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Tomgram: Beverly Gologorsky, What Does Poverty Feel Like?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

When you come from the South Bronx, you have the option of writing about different kinds of characters than those who so often inhabit the universe of fiction we're used to. That was true of Beverly Gologorsky's first novel, The Things We Do to Make It Home, which focused on the lost vets of the Vietnam era, their wives, and their children, all desperately trying to get by in a world that was anything but welcoming. It was no less true of the crew who worked in the roadside diner in her second novel, Stop Here, a kind of home away from home in an American world shadowed by war and financial disaster. And it's even more powerfully so in her new novel, Every Body Has a Story, about two couples who barely made it out of South Bronx and into middle class homes when disaster struck and two administrations focused their attention on those who were "too big to fail," rather than those who were too small not to be clobbered by the foreclosure crisis.

Today, not quite a decade later, we're in an unparalleled new gilded age in which every advantage is offered to those -- the 1% of the 1% -- who are swallowing up American wealth, while a billionaire runs the country supported by an uber-rich cabinet (whose members don't hesitate to suck government coffers dry for their own well-being). Meanwhile, the president's family members rake in the dollars. In 2017, for instance, Ivanka pulled in $3.9 million just from her stake in Trump International Hotel, the family's palace on Pennsylvania avenue that so many lobbyists and foreign diplomats now patronize to suck up to the president. This country has never seen anything like it or like the cruelty -- from the U.S.-Mexico border to our inner cities -- that's now the order of the day when it comes to those too small not to fail. It's the story from hell, even before the next too-big-to-fail moment hits and it's a story that novelist Gologorsky knows from the bottom up. Tom

Missing in Action
The Poor in America
By Beverly Gologorsky

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Imagine this: every year during the Great Recession of 2007-2009 there were nearly four million home foreclosures. In that period, with job losses mounting, nearly 15% of American households were categorized as "food insecure." To many of those who weren't foreclosed upon, who didn't lose their jobs, who weren't "food insecure," to the pundits writing about that disaster and the politicians dealing with it, these were undoubtedly distant events. But not to me. For me, it was all up close and personal.

No, I wasn't foreclosed upon. But my past never leaves me and so, in those years, the questions kept piling up. What, I wondered daily, was happening to all those people? Where were they going? What would they do? Could families really stay together in the midst of so much loss?

I was haunted by such questions and others like them in the same way that I remain haunted by my own working-class childhood, my deep experience of poverty, of want, of worry. I wondered: How were working class families surviving the never-ending disasters in what was quickly becoming a new gilded age in which poverty is again on the rise?

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As a writer and novelist, I found myself returning to the childhood and adolescence I had left behind in my South Bronx neighborhood in New York City. I thought about those who, like me once upon a time, had barely made it out of the difficulties of their daily lives only to find themselves once again squeezed back into a world of poverty by the Great Recession. How that felt and how they felt raised lingering questions that would become the heart and soul of my new novel, Every Body Has a Story. The book is finished, printed, and in stores and the Great Recession officially over, or so it's said, but tell that to the increasing numbers of poor families scrabbling to hang on in a world that refuses to see or hear them.

What Does Poverty Feel Like to a Child?

President Trump, a man who never knew a moment of need in his life, and the politicians in his thrall regularly use the term "working class" to mean only those who are white, only those who, they believe, will support their acts. Let me be clear: the working class consists of people who are multi-racial and multi-ethnic, immigrant and native born. If you grew up where I did, you would know the truth of that fact.

And here's a question that's never asked: What does poverty actually feel like, especially to a child? I can attest to the fact that it sinks deep into your bones, into the very sinews of your life and never leaves you. Poverty is more than the numbers that prove it, not at all the way the pundits who write about it describe it. And for those Americans who are just one paycheck, one sick child, one broken-down car away from falling into its abyss, poverty lasts forever.

I was a serious child in an impoverished home, in a poor, working-class, diverse neighborhood in a society that valued women less than it did men. I was born to an immigrant father who worked in a leather factory and a mother who took care of children, her own and those of others. I was brought up in the South Bronx, the third of the four children who survived the six born to my mother. With the arrival of each new child, something of material and emotional value was subtracted from the other children's wellbeing in order to support the new arrival.

Dreams were seen as a waste of the mental energy needed to seek out and acquire the basics: food, rent, clothing, whatever was essential to get through a day, a week, or at most a month. To plan long range would be as useless as dreaming and could only court disappointment. The result of such suppression was anger, depression, and dissatisfaction, which is just to start down an endless list.

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Whenever I read about crime rates and addiction levels, including the spread of the opioid epidemic in poor urban or rural areas, I know it's the result of anger, depression, and dissatisfaction, of unmet needs, big and small, that breed frustration and, perhaps most importantly, despair.

How could I forget our family apartment in the basement of an old six-story building? Through its windows I could daily watch the feet of people passing by on the street outside. In the summers, that apartment was too hot; in the winters, too cold. My mother scoured it regularly, but there was no way to keep out the rodents that competed for ownership in the night. To deal with this infestation, and fearing ever being alone in the apartment, she brought home an alley cat. However, that cat made my asthma worse. It was my mother's savior and my enemy.

Because the clinic where I received my medications and injections was free, we had to accept home visits from a social worker sent to investigate the "environment" in which I lived. Ahead of her arrival, my brother would remove the cat from the apartment for the duration of the visit. My siblings and I colluded in this ploy in order to keep the "outsider" from telling us how to live our lives -- and to protect me from the possibility of being removed from my home.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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