Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day: Perspective.

Today is Blog Action Day, everyone, and this year's theme is Poverty.

I have a history of being exposed to poverty. I also have a history of talking about how I have no money. But if we could, for a moment, let's sit down and consider what it really means to not have any money. 

Growing up, my family wasn't always doing terribly well. My parents were where I first learned the dangers of credit. They didn't make a ton of money, but we always had very nice things. The hot tub in the back yard, the satellite dish back when that was a super huge deal, the new cars every two years. My mother loves Christmas. I was technically an only child (step-siblings and half-siblings, but we never lived together), so I was spoiled. Presents as far as the eye can see, all lovingly wrapped for me to destroy on the morning of December 25th. As a kid, you don't necessarily consider where these things come from. It took me awhile to learn about the concept of credit. 

I worked in pre-foreclosure for my first year of college. I was making enough money to support myself and my live-in boyfriend, who was finishing up an incredibly difficult college major. It paid our rent ($345 for an efficiency; I miss the midwest), it paid for our food, and it paid for us to occasionally go out and do fun things. It was also the worst job experience I've ever had. I sat at a desk every day and listened to people tell me that they could pay their mortgage or feed their kids, and what would I do if I was in their position? The truth is that I could never understand their position. How do you get there? How do you purchase a house and suddenly not have the capacity to pay for it? I pitied these people, I really did, but I had difficulty understanding their situation. But I listened to them yell at me for eight hours a day, and then I would go home and cry. I hated my job. But it was major exposure to the idea of living beyond your means. 

I'm sure we're all looking for some heart-warming tale of how I learned my lesson about credit from that job, but I don't know if I'd get ready for that just yet. It should be noted that I have incredibly good credit. I've got a high credit rating, because even if I'm carrying huge balances, I pay my bills every month. A high credit rating means that my bank keeps raising my limit, which means that my balance keeps raising, because I'm going to pay it off in that magical "someday" where I don't have to worry about money anymore. And now I carry close to $20,000 in credit card debt. It's a combination of factors. College, the year-long stint in New York working at a job that didn't support my newly-turned-21 habits, a wedding, moving to San Francisco after being unemployed for seven months with absolutely no savings.

I live more modestly in San Francisco than I ever have, because, well... it's pretty easy to do so. The Roommate isn't a huge money-spender. I don't really know a lot of people around here. I am a $2 PBR girl, not a $10 cocktail girl. I live in a neighborhood where the best food is often the cheap food. I don't spend any money on transportation and I am splitting the cost of the cheapest studio I've seen in this city. I get by. But when I first moved here, I had no money. However, I've got really good credit. So if I was hungry, I could just transfer a few hundred bucks from a credit account and eat modestly for a few weeks. Sure, the credit runs out eventually. But I've got enough open that if I HAD to pay my rent and get by like that for a few months, I could make do.

This is where I am lucky. If I have to dig up money for an emergency, I can. It's not a smart way to operate. But it is an option. I have parents who don't really make a lot of money, but are willing to give me what they have if they know I'm really struggling. Sure, I moved here with "no money", but I am not going to bed hungry because I have no other options. Also, I am going to BED. In a bed, wrapped up in a comforter, with no concerns about my safety throughout the night. I wake up the next morning and take a hot shower. I grab a bowl of cereal. I go to my coffee shop, with my computer, and I work. I'm buying $1.75 house coffee instead of $5 lattes, but I am still living comfortably. I have nothing to bitch about, ever.

Over the past five and a half years, I have always found myself living in low-income neighborhoods. It's not really a matter of taking advantage of pre-gentrification - the neighborhoods immediately surrounding my college were certainly lower-class. In New York, I moved in with two good friends who happened to live in a safe, but as-yet-ungentrified location. (I have a feeling it's coming eventually.) I live in a neighborhood now that's a strange mixture of people who are legitimately impoverished, families that have been here for years, and hipsters. (I really have no idea how the hell to describe my neighborhood in a way that's fair and beautiful, so I'm just giving up.) 

If I want to walk to the train station, I have to pass people who are crazy. And I don't mean to be derogatory or sound like an asshole, but I mean legitimately crazy. The type of crazy that only comes when you haven't eaten for four days - and when you did eat your last meal, it might have been some McDonald's leftovers that you dug out of the trash. The type of crazy that comes from not having a good night's sleep in a decade. The type of crazy that comes from not having any friends, not having any family, not having a single person to turn to. The type of crazy that has to literally sleep with one eye open lest you lose the possessions that look like trash to passers-by, but are literally all you have to cling to. The type of crazy that comes from feeling like the system has failed you. The type of crazy that KNOWS you are crazy and can't do a single thing to save yourself. The type of crazy that has completely run out of rope.

It makes me feel awful. I feel awful because I legitimately can't imagine it. I'm sure my parents had some incredibly close brushes with being impoverished when I was growing up, but if they did, I certainly didn't know about it. I always had shoes on my feet and a meal on the table, and at the end of the day, I got to curl up in my warm bed and sleep, safe and sound. I have been incredibly lucky in my life. I've got a lot of debt, and it's going to take me a long time to pay it back. But I'm college-educated. I can charge a lot of money for my freelance work because I am good at what I do and I have five years of education and work experience to back it up. My clothes fit a little loose now and I don't look quite as professional as I should, but I still have nice things to wear to a job interview.

Everyone around the blogosphere has been offering their tips and tricks for what you can do to combat poverty, so I'm not going to add to them. The truth is that there are no hard and fast solutions out there. What I want everyone to do is just think. Consider a world where you have to put your head on the sidewalk at night, a world where you have to paw through garbage in front of well-to-do individuals in the morning to see if someone threw out part of a sandwich. Consider how humiliated you might be and how hard it would be to retain your pride and your sanity. I don't have a lot of money. I'm working on making my income a little higher, and I certainly hope that when the day comes that I have disposable income, I'll be trying to help others with it. What I can do right now is smile at someone I pass. If I'm walking out of a restaurant and I have leftovers with me, I can offer them to someone I see digging through a bag of garbage instead of just throwing them away eventually. 

I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen my biological father cry. One of them is when he was telling me a story about why he always carries change. He used to do a fair amount of traveling in dense, urban areas, and would often be asked for money. Rather than ever handing someone a dollar bill, he would always give them change. When you do that, you have to touch the person. You don't have six inches of paper separating you. You give them what you can spare, but at the same time, you're making an actual human connection. He felt people didn't do that enough anymore, that we're too detached, and it's his small way of making a difference.

So what's your small difference going to be? If you can't come up with anything else, I would just like to ask you to think. Consider for a moment what it would mean to have nowhere to turn. Kiss the one you love, and think before you fall asleep about how lucky you are to have the things you have, even if you wish you had more. There are people who wish they had anything.

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