Class Navigation: On Being Poor

avenue-of-the-giants-251528-mI was working in a bookstore when The Secret came out. It wasn’t an event on par with the seventh coming of Harry Potter, but any time a book gets Oprah Winfrey’s thumbs-up a decent clerk must, at a minimum, know where it is on the shelf and roughly what it’s about. I didn’t even need to meet that low standard—one of my coworkers bought the book and the DVD and raved about both pretty much nonstop for weeks. Fifteen minutes behind the counter with her was like going to Law of Attraction Boot Camp.

Since that time I’ve read a handful of books on the same theme with mixed reactions. Much of the advice is common sense liberally sprinkled with pixie dust: If you focus on your goals you’re more likely to achieve them. If you’re optimistic, life tends to be easier. Shocking stuff, right? I disagree with the notion, popular among these authors, that watching the news is inherently harmful, though moderating my consumption of ALL media (including new age books and social media) has only ever done me good. One major sticking point, and the probable reason that I keep reading such repetitive and occasionally silly books, is the notion that if you want to be rich (or financially secure), that’s where you need to focus, not on your bills or your poor childhood or the 99-cent olive loaf you still buy for lunch sometimes. Keep your mind on your money and your money on your mind, and beyond that keep your trap shut.

I understand this advice, kind of. The theory is that when you think, “I never want to be homeless again,” your well-intentioned but overworked brain only hears “homeless again” and gets right to work calling for the Universe at large to fulfill your wish and put you back on the street where you belong. Looking forward (to track lighting, an island kitchen, a hot next-door neighbor) directs you toward those goals. Looking back keeps you mired in the past and unable to make progress. I get it. I do.

Here’s the thing, though: I need to talk about it sometimes! The issue kept coming up for me when I was at that bookstore job. There’s not much of a middle class where I live, just lots of government employees and pot farmers and then the rest of us (I’m in the third trailer on the right). A month prior to getting the job my father and I had been sleeping in an oceanside campground in matching tents—we were homeless for a year and a month before finding an overpriced trailer in a meth-infested park to rent and try to reestablish ourselves. I was upfront with people about my circumstances less because I wanted sympathy than out of desperation to forge stronger social ties than the ones I had previously. But it wasn’t always appropriate to go into detail, and sometimes the assumptions about my circumstances were hard to navigate.

It was a coworker who said, upon learning I’d been homeless, “You should have been blogging about it, you’d have a book deal by now.” Since that time I’ve seen a lot of homeless with laptops and iPhones, but that wasn’t me then and still isn’t today. I didn’t view homelessness as an opportunity to cash in on my own misery—perhaps I should have—it was just what was happening at the time. Our family rented the same little house for thirty years. When the landlady died her kids opted to sell, and we didn’t have enough money to make a straight hop into anything else. Stupid, but there you go.

I’m good at sales, though it’s never paid me more than minimum wage or offered benefits or a commission. And I know books, so I fell in with this store’s customers with relative ease. However, I was often thrown when people asked me if I’d been to various places or made reference to things particular to the area, none of which I knew about. The coastline here is some of the most beautiful on earth but I’ve never seen it, lacking friends who could take me or a car of my own. The redwoods? Same deal. Out to dinner? Forget about it. I considered it a miracle that I was able to pay my half of the rent each month and put a little aside to hopefully prevent anything like this from happening again. With the experience so close in my rear view, it was impossible to look forward to anything better; I was just trying to stay one step ahead of a complete relapse into doom.

After eight years here my dad is dead, my rent has more than doubled and moving again without a village of helpers is near impossible. I’m currently freelancing full-time to make ends meet which is gratifying but not as lucrative as I’d like. While constantly affirming for my condo in Larkspur to open up (seriously, hot neighbor, island kitchen and all), it’s hard to turn a blind eye to where I am now. I think happy thoughts while buying my tofu, but my receipt is quick to point out that I bought it with food stamps. Most people assume that I have cable TV and high-speed internet access, based on the number of pop culture references I’m no longer abreast of. Saying, “Sorry, no,” so many times eventually weighs things down to the point of collapse, reducing even casual conversation to something that both sides regret. If at first I was squirrelly and reluctant to overshare, now things struck me as aggressively awful because they simply wouldn’t stay hidden.

And that’s what we want from the poor, for them to be invisible and out of the way. That many people end up on the street due to mental illness or addiction makes us an additional inconvenience to have around—body odor is one thing, but hallucinations can be really off-putting. So if you’re broke but competent to hold a job and talk to people, they’d really rather not think about how you live, and if you bring it up accidentally it makes for long awkward silences. I even noticed this with people at the unemployment office; when I was laid off from two jobs in two months, counselors blithely advised me to “consider it a vacation” and had no answers for my questions about simple survival on drastically reduced income. One advised me to start a small business charging ten dollars a job for press releases, adding, “It won’t pay rent, but maybe it will lead somewhere!” (I did try this despite the apparent futility of it, only to find someone had cornered the local market and was making considerably more than ten bucks a pop). I got along with everyone I spoke to, but often felt their urgency to get me the hell out of the office as soon as possible, as if my poor cooties were contagious.

The reason I can handle all this as an adult is that I did it as a kid. And a young adult. I met my closest college friend when it turned out we were both admitted through the EOP program, an indication that we were financially strapped and then some. I grew used to being followed in stores, even when I offered to leave my backpack at the counter before shopping, because I looked…what? Kleptomaniacal? (I didn’t go in to steal.) When my mother died, my dad and I were adrift and ended up going to the local food bank for basic grub. Powdered milk and quick oats became familiar, and I can make a killer grilled cheese from those radioactive orange blocks of government commodity food. (A neighbor occasionally slips me a chunk of it now, and even though I know it’s not the healthiest thing, it’s still a beloved if twisted treat.) I’m not too proud to dumpster dive if I see something worth making the effort for. My dad and I used to do it, and it’s a nice way to remember him.

There’s no benefit to romanticizing poverty; there’s nothing fun about it, it’s stressful and tied to a host of other problems, and very hard to escape without strong social ties. But I don’t want to devalue how much I’ve learned through sheer necessity. Being frugal and resourceful are things I’m proud of. Being silent for so long in order not to inconvenience people or force them to think about my situation directly became another skill. But it’s one I’m finally unlearning, in the hope that raising my flag will lead others to do the same so we can find each other.

I’m ready for great things to come into my life at any moment, from new work to friends, a family, travel, and hell yes, a new, safe place to call home. But I can’t deny who I am now or how I got this far in order to make those dreams come true. The Law of Attraction may say this is arguing for a limitation of my own potential by focusing on what’s wrong. A more apt theory may be that you can’t dismantle a bomb without looking at it closely to see which wires to cut. And poverty is a secret I can’t afford to keep any longer. Doesn’t setting it free have value as well?

Being silent about class has been culturally enforced for so long that we’re left misunderstanding one another when we talk about race, sexuality, social justice, and so many other things that it is very much a part of. We need to name it and claim it, as the new-agers say, in order to finally see and hear ourselves. Watching the wake a boat etches on the water ensures that you’re steering correctly while moving ever forward; reaching a clearly charted destination requires keeping an eye on both.

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