The Skids And How To Hit Them
George Orwell was right about a great number of things, and he was right about them in an extremely eloquent and insightful way. Never was he righter, and never more insightful, than in Chapter III of Down and Out in Paris and London, where he describes the stroke of bad luck that reduced him from working for a subsistence wage to actual poverty. Though times and circumstances have changed, the essential existential qualities of poverty have not, and Orwell pins down everything about the experience — the fear, the boredom, the secrecy and falsehood, the despair and desperation, and, yes, even the liberation of being poor — with a timeless precision.
It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty — it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it is all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness.
I do not think I have ever been rich, but I have been poor, and I am about to be poor again. Of course, this statement is extremely contentious. At my last job, my salary was low enough to place me in the lower echelons of the tax brackets, but high enough to allow me to do more or less anything I wanted; I saved for my retirement (until the vagaries of the stock market wiped those savings away in a flash), I traveled to Europe, and I maintained good credit and made major purchases when I needed to do so. Certainly by the standards of most of the world, I was then a very rich man; and being poor in America, as conservatives are forever pointing out, means something very different from being poor in Africa. But, of course, one measures one’s circumstance not against a worst-case abstraction, but against what one sees around him every day, and being without a home, an income, or prospects for the future is a burden in any world, regardless of number.
When you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others. You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future. Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry. When you have a hundred francs in the worth, you are liable to the most craven panics; when you have only three francs you are quite indifferent, for three francs will feed you until tomorrow, and you cannot think further than that. You are bored, but you are not afraid.
Defining “rich” is a notoriously thorny proposition; a million dollars, we who will never see such an amount are often told, isn’t what it used to be, and if the state is defined by those who admit to living in it, you’d think there was not a rich man on Earth. “Poor” is a bit easier, despite the efforts of the party of wealth to muddle the term by denying it to anyone who sleeps in a building with electricity, or who ever enjoys life for five seconds. But many people mistake being broke for being poor. Having been both, I can tell you that the distinction is a simple one: when you have no money until the arrival of your next paycheck, your next benefit payment, or the fulfillment of your most recent invoice or contract, you are broke. You have no money, but money is there, and it is meant for you. Being poor, on the other hand, means that there is no more money coming. Like Pemberton at the seige of Vicksburg, you have come to understand that there is no help on the way from anywhere.
There is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs — and, well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.
The liberation that Orwell describes at being down and out — at sliding from mere working-class destitution to what Paul Fussell, in his magnificent book Class, describes as the ‘bottom out-of-sight’ class — is real. Its clearing of (indeed, annihilation of) the calendar brings with it an freedom that is both curious and unprecedented. One finally has the time and lack of commitment to do whatever one likes, a giddy sense of complete liberty that is usually associated with the very rich. (It is for this reason that one finds the truly destitute in the most glorious of locations, from the parks of Manhattan to the beaches of California, because it is as easy to be impoverished in a beautiful place as it is in a horrible one — at least, until the police gently shunt you from view.) Of course, that liberty finds itself restricted at every turn: free to pursue any artistic inclination, one lacks the energy to do so thanks to stress, hunger, ill health, and jangled sleep patterns, and the avenues to profit from them if they are completed. Free to travel anywhere and see anything, one lacks the money to move in any direction and becomes a prisoner to whatever shelter is available. Made of time, one’s social pleasures are nonetheless scuttled by lack of funds, an indecent appearance, and the shame that goes along with these factors. And, of course, even the small triumphs of an utter lack of responsibility are only available to the single and childless; for those who have care of a spouse or, especially, a child, all joy is replaced with terror and self-hatred, as an innocent must suffer for your inability to provide. It is for these people, though, that most social aid is made available; for the solitary man or childless woman, especially, the liberation of poverty is accompanied by a complete lack of help.
You discover the boredom which is inseparable from poverty, the times when you have nothing to do, and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing. For half a day at a time you lie on your bed, feeling like the jeune squelette in Baudelaire’s poem. Only food could rouse you. You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.
Also contrary to the claims of conservative scolds, who portray the poor as smiling leeches who gain all the benefits of social welfare while risking nothing, being poor is terribly, crushingly expensive. (It is telling that food insecurity — the increasingly common problem of not knowing how or when you will pay for your next meal — is a problem that virtually none of our political leadership has ever had to face. If I were the radical sort, I might suggest that if you have never been in the position of needing to pay for something and finding yourself unable to do so, you are not qualified to dictate the way the country is governed.) While the straight life takes the edge off of life’s varied misfortunes at the cost of self-determination, the low life grants a tricky liberty at the cost of every bad roll bearing devastating consequences. One forsakes the punitive cost of health care for the equally destructive cost of no care at all; banks and their crippling fees are abandoned for currency exchanges that exact a similar degree of usury; every expenditure of money seems like a matter of life or death. Something as simple as an unpaid bill or a flat tire can have repercussions too enormous to be borne. A decent job, the only thing that can halt the downward spiral, becomes harder to get the longer as one hasn’t got one, and the minimal requirements for getting it — a set of clean clothes, reliable transportation, a telephone or internet connection — aren’t always available. Everyday aspects of living become reasons why not.
