a letter to the demonized poor

When I was going to school in Ann Arbor, there was a corner that I would always walk past on the journey from my apartment to the campus gym and back again. One day, there was a woman standing there, who politely and in a meek and humble way asked, “Can you spare some change for the bus?”  I didn’t have any money on me, so I walked on by.  A week later I was walking the same route, and saw her there again, still asking the passers-by: “Can you spare some change for the bus?”  Over the course of a couple of months, my friends and I saw her probably a dozen times, always asking the same thing.

“Bitch needs to get where she’s going and stay there,” remarked one friend, uncharitably.

Winter came, and we saw her less often. When she did appear, her clothes were more tattered. She was thinner, and her eyes were more desperate-looking. By spring time, she was almost unrecognizable. She had been an ordinary comfortably-dressed woman who needed to get home. Now, she looked like a homeless person.  Tangled, dirty, and constantly afraid.

Then it happened. One day, I walked past and instead of hearing the usual refrain (“Can you spare some change for the bus?”) I heard a new question: “Can you spare some change for food?”

It broke my heart. It broke my heart because I realized that this is what she had been asking all along, and it took her this long to admit it to herself.  There was a good chance that she had lost that home in the suburbs (or wherever that imaginary bus was going) a long, long time ago. But she couldn’t cope with that. She couldn’t think of herself as being in that situation. She didn’t want to be the kind of person who begged for food.

So she did a thing that is very natural, very normal, and very human. It’s something that we all do, to one degree or another from time to time. She lied to herself.  She created a little fiction that she presented to the world in order to make her life more bearable.

People whose lives take a turn for the worse find themselves doing this a lot. And I have to say: it’s understandable. Losing a job, a home, a way to eat: it’s utterly humiliating.  Having to beg for food makes you hate yourself. You are filled with shame. So your mind and your emotions do what any and every human being does when faced with that: you recoil a little. You say, “No, no… it can’t be that bad. Not yet. Not me.” You create a little fantasy, even if there is a part of your mind that says, “….I’ll admit it to myself later. Just… not yet.”

People who are not, and never have been, in that situation look certain inner-city poor people and say: “Why do you have a television? Why do you have a nice car? Why do you have all of these things, when you can’t put food on the table!?” They look at these poor people with contempt. At best, they say: “Your priorities are screwed up.” At worst, they say: “You are lazy and deliberately leeching off of the system.”

But now I’ll address you directly.  You, the inner city poor, with the expensive radio and the new T.V.

I know that you’re not lazy. I know that you’re not irresponsible.  I know that you are in a screwed up situation that you never in a million years thought you would find yourself in. And it’s embarrassing. You are ashamed, you are hurt, and you probably don’t fully know how to get yourself out of it. So there is a part of you that finds comfort in surrounding yourself with just a tiny bit of a “normal life.”  In a way, it’s a kind of denial. It hurts so badly whenever you think too hard about how bad your situation is, so you push it out of your head and think, “I will deal with that later.” And you distract yourself, with the television. Or the radio. Or the car.  You say to yourself, “Things can’t be that bad yet… because I still have at least some normal things.”

It’s understandable, as I said before.

But I have to tell you: it isn’t helpful. I think it’s sad when people out there demonize you, and think of you as lazy or evil for being in the situation that you are in. The way you feel and the way you are acting are exactly the way that those people would likely act if they were in your situation.  But the problem is that while you let yourself be in denial, you’re hurting yourself.

Maybe, just maybe, you need to not be surrounded by the trappings of normalcy for a short while.  Maybe you have to spend some time looking into that bright light that hurts so badly, and admit where you are in life. Maybe you need to spend a certain amount of time without any of the things you have grown accustomed to having around. Because that can be motivating. It can make you realize that things really do have to change. Not later: now.