This is a post about class and power, violence and poverty, and how those things change a person, specifically me. I’ve been working on this late at night for a couple of weeks now. It will likely be lost in the roar of the latest SFWA furor and the background noise of BEA.
Such is life. It’s going up while I have time.
I’m not sure what made think of all this, but once I started it snowballed. Memories are odd, feral creatures. The things our brains choose to remember and what triggers those memories to rise to the surface are even stranger.
One of the first short stories I wrote twelve years ago–a very bad short story–was about a young woman restlessly pacing her apartment and listening to the man next door beat his wife. The story was called “Choices”.
The walls in this imaginary apartment were paper thin and my conflicted protag could hear everything; all the names the husband called his wife, every blow that landed, how hard the wife begged her husband to stop and how hard this woman cried.
My heroine, as all fantasy heroines do, had a kind of magic power she’d been warned not to use. Her conflict came from not being sure if using that power to rescue the wife, and in the process punish the husband, was the right thing to do or not.
In the end, my heroine did rescue the woman. And to keep this man from ever hurting his wife again, my young protag used her magic power to stop the husband’s heart–all the while wondering which one of them was the bigger monster.
I haven’t thought of that story in years, but it was based on childhood memories.
From the time I was seven or eight until the age of fourteen, I lived in a housing project in South Central Los Angeles, aka Compton. Two adults and four kids in a tiny two bedroom unit, one bathroom, little to no privacy, and more cockroaches than anyone could ever count.
Life lesson number one: Count to ten after you turn on the kitchen light. Give the bugs time to scatter.
Victory Park, as this place was called, had originally been built as military housing during WWII. Rows of two story units, all with common walls, surrounded three sides of open central courts. The main sidewalks led to open parking lots. Six foot tall cinder block walls served as a boundary between residents and the rest of the world.
An elementary school sat in the very center of Victory Park. The student population was in the range of 98 percent black, 2 percent white, Hispanic, and “other”. My siblings and I were a tiny part of that 2 percent, but we lived inside Victory Park. All the black kids I went to school with came from outside.
A private investor had bought the property and turned military housing into rental units ages before we moved in. This private investor (who shall remain nameless) was also a respected elder in the LDS church. Being a deeply moral person and a principled slum lord, he rented to dirt poor whites, Asians and Hispanics, but not black people. /sarcasm
This was during the last death gasp of segregated rental housing. The Fair Housing Act didn’t pass until 1968 and implementation/enforcement took much longer. This was especially true in the inner city. It was (mostly) illegal to pick and choose which races you rented to–not to mention oh so wrong–but that didn’t stop a lot of landlords.
It was an interesting place to grow up. As an adult I can say that and mean it. I seldom talk about living there for a lot of reasons, but the truth is that place shaped who I am. Living there made me a feminist, a humanist, and I’m pretty sure it helped make me a writer. Seven to fourteen was a big chunk of my life, the formative years as they say.
That environment molded my attitudes about people in general and authority in particular, about class and money–about sexism and violence and whether the world was a safe place. (spoiler–it’s not) All of that creeps into my writing, either directly or indirectly.
At times my memories of living in Victory Park are like a highlights reel, full of images and incidents that weren’t memorable for being beautiful, or happy, or even exceptionally sad. They weren’t all traumatic either, although some were.
And yet I remember these things so vividly, as if each moment was seared into my skin. I can’t say why any one thing or incident is more memorable than another, only that it is.
Those common walls between units that I mentioned up there–they were as paper thin in reality as they were in my story. I was about nine when a couple moved in on one side of us. The wife was younger than her husband, spoke little English, and was very pregnant.
They only lived next door for a few months. That was a blessing. I might have memories of him killing her otherwise.
When this man yelled at his young wife and she cried, I heard it all. When he hit her again and again, and she begged for him to stop–I heard that too. I’ve never been able to forget.
I wasn’t even ten years old and I knew this was wrong. Evil. And I didn’t understand why someone didn’t stop him from hurting her.
Life lesson number two: Evil is real. Evil has a name, a face, and looks like a regular guy. Evil smiles and says hello on his way to work.
