The Gentle Art of Poverty

How to live in Southern California on $2000 a year

These and other steps in my education were taken after the first careful cost accounting I have done since leaving New York seven years ago. my habit abroad was to stuff my wad beneath the mattress and, when it began to lose weight, fatten it up however I could. usually with free-lance writing commission or two. There is nothing intrinsically attractive in being poor, and to be reminded, by keeping track of the outgo, was something I avoided as long as possible. I had arrive in San Diego with some $4000, with which I opened a checking around -- a prideful concession, I suppose, to palmier times, when checking accounts were the norm -- and drew upon it as necessary. But not once had I opened the envelope in which the bank's monthly statement arrived. I didn't want to know. At last, in March, I opened the envelop. My balance was down to $2500 and change.

The round sum, depisited at 6.75 percent interest in my savings and loan association, increased my annual income by $168.75 -- $14 a month. I drafted an annual budget, one that would add up to less, not more, than my income. If I could get by on that, then every Delicado sale in the plaza, and every Polaroid sale at the zoo, and every other income-supplement measure I could think of, would be so much gravy: if I could survive at the bottom, the only direction in which my style of living could move would be up. My experimental budget totalled $1765 a year -- a respectable $383.75 less than I had available to spend. Every entry in it requires explanation.

RENT: $600. This can fall to zero. After five years in San Diego, Earl is restless and thinking of moving on. If he does, I will take over his room and his deal.

MEDICAL COSTS: $50. MEDICAL COSTS: $50. This is probably too much, since it is earmarked exclusively for drugs, proprietary and prescriptive. In seven months in San Diego, my medical bill, at private-practice rates, has exceeded $5000 (my own estimate). I have paid nothing for this; nothing for a thorough physical examination, nothing for eight visits to a clinic, nothing for treatment for a stubborn ear infection, nothing for having my blood pressure taken-daily, if I choose-nothing for the twice-weekly therapy group for my depression, nothing for one hour a week of private therapy, also at the VA Hospital. Should my health seriously deteriorate, I have nothing to fear but the deterioration itself-and whatever lies beyond it. The VA will give me a bed and board and do its best to keep me breathing.

FOOD: $730. This allows a daily expenditure of $2, which may seem low. It is low. The free lunch is my only substantial daily meal. In seven months I have lost twenty pounds. I am down to 175 and have never felt better. When starvation threatens, I eat lunch twice.

CLOTHING: $60. Unquestionably excessive. My total outlay for seven months is $32.37, of which $24 went for a new pair of shoes.

LAUNDRY AND DRY CLEANING: $35. Also probably high. My shirts go to the Skills Center, three a week at l5 each. My two suits have been dry-cleaned once-$1.60-and will not require this attention again until next year. Everything else I wash myself in the shower stall.

TRANSPORTATION: Nothing. The fact is that I could turn an annual profit of $277.68 in this category if I had the nerve. I don't. If I swore to a lie-that I am unable to get to the VA Hospital except by my own private conveyance (a lie that would not be investigated)-I could collect mileage, in my case $2.08 per visit, every time I went to La Jolla. Tipped to this by a group member who is doing just that, I signed the lie, collected my $2.08, and then chickened out: it was more than my conscience, despite its fresh callosities, could tolerate. Now I charge the hospital 70 per visit-round-trip bus fare from San Diego-against an actual expense of 30 with my Goldfare card. The excess finances eight additional bus rides a week, more than I ordinarily take.

CIGARETTES: Nothing. My buying trips to Tijuana, ten cartons of Delicados per trip, constitute a Mexican Standoff. My clients in Horton Plaza support my smoking habit.

MOVIES: Nothing. If I don't catch the weekly feature at the Cedar Community Center, I see a firstrun movie free at any one of a number of theaters in the San Diego area. My host is the savings and loan association, which hires a movie house in off-hours, usually mornings, and admits any of its depositors free.

ENTERTAINMENT: $60. An arbitrary figure arrived at by multiplying $5 by the months in the year. The sum covers such extravagances as the dollar I paid to see King Kong at the Cabrillo and, I must confess, Deep Throat at the Pussycat. That venture into hard-core porn, my first, set me back $2.50 and cured me of all desire to do it again.

COFFEE: Nothing. My daily consumption is three or four cups. Within easy biking distance of my rooming house are several dozen sites which serve coffee free, among them the lounge in the savings and loan association reserved for its depositors, who become automatic members of the association's Investors Club. Free coffee, free phone calls, library, and other benefits, such as a free strongbox, for which I have no use.

DRINK: $30. This permits me ten beers a month at 25 per 9-oz. glass.

INCIDENTALS: $200. The account book I began keeping in March suggests that I will have trouble emptying this coffer. Sample entries: two pocket notebooks, 45; trouser clips (for my bike), 63; typewriter ribbon, $3.18; "Swets" (whatever they are; the entry is illegible), 98.

