I became so much more aware of how often certain voices are written out of our lives, erased from stories and ergo public memory because of our predisposition – as I said in last week’s post – to certain types of news and messages, when I set out to tackle my first serious piece of narrative journalism. I’d been reading about pauper funerals, thinking about the extent of poverty, and what happens when someone dies if there is not enough money to cover the kind of costs usually associated with the ‘ideal’ funeral. How are the deceased poor really treated, I wanted to know. It was then I found out about the feminisation of poverty – how women are likely to be more financially disadvantaged than men and remain that way. What came out out of all this exploration was, A Quiet Farewell, (The Weekend Australian Magazine, December 2014) a story about the pauper funeral of a single mother.
I CAN’T find a great deal about you. It’s like you’d wanted to disappear. There’s no electronic trail, almost no visible record, only a dark pink folder with your final particulars. Among them is the death registration statement with your age: 52. Occupation: single mother. Next of kin: a daughter, a student, aged 18. Address: a public housing estate. Status: alone.
There’s the copy of the last means test you completed — one in which your final bank statement, with a signed statutory declaration, shows that you could not afford to die. There’s the Part 10 document that allows you to have the cremation fee at Springvale Botanical Cemetery waived. It is authorised in record time. You wanted no service, no flowers, no newspaper listing, no viewing, no coffin-sitting. You wanted no one there to see you go. Not even your daughter.
While I was researching that story, I came across the work of the inimitable Barbara Ehrenreich who in Nickel and Dimed: On not getting by in America (Henry Holt & Co, 2001) had probed what it was like for many of America’s working poor who struggle to hold on to jobs and make a living. Ehrenreich went undercover for the piece, working as a waitress and hotel housekeeper, in some instances, and living only on what she earned in that period of time. It’s such a humanising piece about women and men workers who too often are ignored or terribly treated and who can’t just walk away from their circumstances. A great deal of it centred on the troubles of women, with Ehrenreich’s depictions so vivid, that the piece kept bringing to mind the old 1980s Donna Summers ‘She works hard for her money’ video clip.
The break room summarizes the whole situation: there is none, because there are no breaks at Jerry’s. For six to eight hours in a row, you never sit except to pee. Actually, there are three folding chairs at a table immediately adjacent to the bathroom, but hardly anyone ever sits in this, the very rectum of the gastro-architectural system. Rather, the function of the peritoilet area is to house the ashtrays in which servers and dishwashers leave their cigarettes burning at all times, like votive candles, so they don’t have to waste time lighting up again when they dash back here for a puff. Almost everyone smokes as if their pulmonary well-being depended on it-the multinational mélange of cooks; the dishwashers, who are all Czechs here; the servers, who are American natives-creating an atmosphere in which oxygen is only an occasional pollutant. My first morning at Jerry’s, when the hypoglycemic shakes set in, I complain to one of my fellow servers that I don’t understand how she can go so long without food. “Well, I don’t understand how you can go so long without a cigarette,” she responds in a tone of reproach. Because work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself.
Another classic that left its mark on me around the time I was researching was Madeleine Blais’s striking The Arithmetic of Need (Washington Post Magazine, 1992) which focuses on the ingenuity of a single mother who tries to make the best of her situation and make her wages stretch from pay to pay – for the most part. Blais details the care and determination with which she reaches her goals, but also how easily things beyond the mother’s control can topple everything. It’s that final sentence that no matter how often I read it, delivers an eye-watering blow.
She limits herself to $50 a week for gas and food. The car she drives is a blue ’81 Toyota Tercel SR-5 Deluxe, which she bought used in 1987 for $3,700. She calls it “a poor man’s sports car” because it came equipped with air conditioning, a sunroof and a tape deck. These days it has the sagging creakiness of an elderly vehicle and she thinks of it as a town car, useful only for short, predictable distances. Gas usually runs her about $12 a week, for one tank. The $38 that is left over is spent at the grocery store on food and such items as cleaning supplies, toilet paper, stockings. This is the area where economies are most often made and where she feels she can exercise the most ingenuity.
She buys some items in bulk, especially the two 100-pound sacks of unbleached flour she goes through every year and the 25-pound bag of rice that lasts almost a year. She keeps these items under a tight lid in half-size trash cans, and because she has a bug-free kitchen she has never lost a portion to maggots. Cheddar and mozzarella cheeses are also purchased in bulk and frozen in one-pound portions in plastic bags, often shredded. Juice concentrate is purchased frozen in 12-ounce containers, which she thinks are the most economical. Pineapple juice makes a nice poultry marinade. The brand of apple juice she buys is pricey at $1.20 a can but it is vitamin-C enriched and so seems a better choice than some other brands. She likes milk with 2 percent fat; her daughter often adds chocolate syrup made by her mother from a recipe that includes 3 cups sugar, 1 1/2 cups cocoa powder and 2 cups water.
I only recently came across the amazing Poor Teeth by Sarah Smarsh, (Aeon, October 2014) whose work, Beyond the Churn, I used to open my blog last month. This is another view of poverty – or rather how it is regarded. Can poor teeth shape your prospects for the rest of your life? It can, because it tends to raise questions of class and social status even in this day and age, Smarsh writes. This article really hit a nerve for me, perhaps because it reminded me of something that still comes up from time to time – seeing a close family member’s distress and shame even years after having their own teeth removed because of the dental problems. When I was growing up in apartheid era South Africa, so many of the ‘coloureds’ as they were called back then were denigrated for pulling their front teeth out. So much politics around the absence of those teeth and the false ones that replaced them. Smarsh tells this story from the inside – that is as someone who has managed to rise beyond the class boundaries that were placed on her, and who retains an acute understanding of how people continue to be marginalised based on a marker that is as simple as their ‘imperfect’ smile.
In my life, Pennsatucky and her teeth are entirely familiar. She’s the slurring aunt who passed out in our farm’s swimming pool while babysitting me, and later stole my mom’s wedding band to buy the drugs that dug grooves in her cheeks. She’s the step-parent whose brain, organs and teeth corroded over the years and now lives in a mobile-home park with my construction-worker dad.
But Pennsatucky’s teeth aren’t just ‘meth teeth.’ They are the teeth of poor folk, of the young grandma who helped to raise me and for decades worked from diner to factory line to a desk job as a probation officer for the county court system in Wichita, Kansas. She was just 35 when I was born, so I knew her as a radiant thing; at the downtown courthouse, where I tagged along – babysitters are expensive – attorneys turned flirtatious near her green eyes, long limbs and shiny, natural-blonde bob. Then at night, in her farmhouse or the tiny brick house we fixed up in a rough Wichita neighbourhood, I watched her take out her teeth, scrub them with a rough brush, and drop them into a cup of water with a fizzy tablet.
There are lots of works out there I’ve yet to get to, so if you know of any or if you just want to leave a comment, drop me a line. Thanks for reading.