the world through rainbow eyes

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A Hand Out With Eyes Reserved for Judgment

It was something I first noticed after Katrina. I hadn’t ever given much thought to it before then. I had the general opinion that when a person received charity or assistance, they should be grateful, but I hadn’t really thought about what that meant.

Katrina made me consider that. It was in my own backyard (so to speak, I live in the Metro Atlanta area), and I was housing my own good friend who had been made homeless by the storm that took so much. As we worked at helping her build her life again, I watched her process the loss. I supported her and loved on her, and did what I could. That’s what you do.

Meanwhile, I also watched the larger picture as areas all over the SouthEast took in people. I was dumbfounded by the anger people felt at those who came to live with them. I was seeing news story after news story talking about how people weren’t “grateful enough.” There were cities who wanted to take back the helping hand that they had put out because they judged that those receiving that hand were not acting in a way that they judged to be consistent with the amount of charity they had given, didn’t purchase the things that the charity-givers deemed reasonable for people “in their situation.”

Now, this isn’t about Katrina, nor the diaspora that happened afterward. So, let’s lay that to the side. But it did open my eyes. See, all I could think was, these people lost their homes. They lost their mother’s homes. Their grandmother’s. Many go back much further. Generation upon generation. They lost jobs, they lost touch with friends. People died. They lost their possessions. The city and culture they loved and grew up with was now out of reach for many of them.

And they were told “be grateful.” You’ve got a place to live. Clothes that we have handed down to you. Some furniture. Now be grateful!

But how do you present that kind of gratefulness? How can you live your life and rebuild it different than you’ve ever known when you’re busy bowing and scraping to properly give all the thank yous?

Then the purchases. The infamous Red Cross Cards. Up to $2000 if I recall correctly. Every time someone took one of those cards out their purchase was scrutinized by all around them. “Do you really need that to rebuild a life?” But damn. You tell me. If you had to rebuild your whole life on $2000, what would you buy? For real?

My own friend purchased shoes that could weather storms well and a computer. Both of these made an awful lot of sense, but both seemed extravagant and unnecessary to those unfamiliar of her way of surviving. Some people bought televisions. It didn’t occur to anyone that their families had no friends in these new environments, an television was a cheap and easy way to fill some of that void until their lives filled up again. Instead, the charity-watchers just clucked their teeths and talked about how they wished they had $2000 to just “waste.”

Again, though, this isn’t about Katrina or the people who survived it.

This is about charity, and how we hold out a hand to give while holding judgement with our eyes. We see people buying food with WIC vouchers, and mentally calculate the nutritional value of their cart.  We see people using EBT cards, and scrutinize their purchases. We look at the clothes they’re wearing. The transportation they use. The phones in their pockets. We have a tally of every little thing and the balance has to fall just right. “Do they really need that?” becomes a constant question. “If I needed help so badly that I was getting WIC or EBT, I would have sold that…”

We think these things without knowing any context, but more importantly, without thinking that maybe it isn’t even our right to know that context. This kind of scrutiny would appall us if thrown on ourselves, but somehow it’s okay to cast it when someone is receiving help. Never mind that they have already been scrutinized thoroughly by the agencies through which they received this help. We’re just sure that we have information that those agencies don’t. Positive that in our 5 minute encounter, we got more context than the records and papers filled out, files submitted.

And maybe it’s just pure jealousy. “Why do I have to work so hard and scrape by when they just get it for free?” That same jealousy that made people angry at $2000 Red Cross cards given so people had a chance of recovering some semblance of a life. Which is? Ridiculous. You go ahead and try to replace your whole life on $2000. It can’t be done. All you can do is piecemeal bits and pieces. Which is what everyone is doing in poverty – making a life out of bits and pieces.

So don’t lose your head over the buy one get one root beer deal at the woman in front of you who’s using a WIC voucher for the rest of her order. She’s just trying to have a little something nice. And definitely don’t get mad when she gets out of her Mercedes at the WIC office. It’s the only car she has that works, it’s paid in full, and it was bought before all this happened to her.

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Let Them Eat Cake, pt. 2

Not that long ago or far away, I worked in a bookstore. It was good work. Intellectually stimulating in spots. Physically demanding in others. Emotionally satisfying most of all. It was good to help people to books. Help them find the books that would entertain or educate. Good to work around other people that felt as strongly about books as I did.

I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I started working there, but by the third year I knew I had found my niché. The thing that makes my heart sing, you know?

