“San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. . . . So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
- Hunter Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
By T.W. Bigler –
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – From a hill just northeast of the Alabama Capitol, you can stand near Hank Williams’ grave and overlook the city of Montgomery. A city of contrast and shocker of outsiders, the city appears like the rest of the state to have no middle class, just an extraordinary dichotomy of rich and poor. This state exists as if a perfect example of an inversion of the Marxian classless society. It is a middle-classless society.
To a boy raised in the Midwest and who came South seeking warmer weather, it is a startling juxtaposition to behold. But it is even more startling to watch your life become enveloped in this paradigm after settling in Alabama.
If you came here as such an outsider expecting a middle class life, odds are simply not in your favor. If you came here with fairly free-market viewpoints, and not much appreciation for the vagaries of government, you could find many of your assumptions challenged by the severity of reality in a society without much in the way of social safety nets.
If you happened to come here as a first-generation college student being charged out-of-state tuition rates and dependent on grants and loans, you might want to immediately liquidate all assets while cutting 99 percent of your living expenses back to things like cheap ramen (not that most Americans know anything about good ramen).
Because the “hip new term” for homelessness is couchsurfing.
There are lots of contingencies in life one might not think to plan for, or that one is simply incapable of preventing. There are more ways to become impoverished than I care to count. But what is most frightening about the new reality of the X, Y, Z generations’ is that pathways out of poverty are becoming to seem quite few and far between. We’ve awoken from the American Dream disenchanted and stunned by the callous artificiality of the all-entrenched rat race.
Full time hours at a minimum wage job might not be enough to lift someone who is too far in the red out of homelessness. It is possible to work maximum hours for minimum pay and be doing one’s self no more good than Sisyphus, eternally pushing a stone up a hill. Every week or two you receive a paycheck and play “bill roulette”—deciding which expenses to pay this time around, since you cannot mathematically afford to pay out all expenses owed.
“Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. . . . Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent.”
– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
After peering over the city of Montgomery from that lonely hilltop and mulling over the woes of proletarian life, I pulled into a parking spot near the corner of Dexter & Lawrence to visit Chris’ Famous Hot Dogs. It was about noon, and I had $6 for the rest of the days’ food, travel, and lodging expenses. There would likely be no dining or lodging that night, obviously, except what kind souls elsewhere would be willing to provide. There was still gas in the tank, but it’s hard to tell without a working instrument cluster. Sorrow begets sorrow.
The trouble with not having much money is that debts compound over time, rather than increasing in a simple arithmetic fashion. But other complex situations also arise.
If you cannot afford to repair your speedometer, but still drive for work and in the process get a speeding ticket, you now have both a speedometer and a speeding ticket that you cannot afford. And since you cannot afford the speeding ticket, you have a judge to talk to—who may decide certain things about your freedom which would impair your ability to be employed and continue making money in a productive capacity, etc.
All of a sudden, one necessary but financially unobtainable repair or one defaulted debt has gone from its’ original price to some godlessly unknowable amount, and your ability to pay could be further restricted by any additional legal situations you face: your potential losses of time and freedom in addition to money.
Few articles have described the platonic form of being down and out as succinctly as a 1922 New York Times piece entitled “The Lady Bum,” by “One Of Them.” Its’ eternal truths cut straight to the heart of anyone who knows what it is like.
I’ve encountered such an attitude relating to work here that I’ve come to marvel at the idea of the division of labor itself: What good is it to work in society for the asymmetrical benefit of the upper-class when that does not similarly benefit yourself? Why participate in a society that does not increase your standard of living through an equitable distribution of income?
“And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.’”
- Luke 21:1-4, New American Standard Bible
Why live if life is not livable? What’s the point?
All of these questions could seem mad or childish to a person at just the right level of economic security. But to those in the trenches of hunger and tears such lines play over again nightly in their minds.
Why, indeed? You must have something or someone to fight for.
Hank Williams died as an addict in the backseat of a Cadillac at age 30, taking with him countless unheard songs. He saw the light, yet perished in youth. As a man who sang of heartache and life on the lost highway, what could have become of his life had an adequate level of compassion existed in society? He did not need money. Seeing the light was not enough.
The churches are not solving our social problems.
I’m not simply talking about money or government programs; yes, some people do look to be enabled, and often government restricts freedom while failing to solve problems. I’m speaking of changing hearts and minds to simply even give a fuck that an imbalance exists.
