I was in my early 20s, living in St. Louis after spending summer and fall in Europe pretending to be poor. I stretched the money I had earned during my last year in college by being expatriate-moveable-feast poor. I spent little and lived on the student hostel breakfast and coffee and drinks and maybe a meal bought by a paramour now and then. I loved feeling on the edge when I slept with squatters in Berlin, in the Florence train station, or in the bed of an immigrant student in Vienna. My version of poor was romantic and dangerous, political and poetic. I came home in winter when my money finally really ran out, sick with pneumonia, wracked by a pregnancy scare, and as tragically happy as I’ve ever been.
Working for #specific-company taught me a bit more about what poverty is.
At first I canvassed the working class neighborhoods and inner-city project housing apartments of the city, learning a deep lesson in how to get to the point and connect with people immediately on issues that matter to them — long before I had heard of an elevator pitch. I collected signatures and donations for months before earning the golden ticket to community organizing training which allowed me to run a mission.
My mission took me much deeper into the homes, hallways and meeting places of people living in entrenched poverty. It wore me out to try to make sense of all that I saw. Or what I didn’t see. Busses–the lifeline out to services, food and work–were late or simply didn’t come. School-aged children roamed all day long, with no concern for school hours. The only “outsiders” to visit were an occasional ambulance. People who thought I was a social service caseworker said they were surprised to see me day after day, because even caseworkers didn’t come back.
The apartments were burdened with squalor and disrepair. The attempts at livability by the poor were creative given the impossibility of traveling to a hardware store, much less purchasing non-essentials. Using buckets to cope with non-function toilets. Trash swept, pushed and piled into the corners of stairwells. Laundry rinsed in sinks and hung to dry. Spoiled food floating in melted ice in a trashbag-lined box that tried to serve as a makeshift refrigerator.
I tried to learn how to try to talk to people about what they deserved to fight for without demeaning the way that they lived. Sometimes I succeeded. I totally won over a group of women when I did nothing but flip-off a rat that ran over my foot while we were talking. Sometimes I failed. Once a mother talked about being raped in her apartment and how she didn’t bother calling the police because they would never come and she felt what happened didn’t matter anyway. As she talked, her four-year old son huffed from an inhaler that was tied by a shoestring to the back of a railed chair–I suppose so that he could find it, or to keep it clean. They both looked tired, unclean, unhealthy, and resigned to the internalized oppression of poverty. I had to fight back tears, and this was a profoundly unforgivable failure because I could tell the mother saw my pity. Pity is the last thing she needed.
Ultimately I “organized” her, her neighbors and the prostituted women who worked the street to get the city to remove trash and to demand that police respond to calls from the neighborhood. They did all of the leading, and they surpassed all of their goals. I taught them a few things–how to request public records, how to find out about city meetings, how to talk to reporters–and they ran with it. They taught me much, much more.f