05 May 2015

The Poor

I live in a $457-a-month one bedroom American council flat.  Subsidized housing.  Hillside Townhouses, it’s called.  The hill it sits beside is the city dump.

The place is not too bad in the winter, when everybody stays inside, with their windows shut.  You can hear their screaming, the screaming of the poor, through the thin walls.  But I can block that out with the portable dvd player and a pair of ten dollar headphones.  So the poor are all tolerable, in the winter.

But in the summer, the poor are unbearable.  The summer, when the screen doors are in and all the windows are open, and the poor congregate in the parking lots.  The noise is maddening. I got a taste of it today, the first really warm day of the spring. 78 degrees. Around here, the north, 78 in the spring is like 92 in the summer. Everybody was outside today. And here was the preview of this summer's coming attractions:

The insane screaming, yelling, arguing, laughter.  So I hate the poor.  I damn the poor.  Even though the rich kick them unmercifully, I still hate them.  Unsympathetic victims.  They cannot accept their defeat with honor.  Instead, they disgrace themselves with alcohol, narcotics, Cheese Puffs and Energy Drinks, recreational clothing.  They refuse to sink into the monotonous rut of quiet desperation. They insist on living helter-skelter.

The people in the flat on the left haven’t spoken to me since last summer, when I caught them in the act.  The act of being poor.  They have a three bedroom.  A man, a woman, four kids.  Six powder kegs in an inferno.  One burning night last summer, everyone sweating, everyone hot and poor, I heard a couple thuds, then a smack, then kids screaming and crying, then a screen door slamming, then a screen door slamming again.

“That’s right, bitch,” I heard the woman from next door shout, “run away like you always do!”

Don’t look out the window, I tell myself, don’t look out the window.

“That’s right, you pussy motherfucker!" she continues.  "And don’t come back this time!”

“Get yo shit ass back in the house and wipe the shit off yo behind,” the man yells back.  “And hang a Goddamn flypaper off yo shit ass!” he adds, for good measure.

I can't help it. I look out the window.  The man is putting a key in the lock of his rusty Camry.  The woman is stomping across the parking lot.  She stops ten feet from the man.

“You come back, I’ll kill you!”

The man laughs as he opens the door and slides behind the wheel.  

“Yo shit ass already done killed me,” he shouts in farewell.

The woman turns around and sees me in the window.

“What you lookin' at, nigger!  Mind your own fuckin' business!”

That pissed me off.  I almost shouted I’m not even black, but, to my credit, I retained my composure.  Anyway, that’s the last time any of my neighbors talked to me.

Once in a great while, that same man will come out and toss a little football with his kids while he smokes a cigarette.  The little football will bounce crazily all over the parking lot, often off my and other people’s car hoods.

Hillside Townhouses, my God!  White trash, Blacks, Arabs, Chinese.  Some of the Arabs are all right.  They cram ten or twelve into a 3 bedroom, put some lace curtain thing over the storm door, and you never see them.  The Chinese make a lot of noise, but I have no idea what they are yin-yanging about.  I got Chinese on the right.  They have a baby, like clockwork, every night at 9:30, starts screaming its head off, doesn’t stop for forty-five minutes.

Skunks cross the street from the city dump, and pick through the garbage around our dumpsters. . .

Kids, kids, kids choking the sidewalk and parking lot with their scraped-up scooters, skateboards and bikes. . .the inevitable daily crash, one of them bleeding and howling off. . .

The little 2 am parking lot parties. . .broken liquor bottles and baby mama swapping. . .

It’s too depressing to try to describe. . .

This is where I will die.  In the kingdom of the poor.  How many trillions of stars God made, and I’m smeared on this little sheet of toilet paper with all these other Hillside Townhouse turds.

But no, I have to be honest.  This story must be told truthfully.  I don’t hate the poor.  How could I not love the poor?  I worked eleven years in the county jail.  Eleven years that destroyed me.  Eleven years that accelerated my ruin.  Eleven years in Intake and Release.  Eleven years booking in and booking out the poor.  Eleven years booking in and booking out the poor, the lame, the halt, the sick in the head.  I love the poor as I love myself.  Hopeless losers.  No chance.  Nobody ever felt sorrier for anybody than I feel for the poor.  And that’s the greatest love of all.  That’s how God feels about us.

I remember one, in particular.  One poor, one sick in the head.  He came in on my forty-fifth birthday.  I was already eyeing the grave.  I hadn’t yet hit rock bottom, but I was falling.  I was falling, waiting to hit and crumple.  Then I would be free of the play-acting of living. All the absurd make-work that is called living could then be put away.  I would be free to act without pretense and wait for death.  That was me, birthday forty-five, on the midnight shift at the jail.

In front of me was a young, bewildered snot-nosed autistic black male. He was trying to make his one free call on the inmate phone, but he could make neither heads nor tails of the (simple) directions.

I had compassion.

“Come over here, guy.  I’ll dial for you on my phone.”

With a stiff gait, the youthful oddball slowly makes his way to my station.

“Who are you trying to call?” I ask.


“What’s your grandma’s name?”


The snot on the snot-nosed autistic boy is dried.  It looks like he has chalk marks under his nostrils.

I pick up the handset.

“What’s your grandma’s phone number?”


He’s eighteen years old.  He was brought in for a domestic assault on his mother.

“Uh, what’s the rest of the number?”

“The rest of the number?”

I nod.

“Nine.  Nine. . .nine.  Ninenineninenineninenineninenine.”

“Uh, I don’t think that will work.”

“That won’t work?”

“No.  No, that’s not a good number.”

“That’s not a good number?”


He stands there staring blankly at me for several seconds.

Moments like those often bring on self-contemplation. I wondered how I ended up there.  Forty-five years old, working in a jail, processing human refuse, a misfit recycling center, sorting one case of arrested development from the next.

“Why don’t you have a seat there and try to think of a better number.  We can try again a little later.”


The snot-nose stands there, staring, for a few more seconds.  I’m about to tell him again to take a seat when he abruptly turns and lurches away.  He sits hunched, head down in the front row, rocking back and forth.

I watch him for a little bit, thinking what’s this poor bastard ever going to do with himself?  I think over it and think over it, imagining one grim scenario after another, then, just as his dismal future starts to bore me, he bolts out of his chair.

“I WANNA GO HOME!” he shrieks.

He half-runs and half-stumbles to the I2 door.  He tugs furiously on the handle.  I guess he’s trying to escape, but I2 only leads to the sally port, where they bring in the new arrests.  Even if he could somehow manage to open I2, he’d only find himself locked in the garage, like a dog with muddy paws.

Some of the inmates laugh at the spectacle.

“That silly ass nigger ain’t got no pride,” says one, with great scorn.

“Pride ain’t got nuttin to do wit it,” says another, wearily.  “He a retard.  He as dumb as you, nigga.”

This gets the whole room laughing.  One of my co-workers barks for everyone to quiet down.

Two officers drag the autistic kid into a holding cell. 

“Grandma!  GRANDMA!” he shouts as the door slams shut.

I watch him on the monitor.  He zig-zags crazily, like a squirrel in traffic, then sits Indian-style on the concrete floor, rocking back and forth.

He’s poor, so nothing is done for him, unlike the broken children of the rich.  When his people are worn out with his antics, they call the sheriff’s for a twenty-four or thirty-six hour holiday. . .

And there I was, celebrating number forty-five with him.  I clearly remember measuring my life against his at that exact point in time and space.  Marginally, I’m better off, I thought, yet it feels like six of one, a half-dozen of the other.

So, yeah, the poor. . .I love them. Even when I will hate them this long hot summer, I will love them, as I love myself.

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