The Throwaways

By

I grew up poor. Not too poor. My relatives in the Philippines would certainly not consider my youth as poor. But poor like I thought vacuum cleaners were luxury items. I used to sweep the carpet.

Back when my mother and I lived in Westwood, in apartment #4 in a quadplex, we had roommates. A Caribbean film student who argued with her boyfriend too loudly, and a gay couple: one tall redhead named David and his boyfriend, a brunette with a Tom Selleck moustache (also named David). The mustachioed David argued with my mom too much, and our refrigerator was just a bunch of M’s and D’s on everything. So then we lived by ourselves but then we were robbed a lot. By a lot I mean we were robbed four times. One of the times we were home and a guy came in our room with a dull knife poised in the air like he was going to stab us. Instinctually my mom screamed, “Ted!” and at the sound of a man’s name he dropped his knife and ran out. The burglar didn’t even think about taking our jars. They were the first things I checked for. I had seventy-six cents in mine.

Later, we were able to get the fuck out of there, and we didn’t have to worry about the robberies and the burglars, and we packed our two little ceramic cookie jars that sat on the mantle. Mine was a small jar with a cork stopper that read ‘Porsche Savings Account.’ Hers was painted pink and had the words ‘Boob Job’ on it.

We moved in with my mom’s boyfriend. He had a really Irish last name, like Murphy or O’Neill. He was obsessed with everything Japanese. He wanted us to speak Japanese. He wanted me to eat Japanese. He wanted me to write Japanese. He had a two bedroom apartment and a roommate and a big black piano. I slept in his closet. I pushed his shoes aside and put blankets in the middle and made a fort. Sometimes I lined it with my toys.

That feels like a long time ago. Even though my mom is holding on to those days with tight knuckles turned white. Even though her long pointed witchy nails won’t let go. It was so long ago I block it out on most days.

***

Before foster care there was a night we were raped. My mom in a small twin bed perched beside me. Me alone in a bathroom. Maybe this is why a whirlwind hit our house when I entered my teen years. Before the teen years we were always poor.

***

On the day that I was moved out of that apartment, I didn’t know it was going to be the last time I would see the neighboring Mexicans in the building. I was packed like a runaway with just a week’s worth of clothing in my backpack. There was a little puffy drooling baby girl in the window below us. She had dark brown hair and big pearl boba eyes and I flicked her off because I was trying to teach her how to do that when no one was looking.

***

I was born nice as hell. I was born so damn sweet. I could never get mad. I could never get in trouble. Good good good. I curtsied. I studied hard. I said my prayers. I finished my food. If I went to your mom’s house I’d make her love me. I was born with an invisible locket around my neck. Only half of a heart. The right half. The half that said, “BE.” Everyone else had the “MINE.”

***

Then in foster care I got pissed. I was pissed because there were so many small sticky faces. So many kids that I met that had photos of their mothers tucked in their socks. Or they put them in a drawer somewhere between their shirts. Or they ran away almost every week with the picture next to their chests. They ran away to see their mom that they loved so much who worked so hard but they couldn’t stay together because their mom was a prostitute, or their mom was on drugs, or their mom worked in the morning and in the night so their mom worked all the time and they never saw them, or their mom was on welfare and they had too many other siblings. I saw so many kids who wanted more than anything to be with their mom that loved them a lot but their mom was poor so they were taken away. Then they lived in a place like the place that I lived on Venice Boardwalk where we couldn’t go anywhere and there were lots of rules on how to talk and how to act and what to clean and who not to fuck and it was all a lot to make me mad.

***

I was pissed. I was virile. I was a clot of gamey teenager. I wanted to fight and draw and write and make messes and I was hoping maybe that I could go into an alley and get raped and then murdered and then maybe someone would rape my bones. That was the good type of mood I was in when I first picked up a copy of Leontiev’s Political Economy. And then suddenly I was critical and I started to get a little strategic and maybe even tactical at times. But then there were these people that welcomed me into this big house that used to be the Ukranian Cultural Center. It was a big wooden house in West Adams with large banisters and upstairs there was a bookstore. The woman that worked there was an old Bolshevik named Esther who was at least seventy years old. She joked about going outside and feeling a breeze and when she looked down she realized she’d forgotten her pants. If we ever had a rally and someone was gonna get arrested she raised her hand up high, because really who would want to arrest her? And we had meetings in that big old house and we plotted how we were gonna find a solution and my heart was on fire and I took all that gamey anger and pushed toward plotting for a revolution.

