Voices from Russia

Monday, 29 January 2018

Of Shitholes, Poverty, and Rod Dreher’s Errors


I don’t usually read The American Conservative. I don’t usually read Rod Dreher. However, today, I read an article where he mused on whether the President had a point about calling African countries “shitholes”. There’s plenty to raise eyebrows in this article, but I’m just going to respond to one paragraph. This paragraph touches upon a topic with which I have a lot of firsthand experience, but I don’t believe that Dreher does. The topic is poor neighbourhoods. Dreher wrote:

Let’s think about Section 8 housing. If word got out that the government was planning to build a housing project for the poor in your neighbourhood, how would you feel about it? Be honest with yourself. Nobody would consider this good news. You wouldn’t consider it good news because you don’t want the destructive culture of the poor imported into your neighbourhood. Drive over to the poor part of town, and see what a shithole it is. Do you want the people who turned their neighbourhood a shithole to bring the shithole to your street?

This will astound Rod Dreher, but I don’t need to drive to a poor part of town. I live in a poor part of a poor town, right on the borderline between the worst part and the rich neighbourhood. I used to live on the poorest street in town. I know. It’s so hard to imagine that poor people are human; some writers tend to bumble through their articles presuming that everyone who reads them is middle-class or higher. However, poor people have computers or access to libraries that do. We use the internet. We can see what people say about us. He’s right. Poor people’s neighbourhoods aren’t desirable places to live. That’s why we live here… because we can’t afford anything nicer. However, it’s not because of “the destructive culture of the poor”. Poor people don’t belong to a “culture” all our own; we’re the financially less-fortunate members of any culture. A person can be impoverished for all kinds of reasons.

Like Rod Dreher, I once believed that poor people usually deserved what they got. I thought that the main cause of poverty in the United States was being a bad person. I thought that anyone with that American can-do attitude could succeed. Further, I thought that no one was so poor that she couldn’t keep herself neat, clean, and sweet-smelling. I could understand poor people living simply, but I thought poor people living filthily in shithole neighbourhoods was their own sloppy fault. Anyone with self-respect could keep their houses and their appearances respectable, if only they tried. All it took was hot water and elbow grease. Then, I ran away from my abusive upbringing. Then, I got very ill and needed a few emergency surgeries. Then, I was too sick to work. I found out how wrong I was.

When we moved into this house, we didn’t have any furniture and we couldn’t afford to buy furniture. It was the first rental we’d ever been in that wasn’t furnished in any way, but we were too thrilled to not be homeless to think about that. It had been a very close call, but with help from our families, we’d made it. We happened to move a few days after Bulk Cleanup, when a specially sized garbage truck would drive through the neighbourhood picking up any garbage that was too big to fit in bins. We scrounged our furniture from things left out for Bulk Cleanup. We got mattresses but no frames; a dining room table that almost stood up on its own; a couple of chairs that smelled like wet dogs; a pull-out sofa that squeaked and crackled when we sat on it. We arranged them in our new house and called it home.

Then the Bulk Cleanup truck came through, picking up the last of the trash and broken furniture behind every house except a few. Some houses had piles of garbage that they never collected. These were people who’d fallen too far behind in their water bills. Steubenville has some of the most expensive water in the country and there’s very little assistance available for water compared to other utilities. We ourselves had been in peril of shutoff a few times, but we’d always managed. Other people weren’t so lucky. Since you pay the water bill to the City Utility Office, when they shut you off, they also denied garbage pickup. The garbage collectors had a list of houses not to visit, and they left their trash behind. Do you know how a mattress smells after it’s been rained on and left to rot for a few weeks? That’s what everyone in the neighbourhood was suffering. Every block or two had its abandoned pyramid of mattresses and torn sofas. Scrappers would take the springs from the sofas, but the plywood and cloth rotted in the alleys.

Michael and I were suffering for other reasons. Our vacuüm broke that summer and we couldn’t afford a new one. We didn’t have money to get the lawn mowed or to buy a mower, either, and we didn’t know anyone in town from whom we could borrow a mower. The grass grew high and the carpet grew ripe. A dear friend from out-of-town sent us eighty dollars to buy a vacuüm, and we fixed the carpet situation. Eventually, we saved up for a weed-eater and a long extension cord. Nevertheless, the yard still looked like trash most of the time, because it’s hard to mow a whole yard with a weed-eater and extension cord. We’ve finally got the hang of it, but it was difficult. While the grass was high, I heard people wandering by my house, muttering, “Some folks ain’t got no pride”. I had pride. the way that the yard looked mortified me. I just had no way in the world to fix it. No one would help us, not for far too long. People kept staring and laughing, but they didn’t ask why we hadn’t mowed it. They presumed that we were lazy. My husband once went outside and tried to attack the lawn with a pair of hand clippers, but he only got a few feet in an hour. They still thought that the problem was we were lazy.