This budget, inventively composed, has so far roughly corresponded to reality. In March my outlay was $158.23; in April, $155.09. On an annual basis, these figures round off to $1880—still a healthy $268.83 below my basic income. In May I stopped keeping score, because I now know at least two ways to augment my income with minimal effort. At the Cutter Laboratories, 10th and F Streets, I passed a cursory physical and began selling two pints of my plasma a week-the limit-for $6 a pint. This source could add $624 to my annual income. But I found the 90-minute sessions, luring which time I was affixed to a needle, utterly boring, and I stopped. In any case, this supplemental income source would have dried up shortly: Cutter accepts no plasma from donors sixty or older. A friend of mine with a pickup truck introduced me to the salvage value of aluminum beverage cans. Three times a week he makes his collections from the back alleys of bars and apartment complexes and delivers them to the Industrial Metal and Salvage Company on 27th Street in East San Diego. This moonlighting (he is employed) earns him $60 to $80 a week at the present rate for scrap aluminum: 17 a pound (22 12-oz. beer cans to the pound). He cut me in on this enterprise, keeping 60 percent of the take for himself (it is, after all, his truck). But since most of the collecting was done after midnight and is arduous, I tired of the relationship and severed it. If I ever care to return to scavenging, I am assured an extra $1248 a year-my 40 percent share of the gross. In this admittedly more positive approach to poverty, I searched for the sense of challenge and achievement, of response to adversity, without which I was no different, really, from the old men waiting for death on a Horton Plaza bench. I had discovered some truths, possibly important, given a certain negative attitude of mind. One was that I could exist on less than $180 a month, though not well, and that, with little effort, I could amplify that income. Another was that I could still pass, in masquerade, back into the sort of life I once took for granted, when all the institutions of upper middle-class life in the suburbs meant something, when they stood like an unassailable palisade, protecting the present and the future too. But where was the satisfaction? My petty victories, reported to Earl, met with indifference. He was not interested. Why would he be?

I surveyed the texture of my new approach. Free lunches. Cut-rate bus tickets. Retail discounts. Methodical-and tedious-tours of the thrift shops in quest of shorts and T-shirts, items in such low supply and high demand that one has to arrive at the thrift shop long before it opens, to join a cluster of earlier birds. I was in a Burger King when the thought that had been nagging me through the months of wearing poverty like the king's new cloak leaped to the front of my consciousness. I was sipping what turned out to be my last free lemonade. It is no trouble to get one. With patience, and by never standing twice in the same line, one separately acquires a paper cup of ice water, sugar, and lemon slices ("For my iced tea, please; you forgot") and combines these ingredients in a booth. Suddenly the drink turned bitter on my tongue. Suddenly the full weight of my predicament pressed on my shoulders. I was trying to be someone I was not; I was trying not to be who I was -- and I had no idea who I was. The young, perhaps, can repudiate the empty values and possessions of their parents, can stand with composure in the welfare line, can milk the establishment with an easy conscience and a light heart, can strip themselves to the bone and look for new meanings, being blind to the old. Perhaps. But can I? I was the establishment. And when I turned my back on it, I turned my back on belonging; I canceled my membership in every club I knew. On my travels, what could I write in the line on the immigration form requesting my fixed address? My occupation? Where were my keys, those reassuring reminders that I owned things others wanted to steal? What was the true price of a lemonade concocted covertly? That night I drank more than a month's quota of beer and the next morning made an appointment with a $60-an-hour psychiatrist who specializes in the chemical treatment of depression. His name had come to me from a woman about my age whom I had met through a mutual acquaintance and who had been raised by the same psychiatrist from a black pit deeper than mine. With the exception of this common emotional problem, our circumstances are polar extremes. She lives in what San Diegans call the North County, in a community indistinguishable from the one I once inhabited in New York. Her value system, for the most part, is the one I had disdained by the years of expatriation and, in San Diego, by looking for pride in cadged glasses of lemonade. Her income is more than enough to insulate her from the threat of indigence--or any condition remotely near it. Out of respect for my own indigence, the psychiatrist enlisted me in a free program investigating a new, unmarketed, antidepressant drug. Its effect was immediate and dramatic for about a month. My depression vanished as if by magic. But for every action there is a reaction, and depression -- or what I took to be depression -- closed in again. From a new perspective, that of a man who had experienced chemically induced elation, I re-examined the distant and the recent past. The process was excruciatingly painful. I recognized my attempt to embrace poverty as a foolish attempt to conceal reality. I saw the dropout suburbanite, splashing in his pool, polishing his two cars, as a man living in a state of procaine-induced happiness. I abhorred both roles as no-win games.

The conflict remains unresolved. Now I am trying to play both games at once. I am still in my downtown $55 room, whose only window stares at an alley and garages, and I reject the view. I no longer patronize the nutrition centers; I buy my meals in ordinary restaurants, at prices beyond my means. I smoked my last Delicados and returned to my old, expensive brand. I feel poor, and trapped in poverty. On occasion, and with rising frequency, I ride the bus out to the North County and spend a day or two, a weekend or two, with the woman who symbolizes the other life, the life I left. We have discussed a permanent relationship, but the decision is postponed. I see such a move as another defeat, another confession of failure; I too have inhabited her environment, and I left it. This is where I am today, halfway between the person I was, lulled to sleep by suburban landscapes, and the person I tried to be in San Diego: a success at failure, swearing allegiance to no circumstance, a passenger on a ferry carried between two shores-one painted a false green, the other a false gray -- unwilling or unable to disembark. I burn with the desire to command the pilot: "Change course. Take me somewhere I have never been." Is there such a place? A lifelong suspicion is fast ripening into conviction: No, there is not. My only choice, mankind's only choice, is to get off-and to leave my luggage behind.

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