Thursday, October 17, 2013

My Life in A Poor Neighborhood

I wrote the below essay a long time ago, it's a snippet from a writing assignment. This was after I had escaped to my then small rural town. I tried to toss a little humor in it and hope it's not too out there. I want to keep the neighborhood unnamed but it was in a metro city of over 10 million souls which is known for having a serious crime problem. During my residential counselor job, I saw even worse areas of the city, but this one was near the top and notorious for high crime. The reason I was there? It was on the bus line and the only rent I could afford. The name of the area, streets, etc, is fictional. Why did I move there? To stay off the streets taking the only job above minimum wage I could get, and then as my illnesses worsened the bottom fell out.

I left out some of the worse experiences, like being jumped at a subway stop where I had to fight the guy off--he wanted to do very bad things to me, and from seeing an armed robbery at a bus-stop by a guy with a sawed off shot gun, where I had me and husband hide in time--all the work with young incarcerated and troubled teens gave me an edge on the street smarts. People would come up to you and demand not ask for money.  I got jumped two other times, and was able to get away but when I got followed by acouple of men for a few city blocks, that frightened me too. Dodging and dashing into stores not knowing why you have become a target is very frightening. This is the place where I had my weight gain.

I have written about living there before, and well the daily stress of it was intense, since I lived in an apartment infested with mice--I could see a dozen run across the ragged carpet in one day. Real life mice are NOT cute. I had no car, no working stove--literally for years, plumbing that never worked--water that turned ominously black in the bathtub, no phone--we used the always broken down one across the street from the laundromat, and often we went without regular meals--yes I know ironic, there were days where one meal a day was all we had and even times the refrigerator would die and there would be no replacement for weeks, and I remember during one winter, keeping cold-cuts and some cheese in between the front door and screen door. My apartment building was so bad, that people would rent the small rickety infested two room apartments to sell drugs out of. I was truly just one notch above the streets and we paid $450 a month to enjoy it all.

One factoid, I was either working, or my husband had a job for 9 dollars an hour which was full time when I was disabled the entire time we lived there. Big cities empty your pockets and this one did big time. There was no lazy and poor, there was simply not enough money. That is one myth about the poor that none of them are working and are laying about. Most states unless you are disabled, you are in work program if you are unemployed to get a check. It's weird how the politicians ignore that fact. The Tea Party imagines people on welfare and disability floating down the Riveria eating steaks every night on their dime.

Crime was high in this area, it still is, I check out a blog written by someone who lives there now. This was not a place you could relax. There were signs even warning about the high rat population on display. One had to live by their wits every second or get caught unawares. My husband then boyfriend had an attempted robbery made on him with a screw driver on the subway but was able to run away. I saw enough at my job and at home, that it took a toll on me. I suppose you could see later, why my goal, was escaping to a  SMALL TOWN in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, and I got that for 10 years. Where I live now is on the small side but I still miss that feeling of peace and quiet in the woods.

I believe life in America is turning less pleasant for many people. Areas like this lost the jobs first. The factories closed in urban areas first and this is what you got. Many people cannot even dream what it means to be poor in America. They often times blame the people. I've been poor enough to know that many will list your failure as for the reason you are poor or impoverished. Every step to scramble up, takes money. If you have no money you don't go anywhere. If I was living this over again, I would have gotten on a bus and left with nothing if it came to that, the violence and more took a toll on me. As far as the poor people who may make bad choices like substance abuse that lead them down the spiral, there are many who have not.

What is sad is after I lived in place like this, is I escaped and then my small town died economically, while the crime rate was far lower, even they ended up with home invasions sprees acouple years ago after I was gone, and I knew people there living in shacks or RV campers with no food, or phone. It was scary to see some of the re-runs, people losing jobs, and then when my husband was laid off, I felt triggered back to where I had been. My shouts of "Never-Again!" remembered from years and years ago.

