I was looking for an idea to write about and checked out a list of 101 blog post topics. Nothing really stuck with me. I considered writing about regret, writing about another memory, writing about a topic that (at the moment) struck me as profound. It was so profound that I have already forgotten it.
So I turned to one of my favorite and yet least visited websites, World Literature Today, and as I was skimming the home page, a tiny lurk-up window (probably a pop-up window, but I am calling it a lurk-up window because it just kind of appeared at the bottom of my screen, like it was lurking there) suggested that I read a piece called “Scribbles on the Poverty Line.”
The poet, Ibtisam Barakat, is a Palestinian American woman, and as I hop between windows, I keep on seeing the featured picture, a child on a swing, her bare (I’m thinking her since the poet is a woman) feet barely skimming the surface.
In a completely shallow respect, I love the idea of a line drawn in the dirt, a line that is supposed to be a symbol of poverty. And a child with a piece of chalk and a heart of innocence leans over and writes her story across the line. But because it is just “scribbling,” the writing is both nakedly real and honest and brutally poetic and lovely. Additionally, the poet originally wrote the piece in Arabic which is incredibly beautiful, this sideways, right-to-left, intensely beautiful calligraphy that looks like literary lace.
And then, I spend a little more time and pull myself out of the superficial lens and see more, the idea of the bare feet skimming the dirty world, catching against the burrs and blunt thorns that lightly pull at the skin, tearing the edges that are tattered.
In the poem, Barakat describes the poverty line as though it were the drying line for clothing, a jump rope for play, an extension for a ponytail. Poverty is both a boundary and a defining element for her life. But it is also a companion…if that makes sense. Barakat wears poverty as though it were a dress whose fringe is constructed from bounced checks and bad credit reports. Poverty sits beside her and consumes the food before she can consider serving it to her family.
Poverty is a partner, a bully, a lover, a mortician.
A friend in high school talked about a time in her life when she and her mother were desperately poor. She described dinners that consisted of a pitcher of water because there was nothing else.
I have never known such poverty. Even when I was between jobs and living off the coins in my coin jar, I still knew I had options.
My friend didn’t.
I remember the little homeless boy at Ocean City, Maryland. I was with my college church youth group on a beach weekend, and we were on our way to the boardwalk. Night had fallen and the streetlights mutated everything with their orangish coloring, making everything a sad, distorted sepia. And as we turned to the right, I (sitting in the back, behind the driver) glanced out the window at a woman and her two sons, sitting on the edge of the road.
Not on a bench, like they were waiting for a bus.
Not on a planter or leaning against a wall, like they were waiting for a ride.
They were sitting on the curb, facing the street, obviously homeless. And one of the boys saw me looking at him. And he threw his hand out to me.
Even now, twenty-five years later, I can still see this little boy, his mouth agape, his eyes sad and desperate, throwing out his little hand at me, a stupid bystander to his poverty, riding in the backseat of a Volvo and feeling completely ignorant because I had no idea what he was experiencing, and hoped to God that I would never know what it was to be in his world.
In “Scribbles on the Poverty Line,” Barakat describes how poverty honed her eyesight, gave her the ability to see the growing disparity between herself and the people surrounding her. She described the plentiful bounty of poverty, its willingness to share and be a participant in other people’s lives despite their desires to be ignored by it.
And I wonder at poverty, at the empty stares of people on the street, their heads hanging in shame? exhaustion? the sense of despair that they are at this point?
Last year, on a Sunday morning, I had left my church to do the weekly shopping trip. And as I drove to Wal Mart, the land of cheap and plenty, I passed another church. A man and his family were standing at the corner, holding a sign.
No money. Poverty-stricken. No hope. Need help.
Car after car passed the family. Left the parking lot without any sign of a moment’s hesitation other than to look around the man and his family to see if any other cars were approaching. And, when the road was clear, the car would dart out and make its tidy getaway.
Furious, I turned around. Drove back. Turned into the church’s parking lot and circled past the manicured garden and the rows of sleek, luxury vehicles. And I made a point of stopping at the corner and giving whatever cash I had in my wallet to the man.
I asked him how many people had stopped. He said “God bless you.” He didn’t speak English other than the right phrases for the right location.
Maybe I was swindled. I am willing to accept that I might have been. And I know that people will panhandle and then go back to their lovely homes and eat steak dinners. I know that plenty of people will swindle others as a way to avoid hard work and possible unfair wages.
In New York City, I saw this in Times Square and the young man begging for money for “weed” (he even graciously wrote “why lie?” on his poster board). In doing research about the people in Elmo costumes, I found an article about the Times Square panhandlers. This young man had been working that area for over a year, possibly two. Same sign.
He wasn’t in need.
Or the man in the wheelchair who would sob and beg for money. And when someone would tuck bills into his cup, he immediately and furtively snuck the bills out of his cup so that it would appear to be empty and immediately begin sobbing for help.
By the way, he was never sniffling. And when I cry, my nose runs. He never needed to blow his nose. No way that man was crying.
People will take advantage of one another’s kindness. People will deliberately find ways to get around the system.
But when the system’s poverty lines are sketched in sand and then scribbled over by children, I don’t mind being swindled. It’s not like I have gobs of cash in my wallet anyhow. But I will never forget the sepia colored boy throwing his hand out to me. Every time I do something right for another person, I feel like I’m one step closer to crossing the street and taking the boy by the hand.