A Genteel Taste of Poverty

“OK, while we’re on the subject, and since there will no doubt be a detailed chapter of my life story about poverty, a subject I am an expert on, let’s dance this one out a bit, shall we?” the skeleton of my father said, extending a bony hand in a courtly gesture to a dance partner.  

“You have never lived in poverty, let’s stipulate to that from the beginning.   You grew up in a cozy little house, not far from winding, tree-lined streets with mansions on both sides.  You’ve been ‘broke’ many times, as they say, by choice– thinking of yourself as some kind of artist for the first half of your life– and although you avoided it until the age of 40, you have been in debt, like most Americans, for a third of your life now.   The ‘poverty’  you’ve experienced is the elected poverty of a privileged middle class person, you have had only a whiff, the smallest possible nibble of the bitter thing that is poverty in the richest nation in history.”  

That nibble has been enough for me, continues to be more than enough for me.  

“I don’t dispute that, Elie, I’m just pointing out at the start that being treated like a powerless asshole– which all Americans in our corporate culture pretty much are, let’s be brutally honest about it, shall we?– is only one part of the horror of poverty.  You focus on that because you are being fucked around by the embattled Welfare State in terms of not receiving adequate medical care and so forth, the many long battles you’ve had to even learn what rights you actually have under your beloved Obamacare, and finding out you have virtually no rights a white man is bound to respect is maddening, I understand.  But you experience but one of the many torments of poverty, I assure you.

“If the so-called War on Poverty had been fought with anywhere near the zeal and expense of the War on Drugs, or, God forbid, the War on Terror, it could have been won generations ago.  Some presidential wit, it may have been that bright bulb Reagan, announced that the War on Poverty was over, that Poverty won.  He was as good as his word, though it would fall to another popular Republican president, Bill Clinton, to truly make good on those words.  

“I know some of your readers will take exception to this, good liberals that they are, but our first black president, as he was then called, the Honorable William Jefferson Clinton, was like that fisherman Malcolm X talked about.  Not everyone who throws food to the fish is a friend of the fish, Brother Malcolm said, sometimes that food is on the end of a sharp hook, tied securely to a line and fishing pole.

“Refer your liberal friends to the right wing legislation the charismatic compromiser Dollar Bill Clinton signed:  Welfare “Reform”,  NAFTA, the repeal of Glass-Steagall after lucrative corporate mergers illegal under that FDR-era law– lucrative, economy-crashing mergers it would cost the taxpayers a trillion to bail out,  “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, the later overturned Defense of Marriage Act that banned homosexual marriage, the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill that fueled the privatized prison industry and led to even more mass incarceration of the poor.  Anyone can ask Jeeves about Clinton’s conservative accomplishments, they are legion.”

Jeeves is gone, dad, nobody knows anything about Jeeves any more.  That Ask Jeeves search engine is long gone.  You should just say “google it”.  

“Well, you can ask Jeeves about that, I suppose.  I don’t really stay up to date about technology.  I’ve been dead for twelve years you know, as of this April 29th.  Might be a good deadline to fix, the twelfth anniversary of my untimely passing, to have some publishing irons in the fire.  You’ve got to eat a pound of dirt before you die, Elie, and a writer has to eat a pound or two of rejection letters before beginning to collect the ducats and the literary prizes.”  The skeleton of my father nodded, to emphasize the indisputable truth of these statements.  

Yes, sir.  Consider it done, April 29th is my deadline to have literary irons in the fire.  

“You want a gentle taste of poverty?  You tell  your closest friends, middle class people living decent middle class lives, some of the horrors of the medical mistreatment you’ve received under Obama’s compromise with the powerful corporations that provide medical services to Americans at two and three times the cost the rest of the industrialized world pays.   You begin to describe the latest horror and they cut you off, say you told them already.  They get it.  It may be a different horror story entirely, there is no shortage of detail and new detail, but they get it, they can only hear it as part of the same unlistenable song, which it also is.  Yes, the latest, sharpest, galling bone in your throat, to you, but to them– the same distressing bone.  You made a poor choice not working hard and buying a decent home and having decent health insurance provided through your work.  Now you want their sympathy because you’re too good to live a life like the one they all chose?  