Many people are not aware that our cities are dying from the inside out, and now many of our rural towns are too unless wealthy hipsters have deemed them a "go-to" place. America is on life support and we saw that this week with the whole the government is out of money debacle. All they did was kick the can down the road for a few more months for a future crisis. They won't stop the wars, bail-outs, foreign aid, but always they put everyone on welfare, and disability on the so called chopping block. To any conservatives reading this blog--I'm not a liberal either, I think things were far better when one income could support a family. 50 years ago, my husband would have had a middle class wage at a stable job, and I could have been taken care of alone from that. "Throw them" all in the gutter and shut the EBT cards off is NOT a solution while they are no jobs or options for people and the outsourcing of jobs continues. Sometimes I am astonished at what is going on out there.

The prices for Obamacare are insane, and way beyond what anyone can afford. Americans are getting massive sticker shock even the poor. Only rich politicians could think some middle class family that makes $40,000 a year could afford another "mortage" [insurance] to the tune of a $1,000 more or month.  But if you don't pay, you get punished with fines. That reminds me of life in that old city of mine, how draconian it was, to be poor meant you were fined everytime you turned around simply for having no money. I really worry for people with this one. 

They had their EBT practice shut off for a few days in some states. Was that a practice run? I know life is harder for people in both places I used to live. There's many people suffering now. I am praying for all of them.

What was scary for me is I was that poor and had no life skills on how to survive while poor. I came from this narcissistic family that taught me no life skills, absolutely NONE, except for serving their needs. They shopped til they dropped at the mall and had roast beef every week. I at least had home ec and knew some vestiges of budgeting, trust me our money wasn't being blown on fun or any parties or other hobbies, it simply was too little. Imagine a fat Aspergers young woman with very poor health even while working, thrown into city streets, given no tools, trained to be deferential, and told, "Sink or Swim, Baby!" Forty something me now has her jaw drop at the sheer neglect!

Today I can survive far better and am more adept at standing up for my rights. The me of today would not live in an apartment with no working stove or refrigerator anywhere. I know how to ask for and get help which in the state of health I am now in, is necessary. Resourcefulness can be born in the desperation crucible. I grew up upper middle class and was left totally unprepared for where life took me. Today life is a far far better quality even if I still struggle at times.

One thing I see in society that concerns me as people should know is the poor are being blamed for all the problems in our country. I don't like either party but when you see the entire government try to scapegoat the poor, for their trillions of dollars in debt while ignoring the bail-outs, endless wars, corporate pay-outs it's sickening. Going around the internet seeing half the populace blame the poor and their costs for disabilities and welfare was disheartening. I want to ask some of those people what do you expect to happen when people have no jobs and options? They have dismantled the manufacturing base, and now coming with it, is the erosion of the tax base.   

Anyhow here is my old essay....


Unlike the projects on the popular 70s TV show, Good Times, there is no way JJ would be screaming, "Dyno-mite!" Thelma would have been too overwhelmed from her three jobs to keep the slumlord paid. It was the kind of place where you were ashamed to live. Bad career decisions, debilitating illness, lack of jobs, unemployment, stagnant wages, naivete of "just getting off the boat", language barriers, and racism brought together the unenthused, multicolored population of Poverty Town. Big cities have eaten people alive. Here, they were being chewed up and spat out.

Taking a scan of this 'hood, one was struck by the sameness of slummy two-story buildings. All were made out of crumbling brick with broken windows and doors. You got to take your pick between mice and/or roach infestation! These apartments came with no-working stoves, for $450-700 dollars per month even in the mid-90s, stinky trash bins notwithstanding. Streets full of empty bottles, trash, cardboard boxes, and pop cans only added to the gritty atmosphere. The mixture of people was overwhelming, ranging from hardworking factory workers and office entry-level types to gang members driving down the street flashing colors. Three homeless guys with Walmart shopping carts sold stolen clothes and slept in the crevices of an abandoned Chinese restaurant. Mexican guys pushed carts full of mangos and tasty mayonaise-covered corn on the cobs to make their living

Poverty Town also had its own Haight Ashbury-style section. It included an abandoned metaphysical bookstore, and an herbal store with 30 year old, dust-covered macrame' hanging dejectedly in the window. Some windows stubbornly carried tie-dye banners and marijuana stickers. Most of the last of the old 60s coffeehouses had closed down in 1994, due to the new folks from worse neighborhoods that mixed with the 50-year old lifelong bohemians. One last holdout, a coffee shop served as a safe haven for the young creative crowd, usually those who drudged at miserly McJobs leaving them too poor to live in the artist neighborhoods that laid further to the South and charged $1,000 a month for rent.

