This post on the meeting of Curtis and Michael as part of Michael’s yearlong research with Sudhir
Our journey begins with Michael and Curtis sharing a weekend together in Chicago. Each year I spend several continuous days with squatters to understand how they live on the streets. In Chicago public housing, squatters survive because some housing authority managers to pay them under-the-table to clean and fix the place — instead of unionized janitors. I learn a lot about the community by sleeping, eating, and otherwise hanging out with Curtis and his friends. This time, Michael joined me.
At noon on Saturday I asked Michael and Curtis: “With only $20, how will you survive for the weekend — from now, until Monday morning?” (Curtis and I agreed to exempt rent. It was hard enough using $20 to meet food and personal needs — Michael would never figure out how to squat.) Michael wouldn’t sleep at Curtis’s place — he stayed at the Four Seasons, but to his credit, he hung out in Curtis’s neighborhood.
Classic case of culture shock;
Meanwhile, Michael drove his rental car around the neighborhood. When he returned to meet us he was exasperated. “The food here is awful! No fruit, vegetables are moldy. Only meat, canned food, and soda. What do kids eat? The guy at the store told me no one would eat fruit unless it’s in a can. Is that true?”
Curtis shook his head. I told Michael, “When we get back to New York, I will talk with you about diet and quality of food availability in poor neighborhoods.”
But Michael was growing upset. “All I see are liquor stores and dollar stores and fast food. There was one guy who said he’d buy my food stamps — 50 cents for a dollar in stamps? How can people live like this?”
Curtis laughed. He asked Michael if he’d like some chicken and beans. Michael said, “No thank you,” and sat on the cold linoleum floor. He was silent.
“How much does a banana cost,” Curtis asked Michael. Michael looked embarrassed, unable to answer.
“You don’t know, do you!” Curtis laughed. “See fruit is expensive; raw food is too much for low income people. And we don’t always have a fridge, so you got to keep things in cans. That way it can move with you. And one thing you need to know: low income people always are on the move — not just squatters, all low income folks.”
Michael started to write on paper and looked at me, as if to ask for permission. Curtis told him he could take notes freely.
This makes me think that maybe just maybe Michael could start shelters that close later when it’s not as cold:
“Why not stay at a shelter?” Michael asked.
“Not enough of them around,” Curtis replied. “And you have to be out by 6 a.m. If you got kids, you can’t take them out in the cold. So you stay in a store, or you stay in a vacant building. And no more food kitchens since the projects went down. Not a lot for poor people.”
reading his vaguely reminds me of the beginning of Dr Randy Paush’s last lecture. “Don’t pity me not unless you can do…..”
Curtis then took out a cigarette. “See this? Always have a loose cigarette. You can always use a bathroom in somebody’s house — maybe even get a shower — for one. Maybe your kid took a dump in his pants. Maybe you need some toilet tissue. Always keep a cigarette for emergencies.”
Curtis cooked another plate of chicken and beans. He was about to eat it, but once again he offered it to Michael. This time Michael accepted. Michael looked overwhelmed; his face was perspiring. Curtis refilled his coffee and gave Michael one of his cigarettes to calm him down.
“Not everyone lives like this,” I said. “And don’t feel bad for Curtis.”
“No!” Curtis exclaimed. “Don’t pity me,” he said, pouring some whiskey in Michael’s coffee. “This will help you sleep tonight …” Curtis lit a cigarette and leaned back on his busted plastic chair. “Just understand that you got to be creative. Even if you got a home, you still got to pay rent — so you take in somebody now and then. Maybe you let your friend stay in the house and they watch your kid, or clean up, or pay you …” Curtis kept on talking. Michael kept on eating.
The triumph of the human spirit. I have to go now, this is slowly bringing me to tears and this is embarrassing because I’m in my cubicle.
Juxtapose this with an article that made me realize that a lot o rich people have no idea how large a role the environment they had played in their fortunes.
It is true that the larger a household’s annual income, the more likely the household will give money to charity. Half the households in the top 10% of the income distribution make charitable donations, but only one in six of the bottom 10%. But there is a twist in the figures. The worse off give proportionately more of their income. The top fifth of households give less than 1% of their total income, while the poorest 10th give three times as much, or 3% of their income.
I once noticed a boss and his underling walk past a disfigured kid begging for alms, guess who gave who some money and I was behind them so I know they weren’t sharing their charitable act.