Never Poor but Plenty Broke

“We’re not poor, just broke.”

Thar’s how comedian/social activist/fruitarian Dick Gregory began his autobiography, Nigger (and if you haven’t read that book, drop your electronic device IMMEDIATELY and purchase a copy ( and read it).  If you don’t like it, I’ll buy your copy from you for the $7.99 you paid.  Really and for true.

In case the meaning escapes you, being broke means you’re out of money, but you can still hold your head high.  Being poor is a state of mind, a brokenness of spirit, a belief your state will never end.  If a broke man comes into a thousand bucks, he’s not broke any more.  If a poor man does, the poverty remains.  Like Gregory, I’ve never been poor—even when living on the streets—but I’ve spent a lot of time broke.

For the last six or seven years, I haven’t been broke, but I’ll never forget how it feels.  After I moved from drinking stolen mouthwash and wondering where I’d sleep, I still didn’t have any money for the next few years, as I struggled to clean up some of the wreckage of the past.  In some ways, the working poor have it even harder than the unemployed, because you can’t visit social-service agencies during the day, and those places, claiming to help you, close at five.  When you’re working but broke, the judgment is that you’re irresponsible; nobody does the math and sees your 35 hours a week running a cash register at Office Depot doesn’t cover keeping a car on the road to get you to work, paying rent and buying food.  Throw in child support on top of that, and most working broke folks are drowning by degrees, their noses above water for about 15 minutes after payday—until they pay their bills.

As director at Liberty House, I became reacquainted with the facts of being working broke, since most of the folks who passed through had been living the same barely-hanging-on existence until something snapped:  a lost job, a busted car, an increase in drinking.  Once veterans were homeless, we could offer them a place to stay, heal up and head down a new path with, we hoped, better jobs and a better shot of making it.  Just as important as the veterans we housed, though, were the folks who came to us for food and clothing.  After my experience of being unable to get any assistance at the end of the work day, we expanded our hours, staying open into the evening and opening on weekends.  Being aware that I’d been in the same space a few years before, we focused on the needs of the needy instead of the ease of the staff.  When you’re working and broke, a couple bags of groceries and a new winter jacket, picked up outside of working hours and without having to write your name down anywhere, help prevent:

  • Not having the money for an oil change, even though your car is 4,000 miles overdue. Knowing you’re doing long-term damage but not having the 30 bucks.
  • Sneaking past your landlord and not answering the door because your rent is late, and you won’t be able to get caught up until Tuesday—if you put off paying your car loan
  • Kicking yourself for going to that payday loan place and climbing on the financial wheel of death. You’ve paid them $40 a week on a $300 loan for tires to pass inspection.  You’ll continue paying them $40 a week until 2020 at this rate
  • Not having money for milk, so eating dry generic cereal given to you at a church pantry where they wrote down your name and eyed you suspiciously.
  • Not being able to afford laundry soap, and hoping a half-cup of shampoo will be enough to get your clothes clean at the laundromat
  • Not having enough quarters to fully dry your clothes, so hanging them up around your apartment

It’s expensive to be broke, an idea that’s hard for middle-class folks whose idea of brokenness means the electricity got shut off once.  When you’re broke, there is no economy of scale, because you just damned can’t afford it.  Jumping back to laundry, as a non-broke guy, I go to a big store for laundry detergent and buy the economy jug, with 100 loads inside for nine bucks.  Nine cents a load.  As a broke guy, I pay a buck a load at the laundromat for the single-size serving.  Multiply this for coffee, cigarettes, cereal and the rest of the non-c alphabet that makes up consumer culture, and you’ve got a pretty stiff penalty for being broke.  That kind of informal tax on poverty wears a man down over time, and can transform him from being broke but not poor to just a plain old poor man.  Every man has his breaking point in the battle between poverty and self-respect.  I didn’t reach mine, but that’s not because I’m better or smarter or more deserving than the broke and poor folks who came to Liberty House.  As the preacher John Bradford, seeing a group of condemned men marched to the gallows, put it, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.”  I saw Keith Howard in the face of every single broke, poor or broke and poor person who came to Liberty House’s door.  I caught the right waves, got the right breaks and now I can afford to live in a Tiny White Box in the Great North Woods—with a huge jug of detergent under my bed and a giant bag of dog food for Sam (is a dog)—not by right but by grace.

A Five-Star Review of a Homeless Shelter

Some faces are meant to be punched—but shouldn’t be.  Some faces are meant to be kissed—but shouldn’t be without permission.  Some faces are meant to hear the confessions, conspiracy theories and complaints of friends and acquaintances.  I have one of those faces.  Because I still have the soul if not the certifications of both the pastor and the journalist, people bring me stories.  I listen empathetically, and ask probing questions, leading to more revelations.  It’s a gift, I guess.

Usually, this face of mine brings me friends who want to unburden themselves of negative and pessimistic stories.  So-and-so is a so-and-so is a typical introduction.  Nobody understands my gifts is another.  That organization/employer/institution has wronged me is another common one.

Yesterday, I had breakfast in Manchester with a friend who’s fallen on hard times through no real fault of her own, unless developing a life-threatening disease and falling for the wrong man—or the right man at the wrong time—can be tallied in the fault column.  Eleanor, not her real name, has been living at New Horizons Homeless Shelter for the past three weeks.

