LINES; LIFE IN THE TROUGHS
Being poor is hard work. I remember seeing pictures of the long lines of men in the first Depression waiting for a hand out at soup kitchens. Every time I eat now, I think of the many places in the world where begging for food, eating what is given without pride but rather humility, is an everyday occurrence. As I am coming to know, there is no shame among those who see each other in one line or the other.
Hardship has interrupted my life. Friends and acquaintances, social connections have decidedly changed. The things I do to pass the time have changed. How I speak to others is different. I have always been pretty free with the details of my life . . . I am a bit more circumspect these days.
Surprisingly, I have a sort of pride that I am surviving this period in my life. I fear I am a hypocrite for the life I live is still head and shoulders beyond that of most of the line people. I have a nice apartment, not the Ritz, but so very much more than those who live in the shelters or have “camps” in unpopulated stretches of woods. My furniture is nice because I inherited and collected those pieces for many years and it makes no sense to get rid of things I won’t be able to duplicate. I may need to wash clothes by hand but I am safe, my needs are attended to. My medical needs are addressed and I receive Social Security due to my disabilities. Interestingly, what precipitated the reversals I live with is what is providing the way out. I am feeling my way through this labyrinth of needs, expectations and adjustment.
In storm, rain, and blistering heat the lines are long indeed. You show up early. . . at least 60 minutes… and quietly move to the back of the line. In hot months folding chairs and collapsible chairs are tucked in among the feet. Some come with blankets. Eyes dart between the pants and skirts, floppy sneakers, shoes decrepit and worn. No shoe strings here, shoe tongues are ripped and falling to the side; it is suspect whether the shoes even fit. From amongst a line there is consideration and kindness, confusion and stress, fatalism and resignation. There is shame and gratitude. I’ve seen a few chest bumps between the young men. As they are waiting, some catch up on each other’s lives and the news of the street. This is a community, maybe on the fringe, but they have each other, they know the system and use it well. Thankfully, they want to help each other if they can.
One day a mother, daughter and friend were in a discussion. The mother was continually droning on and on, exposing their lives to everyone there. The poor daughter kept begging the mother to be quiet but the mother was on a roll, only getting louder while she is admonished. The mother had a little Chihuahua in a cloth jacket with a handle so she could be lifted or moved easily. Sometimes she was talking to the dog. It didn’t matter what she said, she seemed unaware of the picture she was portraying of her family. She couldn’t control her mouth or the secrets she disclosed. Most of the others were embarrassed for the daughter’s sake, eyes glancing away with the illusion of privacy. There are a lot of trough dwellers with mental imbalances but for the most part, such things are simply accepted. Mental illness often got them to the lines in the first place. For the most part, trough dwellers have a respect for each other. They don’t cross the arbitrary line.
Mostly, the trough dwellers are resigned. Even if they could get jobs, a good percentage, for any number of reasons, would not be able to hold on to them. Of course you can tell those who are crack heads and meth addicts as soon as they open their mouths and they lack teeth. Men wear ponytails and long, flowing beards. Women pony tails. Some wear flip flops in winter. Then again, when looking at the way the general public dresses, there are few that are completely off the mark. They are labeled, bedraggled and despairing but among the lines there are companionships and understanding. There is laughter and acceptance.
Before this situation developed I would see men, or a mother and her children standing on the corner of the street holding onto placards. My eyes would dart away from those who stand out for one reason or another, trying to appear non-pulsed, All those years when I looked down at those in the lines, when I didn’t understand, I never knew I would one day be in their ranks. What pithy message would be written on the board? Does this mean that I will one day be standing on the side of a road with a little cardboard sign asking for help? Won’t my family be proud of me. I speak of these things because I am normalizing them. Should I hide my reality away? It is a deep, dark, painful hurt I am harboring. Am I ashamed? You bet. Do I need to get beyond it? Absolutely.
My son and daughter believe I may become more of a trial than I am already. They are afraid I will be a disgrace or a disappointment, not understanding I am treading water, nose at the line defining water and air. They mean well but you can’t compare oranges to a refrigerator. They are wonderful people but they work from the outside in, I on the other hand, have come to work from the inside out.
Today I visited a Food Bank I had not been to before. I arrived 2 hours early. On a four block street, I passed the first 30 minutes driving up and back that space. I stopped a couple people for directions. They had no idea where it was. It wasn’t in their frame of reference. Finally, I realized I missed one last block behind a discount supermarket. Woohoo! I found it finally, with the barest of lines in rain and 30 degree bitter cold. Where was the balmy weather I had come to California for? A month before we were trying to get away from the heat. A gentleman encouraged me to sit in his folding chair. Embarrassed or no, I welcomed it when he took my hands and put his gloves on me. I was by turns grateful and embarrassed. He and his wife have 13 children under their care and they had been married around 20 years. They were so comfortable with each other, calm, at peace, noble. There is so much good in the world. Angels I meet in places unseemly. They fixed my place in the line as I went home to get a warmer jacket.
