In an hour I’ll drive to Jimena with some food cards and cash assistance. Not much this time, just $180 to help pay down an electricity bill that’s in arrears and, always, food cards. Usually, we need more cash than that.
I don’t need to be told how utilities are climbing up the roof this winter. My own electricity bill went up 50% and I called up the utility to clarify. I don’t look forward to getting the fuel bill. So I’m glad we could help these families survive this winter. January was particularly tough. Lori and I keep the thermostat daytime at about 65 degrees, both of us wearing multiple layers indoors, while the nighttime temperature is always set to 60.
Many nights, as I close down the downstairs and lower the temperature, I remember how, some 30 years ago, I lived in a garage apartment near Woodstock, New York. I had very little money because I’d been fired from my job in New York City and couldn’t find a job in the Hudson Valley. It was the only time I ever relied on unemployment checks to keep going. I still remember keeping the thermostat down at 55 and even 50 at night; I was cold all the time and my fingers had a hard time typing on the computer keyboard.
It’s hard not to have money wherever you live, but in this country, you feel downright ashamed. You’re seen as lazy, no good, a loser. I’m not aware that this is how poverty plays out elsewhere, but it does here. Having money, having property, paying bills on time—all these make you honorable citizens.
In 1959, two years after we arrived in this country, my parents managed to buy a 15-year-old beat-up green Dodge. At a time when Detroit factories turned out the first Thunderbirds and Buicks and Cadillacs with elegant tail fins that looked like wings, ready to fly you up like today’s SpaceX rockets, my parents were happy with a car that looked like a chubby, banged up beetle. Not the Volkswagen Beetle that would be very cool years later, just a fat, scratchy bug on wheels that reminded me of the water beetles I was to face off in New York City apartments years later.
It was the first car they ever owned, and they were very glad of it.
Till one day the front doorbell rang. My mother found her neighbor standing at the door. He lived in a big house diagonally across the street with two long, fancy cars always parked up front.
“Your car is parked in front of my house,” he told her.
She looked over his shoulder and saw that, indeed, there was the green Dodge in front of the man’s house.
“I’m sorry, we had no room here,” she apologized, “that’s why it is there.” She was embarrassed about her English.
“Well, get it away from my house,” he said and turned to go.
She hesitated, gathered up her courage, and said: “But, you know, you park one of your cars in front of us all the time. We never complain about this.”
He turned back and scowled. “My car is a Lincoln. Yours isn’t.” And with that he walked off.
She told me this later that evening and tried to laugh it off—“Imagine that!”—but I could see how ashamed she felt. Ashamed of the lumpy car and the loud noise it made when you turned it on, ashamed of our lack of things.
By then my mother had gone through two wars and had helped save people’s lives. She was—and continues to be—my hero. Without her courage, I wouldn’t be here to write these words. But all she owned was an ugly, old, green Dodge. She insisted it didn’t matter, we knew who we were, we had values, we had character, most important of all, we knew how to survive. But I think that deep inside her, she felt ashamed.
Some 15 years later she caught me on the phone one day and recounted her trip with my father to visit her nephew in Toronto. Her nephew had been orphaned in the Holocaust and my mother had helped not just to save his life but also stowed aboard a ship with him (he was 5 years old at the time) in order to flee Europe and get to Israel. She loved him like her own child.
But he was not why she was so excited.
“Guess what?” she gushed on the phone. “We flew to Toronto with luggage on wheels, imagine that! Both your father and me, we each had our own luggage on wheels. Do you remember what used to happen? We’d pack our things in cardboard boxes that were then taped up, or else in old torn suitcases. When we arrived and went to pick up the suitcases, they’d come around torn open with all our clothes spilling out, and everybody would look around to see who these suitcases belonged to, and they were always ours, and we’d have to gather them up in front of everybody and put back all the things, remember that? Well, this time we flew to Toronto with luggage on wheels, just like everybody else!”
Just like everybody else.
Not standing out with a battered Dodge or torn suitcases, not walking around with only a sweater and a skirt with bare legs in sneakers as did one of the women who came this evening for a food card (I’m finishing this post after returning home). We asked her why she dressed this way, wasn’t she cold, and she just laughed.
Giving and receiving is how this life circulates, like the bloodstream, reflecting fluidity and impermanence. Dam it up by too little giving or too little receiving, and the body gets sick. So why do so many feel ashamed that they have little money, that they need to receive?
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