Growing up in the 1950s, I knew we weren’t poor. For one thing, my parents always said, “We aren’t poor.”
What other reason did I need? My parents had to be experts on the subject. They had lived through the Great Depression. Neither of them even had a TV when they were kids.
My father said no one had toys when he was growing up. There was no word “toy.” Children knew what rocks and sticks were, and once every week or two, all their chores done, they’d play games of “rock and stick” for an hour or so. Then they’d take the ax back to the woodpile and chop more firewood.
All the while keeping their mouths shut.
My mother grew up on a farm in Missouri. She showed me pictures of herself in dungarees, getting ready to milk the cows. She said it wasn’t bad living on a farm. There was always something to eat: okra, green beans, collards.
She said they had a deluxe two-seater outhouse. She said she went to a one-room grade school until high school, when she went to a one-room high school.
I, on the other hand, thanks to my parents’ great success in escaping the Depression, was surrounded by luxury. I usually had a bed, except for that time I slept on a couch for six months. Or that other time I slept on a couch for two months. I got to watch TV.
There was always something to eat. We always had cheap white bread. My favorite dish was cheap white bread soaked in hot butter in an electric frying pan and rolled up in a soggy ball o’ bread and butter. I’m no nutritionist, but that sounds like a complete meal to me.
All the evidence was there. We weren’t poor.
But just to convince me more, my parents took me across the country by car eight times, and we lived in a couple of foreign countries. And I got to see how a lot of other people were living.
The times spent in foreign countries were the most educational. For example, I learned that people in other countries don’t always know how to read or write English. My mother explained to me that was the very definition of “illiterate.”
It was no wonder that so many people were poor, being woefully uneducated. After witnessing such illiteracy, I really appreciated all the spelling quizzes and lessons in sentence diagramming I got back in my U.S. grade school.
One time we lived in a house surrounded by a wall in Taipei. We didn’t care for it much. There was no garbage collection — this was 1957, so they’ve probably fixed that by now. Garbage ended up tossed out over the wall. The house was badly heated. The faucet in the bath frequently spewed banana peels (I’m not kidding) and live tarantulas (also for real).
My mother opened the door to my room when I was in bed and turned the light on. We counted two tarantulas climbing the walls of my room and one exploring the blanket covering me. I told her never to turn the lights on in my room like that ever again. I didn’t want to see that.
Still, we weren’t poor. How did I know? Well, like I said, my parents said so, but also, a block down the street from us was a full-on slum.
I’m not talking about fancy tenement slums like you see in movies like “West Side Story.” I’m talking about airy bamboo huts with thatched roofs, one after another, for half a mile. Thousands of them.
Four years later, we had an apartment in Guadalajara. I gathered that Mexico was going through some economic troubles then, because near us there was a slum, bigger than the one in Taipei. Instead of bamboo huts, the dwellings were made of straw and mud. The floors were mud. The passageways between dwellings consisted of mud. Water from the wells was the color of the mud.
Aren’t you glad we don’t have poverty like that here in America?
When we have poor people, we hound them from one end of the city to another and never let them build bamboo huts or mud houses. We tell them they’re illegal, day after day. That’s why every day there’s that many fewer poor people here, because eventually they get it. “Oh! I’m not supposed to be poor? Why did no one tell me before?”
It’s working great for us, isn’t it?
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time math professor who has experienced homelessness several times. He supplied the art for the first cover of Real Change in November of 1994 and has been involved with the organization ever since. This is his weekly column, Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd. He can be reached at drwes (at) realchangenews (dot) org
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