The Gentle Art of Poverty

How to live in Southern California on $2000 a year

I am an old man in his sixtieth year. I have entered that decade of life which destroys the last illusion and beyond which lies death, swift or lingering, actuarial or real. I am also poor, incontrovertibly, humiliatingly poor, for the first time in my life. My total annual income, from a modest pension ($1980) and the interest ($168.75) from an equally modest savings account, is 6 percent of what I earned in my prime-and less than two thirds of the property tax I once paid on a five-bedroom home with swimming pool in Westchester County, New York. I am divorced and living alone in an alien city of 800,000 strangers. My aging body betrays me day by day; the ground I am losing now I lose forever.

So I perceived myself, at any rate, when the plane from a foreign country dropped me in San Diego one night seven months ago. Behind me stretched an aimless, six-year, expatriate trail through the South Seas, Asia, and Latin America that began when divorce and its inevitable byproducts-second thoughts, solitude, and the taste of ashes in the mouth-spread a shadow over every corner of my life and seduced me with a lie: that the sun had stopped shining where I was and that I must go seek it elsewhere. The wounded drift downhill, and so did I. I headed south, a middle-aged dropout, dazzled by visions of healing blue waves and waving palms. On one alien strand and then another, and another, the waves broke and the palms waved and my capital dwindled. The memory of those Wandervogel years has faded badly. About all I remember now are too many cold beers on hot tropical nights, too many bottles of guaro and arak beras, and an endless procession of hollow days, one just like the other, while I waited, with mounting agitation, for the sun to burst through the clouds that I had brought along with me.

The decision to return to my homeland was surrender. I had set forth with high expectations, however misguided and naive. Not one had I achieved; not one survived. The choice of San Diego as re-entry point was calculated. Its benevolent climate would require no winter wardrobe. I had been told that the city offered ways to extend meager assets. No one knew me there. No one could compare the man with a wife and children and two cars and an acre of lawn and a prestigious position on the masthead of a national magazine-no one could compare that man with the indigent and self-pitying failure who, that first night in San Diego, sat in a cheap downtown hotel room drinking cheap wine from the bottle neck and surveying from his sixth-floor window a city whose pavements were polka-dotted with chewing gum -- a sign of affluence to me -- and whose natives owned boats and hang gliders and beachfront proprty and looked like me and spoke English, not Spanish, Polynesian, Indonesian, or Cantonese. I was inconspicuous. I was a nobody. I could hide.

In the first months I did hide, wrapped in a blanket of shame and despair. Knowing no one, I combed the phone book for a crisis line number, that last resort of the hopeless and friendless, and, finding none, dialed Alcoholics Anonymous instead from a streetside kiosk. "I don't think my problem is alcohol," I began hesitantly to the woman who answered. "Well, then, what is your problem?" she demanded, with understandable impatience. "It's just that," I stammered, scarcely knowing what to say, "it's just that in whatever direction I look I can see nothing. Nothing at all." "I see," she said. "You have a problem with your vision." Before she could enlarge on this diagnosis I rang off. As a former serviceman I applied to the Veterans Administration Hospital in La Jolla, pleading profound depression, and was interviewed on tape by a stone-faced woman psychologist who asked me, among other questions equally inappropriate, if I felt I was "a danger to other people." As a result of the screening I was enrolled in a therapy group where, to my dismay, I discovered that I was the oldest member. Mostly because it was something to do twice a week, I attended the sessions faithfully, but as an outsider: I was the only crazy there. A free physical examination at the Senior Citizens Medical Clinic confirmed my fears that time was running out. The doctor diagnosed prostatism, an old man's affliction.

I spent hours in Horton Plaza, a scruffy little downtown park, where old men like me collect on a bench to kill time. The bottles of white port pass around in paper bags, one man's newspaper becomes another man's pillow, the gospel spielers shout hellfire and damnation, and the decent citizens queuing for buses along the plaza's flanks cast contemptuous glances at the old bones on exhibit in the palm-bordered cage.

