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5 Pieces of Advice for the New Paupers

I just went through the hell of going from grad school-level poverty to the real thing. Here are my lessons learned.
 
 
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Little did I know that when I lost everything in 2008, I was doing research.

At the time I thought it was just stupidity or bad luck or both. But now that we're living through a violent economic upheaval, it turns out I had been gathering valuable tips for millions of new paupers. And let me clarify, I'm talking real poverty. 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 toward the end of the month. But we fell right through that into the sort of Dickensian privation that spoiled first-worlders like me never expected to experience. That's the kind of poverty that people are going through for the first time in their lives -- not just other people: you. I'm here to tell you, it can happen here and it can happen to you. And it's remarkably unpleasant. You may be saying "Duh!" here, but you're probably not imagining the proper sort of unpleasantness. So I'll try to lay out what to watch for, how to hunker down when it's not just a matter of cutting back or selling your second car but having no car at all, having no money for heat or food.

All the things we learned are going to seem pretty obvious, but remember that 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:

Warmth

Above all, you need to have a dry, warm place to sleep. We had only an unheated boat, and that was not enough. We woke up to the thump of sea ice banging against the hull and realized that the old world was still very much in session. When we finally fled to stay with family, we stayed in our blankets up against their gas fireplace for weeks. You won't even want food much after a while. You'll want heat itself, not the chemical middleman. 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.

Car

Got one? Maybe you should sell it. Cars drain the last dollars out of you. And there's something worse: Cops can smell desperation, and they hate the poor. I didn't hate cops as much before, except drug cops, but God, I hate them now. The real purpose of cops is to keep poor people off the roads. That's their only real goal. On my way to an interview for a job that could have gotten us out of the gutter, a cop stopped me because my insurance was two weeks overdue -- for the simple reason that we didn't have money to pay it. She gave me a $600 ticket for that, plus $120 for not having an updated address on my driver's license. Then she called for a tow truck and told me, "So, a lesson learned here today!" as I watched my car get towed away and trudged off with our terrified dog down a typical Western suburban road: four lanes of fast traffic with no sidewalks. Are you poor? The cops are your enemy now. Accept it. The car is how they'll try to get you. Sell it if you can -- which is to say, if there's any decent public transportation -- hah! -- where you live.

Shame

As in, forget about it. Shame is an affectation. I don't even need to say this, really. Once you've experienced actual cold and hunger, your good old Olduvai Gorge mammal body and brain will take over, and believe me, shame won't be a problem.

You'll also find that most of the social stuff is easier than you'd expect. These people are in show biz in a way; they have to be, just to survive. It makes them lively. And though I suppose it all depends on where you are when you lose out, in my experience they're not especially violent. They talk about it a lot, but so do all the white jocks I ever met, and in neither case does anything actually happen. 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. After waiting around with them in line at the local food bank, sharing "how I ended up here" stories and hanging out with them around a propane heater trying to stay warm, I relaxed a lot. 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.

Food Banks

These places, usually in the basement of a church (because churches are the only public institutions in the new suburbs of western North America) hand out baskets of groceries every week or, more often, every two weeks. You have to wait a long time, so learn your refugee skills. Come early, get a number first, and be nice but pushy. It's a delicate operation, being nice but pushy, but you'll learn it. The "nice" part is because you need to ask people for help and advice; you're not rich enough to be solitary anymore. The pushy part is simple: It's to prevent you from being ignored. So always talk to people, but never show money or mention it, if you have any.

Antidepressants

Get on them right away, if you're not already. If you are, up your dose. Because it's going to hurt. It doesn't matter how much Marxist theory you've absorbed; it doesn't matter that you can put your fall into global context; it's happening to you now, and it's going to hurt like you wouldn't believe. You're an American, and you share that culture's values whether you like it or not. So you define yourself by your job, car and house. When they go, you're going to hate yourself. Don't even bother arguing about it. It's going to happen. Just take the damn Prozac. Would you refuse a coat in Siberia? Refusing Prozac after falling into poverty makes about as much sense. Tom Cruise can go fuck himself. Prozac saved our lives. I won't go into the sordid details, but really, I don't think we'd be here now if Saint Prozac hadn't extended a sacred hand to us.

