Money helps you make the judgment call for essentials versus desires. But when your funds are zero, everything is as equally unattainable as it is up for grabs.
“First the food, then the morality.” — Bertolt Brecht
When my 13-year-old son came home from school on Thursday and saw me watching news clips about the protestors in Baltimore he didn’t ask me why parts of the city were on fire. He asked why adults had to be in their houses by 10pm. My lame attempt at an explanation had the word “riot” in it. Then I said, “uprising,” and when his expression told me he didn’t understand how the two could be related, I told him, “People are tired of being poor.” My answer for not having a real answer.
He already knew the story of Freddie Gray—the 25-year-old African-American man who died on April 19th as a result of fractured vertebrae, a crushed larynx and a severed spinal cord; injuries that may have been inflicted during transport by Baltimore police after his arrest—but now my son wanted to know if the protesters were throwing rocks because they were upset about not being able to stay out late. “Why is that officer trying to take away a box of Huggies from that teenager?” He asked.
“It’s never right to steal and vandalize,” I said, “But sometimes…”
I didn’t know what to say next.
I’ve spent the last three days firing off my social media mouth about that young man’s gruesome death, and the collapse of a system that is splitting the nation into more questions than answers. Though part of me wanted to share my own small explanation for what was happening on the streets of Baltimore, I was too tired to do the same thing I’ve been doing for almost a week: defend hostility and violence to someone who doesn’t possess the life experience to truly understand what poverty does to the human spirit.
I grew up in a multi-racial lower class suburb of the San Francisco Bay Area with a single mother and a stay-at-home grandma. I know the right thing to do when you’re talking about a childhood without money is to say, “I never knew we were poor,” but that would be a lie. I damn well knew it. My older brother and sister knew it. My mother and grandmother knew it too.
We knew it from the glares and impatient sighs we heard from the people in the grocery store line as we counted out the food stamps that had to be torn from their perforated booklet and sorted before the cashier could accept them. “Why can’t these people do this at home?”
We knew it from the Goodwill tags on our jeans and the TV dinners that came in boxes colored with green and gold to look like Swanson’s.
We knew a family with money didn’t have to read from a script their mother kept by the phone in case the landlord called asking for the rent. “I want you kids to understand lying is bad,” our mother would say. “But this is just a white lie so we don’t get put out on the streets.”
No child ever forgets the grown-up tricks of survival. And the more tricks we learned—“If you don’t sign the check they’ll send it back, then you can buy more time”—the easier it became to blur the lines between the things we wanted, the things we needed, and the things we were supposed to have.
The ethics of right and wrong is only a tiny smudge in that blur.
I started stealing sometimes around the first grade. Candy mostly, then magazines and makeup. By age 12 I lifted anything I thought would make life better. When I was 15 I walked out of Macy’s with a $200 designer jacket. It never occurred to me to think anything other than, here is something I can get, here is how I will get it.
Eight years later I would feel exactly the same indifference when I stole a blanket from a woman who was sleeping on the street.
The story of how I found myself homeless isn’t anything new under the cloudy sun of Girl Runs Away to be With Boy. So I won’t bother with the details here. But I will change “found” myself, to “got” myself homeless because if I hadn’t left my husband and moved 3,000 miles away from everything I knew to be with a man I hardly knew at all there would be no homeless story to tell. It never helps to blame someone or something else for any situation that starts off under your control. Still, it doesn’t make the hardships that follow those situations any less devastating.
Three months after moving from California to Virginia, I lost my job, my apartment, and my boyfriend. Four months into the mistake of wanting something better, I was snatching up French fries from restaurant trays and seeking out tourists who were watching the sunset instead of their wallets. I had no money, no support system. No family willing to help me fix my mess.
“You chose to leave,” my sister said when I called her begging to wire bus fare back home. “Maybe this will teach you to deal with the here and now of what you caused.” Though I don’t think I have it in me to let a friend or relative sleep on the streets, I cannot say my sister was wrong about that “here and now” lesson.
That’s why I think so many of us are missing the point on the right or wrong of what happened with the vandalism and looting in Baltimore. Living on the streets forces you to become hyper aware of your here. As for your now, that’s pretty much the only thing poverty will let you have.
But ruining your own neighborhood brings justice to no one!
That’s the general sum of what I keep hearing and reading, and I couldn’t agree more. You know who else agrees? The men and women pulling out high-definition TVs and computers from broken windows. Money helps you make the judgment call for essentials versus desires. But when your funds are zero, everything is as equally unattainable as it is up for grabs.
Here is something I want. Here is how I will get it.