My car has become a rare gift for me. My driving abilities do no favors to it. It has gone over curbs, been in three accidents and has survived those times when I found my way driving the wrong way in a one-way street. I worry constantly what it will be like without one. Actually, I know this. The homeless are ever walking whether the thermometer reads 40 or 120. I’ve stopped saying something will never happen to me because, it ends up being what I feared.
Think positive, think only happy thoughts – it is a mantra that has become more of a prayer. With the fluctuation of great heat and biting cold, I simply could not survive. My medical issues necessitate a normalized range. Standing out in bad weather negatively impacts my health. I hope to have a drivable and attractive car at all times. Without one, especially because of my health concerns, waiting on bus stops, doing all the changing from bus to bus would be undoable.
Most people expect to be able to replace those things which break. It is expected that things break down and then you find others. Their taste in furniture and clothes changes and they find ones to fit those changes. I have come to expect that will not hold true for me. Clothes living extended lives, shirts stained become PJs. What I have may be all I get. I don’t have much, nor do I have the space to have much. I have streamlined my life, taking and keeping only what matters. Coming from Connecticut and driving by myself to Redding was a reminder that I am a living, viable human. I am a survivor, stronger then I think. I am adaptable. Should I have much more of an ego, I wouldn’t be able to take this. Most of the time I can push beyond embarrassment, reaching a numb part of my psyche, and sometimes of pride.
I have always been a spend rift. This sojourn into poverty is, to a certain degree, one of choice. Well, maybe not choice, but most assuredly, the direct consequence of poor, selfish decisions. My mother and I had this dance – if I got into a financial jam, she would help me out. She helped out a lot. I stayed a needy child, she the beleaguered parent. I worked, but I over spent.
The trouble is, I let the fear of economic necessity override my decisions. I simply didn’t know how to straighten out myself. I borrowed money to get here, Once I arrived, I was living out of a suitcase for approximately 6 weeks until I found an apartment. But the coffers echoed in their emptiness.
Here is the good part, I ran out of money. I couldn’t pay my bills. Utilities were sky high in an area that heats up to the 90s and above most of the days. During the summer my electricity was turned off for 6 days. My son came over with a head light for me “It’s great! You are going camping!” I did not respond. I didn’t know how to change my circumstances. A support person at my doctor’s offices did all the paperwork, even to the point of coming to my apartment with the papers to sign. To say I was grateful is a huge understatement. I made my way to a payee service. They pay my bills and I get an allowance. Many months I have $40-50 a week for gas, food, laundry, entertainment, clothes. The expenses add up quickly. About time it happened.
I am being fired in life’s furnace, On a fundamental level, I am grateful. Now I have a shot to improve my life by improving me. I cry a great deal more. Not having any money is hard, undeniably hard, but I am not carrying those deep, fearful burdens. There may be a way out. I will be better for all this. I will be able to respect myself. Going to the Food Banks is a necessity; there is absolutely no way my budget allows food. Every Monday I go the payee service for my check. By the next day I may only have $10 until the following Monday. Other people mingle outside until the place opens. I look at them, almost always men, and compare my life situations to theirs. There are some badly damaged people – often alcoholics and/or mentally and physically challenged. This is where I took my life. I tell myself I am different, better, than they. But I know while the choice to use a payee service is mine, we are in the same boat.
Maybe that’s what I need to focus on . . . unless I learn to stay in the present; the dark cloud heading to the future will come that much quicker. Amidst the stark beauty of Redding, I am reminded to treasure the moments. God’s mercy is flawless; I have only to lift my eyes to the mountain peaks and watch clouds writhe and dance as they spin gossamer wraps in and around trees and rock to know the power of God. God gives me the humility to accept help where I can get it. God makes sure I can live with the constant pain and respiratory diseases and has provided a way for me to live within my means.
I think each of us, the trough dwellers, is spared from judging themselves, and their neighbors, as protection against more sorrow they can bear. As I say this, I need to be honest. The Alano Building, where AA meetings run day and night, is directly across the street. People I know are there constantly. It is a Trader Joe’s day . . . the good stuff . . . so I go early, giving me a gap to return home to unload and go back in time to attend the AA meeting, none the wiser.
Handicapped people are everywhere. They can go anywhere here, the streets and buildings accommodate disabilities more than in other states and towns. Coming from the North East, where the facilities and infrastructure were set long before and budgets are too tight to do more than the most rudimentary changes, it is more user friendly. They guide their motorized wheelchairs up and down curbs, in and out of cars. I’ve seen disabled people intrepidly steering their wheelchairs more than 5 miles away from a Food Bank they frequent. The other day I saw a man and woman in their own little line, swerving around obstacles as they crossed streets, the man with a little flag quivering from above the handlebars of the wheelchair. The physically handicapped are fearsome here. I suppose it has to do with the weather. Most of the time it is bearable, but on those days when it sucks, I feel like stopping to pick them up but my car isn’t big enough to accommodate wheelchairs. And, to tell the truth, some are too independent to accept the offer of help. Last week I saw a disabled woman ,in a wheelchair, walking her dog on leash. Another day I saw a handicapped teen riding his wheelchair down the walk, his friends, on blades and a skate board, swinging in circles around him. Modern California – everyone has to have wheels.
