Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

This essay is a personal account that was written by Jo Goodwin Parker. It was published in 1971. Here is an excerpt:

You ask me what is poverty? Listen to me. Here I am, dirty, smelly, and with no “proper” underwear on and with the stench of my rotting teeth near you. I will tell you. Listen to me. Listen without pity. I cannot use your pity. Listen with understanding. Put yourself in my dirty, worn out, ill-fitting shoes, and hear me.

Poverty is getting up every morning from a dirt- and illness-stained mattress. The sheets have long since been used for diapers. Poverty is living in a smell that never leaves. This is a smell of urine, sour milk, and spoiling food sometimes joined with the strong smell of long-cooked onions. Onions are cheap. If you have smelled this smell, you did not know how it came. It is the smell of the outdoor privy. It is the smell of young children who cannot walk the long dark way in the night. It is the smell of the mattresses where years of “accidents” have happened. It is the smell of the milk which has gone sour because the refrigerator long has not worked, and it costs money to get it fixed. It is the smell of rotting garbage. I could bury it, but where is the shovel? Shovels cost money.

The rest of the essay is here:

https://www.msu.edu/~jdowell/135/JGParker.html

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Stray Shopping Cart
By timbrauhn under creative commons on flickr.

There was a time, early in my dumpster diving and scavenging career when I clung to the notion that somehow, some way, I would have a lot of money, and things would be wonderful. By scavenging, I mean this in the truest sense. There was a Labor Ready close by, but the place was always packed, and if you were not a connected regular worker, days could pass without work and so, I looked for coins in the street. One coin leads to almost always another nearby. Fast-food drive through windows were the best places to search for breeding loose change.

My feet hurt all the time. There is no real place to sit in any given urban area. It can take all day to put a meal together because this place that has this thing for these few cents can be very far from that one. Sometimes I would sit, on a curb, to rest my feet and study people. Here is what one who fits into society puts into a shopping cart at the grocery.

Weekend shopping carts were the best to watch because people with lives could not only afford to eat, they could also afford to wash clothes. They had dishes and they could wash them. They rushed and rushed, all the time. Groceries, appointments, lessons, kids. Rush, rush, drive and park. Rush in and rush out. In and out the aisles, up and down the stairs, a non-push push here, a little shove there, rush, rush. Everyone had a phone and every call was as if it were the last phone call ever to be placed; everything was important to everyone.

I studied and studied: There is what one wears; Here is what one drives; Here is one who maintains a lawn; There is one who probably has made beds and not just mattresses. Everything matches. There is never, ever less than everything. Everything for the car, everything for the kid, everything matching and complete for everything. I’ll just bet, I would think to myself, that these are some underpants people. One clean pair for each day of the week, I’m certain of it.

I studied and studied, so that someday, when I had a life just like those people, I would be ready. I would know what to buy, and what to wear to buy it, and how to cut my hair and what toothpaste to use for the whitest teeth, what car to be seen in, what gym to be seen at, what detergent for the most gleaming clothes. I could drink with the shopping cart people someday because the ads everywhere assured me I could. Casually not checking the level in my glass, I could drink and be younger and thinner and sexier and funnier, because people who fit into society, of course, don’t have a half gallon of Popov vodka under the kitchen sink, and they are not sitting in a room, in a worn-out recliner, twisting the window shades open and shut just to make sure the passing public is not aware.

I studied and studied, so that someday, when I had a life, the only thing that I would ever be tired from would be my wonderful, lucrative job where I was admired and constantly promoted. I would go out to dinner; go to the park; attend important meetings where I would make important decisions; supervise people and projects, tell people that my schedule was too busy just now, could we do this say, next week; drink designer cups of coffee with all the right people in all the right places; plan more coffee time with more people.

I would have people in my life who would ask, so that I could tell them these things and make these plans.

During my studies, my curb was not always solitary. But it was always anonymous, which was absolutely perfect, because the non-distance distance allowed me to shock, comfort, and then leave the company of wanderering curb dwellers. I could say anything from So how much time did you do this last time, to Boy do I ever remember living on a plane all the time. I could blend. I had no idea how to blend in with the socially acceptable groups I studied, but this was minor. It would come with time, teeth, looks, youth, money, and a home packed with beautiful things and visited by gardeners and housekeepers.

