All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 1990

Low Life

Mr. Garner is a retired social worker in Midway City, California.

Any discussion of crime and other antisocial behavior should take a close look at what some people call “low life”—bums and criminals. After years of social work I thought I knew something about this element, but it took renting rooms in my house to find out.

Most of the tenants were working class guys. Some were sloppy or crude, but problems could be worked out. They were okay.

There were others, however, who were “low life” and problems could not be worked out with them. They lacked empathy and wanted lots of favors—stamps, envelopes, change, jump starts, or tools. They wanted attention and wanted to talk about themselves at their convenience, not mine. They were overly sensitive, defensive, and wouldn’t sit down and discuss problems. They got buddy-buddy too fast, and expected their messes to be forgotten because we were “friends.” They thought they could find a job and a woman far beyond their reach. They were impulsive in eating, drinking, entertainment, and spending. They ignored the house rules or tested them: if you gave an inch, they took a mile.

Some had terrible manners, needed haircuts, locked themselves out of the house a lot, left shopping carts out front, slammed doors or didn’t close them, broke things and denied it, wasted my utilities and their food, clothing, and tools to an amazing extent, and seemed to either yell or mumble. They got behind with their rent, which brought lots of stories, moving out in the middle of the night, and bouncing checks.

Some put off small repairs on their cars, costing them twice as much. Some told adult stories around youngsters. One hid a motorcycle in his room to work on, getting grease all over.

They resented banks, bosses, cops, girls—life owed them a living. They wouldn’t manage their weight, diet, health, belongings, or money and drifted from job to job. They drove uninsured cars with no spare or jack, and they ate out—always broke, but always ate out. (Show me a roomer who’s always broke and I will guarantee he eats out.) Some stole, gambled, drank, and smoked pot. They had companions, not friends.

Many counselors would say their problem was mental, educational, intelligence, discrimination, alcohol, or “deprivation.” Nonsense; it was immaturity.

Take Pete. He was 40, had nothing, and promised he would be a good tenant. He had a new job. Save his money and get ahead? No, he gambled and drank it away. His room smelled terrible, he had a bad attitude, and he made a lot of messes in the kitchen and bathroom. He loaned his uninsured car for months at a time. He got terribly drunk on a work night, and he fell behind on his rent. I asked him to leave. He did—sleeping in his car in front of the house. The police picked him up on outstanding warrants and put him in prison.

Enter Bob, a divorced 36-year-old escapee from a Communist country, father of two, with a high-paying, skilled job. He was happy, fun, big-hearted, and very likable. He had a strong body odor. He knew it, but did nothing about it, and even went on job interviews that way. He was in and out of love every other week with barmaids, one of whom took his money. He went through a number of jobs and ran out of money. He worked around the house for minimum wage, but still ate out. Once when totally out of money during an emergency, he worked for me four days, was paid each day, and at the end of the fourth day was broke. He needed a loan for a big date who stood him up to go to bed with someone for $50. The next day he was down in the dumps, called his kids, cried, and swore off his night life. Then what? He went out again that night! Eventually he moved out, leaving a big mess and the police on his trail.

If these types didn’t respect themselves or their property, why should they respect me or mine? There were thefts, property damage, and near fights. I had to ease them out gently, taking a loss so they wouldn’t retaliate. They knew where I lived; I wouldn’t know where they lived.

The stories go on; you can read, hear, and discuss them, but you won’t understand until it happens to your property, your time, your peace of mind.

Most middle-class people are unaware of such people, but working-class people and the police are, as they have more contact with them. They call them “riffraff, rabble, bums,” and worse. They know what they are talking about. Many counselors, however, are middle class, have gotten their ideas from books, and excuse such behavior.

“Low life” have chosen to remain immature and irresponsible. Any rehabilitation should meet them only half way and include lots of discipline and hard-nosed counseling. They have the slow, painful job of growing up. Cold-blooded realism is needed, not hearts and flowers. Strangely enough, most of them would agree.