The Gentle Art of Poverty

How to live in Southern California on $2000 a year

The day I earned my diploma from Earl's poverty course was the Sunday on which I pedaled out to San Diego's National University, a round trip of sixteen miles, to catch a free art exhibit, and there ran into an open-air graduation exercise.. The commencement speaker was Art Linkletter, a man whom I had met once or twice in the course of my journalistic career. On inquiry I learned that the ceremonies were to close with a buffet lunch for which the graduates, their families, and friends had paid $4.50 each. Since I had taken no breakfast that day, I decided to crash the buffet, or try. As Linkletter proceeded up the aisle of folding chairs in a cordon of university officials, I attached myself to this band and, with heart in mouth, introduced myself, giving a false name. "You may not remember me," I said to Linkletter, and then I stumbled through the details of an interview years ago, in Los Angeles, to which I had been assigned by my magazine. The commencement speaker clearly didn't know me from Adam, but he was too polite to say so. The exchange, swiftly terminated, was all I needed to establish my credentials. Ticketless and famished, I trailed Linkletter and his retinue to a magnificent feast of ham, beef, and turkey and heaped my plate twice, my appetite only slightly lessened by the prospect of imminent exposure. Nothing at all happened. Alone and ignored, I ate and left, but not before wrapping a generous supply of canapes in a napkin and pocketing it. I did this brazenly, in the first test of a theory that time has repeatedly proved: Context is everything. In this instance, the question is, How does a legitimate buffet guest respond to the sight of another guest, presumably legitimate, who is busily looting the table? The answer is, He will do nothing.

I am not by nature aggressive, but my success at National University emboldened me to test my theory in other circumstances. When I read that Mike Wofford, a jazz pianist of some distinction (he has played for Sinatra), was booked into the Half Moon Inn on Harbor Island, I joined the crowd of aficionados already assembled there and was politely escorted to a table. "Not now, thanks," I said to the waiter when he solicited my drink order. "I'm waiting for friends." He did not intrude again upon my privacy. I listened raptly to the performer until every other Wofford appreciator had had time to order a third martini, paid a visit to the men's room, and slipped out as easily as I had slipped in.

I loitered outside the Spreckels Theater on Broadway, dressed in one of my Hong Kong suits and one of the two ties I own, while the sidewalk filled with theatergoers at intermission. With them I entered the Spreckels, unaccosted, to catch the last two acts of The Belle of Amherst, starring Julie Harris. When a friend of mine informed me that a new travel agency was opening its doors with an invitation-only bash, I invited myself, drank three Scotches, and almost singlehandedly defoliated the shrimp tree.

At a camera shop I traded my Asahi Pentax and two lenses for a Polaroid 195 SE, a camera that went out of production nearly a year ago. With this and a supply of outdated instant color film packs, purchased at half price, I positioned myself just inside the entrance to the San Diego Zoo, where the bronze busts of two deceased inmates, the gorillas Mbongo and Ngagi, stare impassively at passersby. They are favorite props for family snapshots. And while mother perched Junior on the broad shoulders of Mbongo and backed off fifty feet with her Instamatic, I shot the same scene with my Polaroid, and, one minute later, showed her the brilliant result. Her unvarying reaction was covetous; she wanted the picture still in her camera. My asking price of $2 --"For the cost of the film" -- has an inhibiting effect on sales, which average two or three out of ten exposures on a good day. The income from this sideline is too picayune to affect my style of living, but it keeps me in film.

I no longer pay for lunches at the government-funded nutrition sites, having learned that the "suggested donation," whatever it amounts to, is just these and other steps in my education were that -- suggested --and no more. If he is sixty, a millionaire can ride to any nutrition center in his have done since leaving New York seven years chauffeured limousine and demand to be served free. I cannot recommend the procedure, which I follow anyway, because it takes more than gall; one needs skin thicker than mine. Without exception, the other diners auditing my ugly little argument at the entrance severely disapprove. My victories are Pyrrhic; I take my place at table in a frozen silence. The long as possible. I had arrived in San Diego with some other diners have paid for their lunches; I have re- $4000, with which I opened a checking account-a fused. "The nerve of some people," said an old lady, in a stage whisper, on one such occasion. Her neighbor indignantly agreed: "They shouldn't be allowed to eat." I do my best by passing my business around, eating at five different locations in a week. I console myself with two thoughts: that dyspepsia is free, and that in a year, during which I eat 260 50 lunches, I will have saved myself $130 -- nearly three months' rent.

I have learned how to capitalize on unexpected opportunity, which does not always bother to knock. One morning downtown I passed a woman who was distributing free packs of Decade cigarettes, a new brand. In less than an hour, now wearing my corduroy jacket ($3 at a thrift shop), now slinging it an arm, I passed her station seven times before recognition dawned and, with an accomplice's smile, she handed me my eighth and last pack. To each was attached a coupon good for another free pack at any market -- or nearly free: I had to pay the California in it requires explanation. sales tax. That morning's work netted me sixteen in packages of superior smokes for a total outlay of 24 cents.

The supermarkets are excellent spots for foraging. When hunger commands, I make the round of Safeways, K-Marts, and Fedmarts, munching on samples of garlic bread, chjeese squares, tiny salads in paper cups, salami cubes, and carbonated soft drinks that are routinely dispensed in the aisles by young women pushing this or that new product. The fare is insubstantial unless one revisits each station until the vendor's patience wears thin. This seldom happens, so seldom that I have begun to entertain the possibility that the world -- or certain parts of it, anyway -- is one the side of the freebooter, particularly if he carries off the act with savior faire.

An example: "Oh, come on," I said to the cashier at the Carbillo Theatre, in whose darkened interior King Kong was losing his pongid heart to a fistful of woman. "I never carry my Social Security card. Don't I look sixty-two? See these wrinkles?" I exhibited my turkey-gobbler neck. "Oh, all right," she said, and accepted my dollar for a senior citizen's ticket, thus saving me $1.50 over the regular admission price.

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