M is a journalist in Kentucky who went through a nasty divorce a few years back. She was drinking white wine in those days and coping with an abusive ex-husband but she pulled herself together, went through rehab, and raised two kids who adore her. The kids are out of the house now, and M is six years sober. She lives alone in a small town along the I-75 corridor just south of Cincinnati.
During the recent recession, jobs went away for journalists in the rural part of northern Kentucky where she lives. M found a job tutoring kids in English that paid $13 per hour, but a new Republican governor was elected and the program was cut. M strung some freelance work together, found some other part-time work. But none of her three jobs come with benefits or health care. She has some help from her family and her house is paid off. Of the nineteen million Americans classified as “the working poor,” she is better off than most. Still, in 2009 she made $20,000. In 2010 she made $10,000, well below the poverty line.
I went to see M just before Christmas. She’d just had some teeth pulled at the free clinic. Her mouth looked swollen and puffy. She’d been dreading the oral surgery for weeks, she told me on the phone. Every time she went to the “free clinic,” it cost $30 to be seen. Plus, getting there was a major pain in the ass. The clinic told her she wouldn’t be able to drive after the surgery, so a friend drove her, a sixty mile round trip.
I was there to provide consolation, M said when I walked through the door. In the Catholic sense, she added, presenting her tender mouth for a kiss. M had a Catholic girlhood, eight years of private Catholic schools, and could quote Julian of Norwich from memory, but these days she refers to herself as a pagan and is more likely to invoke the Goddess. She is mad at Jesus, who spoke so glowingly of the poor. There is nothing fucking virtuous about poverty, she groused.
Leaving my house in Ohio to make the drive to see her, I had reached down and picked up from the floor the remains of a case of chicken noodle soup, as an afterthought. When I swung the soup onto her kitchen counter, I sheepishly counted six cans. Oh, she said. You brought soup!
I stayed with her two nights. It snowed both nights. The snow fell faintly through the air and she took my arm as we walked to my car. The first night I took her to Olive Garden. Her little house is across the street from the railroad tracks, and as we backed out of her gravel driveway we watched the headlamps play across the tracks. She ordered minestrone and I was able to get her to eat some pasta. You always loved to feed me, she said. It was true.
The next morning two men showed up in a pickup. One of them was named Tommy. He was a family friend who’d been hitting on her for years, she explained later, though he was married to one of her best friends. With Tommy was a big guy with a long beard and a gray hoodie, who looked like he could have stood in on guitar with ZZ Top. Tommy and his friend hoisted a huge box of food onto M’s counter, next to the remains of my case of soup.
The food was from the Good Guys Club, Tommy explained. Tommy had dark hair and a pencil moustache. He looked like Squiggy from Laverne & Shirley. There was a frozen turkey in the big box, and a sack of potatoes. Bread, milk, eggs, peanut butter, cereal. It was a tall box and it was full. M squealed with delight. Don’t thank us, Tommy said, thank the Good Guys Club.
I asked ZZ Top how long the Good Guys Club had been around. Oh, a long time, he said. He was new to it himself, but Tommy was a long time with the club. Tommy nodded his head. M asked ZZ if he was still out of work. He said he was. Thirty years with the company, and laid off before Christmas. But I expect to go back soon, he said. We all nodded and looked at our shoes.
M asked me for a dollar. I couldn’t imagine why she wanted a dollar at that particular moment but I gave it to her. Here, she said, waving the dollar bill at Tommy, but Tommy wasn’t taking any money. He looked at my BMW parked out front and said to M: If anyone wants to make a donation they can just give it to the Good Guys Club.
M used to write short stories. We had met at a writers’ conference in Yellow Springs, Ohio. In those days we were especially fond of Raymond Carver; now M seemed to me more like a character from one of those stories. That was a dumb thing to think but I thought it anyway. Seeing her again made me wonder, as I often do, about how we fall into narratives. Whether as readers and writers stories choose us, or we choose stories.
M writes news articles for the small local paper. Her kids love to see her byline and she is proud of her work. She feels like she is contributing to the community that she loves, that her work matters and helps people.
The next week I went back to see how she was doing. I saw her neighbor across the street eyeballing me as I got out of my car. Oh, M says, yeah, him. Retired railroad guy. He’s been after me for years to sleep with him. He’s offered me $600 a month. He looks that way at all my boyfriends.
But I’m not your boyfriend, I said. She gave me the look, stuck out her tongue. Doesn’t matter, M said. To him you are.
