I Saw Poverty, and it Looked Like Me
In Honor of Blog Action Day 2008
I was raised in a middle class neighborhood by parents who did everything they could to shield me from Poverty. They did a good job, even when my older brother left home and started living on the streets. Sometimes, the phone rang late at night. My father answered it. I'd hear him talking. Then, I'd hear him put clothes on and leave the house. On the other end of the line had been a priest or some other good Samaritan in a city far away. He had picked my brother up on the street and found some identification with our home telephone number. My father had left the comfort of his bed in the middle of the night to wire my brother some money from the closest Western Union outlet.
Now and then, my brother found his way home. As much as my parents loved him, my younger brother and I were told never to let him in the house. He would come to the door disheveled, dirty, unkempt. And he smelled really really bad. His teeth were black and some of them were missing. His fingernails were dirty and broken off, like he'd been fighting. He carried a weird looking shoulder bag that reminded me of something Jimi Hendrix might have used. My parents let him shower, gave him some food and sent him on his way. I was told not to talk to him. I supposed he must have been dangerous.
He was, in a word, Poverty.
One day, he came over during the Christmas holidays. He was not allowed to stay. My parents were afraid he'd make a scene. There were drugs involved. But this Christmas, he came to the house with a doll. Her name was "Rainy" and she had black hair and wore a purple rain coat. She was in a clear plastic box with a drawstring closure.
"Here," my brother said with slurred speech. "I got this for you. Merry Christmas."
I looked at my father asking permission with my eyes to take the doll from my brother's outstretched hand. My father nodded, and when he did, I saw a tear form in his right eye. I looked at my brother. There was drool coming out of his mouth.
There I stood, between the two most powerful men in my life at the time. And they were both helpless.
A wayward mind led to drugs. Drugs led to homelessness. Homelessness led to Poverty. And Poverty led to my house. It was standing in the hall just outside the dining room.
Is there some lesson in all of this? I suppose it is that Poverty is universal. It has no real color or place or time. It's ubiquitous. Poverty.
Poverty is with us now. It will be with us always. And while I've never seen it with my own eyes on a grand scale, I've seen it close up and personal. In my house. Poverty. It was in the eyes of my brother. A sad hopelessness. A kind of lostness. A stranger in his own home. Poverty must feel like he looked as he drooled and offered me a doll on a snowy December morning.
Poverty, my brother. My brother, Poverty.
When I talk with my brother today, he remembers none of it. My brother, who once lived on grates and strolled across California beaches with a guitar telling everyone that he was going to get a record contract and become famous, remembers nothing of the Poverty.
He remembers nothing of the day my younger brother saw him begging for money at a Washington, DC metro stop. My younger brother saw my older one and he couldn't go to work that day. He was staring at Poverty, and it looked something like him. Over the course of several months, my brothers got to know each other. The younger one lifting up the older one. Finding him a guardian, an attorney, a halfway house, treatment for his addictions and for his mental illness. Treatment for his Poverty.
Today, my older brother is thriving. Medication staves off more Poverty. Today, at the group home where he lives, he counsels other men, trying to help them avoid Poverty. He works at Target. He got his teeth fixed and he smiles a lot.
I have seen Poverty close up, on a face that resembles mine. It made me sad all those years ago. It makes me sad still. I hate Poverty. I love my brother.