You discover the extreme precariousness of your six francs a day. Mean disasters happen and rob you of food. You have spent your last eighty centimes on half a liter of milk, and are boiling it over the spirit lamp. While it boils, a bug runs down your forearm; you give the bug a flick with your nail, and it falls, plop! Straight into the milk. There is nothing for it but to throw the milk away and go foodless. You go to the baker’s to buy a pound of bread, and you wait while the girl cuts a pound for another customer. She is clumsy, and cuts more than a pound. ‘Pardon, monsieur,’ she says, ‘I suppose you don’t mind paying two sous extra?’ Bread is a franc a pound, and you have exactly a franc. When you think that you too might be asked to pay two sous extra, and would have to confess that you could not, you bolt in panic. It is hours before you dare venture into a baker’s shop again. You go to the greengrocer’s to spend a franc on a kilogram of potatoes. But one of the pieces that make up the franc is a Belgian piece, and the shop man refuses it. You slink out of the shop, and can never go there again. You have strayed into a respectable quarter, and you see a prosperous friend coming. To avoid him, you dodge into the nearest café. Once in the café, you must buy something, so you spend your last fifty centimes on a glass of black coffee with a dead fly in it. One could multiply these disasters by the hundred. They are part of the process of being hard up.
Friendship is always strained by a fall to the bottom tier, in ways both real and imaginary. It is true that one really learns the strength of any relationship, be it with family or friends, when one hits bottom, but often this perception is colored by any number of factors. With empty days and an impending sense of isolation, you need your friends more than ever; but you fear becoming a burden. Your circumstances are an elephant in the room which everyone thinks about all the time, but no one speaks about. Worried that you bore or depress your friends, frustrated that everything they want to do costs money, and consumed with self-loathing, you begin to avoid them at a time when you need them most. Your sense of worth — not only financial, but on a simple human level — plummets, and hatred of self always radiates outward to hatred of others. At your best, you are moved by the grace and kindness shown to you by relatives and friends; at your worst, you realize the depths of your dependence upon them and that realization curdles into resentment.
You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty. At a sudden stroke you have been reduced to an income of six francs a day. But of course you dare not admit it — you have got to pretend that you are living quite as usual. From the start it tangles you in a net of lies, and even with the lies you can hardly manage it. You stop sending clothes to the laundry, and the laundress catches you in the street and asks you why; you mumble something and she, thinking you are sending the clothes elsewhere, is your enemy for life. The tobacconist keeps asking why you have cut down on your smoking. There are letters you want to answer, and cannot, because stamps are too expensive. Sometimes, to keep up appearances, you have to spend sixty centimes on a drink, and go correspondingly short of food. Your linen gets filthy, and you run out of soap and razor blades. Your hair wants cutting, and you try to cut it yourself, with such fearful results that you have to go to the barber after all, and spend the equivalent of a day’s food. All day you are telling lies, and expensive lies.
It is not impossible to get back amongst the living; sometimes, it is not even hard. America has fallen into a depressingly cruel period of withholding aid from its unfortunate stumblers at a time that there are more of them than ever, but it is still a country of unprecedented wealth (though increasingly concentrated in only a small and grasping number of hands) and unparalleled opportunity. It is quite possible to be down and out in a way that seems unconquerable, and to be back in the game within a month’s time. It is even possible to go through this cycle of boom and bust over and over again — indeed, aside from the generationally wealthy, this is more or less the way we live now. But the worst thing about poverty is that its edges are so sharp, they leave scars that never heal. The desperation and paralysis that accompanies being at your wit’s end is so terrible that even when one is comfortable, one lives in fear of ever being in that position again. And, as Hannah Arendt eloquently put it, the more society degrades its small men with poverty and humiliation, the more it trains them to accept any job rather than return to the bottom — even the job of an executioner.
You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyère cheeses like grindstones. A sniveling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food. You plan to grab a loaf and run, swallowing it before they catch you; and you refrain, from pure funk.
I have been here before, and I know how to live in this world. Hopefully I won’t be here long, and hopefully, if I rise, I won’t fall again. But every day I am here, I am striving to get out. The voices that hiss and seethe from the comfort of newspapers, computer desks, and television studios that tell me I arrived here by my own faults, and that I stay here because it affords me a largesse of taxpayer fat: these are the voices of class warfare. Anyone who has been here is not eager to return, and not happy to stay: those who tell you differently pour poison in your ears, and when you’re relying on your own sharpness to survive, you need to be able to hear clearly.