The wild and crazy shopping frenzy we call the Holiday Season has come and gone---unless you count the gift returns, after-Christmas sales, and a flood of gift card spending. For the last week it seemed that every network and news channel was busy totaling up and analyzing our national spending habits, trying to identify the winners and the losers---who had spent how much on what, and what companies had emerged as winners. Often as not the ones they measured were the winners, though some had won more that others.
But of course the sad truth is that in real life not everyone wins at the spending game. That was true when we were youngsters. It happens in the sometimes uncertain lottery that is marriage and raising a family. And now, as the calendar pages continue to turn, too many of our October peers are coming face to face with their own assortment of age-appropriate forms of “losing.” Their losses may arrive in the guise of health, relational, career, or retirement challenges, but whatever the cause the net result is likely to include a financial cost.
You have seen the television commercials that continually repeat their dire suggestion, almost as often as some of us ask ourselves the same question---”Will our nest egg last as long as we do?” Though it’s tempting to dodge the issue there is no doubting its reality.
But is that a reason to explore that unwelcome landscape in a relational story? I think so. It is, after all, the stuff of real life---both the unpromising circumstances and the need for a partner to help deal with that reality. The story I tell is called Going Poor, and I must admit it is one of my favorites.
As I’ve said many times before---the October Years can be an intimidating time of life. By the time I started working on Going Poor, and its straight-in-the-eye depiction of poverty’s impact on the October soul, I had written about relationships impaired by divorce and death, Alzheimer’s and heart disease, stroke and decades of separation. So why not explore yet another all-too-frequent element of October life? Why not take a closer look at poverty, in particular what happens to October relationships when they bump into the harsh realities of Going Poor?
I’m not exactly sure what prompted the idea in the first place, though I suppose it’s a child of our times. We read every day about how many people are unprepared for retirement, how many of us face an uncertain financial future. Still, by itself “poverty” is probably more depressing than interesting, not a likely topic for most storytellers.
But what about the impact of poverty---its effect on the October unfortunates who are constrained by the fact of it and forced to live accordingly? Beyond our basic needs for food and shelter perhaps the most crushing impact of financial hardship is on the human psyche---the emotional price we pay for believing that in a culture like ours, where perceived worth is so often a function of dollars, we have not measured up in the ways we and society expected. What happens to dreams of affirmation and success in the face of late-life poverty? How does it affect self-esteem and willingness to take relational chances? It seemed to me those questions, and the answers they produce, provide the necessary ingredients for a worthwhile story.
Can you imagine, or have you experienced the effects of poverty on a potential relationship? It struck me that perhaps no one is more in need of a caring and committed partner than a truly needy person? And what about the accompanying doubts of self-worth and one's ability to be a good provider? Satisfying relationships can thrive in any home, no matter how modest. Yet poverty and homelessness are bound to impair permanency, an important element of a safe and secure partnership.
So what does that sad state of affairs look like? How must it feel? Of course every situation is different, a unique blend of circumstances. The following excerpts from Going Poor depict Lane Tipton’s efforts to deal with the hand that life and his own bad choices have dealt him---leaving him poor, with no apparent prospects.
Going Poor - excerpt 1
Lane Tipton is sixty, tired, and broke---nearly at the end of his rope. Asking for sister Sally’s help is definitely a last resort. Sadly, he seems to have no other choice.
Lane flinched a bit, remembering how much he disliked those moments when his sister’s questions turned back to his unfortunate circumstances. “So how are you doing?” Sally asked again. “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,” he continued. “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 that, there wasn’t room for me and the Honda in the garage. The Honda won out.”
“So where are you staying now? Have you come up with any new answers?”
He turned quiet, offering no hint of his normally upbeat banter. It took only seconds for Sally to put her own spin on Lane's silence. For years her brother had endured bad luck and hard times without complaint, relying on his characteristic optimism and an exaggerated bravado to mask the hurt. But now, as his stubborn silence continued, she was inclined to believe there was something different 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 know exactly how that feels. I’ve been there. Remember?”
His reply arrived in a hushed near-whisper, tinged with a hesitant resignation that was unlike him. “Yeah,” he finally 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. Truth is, an old fossil like me doesn’t stand much of 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.” He paused, scolding himself for sounding so down in the dumps. Still, he owed her the truth.
“The thing is,” he said. “The few shelters in town are turning guys away. They don’t have any more 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, can you?”
Though neither of them wanted to be the first to put the truth into words, each of them 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 force himself to 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, back 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 out on the Bluffs.”
“Sal, don’t you kid me. You don’t have enough room. You’re still in the same single wide, aren’t you, the one you had at 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. Chances are I’d feel more comfortable having 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 very well what the real thing is like. Why would I ever settle for second best?”
