do I feel such an unprecedented sense of hope and joy?

As the financial world becomes more and more depressing for all of us without a financial world to speak of, what we truly do with our time becomes more interesting. While I recently read that broke people have less time for creativity, on account of being overly preoccupied with said brokeness, I’ve found that acknowledging its potential to eat away at your time pops the bubble and allows that dormant creativity to resurface. The broke world is populated by eccentric artists, dedicated bloggers, activists, musicians, self-styled pirates, and comedy gold. Absence of easy-buy solutions leads to things that are pop-up and brightly painted and salvaged and re-purposed and spit-polished into shine. It’s a challenge that pushes the brain beyond immediate convenience and into daydream, where many of us are better equipped to pilot anyway.

Maybe it’s because, as someone who once volunteered as a sexual assault survivor advocate, I know that rapes in all hideous forms have been happening since the dawn of man, but this is the first time in my lifetime they’ve been widely reported and loudly condemned as heinous by all but the most out of touch CNN reporters. Headlines from India happen alongside our own, making sexual assault an international issue of shared outrage and demands for change, and bold women like India’s Red Brigade taking to the streets to defend their own while the slow wheels of justice finally begin to turn in their favor.  Sure, advertisers continue to objectify women to sell body spray and bad music, and this will likely continue until well after I’ve taken my permanent dirt nap, but dammit if there isn’t a loud, articulate opposition finally assuming center stage and forcing the uncertain hands of prosecutors still hesitant to paddle the powdered bottoms our fortunate sons.

Internet activism is often a mix of the serious and the hilarious, and can be a terrifying hammer capable of shutting down the sites of big banks and disrupting Amazon sales with tech savvy anonymity and aggression. It’s an unscripted and masked mass of millions that’s been sorely needed for too long, and the inability to pinpoint a single voice to silence makes the collective roar ever louder.

Cities throughout the country are choosing to take a turn for the green, from Detroit tearing down deserted neighborhoods and turning them into large community gardens, to the addition of bike lanes and vast recycling and compost programs in places as traditionally conservative as Columbus, Ohio. Many folks moved to radical outposts like New York, Portland, and San Francisco to get away from the stranglehold pillage-the-village sorts had on Midwest communities, and as that grip loosens the mood of the country changes to one that values local farmers, big trees, and clean water, and favors change over fostering a world built on a vision that was never responsible or sustainable in the first place.

There’s also the exciting return to a craft-based economy, after years of relying on employers to doll out cookies and raises and actually treat individuals like human beings instead of cogs in the machine. Even brief perusal of outposts like Etsy makes it easy to see what people are doing as alternatives to day jobs — and this sort of things was barely possible just twenty years ago.

The Falls Apart, a young adult story I’ve been working on for a long, long time, is about a group that exists to witness and record an end. Our end has been snowballing from ball to boulder since 9-11, a day when many Americans awoke to join the rest of the world in feeling anxiety and uncertainty towards the tools of our destruction. It was, quite literally, our Tower card.  I feel very much a Falls Apart, and that it’s a cause for celebration, not depression. It’s something that will allow us to understand both our privileges and the ways in which we needlessly suffer, and how to cultivate joy in the midst of such challenges. Each headline I read that pains me and seems to hasten this end inevitably also brings joy, as we grow ever closer to the kind of break that brings great revolution and enlightenment. The next birth will be as painful as the last, but it is, and will be, change.

In 2014 I plan to take to the rails and roads and hit up as many festivals and celebrations of expression as my personal economy allows. There are so many people producing outrageous creative exclamations that it would be a shame to not record these, and the way they reflect everything happening in the world and the impact on everyday people. This creativity also reflects the early stages of great new things, a physical representation of prayer and great hope that the coming Star will be a brilliant one.