My mother tried to help her. Twice in the short time they lived next door this young woman ran to my mother for protection. My mom wanted to call the police, but this young woman panicked at the thought of the police arriving and went back home. She was terrified that her husband would kill her once the police left.
He literally held her life in his hands. Even as a child and long before I was old enough to understand abuse and sexism, the imbalance of power in that horrified me.
And I’m not at all sure the police would have come if my mother had called. The police had other priorities–which is a whole other post. Needless to say, domestic violence in a poor neighborhood was low on the list.
Summers in Southern California meant everyone was outside after dark, sitting on the grass in the court or on the porches, talking and laughing, hoping to catch even the smallest breeze. Little kids played tag or hide and seek in the glow of porch lights. There was no air conditioning and staying inside, or trying to sleep, was brutal.
The police showed up frequently on summer nights. No one had ever called them, but they’d pull their cars right up to the edge of the sidewalk at the end of the parking lot and shine spotlights on all of us. And they’d sit there, watching us, as we stared back at them. The talk and the laughter would stop, the kids would stop playing. Eventually they’d drive away.
We were a pretty evenly divided mix of white and Hispanic around our court, so this wasn’t about skin color. This was about class.
Life lesson number three: Being poor means you’re always being watched, always suspected of doing something wrong even when you weren’t.
As a result I’ve always had a hard time with authority and people who lay down rules just because they can. Give me good, logical reasons for something and I’m fine. Tell me that I have to do something, just because someone says so, and I’ll dig my heels in and go the other direction.
I don’t automatically grant people respect because of the position they hold or the uniform they wear. I see the person and their actions, not the trappings that surround them. Having power over people’s lives, of any kind, doesn’t mean that person knows how to use it. Might doesn’t equal right.
Being that poor, and living where we lived, led others who were better off financially to believe they were somehow morally superior. Many of them felt they had the right to tell us how we should live our lives and pass judgement, not because they were better people themselves, but because they had money. These people never hesitated to say so or demonstrate by their actions exactly what they thought.
My parents and our neighbors had committed the ultimate sin–not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and achieving the American dream. The moral judgement that the adults around me were failures, and just not trying hard enough, was delivered again and again by everyone from the women who drove in from some upscale L.A. neighborhood to start a brownie troop, to the school principle, to the church people who came in and ran Sunday services in the school auditorium.
The number of “missionaries” who wanted to “save” us was astounding. Baptist preachers who went door to door, the Sunday school teacher who was going to heal my eyes with prayer, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, of course, the LDS elders on their mission trips: all of them were going to save us from the despair and squalor of our everyday life and bring us to God.
And yet the people seeking to save us never offered food or jobs, or brought clothing. They never provided daycare so mothers could work or opportunities for job training. They never did or provided one thing that would have made life better or easier in the here and now.
Forget about barely scraping by today. Our reward waited for us in heaven. Even as a kid I saw the flaw in that system.
Life lesson number four: “Everyone” knows the poor are poor because they want to be, or they’re lazy, or stupid, or they just want a free ride on the rest of society. And if “everyone” knows it must be true.
If I’ve heard the myth about poverty being a choice and the poor being lazy once I’ve heard it ten thousand times. Forget lack of education, lack of jobs that pay a living wage, no daycare or no transportation. “Everyone” knows those things have nothing to do with poverty.
Except when they have everything to do with it.
My parents were very intelligent. They just weren’t educated. I was the first in my immediate family to graduate from high school, only the second in my extended family. I was the only one to go to college, but–wait for it–I ran out of money before I got a degree.
Lazy is such and easy judgement to make from the outside. All our neighbors had jobs. They and my parents were the picture perfect definition of “working poor”.
My father was so lazy he worked all the overtime he could manage, his weeks stretching out into sixty hours or more. I didn’t see him for days at a time. He’d work a double shift, sleep a few hours, and go back and work another double, all so his kids wouldn’t be hungry.
I remember with remarkable clarity the year he made $10,000 for the first time. That, as they say, was a big fucking deal. $10,000 to support six people.
