George Carlin was fond of saying that the poor are there to
scare the shit out of the middle class in this country. It was something that
made them keep showing up at those jobs of theirs.
However, I don’t think that’s the truth anymore.
We’re already scared. We just don’t want to admit it.
I caught the movie“American Winter”last night, a story of
eight families living on the razor’s edge of poverty every day. The issues that
landed them on that edge ranged from the death of a spouse to the loss of a job.
Regardless of how they got there or why they were there, they found themselves
afraid to open the mail, fearful of turning on a light switch and crying when
they faced the fact they couldn’t care for themselves or their families.
They moved back in with their parents.
They scavenged for scrap metal.
They saved rainwater for their sanitation needs.
The people captured in this film weren’t the drug users or
the lazy bastards we’ve been told they are. It wasn’t a blinding flash of the
obvious to me, as I’ve known more than a few friends who found themselves on
government assistance or heading home to Mom and Dad’s house.
However, it appeared to be a stunning moment for all of
them. The easy answers they heard for years had been deflated by hard reality.
“Well, get a job!” people tell them.
I’m trying. No one is hiring.
“You’ll have to settle for less than you’re used to,” people
I’ll do anything, one man said. I’ll scrub toilets for
minimum wage, which is far less than the $22 an hour he once earned at
“You’ll have to tough it out,” people say.
We are, but tough doesn’t pay the bills.
I even heard a sliver of my father’s voice in my head as I
looked at these people:
“If they’re so goddamned broke, how can they afford all
those tattoos,” he would occasionally remark when something like this came on
Or, “They’ve got a goddamned cell phone/video game/whatever…
How bad can they be?”
Worse than they’d ever imagined, I would imagine.
In each case, the families were doing something they’d never
done before and never thought they’d ever do. They took food from a food bank.
They slept at a shelter. They lived without power. They moved back home. They
sought financial assistance.
A 50-year-old man cried as he considered himself pathetic
for asking his father for help in paying the light bill.
A 30-something couple fought the fear of losing their
children in order to admit the lack of electricity in their home had created a
detrimental living condition for the family. They did this because they were
told that doing so would force the power company to turn the power back on,
only to find out later that this wasn’t true.
A 40-year-old man quietly responded, “I’m an American” when
a co-worker accused him of “having some nigger in you.” He was worried he would
be fired if he started a problem. He was later fired anyway, being told by the
boss he shouldn’t have hired “your kind.”
I thought about that last person a lot and how “your kind”
can be an easy answer to every problem.
Many of the kids I grew up with looked at life the way a lot
of these kids in this film did: Find a spouse, get married, raise a family and
provide a good life for themselves. Somewhere along the way, a lot of folks
were felled by something or other.
A good friend of mine was put on a one-week-on, one-week-off
schedule to ease his company’s “financial burden.” He got sick, his kid had
something wrong with her throat and suddenly, the doctor bills were everywhere.
He is getting divorced and has moved back in with his parents.
Another friend was a single parent who had a good job that
suddenly meant he would have to travel more than parenting would allow. He lost
the job, lost another job and moved into his mom’s basement. He would tend bar
and save money to send his kid to a private school, pouring everything he had
into hoping his child would have a better shot at life than he did. He turns 40
this year and hasn’t had steady full-time work in years, despite his best
What always struck me most about these two men was how
conservative they were about almost everything. Guns, politics, social programs,
whatever. They held firm in the belief that they government assistance was for
welfare queens, lazy pricks and people who just didn’t give a shit. Those
things aren’t for “my kind,” I could imagine them saying.
They were afraid that by taking part in the system, they had
become what they once despised. They couldn’t see that they already were “those
people,” people who had hit a rough spot, people who had come up a little short
but were willing to do anything to get back to where they were, people who once
were protected from these circumstances by rules and laws and unions.
They just couldn’t admit it. Admitting it would make it
So instead, they did what most of us do. They built up a
wall that somehow separated “us” from “them.” They drew false distinctions
between who they are and who those “other people” are, so they could find
safety and security in their illusions.
As I get older, I tend to find that the faster I come to
grips with reality, the less painful it is to fix the problem. Whether it’s my
bad back (“It’s just a twinge, really…”) or my car (“I can change the oil next
week…”), the quicker I pony up (“Fuck this, I’m seeing the chiropractor…” or “Piss
on it. I’m paying someone to change the oil now.”), the less problematic it
If we can only get more people to see that they are but one
wrong turn from becoming “those people,” maybe we’ll all be able to help “our
kind” before that happens.