The winter months on the East Coast are rough, and growing up in a place where beach sand provides comfort year-round for anyone who needs a place to crash, I wasn’t prepared for what constant cold does to your body and mind. On my third night running on the fumes of what I call street sleep (the insanity of worrying that someone will steal the things you have taken from someone else) it took no moral effort at all to swipe that blanket from the homeless woman who, by now, I knew by name. I needed to get warm. Right or wrong meant nothing. All I wanted was to stop shivering.
When I stole food and toiletries from little mom and pop places (there are many in the touristy area of Virginia Beach) I didn’t stop to think about how hard Mr. and Mrs. had worked to become business owners. Hunger doesn’t want to hear the other guy’s story.
Halfway in to my first homeless month I was scoping out people who looked weak enough for me to take whatever I needed. I was also filling out job applications, and when I stole the purse of a woman who had $30 cash and a full bottle of Tylenol, I made a secret pledge to find her once I was employed. But animals don’t survive by showing sympathy for their prey. If I could calm my hunger pains and clear the fog in my mind I could write a snappy resume. It was just one more day I had to make it through. Maybe tomorrow would bring a job. Maybe tomorrow I could talk my dad into wiring some money. All those lies you tell yourself about the next day leave little room for the dialogue of conscience.
One night I was balled up in that homeless woman’s blanket on a boardwalk bench when a jogging elderly couple asked me if I could point them in the direction of the nearest 7-11. The woman wore a fanny packed that was obviously stuffed with things she thought she needed on her jog. If they’re looking for a store, I thought, one of them has money. I had planned on returning three job applications the next day but needed a ride across town to my storage unit for some clean clothes. Four dollars for cross-city bus fare and maybe a doughnut. Coffee, I thought sizing up which one looked the strongest, coffee in the morning would help me be a better person.
I wasn’t made from the kind of stock where a young girl thinks about robbing two old people. And yet, even as I showed them where they could find the closest convenience store—searching with my eyes for that fanny strap buckle, calculating in my head how many seconds I would need to unsnap it and run—nothing of who these people were, what hardships they had overcome in their lives mattered. Survival is all about finding your in. Hopelessness is a great map for showing you where that opening might be.
I didn’t rob the couple that night, but for one reason only: Two people who were fit enough to jog would probably require a gun.
When I think about that man and woman now, the part of my adult brain—the part that has raised four children, baked PTA cookies, volunteered at animal shelters—understands the severity of what could have happened, but I still have to work to remind myself that what I did was a bad thing. Maybe because I have always been bad. It’s almost as if growing up poor changes your DNA. When you see people running down a street with giant packages of toilet paper and boxes of baby formula it takes effort to tell yourself stealing something you want or need is wrong. And if a child asks if you would ever do something like that, the part that feels the least right is when you lie and say, “No.”
I’ve heard it said a smart person never forgets where they came from. What is seldom talked about is that many of us remember simply because we can’t forget. Even as we slide into that new car we were able to purchase because we struggled honestly for whatever part of the American dream we could find, it’s almost impossible to forget the smell of the rotten eggs the neighborhood kids threw at the Pinto your mom drove to work for 14 years.
There’s a kind of sinister power in knowing you are less.
I’ve made up stories about places I’ve never seen, people I’ve never met, simply because I was ashamed to share with the friends in front of me—mostly white, mostly middle class—the truth of the person I was. No one wants to admit her own mother pretended not to see her slip that box of maxi pads under your jacket. Not because she was too lazy to teach you right from wrong, but because she needed them too. You don’t tell this kind of stuff to the people you’re trying to become.
But what happens when there’s no one around to help you become something other than poor? White folks are great at pretending we’re not one of them, and my family was no different. It’s easy to fake who you might be one day when you have something hopeful to see. I remember watching the dental assistant who lived in the apartment upstairs walking to her new car in her scrub smocks and thinking, I could do that. That could be me.
Here is what I want. Now show me how to get it.
Growing up poor in a neighborhood where the city sees to it that the potholes are fixed, that the schools have healthy cafeteria food and new textbooks is very different than spending your formative years in a neighborhood where 70% of the population never graduated from high school. It’s not exactly reasonable to think all children can say “I’m going to be different” when everyone around you is too exhausted to pretend. How does anyone keep their eye on a brighter tomorrow when the world outside your door is filled with darkness?
What to do you when the light at the end of an entire generation’s tunnel appears in the shape of a liquor store with a blown-out door? You do the thing you’ve done your entire life: You walk in, and get what’s coming to you.
Traci Foust holds a degree in American Literature from UCSC. She is the author of Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD (Simon and Schuster 2011) Both her fiction and non fiction have appeared in several journals and websites including The Southern Review, Funny or Die, and The Nervous Breakdown. She is currently working on her second memoir, Love and Xanax. Find her on Facebook or her website. She is also a memoir instructor for Hardcore Memoir Workshops.