Pretend you can’t pay your bills

The blurb in question.

It’s like being poor is a conspiracy or something. Let’s go undercover and make sure poverty is a real thing! Because maybe the destitute are big, fat liars? They’re not “us,” after all, how can we be sure “they” can be trusted?

As if living in fear of nearly everything, from sleeping in your car (if you’re lucky enough to have one) to wondering if you have enough Ramen to last til next payday, isn’t enough; there’s now a book that allows the privileged to read about how craptastic life can be. Yay for them. Or us. Or whoever’s side you happen to be on.

Apparently there are sides.

At least that’s what I gleaned after picking up the January 2016 Indie Next List at the local bookstore in Pacific Grove over the weekend. While this post has nothing to do with the book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich, it has everything to do with the book’s absurd listing in the List. Initially, the premise had me interested. That is until I read the description. The short blurb by Kris Kleindienst, Left Bank Books, Saint Louis, MO, is as follows:

“Ehrenreich goes undercover, joining millions of Americans working at minimum wage jobs to see if it is as easy as some contend. She experiences firsthand the below-subsistence, dehumanizing conditions of much hourly wage work, but she also finds the remarkable humanity of the people who make daily life possible for the rest of us.”

And never has a short, pretentious review steered me so far from wanting to read a book before now.

There’s a silver lining to poverty? Of course there is. Those who’ve never faced the misery of hunger need that silver lining. It wouldn’t be a good read without a kernel of uplifting drivel. Of course for those of “us” who know poverty, there really is no silver lining. Remarkable humanity? Is it surprising that poor people can be nice? Surprising to whom? The rich? The Clintons? To Conservatives? And going undercover to see what want is like? Knowing you can return to a life of iPhones and Netflix, car payments and vacations to Hawaii, or whatever, takes the edge off fearing you might die hungry and alone in cardboard box. You’re just pretending, knowing you can drive off in a Lexus when it gets too nasty to handle.

It’s the last sentence that stirred my ire the most. The poor make daily life possible for the rest of us? That statement, of course, assumes a great deal. It assumes poor people would never pick up this book and that anyone who might want to read it just needs assurances they will never have to hang their laundry in the backyard or call the food bank to see what time they close. As a reader, as someone who has never been rich and has, on more than one occasion, planned to live in the backseat of a car should the next paycheck go sideways, I don’t appreciate being lumped into the “us” category. There is no us and them when it comes to poverty. For some, it’s a spouse who thankfully makes a good wage, for others it’s parents who help out their middle-aged children, and for others it’s an abyss with no safety net.

We are them. They are us. End of story.

Published by patrickwhitehurst

Patrick Whitehurst is a fiction and non-fiction author who's written for a number of northern Arizona newspapers over the years, covering everything from the death of the nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshots to Barack Obama's visit to Grand Canyon. In his spare time he enjoys painting, blogging, the open water, and reading everything he can get his hands on. Whitehurst is a graduate of Northern Arizona University and currently lives in Tucson, Arizona.

8 thoughts on “Pretend you can’t pay your bills

      1. Totally. It also made me think about a time in my life where I was the least well off financially. In college, working 3 jobs (one a caterer so that I could get free food). BUT I always had a safety net – my folks. So I never really knew what it was like to be alone and destitute. And they helped out after discovering I was selling my plasma. What they didn’t know: that plasma-selling gig was for beer money. I know. Totally pathetic, but the other jobs were for real things like rent and electric and books. I could make a case of ramen noodles stretch a loooong way.

        One of my jobs was the midnight-8AM shift at Kinkos. I had the best presentations in my classes – printed everything on the apple computers (which was a big deal in the 80’s), bound with fancy paper, premium covers and graphics, and all for free. The only price I paid was exhaustion.

        And yes, you can still totally kick ass.

      2. Safety nets definitely help a lot! But it also sounds like you didn’t expect or 100% trust that your folks would be able to help when you needed it. And when you need beer money, you need it ASAP! It sounds like you never slept, so beer would be important for balance.
        I miss Kinkos! I got a lot of printing done there in the 90s for my first real job. They were miracle workers!

      3. Good point. I just didn’t think to ask for help. And had my sister not narced me out, they would’ve never found out about my plasma-selling gig. 🙂 It’s probably for the best, because replacing white cells with beer is never really a good idea.

        I loved working at Kinko’s especially the night shift when all the vampires came in to do their copying.

      4. Even vampires need to ramp up their presentation game – particularly when it comes to how many college students are selling plasma for beer. That’s important data to track.

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