Originally published in 2008.
Been thinking a lot about the economic meltdown and my own poverty.
Fact is, I’ve learned so well how to be poor that the global financial crisis isn’t affecting my lifestyle a whole lot—I’ve been surviving on next to nothing for so long that it doesn’t much matter if the world around me is a thousand times as wealthy as I or twice as wealthy as I: 1,000 times nothing = two times nothing. I’m far enough under the radar that I have to scrounge and hustle for every scrap in any event.
I like to quote the line from my favorite movie, The Princess Bride, in which Westley points out that being prepared for the worst is good preparation indeed:
“We know the secrets of the fire-swamp. We can live there happily for some time, so whenever you feel like dying, feel free to visit.”
Once one has become a survivor, one knows that survive is what one does. And one has a leg up on anybody who hasn’t yet become a survivor.
Right now I’m being kept alive by a charity program through a non-profit hospital system. The meds to keep my nearly-49-year-old body alive cost roughly the same as the meds to keep my 80-year-old father’s body alive. He has Medicare and nearly no retirement, thanks to the steel industry having gone bust in the ’80s. I’ve never been quite sure how they’ve done it, Mom and he, all these years, but I do know that the foundations of my own compulsive thrift were established at my mother’s knee.
The way things are going, Medicare and Medicaid and the like will be defunct in 17 years when I reach 65 and am theoretically old enough to benefit from them; I haven’t earned enough in my lifetime ever to draw from Social Security.
At this point, my life, I have it on good authority from smart cardiologists, is imperiled if I skip even a day’s dosage of Plavix. I don’t know what I’d do if the healthcare system on which I depend ever went belly-up. I just hope the end would be quick and painless. I am uninsurable by pretty much any reckoning these days: I suspect that more conditions pre-exist in me than don’t. (About the only thing that hasn’t affected my ancestors or siblings, knock wood, is the C-word.)
I don’t appear to be as poor as I am, thanks mainly to my educatedness and my ability to barter. I am told that the education provides me with “cultural capital.” Culturally, from a global perspective, I am in the upper echelon of the élite, with my master’s degree and my prodigious ability to articulate myself. Economically, I am unquestionably poor, or at least impecunious: I doubt that my income will reach $1,000 this year. Heck, it’ll probably not reach $500, at the rate I’ve been going.
But I know the secrets of the fire-swamp.
It’s an odd paradox, this living-between-the-worlds that I do. I’m a fine illustration of the notion of the “shabby genteel.” Because I have mastered the earnest, “emo,” spiritual hippie persona, I can pass myself off as being a lot more honest than I really am: in my day-to-day affairs, I do in fact put a high premium on honesty, integrity, authenticity, congruence. But the fact is that collection agencies call me all the time, and not without justification. I almost never answer them.
One collection agent even said to me once, about my Sears credit account, “But you promised!” She was right: I had. And then I defaulted on the account. Not on the whole thing—I had paid on it until I went under, and then Sears refused to budge even a little bit in helping me out: rules were rules, and they reserved the right not to meet me any part of the way, let alone half. So they inflexibled themselves out of ever getting another cent out of me on credit. I’ve not shopped at Sears since then, nor do I ever intend to. And K-Mart pretty much lost me in the merger, to boot. Too bad—I unashamedly bought most of my clothes there for years.
I really don’t want to get started on the saga of my grad-school loans: I knew, when I graduated, that I would be in debt to the Feds for the rest of my life for those, but at the time I expected my life to be much shorter than I expect it to be now, at least if my medical charity holds out. I’ve been in default for so long on those loans that I’m probably a criminal by any definition of the word at this point. Pretty sad for someone whose master’s-degree program started out as being ministry.
I’m more or less alienated from my folks right now—not by any dislike for them so much as because I can’t seem to have a conversation with them any more without feeling lousy about myself, so I just avoid the Near Occasion of Teenage Angst Revisited. By all rights I should probably be disinherited, because I’m no longer any such thing as a Good Son. But I suspect, because equity is a value in my family, that I will probably have some kind of modest inheritance when their time comes. I fully expect that the entire thing will be garnished by the Feds, which is actually fine with me—I don’t begrudge any of my creditors what I promised I’d give them. I just don’t have it to give yet. When I do, I don’t mind giving it. Why should I? The Feds paid for two of the best years of my life: that grad-school experience was particularly exhilarating, and I am grateful for it. My hopes for the job market after I graduated, at which time we were a nation at war and No Child Left Unregulated was an entrenched institution, had just been spectacularly exaggerated.
I don’t know what I am—an honest man or a scoundrel of the first water: cases can be made for both. I like to think that I am pretty practiced at the “fearless moral inventory,” as they call it in Twelve-Step programs. Yet the fact is that I will sign on any dotted line if it means I get a crack at having my life saved in the ER, even if I haven’t a clue if or when I’ll ever have the means to do it. What kind of life is that, if I would lie to save it? I don’t know. What I do know is that if I die, there is no chance that anybody will ever get a cent out of me, so all other things being equal, I’d rather stay alive, thanks.
As a child, I read (repeatedly!) I.G. Edmonds’ account of the renowned judge Ooka of Edo (old Tokyo), who determined, on one occasion, that a certain thief was an honest thief, for he only stole enough rice to feed his family for the next day.
Anybody who knows me knows that I am not an extravagant man: I really do live on next to nothing, and I ask little, materially, of life. I scrounge and scavenge and recycle and jury-rig and make do. I entertain myself on the cheap—usually for free—all the time. (My greatest guilty pleasure is dollar books from reduced racks.) I’m really quite conscientious for a scoundrel.
It’s difficult for me, when asked to provide proof of income, to imagine what they could possibly want out of me: I haven’t made enough money from any one source to acquire a 1099 for years, let alone a W-2. I make so little that I can’t even prove how little I make without asking enquirers simply to take my word for it. The world doesn’t have a context for the likes of me: one who is poorer than lots of street-junkies yet blogs from an air-conditioned bedroom office with a reliable roof over it.
So I don’t know what to say. I assume that my sordid past as a liar and a thief will catch up with me sooner or later—and probably before I manage to win any super lotteries—and meanwhile, I continue to skulk around in plain sight yet largely under the radar, because, just as databases aren’t set up to render my surname as two words with its two capital letters (hence “LeFey,” not leafy or leffy), my life doesn’t compute. It’s not so much that I set out to be a hustler: I didn’t. I’d like to become an honest man again. I just can’t see how to have it both ways, and I’m not ready to die for it quite yet.
And at this point, I can’t see the justice in slamming me for a few thousand dollars while robber barons are tap-dancing away to the tune of billions. So I live this precarious existence on the lam… in plain sight.
©2008 Khrysso Heart LeFey