Hard Times

My best friend is broke. As long as I've known him, which is more than 30 years, he's been broke more or less continuously and flirted with poor more often than he wants to remember. Partly it's because he's an artist (a brilliant one) and musician, partly because he's always had a tough time getting decent part-time work that artists and musicians get to pay the bills. These days, with the economy sliding off the rails like coal sliding down a chute into darkness, he's looking poor in the face, and he's trying to laugh. But it's not funny.

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After being out of touch for more than a month, he popped up on my email recently to apologize for his absence, and also to say that he hasn't been in touch partly because he has no phone. It got cut off for non-payment. Which means it's been harder than usual to get work because nobody can really call him. Oh, and he hasn't eaten in a couple of days, only drunk water. But that's okay, my best friend writes, because he looks at the whole thing as a spiritual opportunity--a chance to fast, cleanse, get right with the world, purify.

No food? I write back. That can't be. Sit tight. I'm going to buy you some groceries.

He doesn't object. I guess he'll meditate until I get there (gas money has gotten scarce, too.)

This poverty distresses me, to say the least. This is new. When you have skills and plans but no money, you're only broke. You're between things; you assume opportunity is at hand. When you're poor, the lack of money--and opportunity--is permanent. You go from check to irregular check, not plan to plan. We prefer to think that poor people are uneducated and unskilled, perhaps not even English-speaking. We like to that that skills and ambition make being poor in America darn near impossible.

But that's not the case these days. And it's actually never been the case with my best friend, who has plenty of skills but who's lost out on more than one job because when he shows up to places after talking to employers on the phone, their faces fall. He knows it's partly because he's black, and they weren't expecting it. They never say that, but they don't have to. One flustered woman told my friend that he probably wasn't right for a gallery job because it might require him to work Sundays, and didn't he go to church on Sundays? I told him I don't even think such a question is legal. But what's the point in suing over a job you never get, especially a fairly lousy-paying job with a racially paranoid owner? My friend moved on.

Now it's tough for him to move at all. He's stuck, frozen. He's just trying to get in first gear so he can go, slowly but steadily, forward. Steady is key. Climbing hills and mountains will have to wait. He's got to eat. Anything more than that qualifies as ambition, at least for now. Maybe for a long time.

The image associated with this post was taken by Flickr user stuartpilbrow. It was used under Creative Commons license.

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