***

I used to “teach” at a juvenile detention center and came to find very quickly that in order to learn a child needs four things 1) safety, 2) shelter, 3) food, 4) love. Don’t we want all children to have that?

I needed it, but I had absolutely no clue. I was fifteen years old. It was my first family placement. Instantly I had a family. A mom, a dad, three brothers, one sister, a dog, a cat. The house was in Cheviot Hills. My basketball team ran past the house during practice. When it was hot we’d swoop through the door and all jump in the pool. My room was in the back-end of the house. It had a waterbed and its own bathroom and windows that cranked out to the pool.

I was on an outing with my birth mother. She got to see me once a week. She always liked to push for more. We were at a teahouse. Time was beginning to drag. It was getting toward the end of our allotted visiting time. I needed to ask for what I wanted. That’s the moment I realized I might be poor for the rest of my life.

***

As a child I was certain I was going to make something of myself. There was the whole bit with the grapes and practicing to be a neurosurgeon. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time alone trying to find a way to make my mom and me rich. I wanted to save lots of lives so I thought maybe I could be a neurosurgeon. I heard they were the best-paid ones. I heard it was like taking off the skin of a grape in one piece without injuring the meat of the grape and then sewing it back together. I sat many hours with a big pile of grapes. One by one unpeeling them. If I made a mistake I put one down and started over again. I eventually gave up. Mark, my mom’s boyfriend, taught me how to smoke cigarettes. I did that instead. Marlboro Reds.

There was the Porsche savings account with two dollars and some change in it. I just never doubted I was gonna be rich. I mean I was already taller than all the women in my family. How much harder would it be to be richer? So it was a shock to be sitting in a teahouse at fifteen years old and to ask my mom for money for Spring Break, a weekend in Mexico, and for her to hand me twenty bucks.

I’ll tell you what I did. I handed it back. I had to hand it back and tell her never mind. Because it was too much to explain that when I said I needed money for a weekend away I meant more like two hundred bucks not twenty. It was too hard to explain that things cost things these days. I took one glance at my plans to be just like my friends. With a family, and a pool, and a dog, and a cat, and to get to go away for Spring Break. I looked at that idea and let it go. I wasn’t like anyone…unless that person was poor.

***

I remember the first time I became politically active as a time of too much and too little. Our parents were useless at their jobs; aging out because of computers and ideas weren’t enough anymore. There was no working your way up to the top. It was all schools and classes and there was this thing called NAFTA and people were getting everything made for cheaper somewhere else. Somewhere far away.

***

Because of all this want, we sometimes are afraid we feel too much. Some of us try to go numb; we turn on the television and zone out on political debates, or reality people showing their other selves—their nasty bad acting selves—or read news about serial killers or car bombers or we drink too much or eat too much or run too much. We make our lives numb so we can take care of ourselves and be separate from a collective anguish of powerlessness.

But in that last hour we are into feeling. We are into intimacy. My beloved says the single most poignant thing I have ever heard. She says, “I love to go to bed and I love to wake up.”

This is so true. I can’t say how true it is. It’s that first bright moment of feeling everything and completely being relieved of these feelings with either the everythingness of awakeness or the nothingness of sleep.

***

Strangely, it was for dreams like these—the simplest dreams of rest, of feeling, of safety—that I first began to look at taxes. Taxes are the tool that makes these dreams of ours possible. Shelter for everyone, food for everyone, taxes ensure public safety. And what about love? Love is given and received. Love is not a solitary act. Love requires people to commune with one another.

My previous associations with taxes were shame and guilt and trickery. Then I looked at my history with money and public funding in general. Some people have argued that we are a nation of self-interested people. People who only care about themselves. Their own well-being.

I disagree. I think we are better than that but have been assaulted by the overwhelming personification of Greed. In all the books we read, in all the films we watch, all the stuff in the news and social media, those who possess greed have the characteristic affect of the slow scrape of a Brillo pad against my heart. The most ferocious. The taking of things that do not belong (sex, money, power, children). The taking of too much is greed personified.