“I mean real good works; works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit; not holiday-keeping, sermon-reading or hearing; performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers, filled with flatteries and compliments, despised even by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity. . . . Your great master thought much less of these outward appearances and professions, than many of his modern disciples.
“He preferred the doers of the word, to the mere hearers; the son that seemingly refused to obey his father, and yet performed his commands, to him that professed his readiness, but neglected the work; the heretical but charitable Samaritan, to the uncharitable though orthodox priest and sanctified Levite; and those who gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, raiment to the naked, entertainment to the stranger, and relief to the sick, though they never heard of his name, he declares shall in the last day be accepted; when those who cry Lord!, Lord!, who value themselves upon their faith, though great enough to perform miracles, but have neglected good works, shall be rejected.”
- Benjamin Franklin, writing to Rev. George Whitefield, 1740.
Can you really pass someone in misfortune on the street and honestly not feel concern for what has brought them to where they are? Do you truly feel that addicts deserve what they get, or that those who are unable to work or who face problems should die off like animals in a contest of natural selection? Are you unable to look upon a stranger as if her human essence was one with same material ether as yourself?
It does not require any particular intelligence to say that life is a mean bitch, and that we are all just on-lookers beholden to a rigged game. But it does require a sense of perspective to say that it is our base lack of compassion, and indulgence in mere self-concern and in-group mentalities, that collectively rigs the game against us.
After all, what if Peter Kropotkin was right, rather than Herbert Spencer? What if cooperation was humanity’s real evolutionary advantage, rather than competition? What if the survival of the fittest was trumped by the survival of the social? It’s an age-old struggle.
“When you come before us and tell us that we shall disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests . . . . The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. . . . We come to speak for this broader class of businessmen. . . .
“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it. . . . You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
–William Jennings Bryan, from his “Cross of Gold” speech, 1896.
It’s funny to quote Bryan in this context, given his participation in the Scopes Trial. Still, trickle-down economics did not work then and will not work now. But the rich are not an enemy. No one wants to belittle achievement or industriousness. Rich or poor, heart is what matters.
“However we must acknowledge that the person who accumulates wealth in this country was not able to do that independently. The simple fact of living in America, a country with stable markets and unparalleled opportunity fueled in part by government investment in technology and research (something my family has plenty of firsthand experience of), provide an irreplaceable foundation for success and have created a society which makes it possible for some men, women and their children to live an elegant life.
“I attended the University of Washington under the G.I. Bill, and then became a lawyer enjoying a successful career that allowed me to provide well for my family so that they in turn were able to create their own wealth. So I believe that those of us who have benefited so greatly from our country’s investment in our lives should be asked to give a portion of our wealth back to invest in opportunities for the future.
“Society has a just claim on our fortunes and that claim goes by the name estate tax.”
– Bill Gates Sr., the father of Microsoft’s founder.
Gates Sr.’s selfless campaign for the estate tax illustrates that compassion can be found in society regardless of wealth, and that blind jealousy and covetousness need not be factors in critiquing the policy interests of “idle capital.” And the nature of his quest keeps him in good company:
“[Aristocratic] families are canonised in the eyes of the people on the common principle [of] ‘you tickle me, and I will tickle you.’ . . .
“At the first session of [Virginia’s] legislature after the Declaration of Independance [sic], we passed a law abolishing entails. And this was followed by one abolishing the privilege of Primogeniture, and dividing the lands of intestates equally among all their children, or other representatives.
“These laws, drawn by myself, laid the axe to the root of Pseudoaristocracy. And had another which I prepared been adopted by the legislature, our work would have been compleat [sic]. It was a Bill for the more general diffusion of learning.”
– Thomas Jefferson, writing to John Adams, 1813.
Jefferson was no pauper. He believed equal opportunity and meritocracy were essential to democracy, and that “no fears of an equalisation of property are to be apprehended from” legislatures enacting such measures. He was not pushing socialism—markets are compatible with meritocracy. Socialism is the public ownership of the means of production, and that is different.
As I prepared to leave Montgomery, a man approached me in the street, showing me his felon identification card and asking for help. He told me that he was homeless, and that the Salvation Army charged something like $12 dollars a night to stay in their shelter. I offered him a ride, having only gas and no money left, and told him I had been homeless as well and working two jobs.
I was lucky. I had still managed to hold onto a car.
He declined, and the city faded back behind my rear-view mirror. Maybe one day we’ll reach a new high water mark, cresting the top of all the bullshit.
© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.