The Gentle Art of Poverty

Most of the commentary that's come in the wake of the Todd Henderson fiasco--he's "the whiny professor" whose primal scream (since deleted, but cached here) about the terrible unfairness of raising taxes on rich families like his own became a source of online fascination--has been appropriately caustic. (A sampling from here, here and here.) What constructive advice Henderson has received has been along the lines of "fire your gardener" and "send your kids to public school," which would help stretch his estimated $450,000 income a little further.

That's all well and good. But how about some really radical advice on cutting back?

Henderson's lament reminded me of a curious and riveting Atlantic piece from 1977 that I stumbled upon several years ago. It, too, concerned a member of the wealthy professional class who obsessed about money. Only the author of this piece, who wrote under the pseudonym "John Brooke," had forsaken his lifestyle, marriage, and career as a journalist and dropped out of society altogether. The piece was titled "The Gentle Art of Poverty: How to live in Southern California on $2,000 a year," and it was illustrated with a picture of grand house--of the type Brooke presumably once owned, and Henderson still does--only the house was obstructed by bushes, as though Brooke had sneaked back to glimpse his old life.

The article describes how a member of the professional class goes about dropping out of society and how he gets by on the streets of San Diego. One of its most compelling features is how Brooke, still fixated on money, keeps scrupulous account of what little he has, and how he spends it. (Henderson could learn a thing or two.) My description doesn't nearly do justice to the full article, which is deeply sad as well as fascinating, and well worth a read--it's unlike anything I've come across in the Atlantic, or elsewhere. My thanks to the Atlantic web staff for digging it out of the archives and scanning it in. I've posted an excerpt after the jump:

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...

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