My life was not the image of childhood I saw on our hand-me-down TV. There was never the certainty that if something broke, it would be replaced. There was never the assurance that if something ran out, including food, there would always be more.
I have vivid memories of my mother trying to make us four kids hot chocolate with unsweetened baking coco, sugar and water. (it was as awful as that sounds) She didn’t have any money to buy us milk.
And TV kids didn’t stand at their bedroom window watching gang bangers come over the cinder block wall, gun in hand, or lie in bed at night listening to gunfire on the other side of that wall.
That definitely screws with your sense of security and safety.
Life lesson number five: The world isn’t a safe place. Don’t drop your guard or get too comfortable.
People in this country ignore, often willfully, that not everyone lives in relative safety, or has food and shelter. It’s a kind of magical thinking that Bill Marr calls “living in the bubble”. When you live in the bubble, you ignore unpleasant realities–like poverty and hunger and violence and the homeless–and either pretend those realities don’t exist, or that people living that reality are there by choice.
Inside the bubble those things can never touch you. It’s akin to my silly cat sticking her head, and only her head, under a blanket and thinking she’s invisible. Gilly cat has magical thinking down pat.
Life lesson number six: Once you really see something–like hunger, abuse, people in desperate need or in fear–you can’t unsee it. Wave goodbye to your innocence.
One thing I should make clear to anyone who has never been that poor. There is nothing ennobling or romantic about poverty, or sixty hour weeks, or working two jobs. If there is one core myth about poverty I despise most, it’s that one.
Poverty is exhausting. Each day is part of an endless grind that wears you down and can drain all the hope and meaning out of your life.
If you’re very lucky and strong enough, poverty might teach you some compassion and tolerance for others. If you’re lucky it can teach you how to be a survivor.
The gap between those who have and those who don’t is in my face day after day. San Antonio is a big city, with big city problems. Both men and women stand on street corners near where I work and panhandle cars waiting for the light every afternoon. More people than I’d ever imagined roll down their car windows and hand out 20s, 10s, and 5s.
I have extremely mixed feelings about the entire exchange. A part of me is grateful that there are people with the means and the apparent willingness to give to people in need. I do what I can with my limited funds, but I certainly don’t have the money to pass out cash at intersections.
Another part of me is deeply cynical about those giving and those receiving. Rolling down the window an inch and shoving out $20 is an easy way to soothe your guilt.
And as I sit through multiple changes of the light watching these men and women work the intersection, on more days than not, they make more money panhandling than I do working a full shift.
That definitely screws with my head in ways I’m still trying to process.
Many of my co-workers have two or three jobs, while many of our customers spent more money on one purchase than any of us make in a whole week. Unless I start living in a custom made bubble, I can’t escape the class inequity that is all around me.
The income gap in this country, that yawning canyon between those who make enough money to make ends meet with ease and the working poor who are one paycheck–or less–from living under a bridge, hasn’t gone away. It’s worse. I’m always painfully aware of which side of that canyon I live on.
One way or another, all the memories, all the life experiences and awareness of poverty and class structure seep into my writing. How could they not? All these things are a part of me. The writing is a part of me as well.
Here’s the thing. We all tell the stories we are given to tell. Partly by choice, partly by necessity, I tell stories from the outside looking in. I have never, ever lived the kind of life my characters lead in terms of money and ease. I never will.
That doesn’t mean I can’t say things that have meaning for me or make a point using their voice. I don’t rage or start revolutions on the page, that isn’t effective story telling for me. The point is woven into the narrative and the character’s actions/reactions.
Many (most) of my characters are people who are very aware of their status and power, and of the responsibility they bear to those without those things. Righting wrongs and finding justice for those who can’t gain justice for themselves is at the top of their priority list. My characters are fallible, with faults, tempers, fears and weaknesses.
And I do my best to write them as people who are aware of just how easy it is to slip into that “gray area” of using your position, your status and power, to accomplish your own ends. My heroes aren’t white knights that own the moral high ground.
No one is truly safe in my world, nor sheltered from danger or damage by their social class, their gender or race.
Which makes them just like me, and like you.
And even you over there in the bubble.