Going Poor - excerpt 2
Lane has returned to Tanner, to stay with Sally. There, on a cold and drizzly morning he makes his way to the downtown Job Market, where eager, strong-backed men from the neighboring homeless shelters and hillside camps gather---waiting for trucks and buses from the region's farms and nurseries, coming to hire needed day-workers.
“So tell me,” Lane said, turning to the only other fellow waiting in what appeared to be the senior section of the Job Market waiting area. “What are the odds of making a connection here? Is there any work to be had 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,” the man replied, rubbing his gray-stubbled face and pulling his cap over his ears. “Most of the outfits that come in here are looking for young guys, like that bunch over there. Those farms have crops to get in, or plants to tend. They need help and they’re not fussy about age discrimination issues and stuff like that. Those young kids, especially the Mexicans, are hard workers. They’re the ones they’re looking for. Hell, I’d hire them in a minute if I had work to get done.”
The rain had picked up again, sending the two of them down the wall, under the wider awning in front of the fitness center. “During the summer,” the fellow 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 working 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 up here. Except for the Christmas tree farms, everyone will be going with a skeleton crew.”
“Does that mean you’ll be going south, like the others?”
“I don’t know,” his new friend answered. “I’ve done that the last couple years. Mostly because it’s warmer. But the truth is, I’m at the point where my body can’t take that kind of beating year round. I turned sixty-one this summer. Been dealing with bad knees for years. And they’re sure as hell not getting any better.”
“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, 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 shelter, keeps us going when there’s no work.”
Going Poor - excerpt 3
Climbing the front steps of Sally’s trailer, Lane was home from his first day of Job Market employment. His clothes were soaked, he could not stop shivering, and his back felt like it was on fire. If he actually believed he could hide his distress as he came through the front door, his sister took about two seconds to shatter that illusion.
“Are you out of your mind?” she was asking even before he closed the door behind him. “You’ll catch your death of cold. More likely pneumonia. What were you thinking, trying to work on a day like this?”
In no time at all Lane’s jacket, shirt, and tee shirt had been deposited in a soggy pile just inside the door. When Sally turned on the stove-top burner to warm some water for instant coffee, he was there beside her, holding his hands over the propane flame.
A moment later, from deep in his pants pocket he produced four twenty dollar bills, a bit damp, but none the worse for wear. “This is what I was doing, Sis,” he said as he spread the bills across the counter top. “I’m getting back in the game. Paying my own way for a change. At least part of it.”
“And for that you’re willing to ruin your health? What kind of deal is that? Where is your good sense?”
“I’m not ‘ruining’ anything. I’m just fine. After a hot, soaky shower I’ll be good as new.”
Sally had gathered his wet clothes and carried them down the hallway, where the stacked washer and dryer unit was wedged into a narrow cubicle. “Now get your shoes and pants off.” She was in her semi-command mode. “And get in the shower before I use all the hot water washing your things.”
She looked up to find Lane still standing, making no effort to remove his shoes. Before she could prod him into action, he was asking his own question. “Do you suppose you could pull my shoes off?” he asked timidly. “I don’t think I can’t reach them. Even if I got down there, I probably couldn’t straighten up again.”
Why had she not noticed sooner? Seconds later, on her knees, Sally was still in a scolding mood as she untied his shoes and pulled off his wet socks. “You are out of your mind. When will you realize that you’re not a kid any more? It makes no sense at all, wrecking yourself like this for a few dollars.”
Grabbing her shoulders, Lane helped her to her feet. “Sis, I told you before---I need to do my part. That means bringing home some dollars. It’s not that much, but at least it’s something.”
“But, you don’t have .......” Suddenly her brother’s hand was clamped over her mouth.
“But nothing,” he growled. “I got wet and cold today, because I wasn’t dressed for the weather. That’s what made my back tighten up on me. It’s still messed up. But once I get a hot shower and a little rest I’ll be fine. Then I need to round up some rain gear for tomorrow. I’ll do that after.......”
“Tomorrow?” It was Sally’s turn to be interrupting. “Are you crazy? I’ll bet you won’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.”
“Yes I will. I have to.” He unbuckled his belt and lifted his foot to let her pull off his pants. “By then I’ll be good as new.”
I will admit, it was an interesting process, creating a relational story from such unpromising fabric. Fact is, stories like that---normally-hidden reflections of the times we live in---are being played out all around us every day. The challenge was to focus on the inconspicuous bits of hopeful possibility that are always hidden among the makings of a tragedy. I hope you’ll take time to check it out.