I’ll tell you what, it feels too much like having a job---which is one of those things I don’t need. Writing a two-a-week blog---deciding what to say and whether it’s worth saying, trying to get the readers involved---it’s a hard thing for a guy who sometimes goes two weeks between good ideas. Moreover, though it may not show, it’s a time consuming process---time I would rather spend telling my stories.
It is the combination of all those things that has prompted my decision to become an ex-blogger. Though I expect I’ll add a post from time to time, just to have it on the record, that probably won’t matter much. Once folks will have stopped visiting October Years not many will come back to see what I post.
Having made that decision I probably could have stopped right there. But I had a couple pages of notes I wanted to spring on you. I haven’t posted about Going Poor until now. It’s one of my favorite stories, and I think it deserves a few minutes in the spotlight before I go.
I’ve said it before---our October Years can be an intimidating time. By the time I started working on Going Poor, and its depiction of poverty’s impact, I had written of relationships impaired by divorce and death, Alzheimer’s and heart disease, stroke and decades of separation. So why not explore what has become an all-too-familiar part of October life? Why not take a close look at poverty, and what happens to relationships when they face the harsh realities of Going Poor?
I’m not exactly sure what prompted the idea. I suppose it’s a child of the times. We read every day about how many people are unprepared for retirement, how many of us face an uncertain financial future.
By itself “poverty” is more depressing than interesting, not a likely topic for the stories I tell. But what about the impact of poverty---its effect on those who deal with it? Beyond the basics of food and shelter the cruelest part of financial hardship is its impact on the human psyche---the emotional price of not measuring up to what we or society expects of us. How do youthful dreams of success fare in the face of late-life poverty? What are its effects on self-esteem, families and children? Those that are ingredients for a worthwhile story.
And what are the effects of poverty on relationships? On one hand, no one is more in need of the support and caring of a committed partner more than a truly needy person? On the other, how do the deeper questions of personal worth and not being a provider affect relational possibilities? Relationships can thrive in a real home, no matter how modest it is. Yet poverty and homelessness do not lend themselves to permanency. In Going Poor the couples, or prospective couples, I write about are dealing with life as it is. For them, “it is” means being poor.
Going Poor - excerpt 1
Lane Tipton has reached the end of his rope. Calling his sister in Tanner is a last resort. Sadly, he has no other choice.
Lane flinched a bit at that, remembering how much he disliked those moments when his sister’s questions focused on his unfortunate circumstances. “So how are you doing?” Sally asked. “Have you been working at all? If I remember right the last time you called you were retrieving shopping carts for the Merchants’ Association, and living in someone’s garage.”
“I worked myself out of a job.” He was laughing to himself as he switched the phone to his other ear, wondering why she would remember something like that. “A place like Medford only has so many shopping carts. It took about two weeks to round up the lost and stolen ones, at least the ones I could find. It earned me a few bucks, but then I was out of work again. As for the garage, that worked out pretty well, until I got evicted.”
“You got evicted from a garage? That sounds like a first.”
“I should have seen it coming,” Lane admitted. “Ron had been talking about getting a car for his wife. When he finally did, there wasn’t room for me and the Honda. The Honda won out.”
“So where are you staying now? Have you come up with a new answer?”
He turned quiet, offering no hint of his normally upbeat banter. That was very much unlike him. For years he had endured hardship and hard times without complaint, relying on his characteristic optimism and an exaggerated bravado to mask the hurt. But now, as his silence continued, Sally was inclined to believe something different was at work this time.
“Lane. You have to tell me. Does it feel like you’ve run out of options? Is that it?” She paused, wondering how to pry the truth from him. “Come on. I understand how that feels. I’ve been there. Remember?”
His reply arrived in a hushed near-whisper, tinged with a hesitant resignation she had seldom heard from him. “Yeah,” he said. “It kind of feels like I’ve hit the wall. There’s not much work to be had around here. There are a couple dozen guys going for every job that comes up. An old fossil like me doesn’t stand a chance.
