I haven’t memorized many poems, but I’ve never forgotten Richard Brautigan’s “Star-Spangled Nails”: “You’ve got / some Star-Spangled / nails / in your coffin, kid. / That’s what / they’ve done for you, / son.” It was published in 1968, when the death toll of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam had climbed to thirty thousand.
Barbara Ehrenreich On The Plight Of The Working Poor
The way they calculate poverty was devised in the early sixties and based on the notion that most people spend a third of their earnings on food — which was not true even then. Nevertheless, the reasoning went that if you calculated how much money people spent on food and multiplied that number by three, you would have the poverty-level wage. And that’s what they’ve been doing ever since. The problem is that food prices have been pretty resistant to inflation, whereas housing and healthcare have shot through the roof. So the poverty level is completely misleading. Yet this nation keeps patting itself on the back, saying, “Look, our poverty level is only 12 percent.”
One of the steps AA asks of recovering alcoholics is to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of themselves, and now, alone in my motel room, I find myself fairly obsessed with my stuff: how much of it there is and how long it will last. I have my laptop and a suitcase containing T-shirts, jeans, and khakis, three long-sleeved shirts, one pair of shorts, vitamins, and an assortment of toiletries. I have a tote bag stuffed with books, which will, along with the hiking boots I have brought for weekends, turn out to be the most useless items in my inventory.
I have nothing to say about the politics of poverty, what causes it and what it causes and how to make it go away. I can only tell you what poverty does to a person. It gets inside you, nestles into your bones, and gives you a chill that you cannot shake. Poverty becomes you — it shapes what you see and taste and dream — till there is no telling where you stop and poverty begins. To be poor is to live in denial — not the denial of professional counselors and self-help books, which is an avoidance of some truth too painful to admit, but denial in its most literal sense: you must say no to yourself constantly.
Before Hippocrates and his Corpus — a collection of some sixty medical treatises that marked the birth of modern medicine — the ancient Greeks investigated illness by asking the question “Who causes this sickness?” The answer was often a capricious or malevolent deity. The Hippocratics dissolved this notion, professing instead the theory that the human body was comprised of four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile.
Well, I finally got the last e-mail you sent me. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. They only let us use the “lab” three days a week now (I don’t know why they call it that) since the seniors complained that the underclassmen were hogging all the “lab time.” They keep saying that we’re going to get more computers, but who knows? It still smells like band-aids in here, in case you were wondering.
You’d imagine that, in the wake of 9-11, New York City subways would be less crowded than usual, that at least the paranoiacs of the city (no doubt a large population, of which I might be considered a member) would not be in the subway, which seems like a target. For a month after the attack, I observed the multitude of bags every morning and wondered, What’s to guarantee there are no explosives here, no anthrax, no plague?