What it didn’t do is pay the bills. Not even as I climbed the ladder into management did it do that.

During most of my tenure as a bookseller I shared living spaces with anywhere from 2-6 other people. Sharing bills is how you get by at minimum wage. None of my roommates had children, so we all sort of stayed above water. Barely. A few didn’t.

The homes were somewhat revolving doors of changing circumstances.

This is the kind of lifestyle that we are led to expect of our college years from the generation that has come before us, but for most of us, we were in our late 20’s and early 30’s. One of my roommates worked in the IT industry and brought home an above average salary of anywhere from 60-80k a year. Utility bills were made out in his good credit name. The rest of us were minimum wage service industry, with a few pink collar specializers floating in and out with their “good money” of 30-40k a year.

I was one of the lucky ones. The very few. In a store that employed 30 or 40 people I was one of around 6 that broke 20,000 a year in wages. Gross income. Pre-taxes. This is what climbing the ladder of management means. If I went much higher I would be salaried, and that would mean all my overtime would suddenly be gone. I would work the same grueling overtime hours, but without the perks in my paycheck. A small nod of a few extra thousand would be added to my salary, but the overtime generally meant a lot more. So I didn’t fight that hard to climb higher. My elevated position meant I was granted overtime far more often than those beneath me.

This is a sweet spot in the retail and service industry that’s rarely understood outside of it. Shift managers, assistant managers, supervisors, team leaders – all different titles that generally mean: I can’t afford to make less money, and I can’t afford to make “more.”

Again, I was one of the lucky ones. I was surrounded by coworkers who did not get by.

During my time working with books I had coworkers who lived without gas for years because no one in their house had the credit to connect that utility, nor the money to pay the extra that gas companies ask for if you don’t have it. They took cold showers in the Winter, and used space heaters well into Spring. I had coworkers who squatted in abandoned houses without water at all. I had coworkers who had teeth rotting out of their head because dental insurance was just one extra too many after paying for groceries. I had coworkers, so many, who worked 2 and even 3 jobs trying to hobble together enough to pay for a simple life. Coworkers with no cars in a city that had very limited mass transit. Coworkers who worked only for the insurance because they were cancer survivors, and insurance companies would no longer take them and their preexisting conditions. Everyone skipped meals there. Everyone.

The vast majority of those who I worked with were not teenagers. They were not bored spouses filling up their empty hours. The few teenagers I did work with were not making pocket money. They too were just trying to pay their bills. Heck, some of the people I worked with were well degreed people. Teachers, engineers and lawyers who had left their professions when times got tough. Service and retail was what could be found. So we worked shoulder to shoulder. A goodly portion of my coworkers had children to feed and clothe.

The public perception of what it means to be poor is somehow “other,” but 57% of families in the US are below the poverty line, and having lived there I can tell you: poverty is everywhere.

The cheapest new car starts at $17k. Most new cars are closer to $30k. That’s more than or almost a year’s salary for most people. For most of the US a new car is stratospherically impossible, a bizarre castle in the sky that is referred to but never seen.

I’ll tell you, the new dream of this coming generation isn’t home ownership. From their homes with roommates or the basements of their parent’s home where they still live? Simply buying a new car is the new dream. “Someday I’ll buy a car that isn’t already broken. That I don’t have to spend a quarter of every paycheck to keep running.” That’s what Lennie and George would be talking about in our brave new economy instead of their far off dreams of a small farm to own and live off of.


During one of the regular “charity drives” that our chain of bookstores had wherein customers would buy books off our shelves to donate to children who are in need (a self serving charity if there ever was one, but one that did indeed get books into the hands of children who had never had a book of their own outside of a library) I had a customer look at me in her multi-thousand dollar coat, clutching her hundreds of dollar purse and tell me of course she wouldn’t buy a book to donate to local children in need. There were no local children in need here. No one was in need in her community.
She honestly believed it. It was all she knew. She was not mean spirited, she just could not see what was beyond the doors of her own house.

People don’t walk around telling you that they are in poverty. Even when we are, we rarely say it. We make do and get by. We skip meals, and juggle bills. We don’t go to the doctor or the dentist. We share homes and stretch our dollars.

We are decimated by furnaces and cars that need repair. School loans that automatically deduct our money. Accidents and illnesses that chip away the foundations we stand on.

No one is in need in our communities. We all are.

If you don’t see that, you Paul Ryan’s of the world? It’s because you have closed the door on the rest of us.