So the second you slip beneath genteel poverty toward the street, find the nearest free clinic, and don't be deterred by the smell of the crowd in the waiting room. Smell is going to be a problem for you at first, but after a few weeks you won't mind, because you smell too, and so does everyone around you. 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, and it may be why losers all smoke. 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, whether you want to or not. And you'll find that explaining one's great fall is a vital skill among the fallen, as well as a deeply satisfying pastime. This raises the issue of denial, a vital and deeply misunderstood mechanism. Denial, like Kurtz said about Terror, is your friend or an enemy to be feared. You need some denial to keep your ego from being crushed completely. Your ego is going to get very sick, now that you're nobody. It's easy to be polite and self-deprecating when you're winning. I used to be like that. You can't afford that when you're being crushed. You have to demand respect if you expect to get it. The alternative is to dwindle away and disappear. Those antidepressants will help you deny the facts, but don't be shy about doing ego-exercises, boasting practice, to reawaken that playground ego that so many of us polite middle-class types allowed to atrophy. You're going to need it.

On a practical level, the question is what to jettison -- and I'm not just talking about things. If you have kids well, God help you; I can't give advice here, because luckily we didn't. But we did, unfortunately, have a dog, a big clumsy puppy we got just before everything fell apart. We probably should have given her up. Growing up in an atmosphere of terror and cold and self-hatred, she turned out to be a very weird, unhappy dog. I've had lots of dogs before this, back when I was comfy, and they were all nice suburban dogs, Frisbee-catching pals. This one's a feral freak. Now that we have a warm place to live, it's almost fun watching her reactions, the way she flinches and sniffs at every noise, smell or flash of color, but I know she would have been happier getting adopted by some family that complains about what a pain it is having just four bedrooms.

Besides, if you have a dog, you're cutting down on your chances of getting a job. This one howls when she's left alone, another legacy of her traumatic puppyhood, so one of us had to stay with her most of the time. It was like being handcuffed to the wretched unheated ex-fishing boat we were living on.

The boat was another contributor to our debacle; it was something else we should have sold off right away, even at a 90 percent loss. The idea behind that damn boat was that instead of paying the insanely high West Coast rents, we'd live on the boat for free. This is a very bad idea. Any idea you have of retreating to some simple, free habitation should be regarded with deep doubt. The thing is, you can't get back to the comfortable, heated world from a place like that boat. No Internet. You need the 'net if you're ever going to claw your way back. You need a working shower, which that boat lacked. Otherwise you develop that look, that smell you first encountered in the free clinic waiting room. It's not a good look, jobwise. Maybe if we'd gotten rid of the dog I'd have had a chance.

But you lose more than that. You change completely, more than you realize, to the point that even 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. It was half creative writing, half teaching literature and composition -- all my specialties. 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: I 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. When they asked me, as I'd known they would, why someone who'd taught at bigger universities wanted to come to this small rural campus, I said truthfully, "I'd rather teach here in the forest than at Stanford." It didn't come out enthusiastic; it came out strident. After months of being a bum, I was the wrong volume, the wrong temperature. I could feel the job slipping away, and in fact they hired a local guy who was friends with the director, even though my resume kicked his resume's ass.

You'll find that if you want to get back into that quiet, odor-free, polite world, you're going to have to decompress for a few months. What happened to us is that we fled, found a basement apartment on borrowed money, and stayed there, keeping the heat on high for months. Then we were ready to try again for a job.

It took that long to calm down, quiet down, lose a little of the bitterness. Yes, you're going to be very bitter. You can't hate yourself all the time; you have to switch off now and then and blame somebody else. In fact, somebody else may damn well be to blame. Just make sure the bitterness doesn't keep you awake. To enable yourself to sleep, take long walks. Shout curses at the world if you need to; just keep walking. And no matter what, don't sell your sleeping bag. I had a North Face down bag, and I learned to love it way, way more than I loved myself.

Sleep is an antidepressant almost as good as Prozac. And it's free. The time to worry is when you wake up after a couple of hours screaming. That happened to me after five months, and that's when I broke down and asked my brother for a loan. That's where this story diverges from a real street story: I had an out. And believe me, I took it. I should have taken it sooner, in fact.

If you have an out -- a relative or friend who can lend you money to find a place to live -- take it now. And as soon as you get an offer -- some old friend has a ski cabin nobody's using, or a small unit behind their house -- take it, as long as it's heated.

The old world is very much alive, and has it in for you. Do anything to keep it from killing you. The only reason I haven't endorsed crime here is that from what I saw, paupers are not in a good position to try it. Like so much else, crime is for the big people.

This article was originally published in October, 2008.

John Dolan has taught at UC Berkeley, USF, and in New Zealand, Russia, Canada and Iraq. He has written seven books and many articles, both academic and popular. He is the author of, most recently, Pleasant Hell (Capricorn, 2005).

 
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