So besides the hippie-romantic/back-to-the-earth/recycle-everything/spartan-asceticism-contrarian/anti-bling version of poverty, there is the sticking, handicapping, cracked-heart variety where you must say no to your children, where you glance in posh bakery windows which might as well be Tiffany's, where you pass fast-food fried chicken outlets and the scent of cheap oil and breading intoxicates and you cannot participate in even a wing, because it will break the daily bank of your pocket. Where you plot and plan and divide your dollars with economic razor-blades because you are smart and determined and physically capable, thank goodness, of fighting the good fight to survive in this city. Where on your heart the word 'No' seems permanently incised because you cannot have anything you formerly craved or desired or even simply wanted, in a former life.
But I have been to countries where poverty is of another variety altogether-- where the unrelieved sting of need and want is like the constant corrosive pain of chronic hunger and mothers watch helplessly while their children suffer to death. It has warped me, in a way, so that I can never quite indulge in the relative luxury of normal life without an underlying sense of guilt. I never fail to appreciate simple comfort, and process Manhattan daily spending habits, for the most part, as excessive. While it's true I can no longer sit in a cafe with a sandwich, I don't miss it often. If someone else is buying I will generally decline the favor unless I have done something valuable in exchange. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would undoubtedly observe the same habitual economies that became a part of my survival as a single mother.
My son, on the other hand-- like a rapper or athlete who steps from low-income into a reality of wealth-- is indulgent. I admire it, in a way... new-found money often brings with it a kind of entitlement or revenge-spending which is part of the process of becoming 'comfortable'. For me, I cannot imagine how I managed to buy us a home, and maintain the basics in this culture where the golden ring is heavy and placed beyond arm's length for basic people. It also seems absurd that the 'haves' these days-- the extreme 'haves'-- are receiving more than they will ever need, and have often done far less than in former times where hard work and invention was a slow and cumulative phenomenon. And it doesn't seem all that difficult, as it was in my father's day, to become a self-made millionaire. Athletes are paid massively; entrepreneurs can sell an idea overnight and buy themselves a small island.
I shop carefully, as I have said before, in the poorer markets of Harlem. I consider myself relatively fortunate, having had the foresight to become a home-owner rather than a renter and like the ant and grasshopper story, this has paid off for us. My life is simple and apparently spartan enough so that the city insists I receive foodstamps. While I can't eat in restaurants, this allows a pretty generous monthly amount to stock the pantry. My fellow shoppers do not watch the sales the way I do; they make unhealthy food choices and don't seem to worry. Many of them are on welfare-- get cash for things, live rent-free in city housing which is not luxurious but adequate. Some of them have river views which would cost the rest of us at least $3000 on top of the monthly rent. But what I have also observed, from my tiny circumscribed life of personal urban stoicism, is the way that being poor leaves a lasting mark.
On street corners in Harlem there are habitual loiterers who panhandle and hustle year in and year out. There is no future in this... but there is a present. Being poor keeps people in the present. They can't worry about what will happen, or their retirement or funeral expenses because they are dealing with NOW. Maybe that's not such a bad thing. You only need to visit upper Central Park on the 4th of July and smell the barbecue and listen to the ringing laughter of Hispanic children enjoying the holiday while their wealthy counterparts in the Hamptons are often smug and cranky and disappointed or drunk and miserable. The competition of rich people-- with themselves, with their colleagues, their neighbors, their own family-- is relentless; even leisure is a call-to-arms.
My beloved friend took me out to a 4-star restaurant... maybe THE 4-star restaurant. The breadth of menu was not just daunting but dazzling. Course after course was served-- with such artistry and exquisite execution I felt like crying. Beyond awe-- I was enchanted-- touched by the wand of dream-royalty, fairy-tale dining. I looked around... people were laughing, eating, talking-- just like this was a daily meal. Personally, it was like a sacred experience... I could not even recall the sequence of edible treats like tiny artistic tableaus which blew out my visual expectation and challenged my palette. I wanted to stop it all-- to say--- just this, or this... I'll have this next week--- to go-- a postponement. I felt overwhelmed-- overindulged-- like having a bath in liquid gold when all you needed was to wash off. It was more than I could process. The check-- I could not process that either-- enough to feed a family of 4 for a year, in many countries.
Last night I came home after a rough day-- cold and tired and tried-- and I made myself a pot of cheap potatoes and chicken. Total cost: maybe $1... and it was warm and comforting and I felt grateful and happy. I remembered working in a homeless shelter on the Bowery-- was it guilt which compelled me to do these things? Because I am in a sense among the voluntary poor. I look ahead, worry about some future- cannot spend more than I actually require, and if I had some opportunity, I would undoubtedly give it away. After all, isn't that what rich people do, theoretically-- give things away? And poor people... the kind I shop among in Harlem-- they do not generally want what I have to offer; they want something else-- an expensive watch, a vacation-- fashion... things that will do them no good... but still they want them; they will buy them on credit if they must.
According to national income statistics, I am at base-poverty level... but I feel pretty 'sated'... so how can I be poor? There's no magic formula between need and want; it is warped by experience, expectation, poor values, materialism, distorted economics... I pity my downstairs neighbors who have just renovated their bloated apartment and continue to receive masses of boxes from Restoration Hardware. It's so meaningless and pathetic... being at the bottom of the 1 percent: the poor rich, while I am among the rich poor.
The man who won the $300,000,000 in Harlem-- I wonder what he needs now. Something money can't buy? Less? I would not want to walk in his shoes, nor trade tickets. I wonder what the moment felt like-- when he went from poor to rich. Whether that happened.