We had our neighborhood characters, like the Church Lady, who wore '60s cat glasses, imitating Dana Carvey's version from Saturday Night Live. Outfitted in orange polyester pants and purple floppy hat, she walked around repeatedly passing out the same fire and brimstone religious tracts to belivers and nonbelievers alike. This was a good thing for my then lost soul, but I still remember one Jamaican man jokingly told her that she was mistaken, and we were already damned: "God's already condemned us, you see to this hellhole for eternity"! She believed him for a minute or two!

A main character was the drunken building superintendent who fixed the broken things in our apartment with gum, tape and spit. The usual place you could find him was slouched across this stoop with a vodka bottle in hand. He'd jump up in tirades against the government, and alderman, but no one would listen. His relatives ran a Polish funeral home on the South Side, and made excuses as our apartments imploded.

Another guy we called "the Player", hit on people to hustle. He would sell drugs from an ever-ready paper bag and offer other street services. Seedier then his Saturday Night Live counterpart, The Ladies Man, he'd hit on anyone from 18-80 by promising them a good "party". This corrupt soul would approach all the mass transit souls for a buck, turning himself into the honorary bus stop troll. Every now and then, he made his appearance on the subway train begging for money for St. Iglesisus [which is "Saint Church" in Spanish] handing out a fake tract that made its route among the professional beggars. They also employed handouts that falsely announced, "I am a deaf mute", please help me," complete with sign language diagrams enclosed.

Raggedy male and female Dilberts, just like the overworked cartoon character, would usually walk to the corner, to wait for the bus for the Cook Street station. This was usually followed by the half-hour zip downtown to jobs that paid from 10 dollars and hour and down. The lucky ones worked in offices doing mail work and typing. The unlucky ones drove buses and hualed trash. Grim-faced, gray and hard, they steeled themselves for another day of whipping at the hands of yuppie overseers who considered them lower forms of life.

Unmarked police cars patrolled the corners and were as noticeable to the residents as regular ones; Drug busts with youth sprawled out on their hoods were daily occurences. Next door was the known drug building whose underground, enclosed garage proved ideal for transactions. The pissed-off but courageous landlord strutted around with a baseball bat in his hand, like the principal Joe Clark of Lean on Me Fame, to scare them away. They always came back.

Two rundown convenience stores served as the places to buy health-destroying consumables like beer, Cheetos and bologna, and served as an alternative to school for countless street youth. Food deserts are not a myth. Next door was a laundromat run by a woman with 12 children, and a phone that was constantly fought over by those with no money like ourselves to keep one at home.

No churches in Poverty Town could be found, except for an old Catholic church, where all the masses were done in Spanish. However a voodoo shop, stocked with endless bottles full of weird and smell herbs, and a price list for spells, ranging from financial success to reclaiming one's lover was well attended. Rotting bones, strange leathery substances, shrunken heads and chicken feet hung in its window. One grocery store where they sold leftover food and rotten meat from the suburbs was the main grocery store, while one could find anything from lamb's head, to beef eyes, tripe and goat meat at the other food stores.

The main sources of recreation were a sports bar for the down-and-out Archie Bunkers located on the Boulevard, while another watered hole on the adjacent corner catered to the hip-hop crowd. The few impoverished hipsters stuck to their Bukowski-style haven. Liquor and playing dice in the street also had their part in daily entertainment. More staid folks usually stayed home, or took whatever little disposable income they had down town.

However, all these ventures were taken seriously with nary a grin. People only smiled if they were high on drugs or about to move. It was a place where lack of income demanded a compromise in finding cheap rent, the one thing it's diverse personalities all held in common. As a temporary waiting station and like a prison, no one was there by choice. I was lucky, I got out!


  1. terrible Chicago! makes San Francisco look tame!

  2. Yeah Chicago sucks. Didn't they grab the murder capital of the world award from Detroit?