It’s our first lesson in pain.

***

One of my friends tells a story of being in daycare. All the kids had to learn how to take turns. They lined up to each take their turn on playing in a tire swing. Eager to make new friends she offered up her turn to another girl. The girl took it. My friend was denied hers because she gave it away. She remembers praying afterward, asking god why it hurts so bad to be nice?

Greed is taking all the turns and not sharing any. Greed is having all the money and not paying taxes to help deliver a safe system for abused and abandoned children in foster care. Or greed is having all the money and refusing to pay taxes that results in the separation of families who have plenty of love but no resources to stay together. Greed is what keeps Los Angeles (at 94,000 homeless people) the homeless capitol of the nation despite its residents that belong to the top 1% income bracket.

Greed lies to people, fueling their fears that if oil companies like Chevron or Shell were charged an oil severance tax they would charge us more at the pump.

Greed is what convinces people that if you charge more taxes big corporations would leave your state.

Here’s a secret that the Haves are keeping from us: Taxes are revolutionary. Taxes are a medium to distribute wealth in a capitalist society. Today, I’m happy to be accountable in this way. Accountable to my community. I love my community. I want my community to thrive.

Unlike Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO and Chairman of the board of General Electric. Immelt’s company was deemed the sixth largest firm in the U.S. in 2011 and the 14th most profitable. In fact the company reported worldwide profits of $14.2 billion and yet they paid nothing in taxes. In fact they claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.

I think Jeffrey Immelt knows how revolutionary taxes can be. In fact, GE claims their extraordinary success is based on an aggressive strategy that mixes fierce lobbying for tax breaks and “innovative accounting.” I’ll say it’s innovative, especially with former treasury official John Samuels leading their tax department.

Perhaps with all this extra money in pocket Mr. Immelt can now carry the nurturing title of Job Creator. Because I like that: job creator. I like the nice round sweet sound of that. I mean, in 2010 his salary was $21,428,765.00. He should be able to pay a lot of people. But the reality is the average salary at GE in 2010 was $33,840.00. That means he made 633 times the median workers pay.

I don’t want to get bogged down here with numbers. It’s just that it’s the first time in our living memories that this type of disparity between frontline workers and CEOs has occurred. The first time that there are more public sector union workers than private sector union workers. In fact, it’s been noted that the $45,000 median income for males today is the same as it was 30 years earlier in inflation-adjusted terms.

Robert Reich (2010, author of Aftershock) speaks directly to this issue:

“If the gains in productivity in the U.S. economy had been shared equitably over the past 30 years, the typical worker would be more than 60 percent better off than he or she was in 2007.”

When I pay my taxes I am telling my community I value you. What about hard work paying off? It’s true. I think we should be rewarded for hard work. I know that I would not have gotten where I am today were it not for my hard work. But even that is not a solitary effort. I was able to get where I am today because of the people who were here before me. I’m not just talking about the vast civil rights movement, or the woman’s suffragist movement, I’m talking about the guy who works for Caltrans who helped me get to and from school and thousands of job interviews. I’m talking about the teachers, Ms. Smith who was my High School English teacher and saw something in me. Ms. Marshall, the round sweet journalism instructor who as a licensed reporter did her job and got me into foster care, which was a long, achy road, but one that perhaps has saved my life. The nurses who tended to me when I was exposed to tuberculosis as a young child. The military that helped so many members of my family escape poverty and discover a nation they believed in so much they’d risk they’re lives for it. The firefighters who do the unthinkable, who run into burning buildings for perfect strangers. Firefighters who often had to come out to emergency cold weather shelters, where I worked, in the middle of the night to tend to a homeless person who was scared they were losing their mind. Sometimes all they needed was some attention. I’ll never forget one Christmas working in the shelter. A firefighter bent down in front of a homeless woman smiling placing a band-aid on her unwounded flesh just to give her a secret joy. Today the average pay of one S&P 500 index CEO could pay the salary of 252 firefighters.

If we are saying I value you when we pay our taxes, what is a corporation saying when they don’t pay taxes? Are they saying the opposite? Are they saying they don’t care about whether or not other people have healthcare? I think it’s not too much to ask for people to have healthcare.