On my curb, I was lower than some and higher than others, and a perfect judge of everyone.

The shopping cart underpants people were a blast to judge: I’ll just bet this one is sleeping with that one and lying about it to this other one and milking this from that one and cooking the books and showing up a little too late and a little too hung over. Well, they kind of made it easy to be supreme judge because they talked about themselves all the time and always loud because I was just a nobody on a curb, who would shut up for that? The lower people were no match for my curb-gavel, I mean, I’ve hit the skids, but at least I’m not walking around the park on the fourth of July asking complete strangers for money.

I did not know any of these people and I judged them all, every last one of them, from my curb courtroom. The court of last resort. I judged the cart people because I wanted to be the cart people. That way, other cart people would like me.

Today, I subsist on what people throw away. I do not have the wonderful job or the money or the possessions that I once wanted and thought I needed. I notice more because I am not in a hurry. For example, where where I live, right on the main road in the middle of town, in a grassy area, are some graves. You can drive by this a thousand times and never even come close to noticing them. I noticed the graves, because I am living and noticing and not just reacting to the latest crisis.

I do not judge people anymore. I am just fine, being who I am, and being poor. It is more than enough.

Bohemianism and its elements.

Note: I wrote this in the spring of this year and posted it on another site. We no longer visit the dumpster I mention in the article. Still, I hope readers enjoy the gist of the essay.

When I was trying to quit drinking and stay stopped, a man told me a helpful story.

“I had a friend once, lived in Tennessee. And he was a hog farmer. He had maybe four hundred head of hogs. One day, he opened his door and looked outside…and his hogs were all dead.”

“So, my friend went back inside and he shut the door and he got drunk.”

“Next morning, he got up and opened the door and looked outside.”

“And, you know what? His hogs were still dead!”

This story reminds me that when my hogs are dead I need to get more creative. And that brings me to the power company dumpster. With the storms, other dumpsters were lean, and in our ten-minute half life of poverty, we were cut off from the phone and the internet for about a month. Without TV, we relied on air raid sirens and radio to issue tornado warnings.

Our hogs were dead.

But, I reasoned, the storms may also bring a good deal of infrastructure to the dumpsters. Several visits to the power company dumpster later, we were back on line.

The power company has two boxes. One is off-limits to divers. It contains aluminum wire. The larger box is diver friendly as long as we are polite and well-intentioned (we are, of course). It contains cast and clean aluminum freeway lamps, complete with scrap posts, wire and breakage. Today, we were especially blessed with about five hundred pounds of this stuff, which we loaded and drove to recycle, where we parked and spent a couple of hours disassembling what looked like a robbed utility company.

We had this stuff all in the parking lot and in pulls a truck. Out comes an enormous man, about the size of Mount Everest if it were a fire hydrant. He scanned our load and identified us as fellow divers, I guess, and he says, “Man, I was diving this dumpster today and I noticed a bag, and it was moving.”

I stop unscrewing screws and listen.

“And, I opened the bag. Turns out this business owner had stuffed three baby robins into a bag and thrown them into the dumpster. So I rescued the birds and I walked up to the man and told him that if he had the energy to stuff the birds into the bag, at least he could have had the common decency to release them to the street and give them a fifty-fifty chance at survival.”

“What did he say?”

“He told me to calm down. So I took my shirt off and picked up a two-by-four and said, I am a grown man and I have been to the penitentiary and I will kick your ass for this. And also, I will dive your dumpster until I am good and done.”

We simultaneously decide that we love this man. We engage in street level dumpster etiquette. I give him brass in exchange for diving tips. He gives us hats in exchange for diving tips. His character is too good to be true, more stylized than anything Joel and Ethan Coen could ever script.

As our huge bird lover leaves he says, “You guys are blessed today. You just don’t know how much yet.”

After he leaves I say, “We need this guy. We need him everywhere. Where everything is wrong, we need people with this kind of passion.”

Our hogs may be dead but we are not.

Edited to the first person, with some changes.