What Poor Looks Like

The poor have been much in the news over the last few weeks, but not with the season’s usual “away in a manger” patina. National surveys show that most families living below the poverty line own video game consoles. One presidential candidate has suggested that poor children be conscripted by their schools to clean toilets. Eugene’s leaders this week moved to evict Occupy Eugene activists in response to the violence and chaos that often accompanies persistent poverty.

“The poor will be with you always,” so it gets terribly easy to overlook them, especially when we speak about them with generalities and platitudes.

I grew up poor. Seven kids being raised in a simple, three-bedroom home outside Chicago, things got weird after my youngest sister was born. My parents had a fight that crossed the line into violence, and then my father was gone.

After a long absence, he began appearing on occasional weekends, but we were all too young to know what any of it meant. To this day, I don’t know when — or if — a divorce ever was finalized before my father died. All I know is that he stopped providing before I became a teenager.

We made do. I saved every penny for a year from my first paper route to buy a television that included a clock. It could turn off or on automatically. None of my friends who had such a thing. We had other luxuries too. I knew we were poor, but it wasn’t measured by things we didn’t have (except a father.)

I had most of what other kids had, plus two things I believed they didn’t have.

I had a secret. None of my friends knew that my father wasn’t around, or that my family survived on monthly welfare checks. They didn’t know that the canned goods from the church food drives often ended up in my family’s pantry.

I understand now that secrets are common. Shame takes up residence in homes of every class.

My home had one other “extra” — uncertainty. When I was 14, the heat didn’t come on. A neighbor tinkered with our boiler, but the pilot light wouldn’t go on. I went to a friend’s and called the power company. (Our phone had been disconnected for over a year.) The overdue bill hadn’t been paid.

My mother was surprised to hear the news because she didn’t open bills when she had no money to pay them. The stack of envelopes always sat beside the coffee grinder above the sink. She must have stared at the pile whenever she washed dishes.

Children often get assigned adult tasks in chaotic households.

I was put to work in the high school for two weeks every summer to pay for my gym clothes and book fees. Yes, Newt, I cleaned toilets. I also made up elaborate stories to explain why I didn’t have to pay 45 cents for my lunch every day like everyone else.

I’d say that none of this affects me anymore, except then I can’t explain why I remember that school lunches were 45 cents, or that three games of bowling (plus shoe rental) was $1.10, or that the unpaid power bill was $110.43.

I still remember a dime pressed into my palm as I walked to the phone booth in front of Dog ‘n Suds. I would ask Kim Jones to the 7th grade dance. How could a thin circle of metal absorb all the body warmth of a 13-year-old boy? Another case of unexpected heat loss. I put the dime in the slot.

I don’t remember how or whether she answered that call, but I didn’t go to the dance. I learned to rely on notes passed in class or stuffed into lockers — the written word — to convey my thoughts.

It all turned out OK for me, and for most of my brothers and sisters. Even now, we have nothing to compare it to. Normal is what a child knows, even if what a child knows isn’t normal.

Charity made its appearance in our home every year about this time. I learned not to be ungrateful. But to this day, I can’t bear the taste of creamed corn.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.