***

People often ask me what it was like to be in foster care. I can only tell you what my experience was like. For the most part I had a very lucky experience. I ingratiated myself to all of my friend’s parents so eventually when the time came they fostered me. I didn’t enter foster care until I was around fifteen years old. My largest struggle was with my education.

I grew up really valuing education. It was the only way out. The only way I could make something of myself. I applied myself thoroughly. When I was six my mother got accepted and began school at UCLA and I would sit in the library and wait for her to be let out of classes. I scoured the catalogues of books. Books books books.

When I was in junior high I was in a program for disadvantaged youth. Kids who were poor. It allowed us to take college courses while in junior high and high school so we could get ahead, remain interested, save money. I was also in a gifted magnet, which means I got pulled out of class in elementary school to have my IQ tested. I looked at sequences and puzzles and tried to configure them. I remember peering over the desk at the guy administering the test.

“So how’d I do?”

He looked alarmed. I guess it was a secret I was being monitored.

“Excuse me?”

“On my time? How’d I do on my time?”

He was trying to discreetly time me. The stopwatch under the desk. He laughed.

“You’re doing fantastic.” He said. Then later I was put in a smaller class with dorks so I guess I did well. Gifted and talented they said.

Then at fifteen there was foster care. I had to live in a temporary shelter while my foster parents were getting licensed, finger printed, house inspected, all of that. During the orientation I was informed that I probably should not go to school. It would be too difficult to get to and from. They weren’t allowed to give us any money for transportation. There were also rules to abide by in the house. Rules like lights out at eight. They said I could stay in the house and take classes on-site. On-site was a fancy way to say Special Ed. The kids there were perfectly nice but stuffed with Lithium, drooling, overweight, with slow, dragging movements. They were At-Risk or some people referred to them as Throw-Away. I was determined to stay on at school. I only ate half my dinners so I could bring the other half to school for lunch. I made friends with a girl who lived in the neighborhood so we could car pool. My roommate at the time, a pregnant teen, slept with one thumb in her mouth and the tops of her feet rubbing up against each other, while I sat with a flashlight in my mouth pointed at a book under a sheet. Reading, reading, reading.

At this point that I got the distinct feeling that it was unfair. Things were unequal. At the end of the year, my classmates and I all got the same piece of paper when we walked across the stage. But the journey there was not equal.

The differences didn’t end there, they just began. I went back into a group home after being fostered by my friend’s family. Cloaked in rejection and abandonment. I had no clue it was temporary. I thought that house and that family and that life was forever. I remember being in my first group home for all girls and having to go to the doctor. They took me to their physician. There in the gynecologist’s office, my legs in stirrups, open like a book, he asked questions, “So why are you in the group home?”

“Uh, because I had to leave where I was staying.”

“Why?”

“The family I was with were getting divorced.”

“Oh, I see. This might pinch a bit take a breath in.”

“—–.”

“Exhale. Have you ever been raped?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you need to douche.”

I guess open like a book is not a good analogy. I was open like a group home. Open like a toilet seat. Open like a trash can. Opened, closed, opened, closed. I had no way to be anymore. And yet I applied to the same jobs as everyone else and put together the same kind of resume as every one else and when I went forward and went on a job interview I tried to look as well kept as everyone else.

I even went to a nice Blue Ribbon school when I was in high school. I graduated from a school in a nice town that’s five miles long and has a Main Street with shops and lots of fraternization and drinking going on. The people who live there own horses and play golf. One of those places.

Something else was happening when I was seventeen. I was going to get emancipated. I had enough with all this temporary foster care open trash can business. I was ready to be my own guardian. So I put together a binder with all my certificates and accomplishments. Photos of me looking like a good girl in Ann Taylor outfits, flowy and silky and non-threatening. I showed these photos to my attorney and a judge and they emancipated me. Which really meant that I got no more financial support from the government and when I was looking at colleges and tracing college applications with my fingertips, places like Sarah Lawrence and Reed College, I suddenly started to wonder how I would pay for this. So I asked my social worker and she said that it was time I went on General Relief.

I didn’t think she heard me correctly. I asked her how I would pay for college and she said again that I could go and apply for General Relief. What you do to get General Relief is you go and stand in a line all day with other people who are hot and tired and poor and sad and hungry.  All of us in the line felt like we moved past this like there was a more dignifying way to spend our time.

