All Commentary
Tuesday, March 1, 1988

The Poor Among Us

Ruth Burke is a free-lance writer in Arizona.

Not long ago, I was living in an ancient trailer on some land I was buying in a community near the Colorado River in Arizona.

Although I had a steady job, the pay wasn’t fantastic. So I was living in a 1945-model trailer, lit only by a light bulb at the end of a long cord. My water didn’t run, I did—for when I wanted it I carded a container across a field. My plumbing wasn’t indoors, and the necessary house, as they used to put it, was across the field.

Needless to say, I didn’t have air conditioning during the scorching desert summers, although I finally got a fan. But I bore the heat by closing the trailer up in the daytime and opening all the doors and windows at night. Hardships never bother me much, for I learned how to cope during the Depression.

Anyway, I had the pride of knowing that my six acres were going to be my stronghold in hard times. The land had plenty of water, being near the river, and the town was near enough that I could walk to it. I could see all the stars at night, hear the call of coyotes, and the peace and quiet were such that it seemed I was miles from civilization.

One day a friend called me at work and said that a family had come to town broke and were camping in their vehicle beside the river. Since the other transients in the area seemed to be taking an undue interest in the young girls of the family, she wondered if I could let them camp at my place over the upcoming holiday weekend. She told me that they had already been to the St. Vincent de Paul to get a food voucher, and on the next day that the welfare office opened, they planned to go and try to get a check and food stamps.

“Fine,” I told her and asked that they meet me outside my job that evening, so I could guide them to my place.

If I had expected the Joads, I was in for a surprise. For they weren’t driving a flivver with household possessions piled high and a goat boxed in on the running board, but rather an expensive, late-model van.

Well, I reasoned that many folks without a penny to their name were somehow able to drive new cars. So I introduced myself to this family, which consisted of a man, a teen-aged boy, two girls, one perhaps fourteen and one younger, and a baby.

I explained that we would have to drive a short distance out of town and offered to pay for some gas for the van if they needed it. They said that they thought they had enough to get that far and back to the welfare office when it opened the following Tuesday. And then I mentioned that my land was the site of a former junk yard—and that the previous owner hadn’t finished removing all the cars—but that they must not let that disturb them.

They followed me out there and I told them where to park. Then I showed them where the water faucet was and said that the privy was behind some bushes.

“What’s a privy?” the older girl asked.

I explained. “Gross!” she replied.

The man of the family explained that they had started from Florida with enough money, but on the way they had to pay for unexpected repairs on their van—but when their checks caught up with them they would be in good financial shape again.

We talked awhile and I pointed out my old trailer—which was on the other end of the property—hardly distinguishable from some of the junk, no doubt, to the casual observer. And then suddenly the older of the two girls spoke up and asked, “How can you live like this?”

For once I was speechless, but when I remembered that my old car and the trailer were paid for and that I didn’t owe any debts except my property mortgage, I answered, “Very easily.”

I retired to my trailer and the blanket of darkness swooped down on us and I went to bed—secure in my snug little world.

If l vaguely wondered how my guests were doing, I wasn’t in doubt more than a few hours, for the sound of someone knocking at my door woke me up. I looked at the clock, which said it was 11:00 P.M., and went to open up.

It was the oldest girl again, the one who had questioned my lifestyle. And visibly agitated, she said, “I just came to tell you that we can’t stand it out here any longer—and we’re leaving.” Then as she turned to go, she added, “but thanks anyway.”

Soon there was the roar of a motor starting up and then I saw twin red pin points of light dimming and vanishing in the distance. And then I was alone with my thoughts, the wind, the coyotes, and the stars overhead.

For awhile I felt ashamed that I was too broke to help the poor (I may be broke, but I’m never poor, even if I don’t have a single possession to my name) but then I wondered if the time had come when beggars were choosers. And I decided that maybe it had.

When I calmed down enough to think rationally, 1 decided that many of the current crop of penniless wayfarers don’t have the survival skills of the old Knights of the Road—and don’t know that there is any other way to live than as a part of the post-World War II affluent society with all its assorted gadgetry.

For many years I’ve known that the so-called poor have many more worldly goods than I, and what is a poverty level for some isn’t for me. In 1986 my income was 79 per cent under what the government says is the poverty line, but I wasn’t particularly needy and had a few things that I consider luxuries (books, magazines, writing paper, stamps, etc.) so I guess the subjective view of one’s status in life is quite different from an objective one.

While I made allowances that my unhappy guests were city people unused to the silence of the desert and country ways of doing things, I finally decided that the prevailing view of the down-and-outs is that people who give handouts to them better have something good to give, for no matter how needy, they don’t want junk.

Oh yes, there’s something more I’d better tell you. The following week, and for a few days after, I saw my visitors’ van parked at the welfare office. I decided that it might not have been as easy for them to get welfare as they had thought. But later I met them in the store and they said that they had been placed in a trailer somewhere—presumably one that had running water and a toilet—where they wouldn’t have to listen to coyote serenades in the stillness of the night.