In the food lines, most kids are absent, I guess at school or home. It is the younger child tucked in the nooks of mother’s arms. It’s hard to figure out who looks tired more. Of all the people in the lines, these are the worst to see. Their parents are ground down, full of premature wrinkles. Children wait quietly until their mothers have collected food. Even when the child has to wait for 2 hours, he does nothing to stand out.
“I became homeless 10 years ago . . . but I never thought it would be for good.” Ron said, “I have lived in my car for most of the time.” rubbing his hand through his beard. “I lived in my car in New Jersey, really liked Pittsburgh but I stay in California now.” The three of us were talking with our breakfasts before us at the Living Hope mission. I don’t do meals on the mission circuit but I have come to realize that when I say “Never, not to Me”, ,it preludes another financial reversal.
Every word spoken by Marga, every inch the visage of the serene Natalie Woods, no emotions flowing to the surface, Mona Lisa smile steadfastly affixed to her face. Listening, I realized I might be in her place and soon if I don’t find work that I can still do. She was painting an ancient child’s fishing rod she was incorporating into a sculpture. An art history major, she wants to go back to school for another degree in art history, but there are few openings to be had. Every cent she had went toward a class she was taking at Shasta College.
We all have to make concessions as trough dwellers. Our lives are constrained by the operating hours of the Missions. The Good News mission, where I am going in the morning, closes the Mission’s shelter’s dorm down at 6:00 am. Before 6:30 am the doors open in the kitchens/dining area. Row after row of tired, care worn individuals head to the closest row near the front row. While we spoke, a scurvy woman was sitting on a man’s lap, rolling back and forth in the long accepted motions of a dry hump sex play. At one point one of the Mission’s volunteers, Joe, called over telling them to get a hotel room. The man quickly became irate until the woman calmed him, explaining to her partner that Joe and she went way back and he had an understanding. There was no apology, no shame, just an acceptance that this was her life.
At the Good News mission come Friday at the crack of dawn, Jeb heads up to the little stage, straps on his guitar and gives us a serving of religious and folk music for the next 30-45 minutes. Most of us tune him out. It is calming nonetheless, soothing. Once prayers are done we line up, row by row. Marge, another volunteer, is the arbiter of structure and discipline. No one gets to the food unless they pass her. We are each allowed to fill 1 bag . . . if it looks to be more Marge will have something to say. We take our places, vulture carrion birds ready to swoop down and grab whatever looks most promising and is most accessible. On Monday afternoons, chiropractors give free adjustments for those who want them. A few days a month a dentist the line you are, the less you have to choose from. comes for extractions. For those needing to protect their medicines, medicines are saved until they are needed. Free clothing is available from certain shelters and at one, free bicycles are given to the homeless.
A couple of weeks ago, a bearded, disheveled older man I was lucky to sit next to, regaled me with stories of being a friend to the wild animals by the camp he has down by the river. Some of the food is feed for them. The squirrels and voles are comforts to him. The birds walk up to him to eat from his hand. He loves his little clearing next to the Sacramento River. He looks like an old, rung out and tattered, homeless Cinderella. He talks about maintaining the camp, smoothing the earth . . . it is his treasured home. He doesn’t want for more. That camp is his squatter property.
Every day, an elderly man reminiscent of looking like Gandalf, from The Hobbit, sits on a particular bench, his long, flowing hair and beard surrounding him, walking stick to the side. He always has company, from all walks of life. Sometimes I believe he is imparting the wisdom of the ages because his visitors are always rapt at his words. Someday I will bite the bullet, stop the car, make my way to him, and hear what he has to say.
Yes, there are some slackers but certainly not all. Most of them are. I now have a deep respect for the homeless, disabled souls with extremely poor finances. They are survivors. These are not the disreputable beings people many think of. No one wants to be homeless, poor, with very limited, or no, resources. They do not run each other down. When they can, they protect their own. They survive. There is a nobility in some. They are resourceful, can be infinitely kind, and though there can be anguish, laughter is also here, and compassion. They, with me, at least for the foreseeable future, have full lives, albeit very hard ones. Once you have reached the point of needing the Food Banks, your life is compromised in such a way that you may not be able to move beyond. So I am grateful I have not met with dire circumstances, I am still walking and may even have options. But, for most of us, life is far different then what was taught as we were growing up. The people who work at the missions are good people worthy of respect. By their help, in many differing ways, they keep wide swaths of disadvantaged people’s lives safe, fed, and understood. God is good.
My life is so different from it was when I first arrived here. I look differently at the world. Values and ethics are being crafted. I am living on less and am grateful for what I have. Had my Mother not died, it isn’t likely I would be here now. She would have been the enabler to my poor choices and reckless abandon. Funny, I kind of think she would be proud of me as long as I stayed in California. I recently received some moneys from my mother’s estate which I promptly ear-marked for several necessary expenses and gave it to my son for protection. Left to my own devices, that money would be gone way too soon and my poor financial decisions would again give rise to fear. There will be a day when I don’t need the Food Banks to have food to eat. However, it won’t happen until my bad habits and poor choices change. God has done a wonderful job at caring and guiding me. I will continue to hold the steering wheel while he directs the car. As long as I stay out of my way, I have a chance to improve myself and my life.