It was in this improbable setting that my self-rescue campaign began, generated by two trivial chance events. In the first, I had returned to the plaza one afternoon after a trip to Tijuana, the Mexican border city south of San Diego, where I had bought two cartons of Delicado cigarettes. They are a harsh and evil brand whose only virtue is price: 86 to $1.10 a carton, depending on one's ability to haggle. I smoke them with little pleasure, but the impoverished tobacco addict must resort to such economies or kick the habit. As I lit one of these poisonous cylinders, the inevitable moocher hit me for a free smoke. On impulse I said, "I won't give you one, but I'll sell you a pack."

"Mescin cigarettes," he sneered. "How much?"

"Twenty cents." We both knew it was a bargain. The best cigarette buy in San Diego is at a market on University Avenue: $4.24 per carton, including sales tax, for any American brand-better than twice my price.

"Twenty cents! I can get them in TJ for seven."

"Then go to TJ." He bought three packs. The transaction drew a small crowd, as does any activity in the plaza, and shortly I had disposed of one carton, twelve packs, for $2.40-68 more than I paid for both. And I still had one carton for myself. This unexpected profit, humble as it was, nudged a thought from some recess of my mind. I had been viewing myself as down and out, and the combination of poverty and age as an irreversible liability. Could it be that both concealed potential assets? Could I corner the Horton Plaza market in Delicados? How many could I sell? Did other ways exist to supplement an income well below the poverty line? Without jobhunting, that is, a task of which I considered myself incapable? Without trying to regain the social altitude I had lost-another assignment far beyond my spiritual strength? I dismissed the prospect as a pipe dream, until a second and even more providential chance presented itself. There is an information booth in Horton Plaza, and I was inquiring what bus to take to a thrift shop in the Hillcrest area when the man behind me tapped my shoulder. "I know that place," he said. "As it happens, I've got to go there myself. I need a popcorn popper." He introduced himself as Earl-the only name he ever supplied-and we left the line together. "I've got my bike here," he said. "Take the number 5 bus on Fifth Avenue, right over there by Long's Drug Store, and get off around the 2900 block. Wait for me there."

At the thrift shop Earl soon located his popper and, to my astonishment, surreptitiously put a sizable dent in the rim, so that the lid no longer fit. "Why did you do that?" I asked. With a grin he exhibited the price tag: $3. "Now watch." As I hung back, embarrassed, he carried the damaged merchandise to the counter and returned with a satisfied smite. "Nothing to it," he said. "She knocked $2 off the ticket."

"But isn't that dishonest?" "Dishonest!" He laughed. "What did that corn popper cost this place? Not a penny. They operate on a 100 percent profit margin. I need the money worse than they do, don't I?" The chance encounter with Earl was to alter my entire outlook on life at the bottom. He had been a plumber by trade and, like me, had dropped out of the labor force after the failure of his marriage. His income was little more than mine and far less reliable, since all of it came from a tiny portfolio of securities whose fluctuations sent him to a downtown broker's office once or twice a week. He was amused that I saw poverty as a stigma. To him, $165 a month or so was more than enough to live on in some style, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. And if he needed more, he could get it. He was appalled that I was paying $105 a month for a downtown hotel room without bath. "Look at this spread," he said, waving an arm at the single room, with bath, in which he had spent five years. "Know what I pay for this? Nothing. I made a deal with the landlord when I moved in. I do the simple maintenance work-dump the garbage, vacuum the hall, lock up the place nights, nothing heavy-and he gives me the room rent-free. Furnished. Everything but sheets and blankets-and I got those free for the asking at University Hospital. Of course, they weren't new." With Earl's assistance I moved into the same rooming house, in a room almost exactly like his three doors down the hall, at $50 a month. (The rent has since been raised $5, but I am still $50 a month ahead and I have a bath.) In his corn popper we occasionally fried eggs for breakfast and boiled macaroni for dinner. "Best saucepan there is if you don't have a kitchen," he said. "That's why I bought it." Over the next few weeks, Earl became my teacher. The subject, I know now, was pride and confidence, two commodities that Earl possessed in abundance. All I learned, am afraid, was how to be poor.

