Poverty may have been beloved of St. Francis, but not so much by the rest of us. Nobody likes to look at advanced poverty, toothless and drooling, clutching the hands of children who have running sores on their filthy legs. Poverty is a crackhead who pisses on the pavement, and sleeps with fleas and stray dogs. Poverty covers smelly feet in ratty shoes. Poverty is disgusting.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the suggestion that God prefers the poor. If we take that seriously, it seems that God has questionable taste.
My own poverty is subtle, almost invisible. Lately, though, circumstances have brought it galloping into consciousness. Two minor accidents threatened to collapse the house of cards that shelters my life. Without a pristine car, you see, I can’t earn money driving LYFT, a primary source of income. An accident isn’t just a $500 deductible, but several days without pay, adding up to an entire month’s rent. That means nothing less than charity or homelessness. (Fortunately, I have charitable friends and family, so our home remains intact.)
Life doesn’t always look poor. For example, I attend the theatre (where tickets are often more than $30) several times each month. I get to do that because I founded a more-or-less successful theatre website, so folks give me passes. But I always feel a bit out of place in my thrift store clothes, needing a haircut and a manicure. A few nights ago, I stopped off at a bar and grill near the theatre district. Considering a hamburger, I had to check my bank account to see what I could afford. A colleague was astonished: “How is that possible?” he wondered aloud. “You might not be able to cover a $12 hamburger?” Oh it’s possible, alright. There have been nights when my evening meal was the free buffet at an opening night reception. (Did I really just confess this publicly?)
In America, we are taught to view both poverty and charity as shameful. It is drilled into us from childhood that if we can’t take care of ourselves it’s our own damned fault. Just try harder, be more responsible, suck it up, stop whining.
Yet, an awful lot of us feel pinched these days. Are we all second raters? Perhaps because it has been on my mind, I have seen the signs of a national obsession with poverty popping up all over the place this past week. The day I write this, the New York Times features a series of articles about the struggles of the working poor. The incomes discussed are twice the combined yearly income for Klopnik and me. And yet, when I think of myself as “poor,” I feel guilty and foolish. So many are worse off.
The mantra of America is: “Poverty doesn’t exist.” Even those of us who feel its fingers clutching our throats find it hard to believe in it. And, by the way, cigarette addiction and obesity and asthma and depression and alcoholism are overwhelmingly diseases of the poor, which, of course, are the fault of the poor because poverty is the fault of the poor because… well… just because.
So, like other Americans, I groove on affirmations and strive to master the art of winning friends and influencing people. I am not immune to the seductions of networking, and know that it works, sometimes. I keep my eyes on the prize, and remember we live in an abundant universe. I strive, in all sincerity, to maintain my “prosperity consciousness” even in the face of poverty.
Sometimes, often, the disconnect between my joy in affirmation and the reality of my threadbare jeans and ratty shoes is crazy-making. What if, after all, I am indeed a victim of a capitalist society gone mad with greed and now in the hands of an oligarchy determined to rob us all blind?
I try to sit with these disparate and equally persuasive truths (alternative facts?) through a practice of silent contemplation and that works pretty well.
Meanwhile, our “leaders” gut our health care (what we have of it), plan to cut funding for the arts, dismiss “Meals on Wheels” as ineffective (why? are old people starving to death in spite of the food they receive?), all the while giving new meaning to conspicuous consumption.
Are we crazy yet? Give it time. We will be.
Rumpus original logo and artwork by James Lorenzato, aka Argyle C. Klopnick (ACK!).
“The Storming Bohemian Punks the Muse” was originally developed as a column under the editorship of Evan Karp at Litseen. An earlier incarnation of this work can be found there, along with many other interesting things.