Then, there was the laundry situation… we didn’t have a washer and dryer. When we’d moved, we’d thought we could just carry things to the laundromat several blocks away until we thought of a different idea, but with the price of water in Steubenville, the laundromat is an astronomical expense. I’ve written before about the chore of hand-washing laundry in the bathtub and drying it on racks. Some people wax eloquent on the delicious smell of line-dried clothes. However, they’ve never lived in a poor neighbourhood with mounds of rotting furniture in the alley, a rainy climate, and no safe place to hang a clothesline. We dried the furniture indoors on folding racks and the backs of chairs. We tried to stay ahead of it, but clothes can take a day or more to dry and hand-washing takes a long time. The laundry pile grew as high as the furniture piles in the alleys. In the very hottest, most humid part of summer, where nothing dried unless it was inches from the air conditioner window unit, some of it started to rot. That doesn’t smell good either.

I didn’t smell good. With my home haircuts and nothing to wear but stiff rack-dried second-hand clothes, I looked worse. My house looked like a haunted house from a scary movie. My neighbourhood was a patchwork of people each with struggles as bad as mine or worse, and the houses reflected that. Some looked fine, some looked ugly, and some were rotten eyesores like my house. Of course, no one would want to live near us. We didn’t want to live near us. However, we didn’t have a choice.

Over the past two years, thanks to my job here at Patheos and to help from dear friends and a few family members, we’ve gotten to a better situation. I’m writing this sitting on a couch that doesn’t squeak, although the cushions need mending. We have a table that doesn’t wobble; we have frames for our beds. We have a washer and dryer. The lawn is finally short and going to stay that way this time, as long as our famous neighbour I call Miss Manners leaves us alone. We even stand a good chance of moving out of this neighbourhood altogether, later this year when Michael’s mother comes to live in West Virginia. We’re on the cusp of not really being poor or needing so much help anymore, and that’s exciting. Nevertheless, I have no illusions that that’s completely or even mostly due to our hard work and not being lazy. I’ve worked very hard, but I’ve also depended every step of the way on help from others. When I had little help, my house was what Rod Dreher and Donald Trump would deem a shithole. Now, it’s only a rickety old rental on the slightly better side of a shithole neighbourhood. The neighbourhood has children of God whose intrinsic dignity is beyond measure, and whose earthly means are meagre… and our houses often look horrible.

This summer, it excited me to see on the news that town meetings were being held to decide what would be done about the eyesores in my neighbourhood. I naïvely pictured a brigade of boy scouts with lawn mowers, toolkits, and cans of paint, going from door to door and offering to spruce up houses for the poor, to beautify the neighbourhood. I pictured a private hauling company getting rid of the rotting trash in the alleys. Maybe, they’d even plant flower gardens in the vacant lots. Of course, what happened was that the police started ticketing poor families with unkempt lawns and dilapidated houses. Those tickets can run for well over two hundred dollars for each offence, and the offences pile up fast. If you can’t pay them, you risk jail. Of course, the poor can’t pay them. If we had two hundred dollars for a ticket, we’d buy a lawn mower in the first place.

I’m not saying that there aren’t poor people who are lazy. There are many, just as there are many rich and middle-class people who are lazy. There are also many industrious poor, and many whose work ethic is about average. The poor don’t have a particular culture of laziness; they’re just the ones who get caught holding the mouldering bag whenever the culture they belong to makes a mess. People with money can afford to turn their hard work into nice neighbourhoods or to hire someone else to do the same, but poor people have no money to spend.

The reason poor neighbourhoods aren’t nice places to live isn’t that we have a degenerate culture Mr Dreher doesn’t share. It’s because people with the power to help us make the changes we desperately want, won’t help or choose to make matters worse. It’s because, in this shithole of a culture, even notable religious celebrities who write whole books named after saints view poor people as parasites to be quarantined away from them instead of children of God who need a hand. They punish the inability to pay a bill by hanging a rotting upholstered albatross around our necks. They punish the inability to buy or hire a lawnmower with more debt. They think we don’t deserve help because we live in shitholes, and the cycle goes round and round. Shit, if you’ll forgive the term, begets shit. I think we can easily apply this rule of thumb to poor countries and regions of the world, as well as to poor neighbourhoods, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

If you drive down to a poor neighbourhood, don’t gawk at our culture. Our culture is your culture. Our dilemma is often the direct result of your errors. You can improve the culture by helping, if you wish… or you can take the Dreher Option and blame us.

24 January 2018

Mary Pezzulo

Steel Magnificat


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