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 property 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 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, I’m 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.
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 canapés 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 refused. "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, cheese 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.
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 freelance 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 account—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, deposited 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. 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 15¢ 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.