Is Poverty a Choice? Or Is It More a Sixth Finger, Or a Tail

by Eric Obenauf

After a decade in the trenches I’ve become bitter. And desperate. My back aches. I suspect I’ve started to shrink and I imagine I’ll continue shrinking.

When I was 21 I was bartending four nights a week. I’d spend all my money on booze and late-night burritos and then whatever leftover cash I discovered swimming in my pockets would be devoted to brunch the following morning. I’d fish quarters out of the cup-holders in my car for games of pool; I’d worry about making rent the afternoon it was due. Now, at thirty, I schedule mortgage payments months in advance.

My wife and I are lucky in that we enjoy what I would characterize as a happy, confident relationship. When we do clash it doesn’t have to do with a conflict of philosophy or jealousy or suspicions, but stems from the issue of money. One night, I asked my wife if she could ever picture us as rich. We were in bed and it was dark. I had my arms wrapped around her and I felt her cackle erupt through my whole body.

We’d be horrible rich people, she laughed.

I feel an incredibly rabid disaffection toward the rich. I would classify my disdain as unhealthy. And yet, my wife and I spent most of the past six years living in an upper middle class neighborhood with zero-to-little diversity, a veritable ant farm of yuppie proclivity. There was even a university on the hill. You could see the chapel from miles away like a beacon. The student population appeared bronze in the winter months, attractive, and moneyed. Many of them were imports from New England, the result of generations’ worth of cautious and highly selective breeding.

The town itself was polished, quaint. It was voted the best place to live in Ohio by some magazine that apparently rates towns in Ohio. I’m not certain who their readership is exactly. I had lived in the town for the great majority of my life despite the fact that it embodied my disdain. I went away to college in New York City and came back. I moved to San Diego, got married, had a kid, moved back. I’m like a self-immolating boomerang.

One Thanksgiving, my wife and I met two of my friends and their wives for drinks on a Saturday night at one of the few bars in town. It’s called Broadway Pub. Like a gazillion other Broadway Pubs across America, nestled into the armpit of downtown: a one-block strip dominated by middle-brow restaurants, a sub-par coffee shop, and a handful of boutique stores.

We sat at a table with white paper stretched across it, a handful of crayons within arm’s reach between mostly-empty ketchup and mustard bottles. One of my friends is a tax attorney. His parents were wealthy and he was already wealthy. He’s a good guy, friendly, affectionate, a person I would trust with my valuables. He’s tall, with groomed blond hair, and a sharp dresser, even in his selection of work-out clothes. He brought up someone we knew from high school, a person none of us were particularly close with. He’s gonna be rich, my friend said. What relevance this had, I’m still unsure. It’s a blanket statement, I suppose, that only served to underline the obvious and really irked me. Maybe he was just saying what we were all thinking. There’s that invisible scale that measures financial worth.

I always silently loathed the guy my friend was talking about because he was the archetypal boy for an upper middle class white neighborhood. He had cheekbones and a go-to smirk, played sports year-round and did the cool drugs. After college, he moved back to town to dry out. Or that’s the word on the one-block street anyway. He works for his dad and is poised to inherit the family timber business. I have no respect for stories like that, that play out so predictably. It’s the rich-kid bailout.

I don’t believe that my disaffection stems from jealousy, although I wouldn’t rule out that diagnosis. My parents were on the other side of middle class. As with most in their condition, they worked very hard to be perceived as having more than they actually did. I imagine it was exhausting. It is for me, now.

My friends and their wives spoke about children. No one drew with the crayons on the table. My wife and I already had two kids, a girl and then a boy. A rich man’s family, a cab driver in Philadelphia told me when I was in town for a wedding. Not true, I thought to myself, quietly imagining though that it was a nice way to be perceived. My friends are practical, wanting to travel to Europe and road-trip down the left coast before procreating. My wife and I mastered the art of making life-changing decisions on a whim. Let’s move to San Diego. Let’s get married in Vegas. Let’s have a kid. Let’s move to Ohio. We’re attracted to newness, to rearranging the furniture just for the sake of change. After a while, though, you accumulate mass, and it becomes more difficult to live this lifestyle, especially with children.

My daughter is six. I imagine she’ll start becoming even more cognizant of class in the near-future.

A few years before, we were at one of her friends from preschool’s birthday party. He was an excitable boy, with loving parents and ornately wealthy grandparents. There were two cakes and four-too-many pizzas. The time came to open gifts. His grandparents gave him a heap of new toys. There were matchbox cars and race tracks, a lacrosse stick and ball. The boy opened several other shiny gifts. Then it was time for him to open the present from my daughter. She had picked it out for him at the corner pharmacy, and it really just consisted of a handful of cheap plastic toys you’d find in the bargain rack and a bag of peanut M&Ms. The boy removed the wrapping paper from my daughter’s gift and the expression on his face slackened. Be nice, his mother warned audibly. My daughter was sitting right beside him. What does it mean?

