Saturday, May 16, 2009

Snips from "Tips for New Paupers"

Snips from a brilliant blogpost in The Exiled that is more true today than when written October last. So far - in Sacramento and in America, generally - the middle class is hanging on; but soon, even if the economy starts more of an uphill climb, people in our country and city will loose their grip on middle-class comfort and perks. The post is called "Tips for New Paupers," written by John Dolan. It relates to a fall into homelessness by him and his wife in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

My wife and I fell through many layers of poverty in a few months. First we revisited the genteel poverty known to grad students, the sort of poverty where you have scary dreams about the rent and eat a simple, wholesome diet towards the end of the month. But we fell right through that into the sort of Dickensian privation spoiled first-worlders like me never expected to experience. That’s the kind of poverty a lot of people are going to be experiencing soon – because I’m here to tell you, it can happen here and it can happen to you. And it’s remarkably unpleasant.
... it’s very hard to think clearly when your life has collapsed. These are what they call the old verities, the truths of life before the middle class was (briefly) in session.
You are going to realize that cold is the most frightening thing in the world. In older English dialects, “to starve” meant “to freeze.” You will see why.
Shame is an affectation. I don’t even need to say this, really. Once you’ve experienced actual cold and hunger, your good old Ouldivai Gorge mammal body and brain will take over, and believe me, shame won’t be a problem.
[Regarding the people you'll meet in Homeless World Vancouver...] They’re flinchy people, mainly, who spend a lot of time waiting for things. When you’re waiting, you get very frustrated but you don’t want to shake things up. So they’re tense, bitter, sociable, gossipy and treacherous—a fine cross-section of the population. ... They’re not going to mug you. They are going to try to get any cash you have, and God did they get a huge chunk of our last resources, but it was friendly, schmooze-based extortion, just like in the middle-class world. All that was missing was the deodorant.
Antidepressants. Get on them right away...
If you want a break from the relentless olfactory fact of being around unwashed large mammals, sidle up to somebody who smokes. That’s the one good thing about cigarettes ... Don’t smoke just for that, though. Cigarettes are insanely expensive and turn lots of poor people into cringing beggars.
How do you tell your story? That’s going to matter, because you’ll be brooding about what went wrong 24/7 ... This raises the issue of denial, a vital and deeply misunderstood mechanism. Denial, like Kurtz* said about Terror, is your friend…or it is an enemy to be feared. You need some denial to keep your ego from being crushed completely.
...if you get a break you can’t grab it. After months of applying for teaching jobs without even getting answers, the perfect job opened up for me at a local college. ...But when the interview started I realized I was no longer someone who could talk the quiet, polite, oblique version of self-promotion demanded by academic hiring committees. I was too deeply, permanently spooked by our condition. I was just plain wrong, unhireably wrong in every way. No hot water on the boat, and I needed to shave the graying wisps of hair on my big bald head, so I’d shaved in the McDonald’s men’s room on the way to the interview, with a cheap Bic shaver. You can guess the results: it looked like a bobcat had tried to roost on my scalp, and been evicted after a violent struggle. The used sport coat we’d spent our last $20 of Visa credit on at Value Village didn’t seem to fit nearly so well, once I was inside that humming, immaculate classroom where the interview was held. And I had become a louder, more desperate, excessive person. When I tried to sound positive, it came out furious. ... After months of being a bum, I was the wrong volume, the wrong temperature.
Be aware that most people who "fall" into homelessness – in Sacramento, especially, which has a warm climate – won't find things as deparately bad as John Dolan did, but many will be suffer from the kind of shock of being rather-suddenly homeless that Dolan describes.
* in reference to Col Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's novel "Heart of Darkness," who says at one point, "Horror. Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies."

Thanks go to the blog That sticks and stones should fall [link], through which I found the blogpost "Tips for New Paupers."

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