Blog Action Day – Poverty

Today is Blog Action Day and the topic is Poverty.

As I just yesterday encountered this, I feel compelled to write.

She told me her name. I didn’t pay enough attention to remember it. Her partner’s name is Jimmy. He’s 24. She’s 50-something. He called her his wife. She cares for him the way any doting wife or mother would. She takes care of him as best she can. He wants her to care for him; she finds that endearing. At the same time, she is frustrated when he doesn’t do the little things to help out. His dirty boots by the door bugged her the most….

Jimmy looks like an ex-con, except that he’s too young to have served hard time. He has homemade tattoos on his knuckles, wears many skull-like rings, and has an otherwise gruff exterior. Still, at his day-labor job, he asked no less than four times how he could do more and what, exactly, he should be doing at the job to which he was assigned. He wanted to be sure he was doing the best job possible. When he scratched his hand, he retrieved his gloves, so he could do more. When he had too much instruction, he sought guidance from the one person he’d connected with, on a compassionate level, for leadership and direction. He was told to listen to Bill, the “big bossâ€? above any other. In a brief moment before he returned to work, he asked if his wife could sit in/near the office for just a few minutes to cool off; she’d been in the car all day. In a moment of weakness and given the muggy day, the office manager to whom he’d been reporting agreed.

Oh!…she looked a fright. Her hair was in a greasy nest rather than the ponytail she’d attempted. The bleached streaks were yellowed in stark contrast against her natural brunette roots. All her front teeth, upper and lower, were missing. Her clothes were entirely too small, showing every roll of fat in her torso and upper thighs. She was covered, from head-to-toe, in streaks of dirt. She was appreciative of the opportunity to sit in a real chair, even a folding one—any place other than the seat of that 1990 Buick. She was polite and courteous and understanding of all parameters. (As soon as the staff returned to the office for even an impromptu meeting, she went back outside.) She was happy to disappear quickly if the space was needed for any other purpose, but she wasn’t too proud to re-align herself as soon as the area was vacated.

…his dirty boots by the door bugged her the most.

That was, until, they lost their home. They are living in the 1990 Buick his father left him when he died. It’s a total junker, with little insurance, no registration, and no inspection. They did have their three cats as “carmates” until a benevolent police officer convinced the humane society to take the kitties without charging the couple an abandonment fee for each one. They’d taken to eating in shelters and out of dumpsters.

She talked, and talked, and talked. She had so many stories and so much to share. She is an extrovert who has been cooped up for too long. She has half-a-lifetime of stories just waiting to emerge. She’s been to business school, had lived high on the hog, and had been dirt-poor and homeless before. She has been both a career woman and solely devoted to raising a family. She is intelligent far beyond her appearance.

They’ve been sleeping in a park and bathing in the sinks. Because the sink in the ladies’ room had recently been violated with something revolting, she’d gone longer than Jimmy without cleaning up. They are “saving upâ€? for a night’s stay in a hotel so they can take real showers and be more presentable. (“No one wants to hire anyone who looks like I do,â€? she said.) I’m sure they were also hoping for a continental breakfast.

She is disgusted by the “crack whores” who flaunt their services on the weekends. She is appalled that any man would “get with” them because of the risk of disease.

When she can, she spends her days in a library or other public space, but is usually asked to leave…because if she dozes off, her snoring disturbs those around her.

They had driven from Temple, where they stay, to College Station for the day job that Jimmy was offered. In spite of the price of gas and the 2-hour drive, they need the money, and Jimmy was willing to truly work for it.

I asked her if she knew of 2-1-1. Connected with the United Way, it’s a service to list and describe all local non-profits. All anyone need do is call 211 from any phone. She’d heard of it and used it, but was ineligible for many/most of the agencies signed up with the service.

In spite of extremely limited food choices, she is able to watch her health a little bit,  but she is a Type II diabetic. Of course, as she is telling this part of her story, she’s  also defending the rare Dr. Pepper in her hand. She makes no mention of the pack of cigarettes (which even I’ll admit probably stave off hunger more than they cost, given her situation).

Her experiences with Jimmy have ranged from that of a loving companion to that like a frustrated parent. She draws analogies from her own son, who is only 5 years younger than Jimmy. They have fought over his choice of girlfriends, his decision to be sexually active, etc. “That girl stole his virginity,� she told me. In the same conversation, she switched to her partner. She spoke of Jimmy as her partner one moment and like he was her responsibility the next.

Later, a “manager� gave her a dirty look and questioned why she dared to be near the office. Since he’s overweight, covered in construction dirt, and an obvious glutton in at least a couple of areas, I took note of the irony. It was explained that she was just taking a break and was under careful supervision the whole time. His two bosses didn’t seem to even notice her. (Maybe this is a fairly common situation with day labor or maybe her plight touched them but not him.)

Hours later, I found out that Jimmy had been terminated. What? You can fire a day laborer?!?!? His agency had said, “Please apologize to [the manager]. I wasn’t aware . . . of his . . . situation� [sic]

Are you KIDDING me? His “situation� is that he, more than just about anyone else, needs and is willing to earn a day-labor wage. He is “saving up� for a $40 room at the local Motel 6. He is doing his best to earn an honest day’s wages. The person he loves most in this world needed to get out of the heat for a few minutes. That tiny need resulted in management learning of their living situation. [1]

I’m disgusted by those who criticized him for caring for his partner. I’m hurt that they lack basic humanity. I’m angry that THIS floated to the top of their radar when they had their own professional concerns and issues at hand.

So, on this Blog Action Day for Poverty, I ask you to consider both sides of the story. Not everything is the way it appears. Not every “loser� is just taking advantage; some are, in fact, trying to pick themselves up… even against the strongest of odds.

[1] When it was suggested to her that she could leave the site and spend the day at the library or a coffee shop, she expressed that she was afraid to drive their car any more than necessary for fear of getting a ticket for the registration or inspection.

PS. As I came to the end of writing this story, I learned of another amazing woman and her perseverance to get herself and her children away from an abusive man. In spite of the poverty that this caused, she and the kids survived…quite well, I might add.

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