I remember San Diego in the same feverish manner as a child recalls Christmas. We lived in a termite-infested bungalow in Ocean Beach, a liberal beachfront community. There were three bungalows on the property that formed a triangle. In the middle was a dining table with wicker chairs, a couch, some plantain trees, a hammock, and a mobile chimenea. You could peer down the sidewalk at the foot of our house and spy the ocean. We’d drive across the border into Mexico in my clunky Jeep, a dog with a head out each rear window, and pay a family five dollars to camp for the night on their cliff-edge farm. In the morning, horses and goats would be strolling freely about our campsite.

It wasn’t all fantastic life-living. At one point, a friend passively stole our surfboard the way someone permanently borrows a CD. He was from an uber-wealthy neighborhood in Connecticut, living the West Coast dream as a musician/pizza chef. I got loaded and ran into him one night and threatened to kill him if he didn’t return the surfboard. A surfboard we didn’t even use, but had picked up second-hand for cheap, planning to one day learn. Death was a dramatic sentence for lifting a surfboard, even by French Revolution standards. But I was drunk. At the time it was easy to dismiss losing a friend with a shrug of the shoulders and a cocky “fuckin’-rich-kids-have-no-sense-of-property.”

When we learned my wife was pregnant, she got anxious and wanted to move closer to her mother. We scoured the internet for an apartment we could afford in Brooklyn, not wanting to land without a place to live. We ended up in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

When I get to this point in the story I begin to feel like a whiner. There were plenty of poor people in Bed-Stuy. We were poor, they were poor; we were all poor. Except there wasn’t any togetherness. We were white and they were black. We didn’t have to move to New York City, we didn’t have to live in Brooklyn. We could have boomeranged back to Ohio. But that’s where we ended up and it was okay while it lasted.

My wife was pregnant and we would walk the three blocks to the free medical clinic, sandwiched between a church and a Dunkin’ Donuts and across the street from Applebee’s. Rarely would we see a doctor in less than two hours.

My wife grew up predominantly outside New York City, in the well-to-do suburb of White Plains. She lived part of the year with her mother and step-father in a two million dollar mansion, and the rest of the year with her father in a shack he retro-fitted with a double-wide trailer outside Charlottesville, in rural Virginia. I believe the jarring juxtaposition of the two realities grounded her. In San Diego, she told me about walking to school with her sister in White Plains, how her mother trained her to be friendly and smile or say hello to people as she passed them on the sidewalk. When we walked our unfriendly black labs around Ocean Beach in San Diego, we’d always nod or say hello to anyone we encountered. I always thought this was a solid lesson, especially in our increasingly wireless age: the need for interaction, to acknowledge someone else’s existence, however fleeting.

Because North-South subway travel within Brooklyn is irksome, especially late at night, I would drive my Jeep to tend bar in Williamsburg from Bed-Stuy. The ceiling fabric of the car sags and the motor sounds like a generator struggling to power a very large building. It was an ugly, unfortunate commute inside and out. There were no signs that designated neighborhoods, but it was obvious who lived where.

I had worked earlier in the day, so it was still daylight. I remember it being a Sunday. I exited the hipster borough and trafficked south through the tangled knots of Hassidic Jews criss-crossing the street, passing the Marcy Projects and landing in Bed-Stuy. I was stopped at a red light beside a bus. My Jeep is decently high from the ground. I looked to my side and saw a woman staring in my direction. She wasn’t necessarily looking at me. I just happened to be in her line of sight. I gave her a polite smile/nod and a slight wave.

She erupted. The woman stood in her seat. She was yelling through the glass at me. She was shaking her fist. She was irate. Livid. She was pointing at me. Glaring. Boiling. Livid. She was livid at me. The light couldn’t change fast enough.

I hated myself for what I did. I still hate myself. It caused an uncomfortable self-loathing to balloon in my insides, one that has been permanently wedged in my middle since. I understood at that moment that in certain situations it’s not all right to acknowledge someone else’s existence.

I’ve never known money. I know I’m not extraordinary. According to the most recent report by the Census Bureau, 44 million people are categorically poor. They draw the poverty line for a single adult in 2009 at $10,830 in pretax cash income and $22,050 for a family of four. Both figures are absurd, but obviously the line has to exist somewhere otherwise they wouldn’t have any tidy statistics.

To say that you’re poor and living hand-to-mouth, to acknowledge this everyday discomfort, goes against the grain of our social contract. Poverty must be altogether ignored or driven past quickly, which is what was so especially desperate about Hurricane Katrina: the portrait of our true American condition was suddenly satellited around the world in hyper-graphic detail. It was inescapable.

