Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’ve lived in Oklahoma almost my whole life. People who know nothing sometimes call Oklahoma the “Midwest,” but we say y’all here and eat gravy and know the importance of good manners, so every good Okie is a Southerner. Also, my momma made us promise that when she dies, we’ll pack up her body and bury it in Greeneville, Tennessee, where her daddy’s family bred and raced thoroughbreds and were, on the whole, good respectable people.
He watched Oprah Winfrey every night between eleven o’clock and midnight, then Geraldo. His television shared a hollow cinder block wall with our bed, so we heard every word. By twelve-thirty or one, our colicky baby would start crying. My nineteen-year-old bride would roll over, pluck him up, and throw out a milky breast and a prayer, hoping one or the other would pacify the kid for at least an hour. We had an understanding with the man next door. We never complained about his noisy nighttime tv, he never complained that we had three people, including a screaming baby, crammed into a tiny one room apartment. He wasn’t a bad neighbor. We met some real characters there.
The man two doors down was both scary and scared. He wandered around talking to himself, avoiding eye and human contact. The few times he looked up at me his eyes oozed paranoia, chaos, spite, but most of all, fear. Strange for a man who towered over everyone else, even with his back always hunched over. He had a door locking ritual: close and lock the door; make sure it’s locked by pulling violently on the door; make sure it’s locked by unlocking the door; make sure it’s unlocked by opening the door; close and lock the door; recheck, three or four or a dozen times, until his fear was under control and he could carry on. The super had to change the worn-out lockset every couple months. One time, we didn’t see him for a week. His apartment started to smell. Someone called the police. The police called the super because his door was locked. He was dead. I wonder if his death had anything at all to do with whatever scared him.
We moved to a one bedroom soon after. It shared a wall and a heating vent with an old Indian woman who always cooked curry. My wife hated the smell. To me, it must have been delicious, because you could practically taste it in our apartment. She lived with her grown son, god knows why, because he never worked and only yelled and never seemed grateful for her meals.
Below us, a couple of “kids,” years older than we were but preserved by the freedom of unshackled youth, loved listening to heavy metal on full blast starting at around two a.m. Our son was a toddler by then and didn’t cry at night, so we’d sneak down to the basement and shut off their power. I can’t be sure, but I think they stole my bicycle. It cost me $20, plus another $8 to make it rideable. A small fortune then. I left it in a rack just outside the door, pegged down with a tiny, cheap chain. One day it was gone. I almost cried. Who steals from the poor?
Across the hall was an immigrant about twenty years old, a conservative soul who invited us to eat at her church. The food was great, but we couldn’t understand anyone, even when they spoke English. She had a boyfriend, and they would get in big fights and scream at each other in Vietnamese. One night, she kept shouting “no”, so I went to her door and knocked and asked if everything was okay and if I needed to call the police. No one answered, but the yelling stopped. He stopped coming around after that. A few months later, one warm afternoon, she invited me in to her apartment. I had my son with me, and he tottered around the room, fascinated. She said brokenly, “let me change into something more comfortable,” and came back in silky pajamas. My son stumbled and almost hit his head on the sharp corner of her glass coffee table. We didn’t have insurance and couldn’t take the risk, so we left.
She moved back in with her parents eventually, and was replaced by a middle-aged woman who rushed to her apartment, unlocked the door, got inside, and relocked it as fast as she could. She was like the dead one.
But, her yellow hair reminded me of our next-door-neighbors when I was a kid. They (kids and adults) were all thin and pale and willowy. The mother would send a kid over every so often: “may I borrow a cup of flour?” or “may I borrow a couple of eggs?” We would run to the fridge, and they would smile bashfully and trudge off. Folks don’t typically mean “borrow” in that context, but they always did. A few days or a week later, a kid would pop back up at the door with some eggs or a baggy of flour. Ten-year-old me thought it was irresponsible: “why don’t they just go to the store?” But you can’t be poor and survive alone. It took years – the first time I couldn’t afford food – before I understood how smart and humble and proud they were.
Poor folk rarely get credit for how smart they are. Can’t afford food? Learn how to bake. Can’t afford a mechanic? Teach yourself to change an alternator. Can’t afford a doctor? Make friends with the nurse next door.
I learned that last one from my momma, the night I was running from one of my brothers and tripped and cut my head open just above my eye. She scooped me up, blood running down my face, and carried me to the nurse who lived across the street, who tightened her bathrobe and clucked her tongue and said I really needed a doctor and stitches. But she must have figured out that wouldn’t be happening, so she stopped the bleeding and bandaged me up as best she could in her bathroom, leaving me with a long scar hidden beneath my eyebrow which I sometimes rub and think of her.
I live on a few acres now, in a respectable area. Money buys distance, so the closest neighbors live down the road. They’re kind, and my wife shares our problems with them. When the problem’s my fault, they give me a dirty look. It’s not the same as when we were poor. They hear our problems, not experience them. No more thankless meals tasted through the wall, no more shared saggy-eyed nods the morning after. It’s a little lonely.
My son’s eighteen now, and he doesn’t remember those early years. He has his own car and a new diploma from a private school and a job sitting at a desk. He likes rice and curry and heavy metal and Vietnamese noodle soup, and he has no idea why. These are the things I’ll tell him if he ever asks me, “what’s it like to be poor?”