Then you fill out some paperwork and if you’re lucky they sign you up and you get two hundred dollars a week. Which was fifty cents less than what I got paid when I worked at Winchell’s Donuts in high school, where the manager smoked in my face and hit on me all the time and I got a gun pulled on me for donuts one time and we couldn’t close because I had to work off the loss that was made with that dozen donuts and closing was simply out of the question. So instead I worked graveyards with a shaky hand any time a batch of teenagers walked by, which was pretty much always.

***

I don’t think readjusting taxes is going to make it all better. I don’t think that if we take another look at this thing suddenly all of the same opportunities are going to pop up for everyone but I think that it’s important to point out that it will make things more even. Corporate tax dodgers are as much job creators as kids in foster care are throwaway.

I’m not an economist. I don’t have to be to see that Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt received $313,219.00 in total compensation last year—which was at least nine times the median workers’ pay. Google also employed a tax evasion strategy by housing their licensing and patents outside the US, so they got to enjoy a 10.8 billion dollar profit in 2010.

In 1980, CEO pay equaled only 42 times the average blue-collar worker’s pay. By 2010, CEO pay had grown to 343 times a worker’s median pay. This is the widest gap in the world.

***

Wider than the Philippines. My people live their lives tending to things. And if you told them the city was cruel with budget cuts they would scoff at you and your American budget cuts. They lived half their lives in city dumps. Here the trash bins behind restaurants are caged and locked to keep homeless out. “Why do they lock it up?” they ask.

“So the homeless don’t eat the trash.”

“Oh.”

But it still makes no sense. Is food-trash only for throwing away? My people drink coffee for dinner. Kills the appetite. Little empty bellies always round.

So that’s why I felt my heart pound the first time I saw someone stand at a podium, fist in air, microphone against mouth chanting “Si Se Puede! Si Se Puede! Si Se Puede!” And then there were claps that were slow to start with spaces in between like the clap that a kid makes when he’s teasing another kid. The clap of humiliation but it gained speed faster faster faster until the whole crowd was lifted up by this clap and my heart was catching up with the clap. I felt it clanging against my chest. I felt my nipples hard against my shirt. I felt my hands tight. I wasn’t a person; I was part of this big giant super fast heartbeat. And everything in the vehicle formerly known as my body screamed “SIGN ME UP! SIGN ME UP MOTHERFUCKERS!” And so it began.

***

Some people think electoral politics are for jerks and pussies. I’m sure my younger angry teenage self thought that. Today I know different. Like taxes, they’re a tool. What I’m trying to say is that this is 2012, an electoral year. Let’s all, the At-Risk, the Throwaways, let’s be the secret weapon. They don’t think we’re gonna do anything but camp out. Let’s pursue economic justice. Let’s dare be united and deliberate about it.

***

At night sometimes when I’m reading a book I feel that same loud hummm in my bones. The hum of my heart and mind being on fire. Sometimes it happens when I’m writing or occasionally even if I cook something. It always starts in my head these things. I’ll close my eyes and write a story or draw a picture or imagine a meal and then when the image in my mind matches the world around me my hairs stand on end and I can even still have my eyes shut when I am doing one of these various things and I will just know know, know I am getting it right. That’s how I feel when I vote. Like finally after all of it, all the standing in hungry lines, and marching on asphalt in dark negative degree mornings, all of the gripping of signs, all of the anguish of loving a mother and being terrified of a mother and leaving a mother, has led me to this one place; this one slip of paper. I take the paper and the tiny pencil, that looks like no big deal but is the biggest deal, and I think about all the mega-important times in my life that are marked with dinky little pencils and I put my mark on the paper and plop it in the box and think of it as the box of wishes and prayers for babies to have 1) safety, 2) shelter, 3) food, 4) love.


When Melissa Chadburn is not teaching at UCSD, she can usually be found protesting somewhere. She has written for Guernica, SLAKE, Salon, McSweeney’s, American Public Media’s Marketplace, and a dozen other places. Her essay, "The Throwaways," was noted in 2013’s Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Follow her on twitter @melissachadburn. She loves your whole outfit right now. More from this author →