What we never, never talk about

Just last week I had a student remark, casually, as he left the classroom: “Thanks for including The Glass Castle as an option in the reading list. I liked the book. The author’s childhood was so much like my own.”

The student was talking about a book which captures a nearly-insurvivable childhood. Homelessness. Poverty. Abuse.

This summer, my novel Ana comes out from Silent e Publishing. Silent e does some self-published books; mine is a traditional, literary contract. That’s an important distinction for me, the author, and for many readers.

I chose to write Ana because of deepening concerns regarding attitudes towards poverty and homelessness. The book reads, deliberately, as a light novel about a wealthy fifty-something widow who moves from New Jersey to Florida following her husband’s death. It deals, boldly, with the distances we keep even from those we love, and the masks we wear for each other. Because it is a social justice novel, because the ending is a bombshell, because there will be anger, cognitive dissonance, disbelief in some readers, I have included a Why I wrote this afterword. My student’s remark is one more affirmation. Now that the book’s coming out, I’m a little nervous. But, I had to do it. Here’s a bit of why, from the afterword:

I wrote this book because I’ve become increasingly concerned regarding the attitudes of those who’ve never been hungry, never lived on the edge, toward the growing number of citizens who are teetering there or have tumbled over. Recently in nearby Daytona, citizens put together a homeless shelter where individuals can eat, sleep, and have mental health services. As if homelessness is synonymous with mental illness. As if, as a matter of course, a person wouldn’t be homeless without something being wrong with their mind. This, and particularly the public’s lack of concern with this pairing, is only one indicator of the astonishing bigotry associated with poverty in this nation. Assumptions and misconceptions abound.

Here’s another—and for me more personal—example. A friend of mine, who for the last six years lived with and assisted her mother, was recently named as a beneficiary in her mother’s will. My friend doesn’t drive or have a job. An executor is in charge of the will, and my friend’s portion is to go into an irrevocable trust. Her nieces’ shares, because they are under twenty-five, go into a separate trust. They have husbands, and jobs. She doesn’t. Because my friend is without income, the executor and other beneficiaries have gotten together, cleaned out the home my friend lives in while ordering her to sit outside, told her how she should spend her trust income, and decided it should be a “special needs” trust. When I pressed them on why “special needs” they shouted at me, because she doesn’t drive. Because she doesn’t have a job! Again, the layers of ignorance are mind-numbing.

In the coastal central Florida town I live in (which the town of Robinson is modeled after), the divide between the haves and have-nots is ever more apparent. Because it is a touristy beach town, restaurants abound. None of them offer a living wage to the workers. Not a single restaurant in town offers sick days, retirement, or health care benefits. Yet more and more tourists clog the roads, making it harder for locals to get to work. Skateboarding is illegal on our streets: falling down drunk is not. There are actually all kinds of drunken festivals throughout the year. Wine walks. Bike and bars—ride your bicycle from bar to bar. Supposedly, all of this is good for the town. The truth is, the minimum wage and below it jobs which are on the rise actually lower the per capita income.

My own situation has ranged greatly over the years—my husband and I raised four sons in a 1,200 square foot home in a working-class neighborhood. While we are fortunate enough to own our home, there have been difficult times. We both hold higher degrees, but chose as careers public service. During the housing crisis we fell victim to a predatory lender in a refinancing; the lender actually changed our paperwork after it was signed and notarized from a fixed rate of interest to an adjustable. Although we eventually won a class-action suit (this was done to hundreds of mortgage holders), instead of surrendering our home to foreclosure, we chose to continue paying the mortgage, and for years paid over $2,000 a month. We will never get that money back.

During that time my husband worked for a brokerage house out of Brooklyn, doing online customer support for our home in Florida (he’d left the fire service after discovering that, after childcare and taxes, he was bringing home twenty-nine cents an hour. So, he stayed home with the children and worked online while they were still too young for school). One year, he made trades as a day-trader as well, with some modest gains. He was good at it. However, his employer criminally reported all of his trades (and those of many other employees) as gains, leaving us with over forty thousand dollars in tax debt. The employer was caught and convicted; our tax situation was irreparable. We are still paying for those back taxes. Unfortunately, a few years earlier I’d experienced an emergency brain surgery which took place in the middle of the night on New Year’s Eve. Since I was not expected to live, financial concerns were the last thing on our minds. While I was literally under the knife (at this time my husband was still a firefighter and I was teaching) our health insurance carrier switched from a PPO to self-insured. For two years following my surgery, the two insurance companies refused to pay the bill which amounted to over $100,000. Each claimed the other was responsible to pay. Finally, they agreed to split the bill, but by that time our credit was completely ruined.

Shortly after my husband lost his position with the brokerage our own living was reduced to poverty level. Although we were both working very hard, we could barely keep food on the table. This went on for years. Because we were “poor”, relatives politely quit visiting; if family came to town, we met at a restaurant (which we usually could not afford to do.) Distances grew, and we were treated with condescension. There were times when we could only afford to pay either our power bill or our water bill; sometimes we had to take showers at the public ones at the beach and port drinking and cooking water purchased at the market. We flushed toilets and mopped the floor with rainwater. All while keeping up huge mortgage and tax payments. It was during this time that I began to make note of the razor-thin line between sheltered and homeless.