At Earl's suggestion I inserted an ad in the Reader-a giveaway San Diego tabloid weekly which charges nothing for its classified columns-offering to trade four bolts of Indonesian batik for a secondhand ten-speed pedal bicycle. They were the last of dozens of bolts I had bought in Bali and sold in Canada and Latin America. One insertion in the Reader proved to be enough. With the thoroughly broken-in Motobecane thus acquired, I trailed Earl through San Diego's streets, while he identified for me the truly impressive apparatus that has been erected, largely with federal tax money, in the cause of the "senior citizen": health and treatment centers, senior citizen community centers and clubhouses, public lounges, adult extension courses which rival in scope the curricula available to tuition-paying students. Physically, the experience only further depleted my self-esteem. At fifty-five, Earl is just four years younger than I, but at the far end of life such a chronological gap can seem greater than at the other end. With pain and humiliation I now watched Earl's fifty-five-year-old legs pump him up the Laurel Street hill, the city's steepest, while, l walked my own bike up the same incline. He enrolled me in the Spanish class he attended himself, three hours a night, two nights a week, tuition free. At the Florence Community School we ate, for 50, a plate lunch that would have cost us $3 or more at a restaurant: sea bass and tartar sauce, canned carrots and peas, citrus and coconut salad, cranberry sauce, bread and butter, lime ice and cake, coffee, and a half-pint container of milk. More than a dozen such "nutrition centers" exist in San Diego, part of some 8500 throughout the United States that are funded under Title VII of the Older Americans Act of 1965 and are open to all citizens, regardless of income, who have reached sixty. Since Earl showed no hesitation in adding five years to his age to qualify, I complacently added a few months to mine. After all, I rationalized, Chinese babies are born one year old; why not I? Most of the time, no one asked.

We saw free movies at the Cedar Community Center, attended free lectures and documentary films at the city's college and university campuses. On Fridays, at a place south of Broadway, we breakfasted free on hot homemade bread and jam, butter, cheese, and all the coffee or tea we wanted, while the old ladies who spread this weekly feast pressed seconds on us to the surfeit point. At a thrift shop I picked up a vintage tennis racket for 50 cents and would have filled my pockets with depilated secondhand balls, at a nickel each, if Earl hadn't vetoed this extravagance. Behind the practice courts at San Diego City College, where we frequently play, a 45-degree slope densely covered with yellow honeysuckle so effectively conceals overlofted balls that the player soon gives up the search. Earl and I have nothing but time; an hour of diligent raking will turn up two or three, and with these we play. Our present inventory is nine-every one a windfall, so to speak.

In time I also collected more identity cards than I have ever before owned. Each one spells money. The San Diego Transit System's Goldfare card, issued on request to anyone claiming to be sixty, entitles me to board any city bus for 15 instead of the full-fare 35. My public library card, also free, allows me to read several hundred magazines, both San Diego newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. With my Senior Citizens Identity Card, which bears my likeness in color, I qualify for discounts of 10 to 30 percent from merchants who have given their names to the Senior Community Center at Tenth and C; the list is updated monthly. My ASB (Associated Student Body) card from the Centre City Adult Center, a division of Centre City Community College, makes available to me the services of the Skills Center at 902 12th Street, where students wash and iron my shirts for 15* each (up to 65* elsewhere) and dry-clean my two Hong Kong suits for 80* each (up to $2.50 per suit at commercial cleaners). My Golden Age Courtesy Card puts at my disposal a rich spectrum of cultural activities sponsored by seven civic agencies. An adult single admission to the world famous San Diego Zoo is $2. For $5, I acquired a Senior Pass which is good for a year and admits me not only to the zoo any day I choose, and as often as I like, but to the Wild Animal Park in San Pasqual Valley as well. With my VA Patient Data Card, I have nearly unlimited access to the facilities of the VA Hospital and the right to claim travel expenses for every visit.

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