Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"I'm not hungry"

Lifted by the unfettered hubris of helium, a balloon rises ponderously, meeting little resistance in its upward ascent...

The smallest needle, with the slightest prick to the taught rubber membrane and...


“What do you get out of this? School credit or something, right?” asked Roy toward the end of our interview. We were sitting outside a building on campus on an unseasonably warm and sunny day. The trees were all blooming pretty white flowers that smelled like decaying ass.

“Yeah,” I replied matter of factly, “I do get credit for the course, and gain experience in doing interviews from talking with you about these kinds of things. But...” and I briefly went into the longer-term objective of the food insecurity project to help develop solutions with problems in getting food to the hungry. As I described this I felt the stinging discomfort from his probing of my academic motives fade away, and wondered if this was a sign of working through my positionality or the assuage of guilt – perhaps both.

This came well after he asked me to turn off my audio recorder at the start of our conversation. Knowing how unsettling having one’s thoughts and experiences recorded can be, I was glad to accommodate Roy’s request. But the thought still crept into my mind, “Now what am I supposed to do about the transcription I am supposed to turn in?” And so it goes, as Vonnegut says.

When it rains, it pours.

I have fallen back on this saying for many years to make sense of the rhythmic ebb and flow of luck – the windfall of good or the deluge of bad in life.

For Roy, though, the downpour of ill luck has lasted longer than most. Five years ago he ran a video store in a medium-size Indiana city, had a $400k home, and investments multiple real estate projects. Then he had a stroke.

“I’m getting through it.”

The stroke left him with memory problems that ultimately led to him losing his job. About the same time, the real estate market collapsed and his invested money disappeared – “and none of those fuckers are in jail for it!” Next, his house was foreclosed on when he only had $90k left to pay off. He said he has been unhoused for the last six months, leaving his sister’s house where he felt like he had become a burden to couchsurf and sleep where he can. He came to live in Lafayette only a few weeks ago.

“I ended up in a good town. This is a great town,” he said warmly, smiling. “Everybody knows everybody.” He chuckled as he told me about his nickname among the people he hangs out with: Mr. Know-It-All. “I’m smart in my field,” he said, “just like you’re smart in yours.” Later as we were about to part ways, he insisted I get him information about auditing courses at Purdue because he felt bored and unable to talk to anyone.

He told me about how he worked his way up from working as a dishwasher to managing a restaurant, and then a hotel, all without going to college. If you work hard, he said, you can get what you want. He gave me some fatherly advice, warning me not to set my sights too high when looking for a job after college. “You might have to take that crap job for a few years and work up to that ideal job.”

By the same token, looking back on his transition up the socioeconomic ladder, he reflected, “I made my money because I fell into the right tracks.”

When I asked what hunger meant to him, he replied, “I’m not hungry!” I wrestled with this; “But you said you’re unhoused..?” Why should I be surprised that, like any other social phenomenon, internal heterogeneity should come as no surprise: there is no one state of unhoused or homelessness, especially in the current state in which the United States finds itself. And you call yourself an anthropologist...

He said that knowing how to budget is key to making sure he doesn’t go hungry. “I only buy things that are on sale. If it’s not on sale, I don’t buy it.” 

Despite being unhoused, though, he said he uses aid from federal programs (that require a permanent address) to buy food. He also said he makes a little money on the side by selling things second-hand. 

“Everybody’s working an angle,” I offered.

He solemnly agreed, and told me about his friends in Chicago who had immigrated from the Middle East and opened up convenience stores. To illustrate the point, he did an impression, sounding like the stereotypical Apu from The Simpsons.

“Ya know,” he chuckled.

They work the tax breaks, switch things up, and stay afloat. And why shouldn’t they, him or anyone else? Everybody’s working an angle. Do not all of us jockey for position using the most profitable avenues we have available, especially if we come to understand that the track we are all jostling around in wasn’t actually built for our benefit? Why are those at the margins crucified upon a holier than thou cross of higher standards than those whose shiny balloons remain un-popped at the center?

“We all go through issues, and this is what I’m going through now.” He was nodding his head, my reflection morphing in his black sunglasses. He took a drag off the smoldering mini-cigar that hung on his lips – the cheapest ones in town, he had told me; you can only get them on the Lafayette side at an independent convenience store. He did not doubt he would get it all back, he said, and rebuild what he had going before it poured.

1 comment:

Devalina said...

i'm getting a real sense of this person, not as an interviewee, but as an individual, in conversation with another distinct individual. especially like the moment of researcher awareness (not-hunger), that's very cool. i like this stuff you're doing with narrative very much.
Btw, i used Ratna's story in a class, to point to a particular kind of marginal experience. It worked beautifully :)