Call it salvation or redemption, call it what you will. I have reemerged from a dark tunnel, from the streets of a faraway place once called home, once called the United States of America. I am alive, relatively sane, sure and uncertain. I’m no longer who I once was and so, I wonder, what about you? Who are you now in this world turned upside down? Who are we all, in this burgeoning Fascist state?
In a catalog of strange memories, my file folder is bulging. I’m walking the trendy streets of uptown Minneapolis in December. It’s dark and cold, but without a single flake of snow. Young couples pass by me arm in arm, segregated by love and a million miles away from me. Too distracted by their youth and affection to see either me or you; a sidewalk ad board offers a roast beef sandwich for just $12.95. I calculate my finances and estimate that I have almost enough cash in my pocket to buy one third of a sandwich.
The cafés are full this night; these people seem to have plenty of money and they are so young. It is not so much class envy, as class curiousness. Are the times really so good, to drop a hundred bucks on a date for dinner and drinks? Are they affluent or reckless? Are they careless or care free?
For nearly four years, I have been wandering the streets of America and I can fully inventory all of the possessions which I have lost. Yet now, I must now inventory the missing pieces of who I once was, leaving me uncertain about who I am now. I am unsure if these losses are permanent or if these skills can ever be reacquired. Asked, which spaghetti sauce I preferred, I answered, “I don’t know…anything.” Tacos, hamburgers, crinkle cut, home fries, pancakes or waffles I have no preference. Sometimes, it may seem my attitude is just easy to get along with, but it isn’t. My mind simply reads the problem as food, yes or no?
I have developed a near phobia about spending money. The majority of my purchases are from dollar stores or from second hand stores. There is a rationalizing of all purchases, no matter how small, armed with the implicit number of every coin in my pocket. The idea of a thirteen dollar roast beef sandwich with beverage and sides makes me laugh, openly. I was on a bus on the Pennsylvania turnpike and we’d just had our rest stop. The guy sitting on the diagonal from me didn’t get anything to eat, so I gave him my bag of potato chips. He wolfed them down hungrily and I wished I’d had more to give.
Then there was the middle aged man I met begging in the streets outside of Minneapolis. He held a sign which read humbly — Family in Crisis. On this cardboard sign were attached pictures of his wife and his children. As I passed him two dollars, he spoke apologetically, “I have a job interview tomorrow.” I don’t know whether he did or he didn’t, I couldn’t get past the look of shame on his face. His look haunted me for days, hitting me like a stomach punch; that nauseous feeling that extends down through your bowels. You face the cold light of dawn naked and freezing, asking yourself mournfully, but purposely, could I do that, could I beg in the streets?
It is a psychological tsunami ripping loose the floorboards and anchors of your life, pulling you apart, leaving you to try and reassemble yourself, unsure of whether you have recovered all of the necessary pieces, living in a perpetual state of precariousness. I met a man in Freedom Plaza from a veteran’s group and he was telling me about this friend of his and the reason he’d come to the protest. His friend was collecting a non-service related disability pension from the VA. He lived in section eight housing, living on food stamps and had the cost of his meds covered by the VA. One day after this fellow turned sixty five years of age, he naively applied for his Social Security benefits.
Along with his first Social Security check he received a letter from the VA, saying he was no longer eligible for his disability pension nor was he eligible for free meds, his meds would now cost six hundred dollars per month. Likewise, section eight notified him, advising he would now have to pay more for his apartment. He contacted Social Security to see if they could just tear up his request for a twelve hundred dollar a month pension and pretend they’d never heard of him but — no deal. That is precisely the precariousness I’m talking about; the fear to attempt, to dare, the fear and anxiety of unforeseen consequences. Temper that feeling versus need, the need to wait in line at a food pantry after first explaining your personal circumstances to a complete stranger — precariousness.
They are the telltales of change in the prevailing winds of our times, where once, I didn’t know a single person who had ever lost a home, today; I don’t know anyone who hasn’t lost one. As we crossed North Dakota one night on the Greyhound, I met this guy who was a return driver for executive rental Car Company. He was making eighteen five per year. That’s $18,500, but he explained that he was glad to get it. He’d been a sales rep for an electronics firm in California and had been working there since college. The company went belly up and he ended up living with his mother. College educated, stable work history, grateful to land a job paying a third of his last — precariousness.
I was in downtown Portland and as I crossed over an Interstate bridge I noticed a wrought iron decorative barrier mounted on either side of the bridge designed to keep people in our society from killing themselves. Government had to let out a contract on a competitive bid to construct decorative barriers on highway bridges to keep our people from jumping — precariousness. As a caveat, I’ve noticed railroad bridges don’t seem to carry these barriers. Apparently, suicidal Americans don’t have the patience to wait on a train.
You walk a lot in this station and I have met an army of walkers. I met a young man with a pregnant wife at an intersection; he was carrying a black plastic trash bag and he told me he was canning. He was taking advantage of Oregon’s nickel can deposit law to try and earn some cash money; twenty cans to the dollar. I later saw a couple canning together along towards evening in downtown Milwaukie, Oregon complete with reaching tools for the dumpsters. That’s Yankee ingenuity; high tech jobs in the new economy; love amongst the ruins; love amongst the dumpsters.
These are the images that disturb me; but it is not their singularity which haunts me, it is their multiplicity. These are the postcards from the other side; these are the bare sterile statistics reported to you by the media, explained as meaningless numbers as arrows on a chart pointing one way or another; a metric like deep water which says much, but says nothing.
The number of seniors in poverty has risen by 78% in a decade. Unpaid student loan debts are over a trillion dollars. Debts run up to pay for-profit schools and colleges offering students bright new shiny careers for jobs which for the most part, don’t exist. How many executive chefs can this country actually support, when millions upon millions of its citizens can’t even afford a roast beef sandwich? Who would have dreamt our future would require a degree in homeland security to get ahead?
What about the children? Think back to your own graduation from High School; remember, we were going to change the world? What would be a reasonable goal for a high school student today? For the first time, high school students question the viability of going on to college. That is precariousness — American children who see no viable future for themselves. A precarious society which promises nothing to its children, not even the stability to build their own lives.
When this all began so long ago, I saw myself as all alone; later, I began to discover others like myself. As my eyes opened, I saw this world anew. Capitalism was exposed to me as a crooked casino game, the boom was just to lure you in and the bust is how they cash you out. For every person I’ve met and known out there, who are struggling just to get by, living precariously, someone else is making a buck on their misery. That’s the part of this that really gets you; that this was all done quite intentionally, just as it has always been done.
An economic system which pillages its own people, which robs them, cheats them and impoverishes them for the benefit of a chosen few. Only then, do the goals of Socialism become clear and imperative. A society which does not exploit other human beings for profit, whatever the possible deficiencies of Socialism, the goal of a society which does not exploit every single molecule on the planet is not only worthwhile it is quite possibly our only hope for salvation as a people and as a species.
David Glenn Cox is a senior staff writer for TLR and an award winning author and musician; he is the author of the novel, “The Servants of Pilate”.