In our society, you can judge someone based upon the drugs they abuse, the number of times they’ve been incarcerated, where they are employed, their gender or the color of their skin, but it is not okay to discuss class. Poverty doesn’t have distinguishing physical characteristics, which is why the poor — if they wish to come out of the corral they’ve been shepherded into and coexist publicly without the lifejackets of their servile work uniforms — must not dress as though they’re poor and behave above their financial means. It’s that public acknowledgment of your own personal financial standing that is off-putting. I could never have struck up a conversation with my neighbor or the clerk at the grocery about WIC checks. Maybe that has to do with how I was raised, but I don’t believe so. Even in Bed-Stuy, despite the signs discussing the parameters of the Women Infant Children program posted throughout pharmacies and markets, it was a passive or overly defensive gesture, that act of handing over your welfare check.

Imagine if poor people had a sixth finger on their right hand: we’d be walking around with our right hands hidden from sight. But that’s what we do, we keep our poverty deeply pocketed and all we’re pinching with our sixth digit is non-monetary, cloud-like lint.

I have in myself the capacity to be idealistic and stupidly naive. I believe in the righteousness of the underdog. In my fantasies I’d like to imagine that every poor person has a tail. Think of it: we’d be a nation of dragons. To maintain balance, we’d be forced to collectively lurch forward on our toes in an aggressive posture toward the rich, who would teeter off-balance and bow-legged upon their heels.

Rather than studying business or nursing or environmental biology, or following a more predictable path of study that would have prepared me for a supportive lemonade-stand of a job, I elected instead to pursue a degree in dramatic writing at New York University. The student loans that inevitably set me behind did not position me in any way to immediately start a family and my own book publishing company after graduating.

So, is poverty a choice? Which would mean that this isn’t a dragon-tail. I really just made it out of papier mache and scotch-taped it to myself.

Jason Flores-Williams has a great line in a ‘Farewell to CBGB’ that he delivered at the closing-night party of the legendary punk club on Saturday, September 30th, 2006. It was re-published in The Brooklyn Rail, where he says “When you get past the hipster packaging, we’re just yuppies without the cash.” He calls shenanigans on everyone in the crowd.

I imagine there to be worse ailments than possessing money. I have my own very private daydreams of what I would do with a hoard of cash, ranging from a retreat in Central America, to opening a bookstore, or self-financing my own film. I know I would feel less squeamish buying top-shelf cheese, or even going out to eat more than once every-other-week. It’s tough to imagine what life without that knot would feel like.

Flores-Williams devotes most of the rest of his piece discussing how capitalism has co-opted our culture. You can see it by once venerable music magazines pasting popstars or naked actors from television melodramas on their cover. Or the once incendiary Grove Press, who were integral in shaping culture in the ’60s and ’70s, evolving into a Disneyfied incarnation of their previously feral monster. It’s depressing: some of our most public cultural beacons have been hijacked and transformed and de-valued. Their light is diminished, their currency is no longer valid.

We’re a nation of poor, yes, that has been acknowledged by the 99% posters. But once the rally has ended and we go our separate ways, we’re still engaged in a capitalist game of king-of-the-hill, trying to claw our way above our class station. All so that we can huff recycled air from the comfort of padded chairs and afford to see shitty movies and buy shitty books and subscribe to shitty magazines. What future culture feels worth fighting for?

With every paper and magazine narrowing their reach and the succession of headlines prescribing the ‘death of print,’ a book publishing company like the one that we began seems a less than viable business plan. At times there has been the sudden camera-flash of encouragement. Mostly what I’ve observed is that the corporate ideology of praying for blockbusters is the plan that is not viable. The union of faith established to support the previous status quo has largely fragmented, and as a society we’re splintering into millions of beautiful parts. The internet deserves a lot of credit. We can dub these parts ‘communities.’ Communities aren’t nourished by tax-skimping giants like Amazon but by active members who live in the area, which we can refer to, for convenience sake, as ‘individuals.’

What’s most important now is that we are in the midst of collectively framing a new national value. I believe Occupy Wall Street was the first public belly-yelp in that direction. Our identity is grungy. We are overweight and abuse the smoke breaks afforded us. Our picture isn’t airbrushed and won’t sell a million copies of a magazine. We are hillbillies and hoodrats and there is value in our person, in the work we are doing and the cultural fabric that we color. And should we find ourselves walking down the street toward one another I hope you will grant me a polite smile/nod and wave back. We can share a poor man’s handshake and admire one another’s tails, before teetering down the sidewalk in our opposing directions, each of us lurched forward aggressively.

Eric Obenauf is the editor and publisher of Two Dollar Radio. His writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.

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