Real Poverty

Repeatedly I hear that the misbehavior in New Orleans sprang from the exigencies of poverty. I would offer a countering view. Permit me to start with the family of Violeta, mi pareja in Mexico. I know them well. Listen, and judge.

Her father was born poor 78 years ago. Poor in Mexico in the twenties meant poor — dirt-floor poor, village well with typhoid and no sewerage poor, no safety net, no medical care, and government by caciques who had unlimited power and didn’t care whether you lived or died. It was hookworm, roundworm, pinworm, tapeworm poor. It was louse poor. Obesity from eating at McDonald’s was not a concern. Just eating was a concern.

Her Dad learned to read from an aunt who had learned in a Catholic school. In Mexico then, as in the United States now, the Catholic schools were better than the public, when the latter existed. He then apprenticed himself to a primitive machine shop, the only kind available, and became a valve-maker.

Eventually he hired on with a company, saved hard over the years, and bought a house, now paid off, in which he still lives. Buying a house for a Mexican worker then required grim determination. After thirty-six years he retired with a pension adequate to support life. In all this time, he did not sack a single city.

Poor doesn’t mean ignorant. He read whatever he could find, to include newspapers daily. He knows a lot of history and geography. If you mention, say, Ceylon, he knows where it is, and the capital. Do American college graduates?

He wasn’t shiftless, you see. Poverty is a condition characterized by a lack of money. Shiftlessness involves a lack of backbone, morals, independence, self-respect, and drive. They are not the same thing. Of course, if you are shiftless, you are likely to be poor.

I note in passing that anyone who wishes can learn to read, short of the genuinely retarded. Illiteracy is a choice. So is ignorance.

Along the way he married, whence Violeta. He was an imperfect dad — strict, yelled a lot, and wasn’t too tolerant, though he didn’t hit her. He taught her that there are things you have to do, things you ought to do, and things you ought not to do. She learned. A thoroughgoing Catholicism reinforced these ideas.

Adolescence came, and high school. Violeta decided that she wanted to go to the University of Guadalajara. There was the little problem of no money. Mexicans do not get preferential treatment in Mexico. To her, poverty was an obstacle to be overcome, not an excuse for failure. For five years in the Facultad de Letras y Filosofia, she worked three jobs. And graduated.

Poor, you see, is not the same as, nor does it imply, nor justify, passive, thieving, dependent, and benighted.

At this point I am going to sacrifice literary consistency to explication. When I was nineteen a buddy of mine and I hopped the freights to New York where, listening to a Copland concert in Prospect Park, I met a little Italian girl of seventeen on the grass. We began writing, and then dating. Her father having died unexpectedly, she and her mother were living essentially on Social Security in Brooklyn. They ate, but not much more.

They were not shiftless, however.

Her mother got her into a Catholic school — Bishop O’Connell if memory serves. Eva understood perfectly which way was up. Good grades were not optional. They were going to happen. And did. Four years of high school and a 4.0 later, she blew away the Regents and got a scholarship to NYU Washington Square. She repeated the roughly 4.0 performance. After grad school at Rochester, she is a tenured professor of mathematics in the New York system. Poor Italian kid. Never burned a city.

Anyway, Violeta. While in university, she became pregnant. Contraception is an imperfect art. On moral grounds she decided not to kill it. (Actually it wasn’t a decision. There are things one doesn’t do and, in her view, that was one of them. Today The Unkilled is fourteen and prospering mightily.) Violeta was now a single mother as well as working three jobs and going to school.

She did it. It wasn’t easy, but she had no expectation that it would be. There are things one does.

On graduating she got some wretched office job, discovered that it was a snake pit (un nido de serpientes) and that she couldn’t give enough attention to her child, who turned out to be a girl named Natalia. So she said to hell with offices and moved to Ajijic, the American enclave on Lake Chapala, to teach Spanish to gringos.

It was a gutsy call. She had no safety net and very little money: North Americans living in half-million dollar houses object to paying an extra dollar an hour for a service that would cost ten times as much in the US. When I met Violeta, Natalia was twelve. They were living in, by American standards, a desperately tiny one-bedroom house, with one small bed and a mattress on the floor, and a total of $300 between them and destitution. Don’t tell her about the high price of running shoes.

Now in the US, social class, which we pretend doesn’t exist, depends chiefly on consumer goods owned, money coming in, and credentials on paper. Two BMWs and Yale beats three Volvos and the University of Maryland. Violeta, ever wrong-headed, believed that what you are worth depends on how you behave. Again, Catholicism.

The Unkilled. (Phredphoto)

She conveyed this to Natalia, who was (and is) the best student in her school, reading constantly with the fluency of an educated adult. Principled motherhood has its virtues. If the child had been a latchkey, she would doubtless now be pushing either drugs or a stroller. Today Nata is fourteen, smart as a whip, largely over the tyrannosaur stage of hideous disagreeability that briefly afflicts teenage girls, and pretty as a flower. She very much likes boys, but has none of that unhappy — what? Lack of self-respect? Desperation for love? — that makes so many US girls easy prey to libidinous striplings.

If I may digress again, long ago on the police beat I rode in DC with a black cop from a bad section of New York. How did he get out, I asked? From my column of the time, I quote: “My father told me, ‘Son, you’re going to learn your lessons, or I will whup your ass.’ He did, too. So I learned. Best thing that ever happened to me.” (Boys are a little different.)

You don’t have to be helpless, nor useless, nor immoral because you were born poor. If this were not true, the Irish, Italians, Jews, the Chinese of railroad coolie days, the Poles and the Czechs would still be in slums. They aren’t. They made it, as Violeta made it, as Eva and lots of black cops made it, without Section Eight housing, welfare, scholarships, minority preferences with no expectations attached, medical charity, or monotonous self-pity. She has a contempt for those who could, but don’t, that would peel chrome from an engine block.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.