I also realized how shallow were our perceptions of others. Although I had friends in similar, or worse, financial straits, most of them pretended they were not. They seemed ashamed of and dishonest about their situations. This made me think about the deceptions we foist on each other, even on friends and family. Perhaps that was why—this culture of lies—it seemed easy for my own siblings in particular to ignore a sister and her family living below poverty level.

I was working full-time at the University of Central Florida as a Coordinator of Educational Training Programs at the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. While I served mainly in the county I lived in, Volusia, once a week I had to drive to Orlando, 115 miles round trip, for a clinical meeting. My husband was at that particular time working on a bachelor’s degree. We had three sons living at home; two in high school and one in middle school. Both the middle school boy and the oldest had after school and weekend jobs as bus boys at a local restaurant; our middle son was attending a rigorous magnet International Baccalaureate program in a neighboring town, so he didn’t have a job. He also has the form of autism formerly known as Asperger’s, as well as arthritis. So, three of us in the home were working at that time. This was after the financial crash and after my husband lost his job at the brokerage. Of twelve remote support personnel, Mikel was the last one to be let go before the job was phased out. At that time, he decided to go back to college. His student loans and grants provided some extra income after tuition and fees.

We qualified for both reduced lunches at school for the boys and for government commodities, a very old federal program. Commodities are distributed through local churches. We chose to access the food bank at a church in nearby Port Orange, where our son’s magnet school was. Unfortunately, distributions took place on Tuesday afternoons, the same day as my clinical meetings in Orlando. My husband was in class on Tuesdays, and took the local bus as we had one vehicle. I would rush from Orlando to make it to Port Orange, then stand in line in my suit and heels. The distribution was around the back of the church, and the line was generally long. Once patrons retrieved their paperwork from one window, they took it to the next window and handed it over. The person who then checked the paperwork and called instructions to volunteers packing boxes and bags happened to be the pastor’s mother, a woman in her late sixties. Every time she spoke to me, after she’d called “Family of five!” to the volunteers, she chatted a bit and always asked, “How’s the job search going?” Every single time I told her, “I have a job” she looked puzzled.

One particularly trying afternoon I lost my patience, and although I wasn’t rude, said, “Listen, I not only work full-time, I have a terminal degree. I teach at UCF.”

“A terminal degree? What’s that?”

“If it doesn’t kill you, you’re done.”—my standard answer in trying to explain the MFA. She looked blank. “Like….a doctorate. A PhD.”

“And you still qualify for free food?”

“Yes, ma’am, check the paperwork.”

More puzzlement. “Well, there are four other people in your household. Why don’t they have jobs?”

“Actually, those who can, do. One of our sons has autism. The other two, who are 14 and 17, work when they aren’t in school. My husband is a full-time student taking an overload of courses. A lot of the people who come here work, many of us at full-time, professional jobs. Many of the people standing in line here work more than full-time in the service industry.”

The next week, the pastor’s mother smiled at me as I      waited for my food. And of course she asked the inevitable, “How’s the job search going?”

I replied, “As well as can be expected in this economy.”

I made a couple of friends, Laurie (her real name) and Sally (a pseudonym), who were honest with me about their situations. That helped both them and me. To have someone to commiserate with, particularly about the relentlessly exhausting struggle to find ways to pay the bills, made that relentlessness easier to bear.

We struggle. But perhaps we are more honest about it with each other than the general run of citizens, are. Our families don’t really want to know. I have siblings with multiple properties whose savings fall easily into six digits. They are good people. They could write a $20,000 check without missing it. They don’t visit, but they do call. When they come to town, they genteelly ask to meet at a restaurant; they buy. I’m sure they feel good about that. I know they do. They’re kind people, they truly enjoy getting together, going out to eat. They would not enjoy walking through my door, into the 1200 square foot concrete block house with no heat, window units for air, and 1970’s tile floors, with six people living in limited space, along with the two dogs which help with the autism in the house. They don’t, really, want to know.

Our mother ages, and there are discussions about moving her into a facility, or into one of their comfortable homes out of state. She can no longer clean her own house completely, and she’s too friendly to hire someone to do it. I do it. On top of struggling to get by. Although my siblings do visit, and engage as much as possible, it doesn’t occur to them to scrub her toilet. That’s a job for me—the poor one. Of course. But we don’t talk about that.

And that is what is wrong, here. People don’t want to know. That’s why I wrote Ana. I’m active in the local arts community, and there’s a world-class facility close by where I’ve studied several times. I like the staff out there. They like me. But, we argue a bit on facebook when I try to make the local cool people see; this town relies on a workforce which is largely unseen. If you drive the causeways at one a.m.you will see weary food service workers making their way home, some walking eight to ten miles home. They don’t have cars and they don’t have insurance. Yet, visiting writers are shepherded to the four star restaurants, poured eclectic glasses of vino under twinkling lights while these people ruin their shoes back in the dishpit. The busboys and dishwashers take the scraps home, wondering if they’ll get sick from recooking the leftovers of a $60 steak. It’s true. And nobody talks about it.

So there you have it, a bit of a teaser on Anamy forthcoming novel, from  the afterword. Why I did it. Think about it. The line between the haves and have-nots is razor thin, and judgements, particularly regarding the homeless, abound.

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