The next morning she was up at first light and out the door, saying something about the magazine. I assumed she was out working on a feature story but when she returned to the house four hours later she told me she’d been stacking magazines at K-Mart. She helps offload the magazines from a truck. Then she loads the magazines into a shopping cart, and wheels the cart onto the floor. She stacks and shelves the magazine and she hates it. But what the fuck, I need the money, she said.
Stacking magazines pays $8.00 per hour. This is one of her three part-time jobs. M tells me she has a bead on a fourth. She is hoping that in 2011 the local paper will be able to hire her full-time, but it doesn’t look good. She interviewed for an editorial position in Cincinnati, editing a newsletter for a homeless coalition. She’d be terrific at it, and she is fully qualified for the work. I happened to know the Executive Director, so I called his cellphone and left a reference on voicemail but she hasn’t heard anything back from him.
M has an overactive bladder condition. A simple procedure would fix it, but it would cost $200 up front, and there is the drive to consider, the sixty miles round trip to the “free” clinic. This is the thing about rural poverty that I always forget (I am a city person). All the services are so far away. M asked me if I had $200. I didn’t. (I am going through a divorce myself, and money is tight.) She waved her hand and said, Oh, that’s OK. Then I guess I won’t get it. She didn’t look disappointed. It was a long drive, the surgery would eat up a whole workday, and she’d been living with the bladder thing for years, she said. She’d get by.
M wakes up thinking about being poor. She goes to sleep worrying about the bills. A robo-call from Kohl’s department store comes every hour on the hour, wanting payment. I ask her how much she owes the department store. Five hundred, she says, matter of factly. She bought some Christmas presents, recently, for her kids. I wince when she says this and she flashes on me and shakes her fine Irish head and says stop it. Don’t fucking pity me. What, are you here to tell my story? Ha! Forget it. I’m one of the lucky ones and we both fucking know it. Give it a rest.
But I can’t. I think about the $200 that would fix her bladder. It angers me that I cannot fix things for her. I am not Mr. Fixit. Another one of Carver’s characters.
America spends $190 million every day on the war in Afghanistan. Who knows how much more per day in Iraq (the war no one talks about any longer). What would that money do if it were applied to the health concerns of people like M? Or invested in job creation in northern Kentucky or in Ohio, where we lost 300,000 jobs last year?
I worked hard for Obama in 2008, as did many of my neighbors. In the precincts where we labored, day after day, door by door, and long into election night, we swamped McCain, over 4,000 to 318. We helped deliver Ohio, and the election. We were fighting for something.
But not this.
The President needs some partners to move the country forward. There appear to be none in sight. I cannot hear President Obama. He is being drowned out by Fox Noise and other 24 hour media scream outlets. Someone needs to recover courage, and yes, some hope, soon.
I used to work for a non-profit organization whose mission was to reduce poverty in our community. We started a program called “School of the Streets” that mentored kids in the arts. Most of the kids wanted to sing or dance, but a few wrote poetry or painted. They would meet with their mentors once a week to work at their craft, and to talk about what it took to be successful. The mentors were a talented group of musicians, teachers, ministers, social workers, and retired folks who enjoyed sharing their lives with kids. The program culminated each year in a Talent Showcase. Over a thousand people would show up for this event, and we often featured a “name” gospel group to headline the evening, which thrilled the kids and their parents. But we lost our funding during the recession when grant money dried up, along with everything else.
During the Clinton Administration when welfare reform was instituted and the president was going around talking about all of the jobs that had been created under his administration, I heard a guy tell a joke. I liked the joke so much I started telling it myself, when I was called on to speak about poverty at some civic function in our community.
The joke goes like this. The President (pick any president, any era) was speaking at a banquet in a ballroom of a famous hotel touting how many millions of jobs had been created under his watch. And everyone was applauding the President. Three million new jobs! And one old man who was working the event, busing tables, is heard to mutter, Yeah, and I got three of ‘em.
Poverty takes many forms. Material poverty is not the only kind. There is spiritual poverty, civic poverty. I ask myself: What is the poverty in me?
I think of M and her neighbor and the $200 she needs for her surgery, and the way she works hard every day and I think about her hands, which cradled my head last week as we talked long into the night about the way things were with us, once upon a time, when things seemed more hopeful, as if a future might open for us one day, and recall the way she rubs lotion into her feet each night, which are sore from standing on the days she stacks magazines early in the winter morning. I would like to find the guy who told that joke about the President’s job creation and kick his ass.
I called M today. She told me she was giving serious thought to letting the retired railroad neighbor across the street move in with her. She was obsessing about money, and the Kohl’s calls kept coming. He’ll want sex, M said, and that’s sort of repulsive, but he’s not such a bad guy. He’s been a good neighbor.