“Here, in a word, is the most destructive part of poverty, something you’ve tasted in the most diluted form, corrosive as that taste may have been to you: hopelessness.  Try that on for a couple of days, the feeling that nothing you do, no matter how hard you work, will make the slightest difference in your life or in the life of anyone you love.   As a thought experiment it has the feel of torment, but the imagined feel of torment is much different than the torment itself.  

“What does a poor child learn from day one?  As often as not that mommy is always upset, short-tempered, preoccupied, that daddy, when he’s around, is cranky, prone to outbursts.  That’s a caricature, of course, just as not all super-rich people are greedy, self-absorbed assholes, not all poor people fit this stereotype.  I’m just giving an example.  What the child in generations of inherited poverty imbibes with his mother’s milk is a deep sense of hopelessness.  

“That child may be deeply loved, many poor children are, hard as that is for some people to believe.  Your sister taught several very poor immigrant kids who were clearly well-loved.  They were kind to other kids, and gentle, and polite.  When she met the parents, they were the same way.  It may be significant that they were immigrant kids, from Central America, rather than kids born into a tenth generation of violent American poverty.  Why is poverty violent?  Ask Mother Goose.”

Mother Goose?  

“Well, you tell me Jeeves is dead.   I hope you don’t have bad news for me about Mother Goose.”  

No, she’s as well as she’s ever been.  

“I’m just making the point that poverty lays out a program for a kid’s life.  In the slums poor kids go to the worst schools, as you know, you used to teach in some of those schools.  They learn from ancient textbooks, the ones wealthier public schools discard.  The physical plant of the school is often in bad shape.  The neighborhood they walk through is filled with drug dealers, murdered pit bull puppies, the constant threat of a stray bullet, a rabid gang member, an altercation and early, sudden, violent death.  Check out the life expectancy for a child born in the roughest slums versus the average American life expectancy, check out the infant mortality rates in slums.  

“But you see, man, this is all statistics, cold, imagined horrors.  None of this shit touches anybody who does not have to live it.  Hunger.  You can’t imagine the torment of being hungry because your parents don’t have the money to feed you enough.  In my case, my mother, may she rest in peace, insisted on giving some of the little money we had to charity.  Unbelievable, really, poor as we were, and we were grindingly poor, she felt she had a religious obligation to help the less fortunate.  There were none less fortunate than us, but look for logic in religion and you may be searching for a lifetime.”  

A couple of seagulls screamed as they flew by over the graveyard off Cortlandt Road and the skeleton turned to consider them.  Hudson River seagulls, a long way from the ocean, but there you go.  Just part of the miracle of nature.  

“That’s God right there,” said the skeleton pointing up. “You know, you were always mystified about how African slaves, enslaved by white Christians who cited the Bible for their right to own slaves, could become devout Christians.  People take comfort where they can get it, and the notion of an eternally merciful Jesus waiting for them when they died, and a better life in the faithfully imagined world after this one, was about the only comfort they were going to get.  Plus, massa would give them an hour or two to worship Jesus Sunday instead of picking cotton under the lash of overseers not as keen on Jesus, perhaps, as their employers.  You got to like those hours off on Sunday morning, don’t you, Elie?”

Yep, you certainly have to like that, dad.  

“Look, we’re not done talking about poverty, and powerlessness, and the soul crushing weight of hopelessness, obviously — but you have to scurry on down to the Civil Court now to answer a personal appearance ‘subpoena’ threatening you with fines and imprisonment for an alleged failure to return the questionnaire you are 99% certain you sent back weeks ago.  You can’t fight City Hall, son, few should be more keenly aware of the many reasons for that than you.  Just get dressed, walk down there, humbly turn yourself in and wait for them to tell you what they plan to do next.  You’ll just have to be a Christian about it, my son.”   

Yes, father, something I always strive to be.

The skeleton made a clicking sound with the side of his mouth, the two-click sound you associate with encouraging a horse to get a move on.


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