“The only ones who are hiring are the orchards. They’re pruning this time of year, and looking for young bucks who can run up and down a ladder a hundred miles an hour. I just can’t do that anymore.” By then Lane was scolding himself for sounding so down in the dumps. Still, he owed her the truth.
“The thing is,” he continued. “The few shelters in town are turning guys away. They don’t have any room. There aren’t enough beds to go around. Winter’s coming on and I’m fresh out of ideas.”
“So?” Sally voiced her one word question and waited.
“So? What does that mean?”
“It means I’m wondering what you’re going to do. You can’t do nothing.”
By then neither of them wanted to be the first to say what must be said. Without another word being spoken they each realized where their sparse dialogue was taking them. Sally understood her brother’s reluctance to sound like he was giving up. Yet, if he could not say what needed saying, she would have to do that herself.
“Listen to me, brother. How many times have I told you that you ought to come back here, to Tanner. Why not do that now? Stay with me until you get things sorted out. I’ve got room for that. It’s not fancy, but it beats the heck out of staying in some camp on the Bluffs.”
“Sal, don’t you kid me. You don’t have room. You’re still in the same single wide, aren’t you, the one you had in the other park?”
“Which means you don’t have room for another body bouncing around your trailer. I can’t be imposing on you like that.”
Brother Lane was raising his predictable objections. That was not so surprising. Her challenge was to make him listen to reason. “Don’t be silly. You wouldn’t be imposing at all. In fact, I think I’d appreciate some company for a change. In fact I’d probably feel more comfortable with a man around the place. Who knows what kind of guys are poking around here at night?”
“And you expect me to scare them off?” The thought of that had him laughing. “That’s not too likely. Besides, how are you ever going to get acquainted with any of those guys with little brother hanging around.? I might end up scaring off the wrong one.”
“Don’t you fret about that. You won’t find any fellows buzzing around this old girl. At least none that I’d be interested in meeting. That doesn’t bother me at all. Don’t forget. I know what the real thing is like. Why would I ever settle for second best?
Going Poor - excerpt 2
Lane has made his way to the downtown Job Market, where area farms and nurseries come each morning to hire the day-workers.
“So tell me,” Lane said to the only other fellow waiting in what appeared to be the senior section of the Job Market. “What are the odds of making a connection here? Is there any work to be had, especially for old guys like us? I’m standing here in the rain, hoping to make a few bucks before the day is over. I need to do that. It’s been way too long between paychecks.”
“You can see how it works,” Robert replied “Most of the outfits that come in here are looking for the young guys. They have crops to get in, or plants to tend. They need help and they’re not worried about age discrimination issues and stuff like that. Those young kids, especially the Mexicans, are hard workers. They’re the ones they want. Hell, I’d hire them in a minute if I had work to get done.”
The rain had picked up again, sending Robert down the wall, under the wider awning in front of the fitness center. “During the summer,” he continued. “There’s plenty of work for everyone, even us old farts. But by now, in the fall, it gets harder. The work has slowed down. The only thing in our favor is a lot of the Hispanics have headed south to California, where there’s more work. Another month or so there won’t be much call for extra help. Except for the Christmas tree farms, everyone will be going with a skeleton crew.”
“Does that mean you’ll be going south?”
“I don’t know,” Robert answered. “I’ve done that the last couple years. Mostly because it’s warmer. But the truth is, my body can’t take that kind of beating year round. I turned sixty-one this summer. Been fighting bad knees for years.”
“You got a place to stay up here?” Lane asked. “If you decide to stay?”
“Yeah, sort of. Another fellow and I have what we call our Penthouse. We’ve set up a tent, made out of plastic sheets, against one of the warehouses on the bluff. It’s not pretty, and sure as hell doesn’t meet code. But we stay dry, even half-warm most of the time. That, along with the Mission House, keeps us going when there’s no work.”
It was an interesting exercise, creating a relational story from such unpromising fabric. Sadly, it’s a story being played out all around us in these hard days. I hope you’ll take time to check it out.
In the meantime, thanks for being part of this ride. Check in from time to time. Perhaps our paths will cross again sometime.