“We’re not poor, just broke.”
That’s how comedian/social activist/fruitarian Dick Gregory began his autobiography, Nigger (and if you haven’t read that book, drop your electronic device IMMEDIATELY and purchase a copy and read it). If you don’t like it, I’ll buy your copy from you for the $7.99 you paid. Really and for true.
In case the meaning escapes you, being broke means you’re out of money, but you can still hold your head high. Being poor is a state of mind, a brokenness of spirit, a belief your state will never end. If a broke man comes into a thousand bucks, he’s not broke any more. If a poor man does, the poverty remains. Like Gregory, I’ve never been poor – even when living on the streets – but I’ve spent a lot of time broke.
For the last six or seven years, I haven’t been broke, but I’ll never forget how it feels. After I moved from drinking stolen mouthwash and wondering where I’d sleep, I still didn’t have any money for the next few years, as I struggled to clean up some of the wreckage of the past. In some ways, the working poor have it even harder than the unemployed, because you can’t visit social-service agencies during the day, and those places, claiming to help you, close at five. When you’re working but broke, the judgment is that you’re irresponsible; nobody does the math and sees your 35 hours a week running a cash register at Office Depot doesn’t cover keeping a car on the road to get you to work, paying rent and buying food. Throw in child support on top of that, and most working broke folks are drowning by degrees, their noses above water for about 15 minutes after payday – until they pay their bills.
As director at Liberty House, I became reacquainted with the facts of being working broke, since most of the folks who passed through had been living the same barely-hanging-on existence until something snapped: a lost job, a busted car, an increase in drinking. Once veterans were homeless, we could offer them a place to stay, heal up and head down a new path with, we hoped, better jobs and a better shot of making it. Just as important as the veterans we housed, though, were the folks who came to us for food and clothing. After my experience of being unable to get any assistance at the end of the work day, we expanded our hours, staying open into the evening and opening on weekends. Being aware that I’d been in the same space a few years before, we focused on the needs of the needy instead of the ease of the staff. When you’re working and broke, a couple bags of groceries and a new winter jacket, picked up outside of working hours and without having to write your name down anywhere, help prevent:
- Not having the money for an oil change, even though your car is 4,000 miles overdue. Knowing you’re doing long-term damage but not having the 30 bucks.
- Sneaking past your landlord and not answering the door because your rent is late, and you won’t be able to get caught up until Tuesday – if you put off paying your car loan
- Kicking yourself for going to that payday loan place and climbing on the financial wheel of death. You’ve paid them $40 a week on a $300 loan for tires to pass inspection. You’ll continue paying them $40 a week until 2020 at this rate
- Not having money for milk, so eating dry generic cereal given to you at a church pantry where they wrote down your name and eyed you suspiciously.
- Not being able to afford laundry soap, and hoping a half-cup of shampoo will be enough to get your clothes clean at the laundromat
- Not having enough quarters to fully dry your clothes, so hanging them up around your apartment
It’s expensive to be broke, an idea that’s hard for middle-class folks whose idea of brokenness means the electricity got shut off once. When you’re broke, there is no economy of scale, because you just damned can’t afford it. Jumping back to laundry, as a non-broke guy, I go to a big store for laundry detergent and buy the economy jug, with 100 loads inside for nine bucks. Nine cents a load. As a broke guy, I pay a buck a load at the laundromat for the single-size serving. Multiply this for coffee, cigarettes, cereal and the rest of the non-c alphabet that makes up consumer culture, and you’ve got a pretty stiff penalty for being broke. That kind of informal tax on poverty wears a man down over time, and can transform him from being broke but not poor to just a plain old poor man. Every man has his breaking point in the battle between poverty and self-respect. I didn’t reach mine, but that’s not because I’m better or smarter or more deserving than the broke and poor folks who came to Liberty House. As the preacher John Bradford, seeing a group of condemned men marched to the gallows, put it, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” I saw Keith Howard in the face of every single broke, poor or broke and poor person who came to Liberty House’s door. I caught the right waves, got the right breaks and now I can afford to live in a Tiny White Box in the Great North Woods—with a huge jug of detergent under my bed and a giant bag of dog food for Sam (is a dog) – not by right but by grace.
About the author: Keith Howard used to be a homeless drunk veteran. Then he got sober and, eventually, became director of Liberty House in Manchester, a housing program for formerly homeless veterans. There, he had a number of well-publicized experiences – walking away from federal funds in order to keep Liberty House clean and sober, a contretemps with a presidential candidate and a $100,000 donation, a year spent living in a converted cargo trailer in Raymond. Today, he lives in a six-by 12-foot trailer in Pittsburg, NH, a few miles from the Canadian border with his dog, Sam. There, Howard maintains tinywhitebox.com, his website, works on a memoir, and a couple of novels while plotting the next phase of his improbable life.