(Full disclosure:  when I was at Liberty House in Manchester, which offers food and clothing to anyone who needs it, I met a lot of New Horizons residents, and they almost universally complained about the place.  Their complaints focused on what jerks the staff was, how unfairly they’d been treated and how inhuman the interactions were.  In short, they made it sound like something out of Dickens—and not the happy-ending parts of the great man’s novels.)

When Eleanor and I had ordered our omelets, grits and chicken-fried steaks, I told her, in my either optimistic or insensitive way, that she didn’t look homeless.  She beamed, and said that was the look she was going for—another woman going through life, instead of a potential bag lady.  She talked about the challenges of walking the streets for eight or nine hours a day—needing to find spots to escape the cold, places to recharge her phone, avoiding the creeps—and of the night with some folks who are drunk or high, some who have pretty serious mental-health issues, and almost all who are in a state of high anxiety.  Life inside those boundaries must be exhausting.

I mentioned the journalistic part of me, which kicked in as I asked her about the staff at New Horizons, fully expecting her tone to change from resolute optimism to a laundry list of complaints.

“They’ve been great!” Eleanor said brightly.  “They’re not paid much money, but they’ve been patient and kind and compassionate.”

Eleanor said she didn’t want to stay at New Horizons one second longer than she had to, but the staff there was incredibly professional, human and caring.  No matter what kind of verbal abuse they faced from homeless guests, the staff had maintained their cool, enforcing rules but doing so with gentleness.

I was gobsmacked.  This conversation had never veered in this direction before. Because of that gobsmackedness, I have an obligation to share that good news.  From at least one temporary resident of New Horizons Homeless Shelter, a woman I know and respect, the staff gets an excellent review.  Over the two years Eleanor and I have known each other, she has not been a Pollyanna, whitewashing the problems in her life, her relationship or her universe.  If she gives New Horizons a positive rating, I believe it must be doing a much better job than the Oliver-Twist-David-Copperfield stories had suggested.  If I’m going to rake muck and reveal hidden problems, I want to also hold up spots in the world that deserve praise.

After all, I may have a share-your-darkest-revelations face, but I also have an honest one.

Dead Oxen and Personal Evolution

I am not a biblical exegete, someone capable of reading scripture and offering clarity and explanation.  I am not a born-again Christian, nor a Christian of any kind, really.  Still, I used to be both, and with a passion.  Without a lot of hesitation, critical thought or thought of any kind, really, I accepted the Bible as the Word of God, the New Testament written in Greek and translated into English without any meaningful crumbs falling to the floor.  Because I believed that, I also believed the messages within, no matter how shadowy or confusing

Feed the poor?  Of course.

If you don’t work, you don’t eat?  Absolutely.

Long-dead prophets walked the streets of Jerusalem following the resurrection?  Well, yeah.

If a man slaps your face, offer him your other cheek for more?  Ummmm.  Yup.

Jesus is coming back with a pack of angels for vengeance on those who don’t believe in him?  Well, why wouldn’t he?

After a while, I couldn’t keep the story straight, in my head or in my heart, and each new situation would lead to a need to pull out all the relevant scriptures to figure out the Christian thing to do.  In the born-again circles I swam in, this was called “proof-texting” and it was frowned upon and universally practiced.  Eventually, the Bible came to feel more like the I Ching, or a stacked Tarot deck than the Word of God.

The above is not to say I was a good Christian, or a good man.  I wasn’t either.  I was, though, a serious Christian, one who believed all the right things without doing them.  Orthodoxy over orthopraxis was, if not my motto, my operating principle.  I believe I told more lies and hurt more people during my two-and-a-half years as a Christian than I did before or have since.  Many folks accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, clean up their acts a bit, and move on with their lives.  Not me. I just put on the armor of God and protected myself from the slings and arrows of common decency.

That said, I do read the Bible.  I read it until my brain swims, and I wonder how I managed to balance all the contradictions and still walk down the street.  For example, this morning I wanted to look up the context of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” thinking that this part of Exodus was demonstrating a bit of moral clarity.  I think most of the ancient world saw all crime as capital crime.  You’ve slept with a married woman?  Death.  You’ve broken another man’s false idol?  Death.  You’ve knocked out your uncle’s tooth in a drunken brawl over the last drumstick?  Death.

My naïve thought had been that God was saying, in effect, “Hold your horses, Boys.  Let the punishment fit the crime.  If someone has stolen your ox, they owe you an ox, not their lives.  If a man has poked your eye out in a game of mumblety-peg, you get one of his eyes, not his whole head.”  While moral evolution still had a long way to go, the notion of equivalence is at least equal to our simian ancestors getting out of the trees.  Unfortunately, the context for this edict is bushels of horrifying nonsense, like pulling a Pop-Tart out of a Porta-Potty.  Three sentences after “eye for eye” we get:

If an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox shall surely be stoned, and the meat shall not be eaten. The owner of the ox shall be free.

Then, shortly  after that, we find:

If a man lies with a beast shall be put to death.

So, to clarify, if my ox, Hilda, gores your husband to death, leaving you without support, we kill Hilda, let her corpse rot and I go scot-free.  If, that night, I become amorous with Hilda’s sister, Millie, and get caught in flagrante de-oxen, I am killed.  One ox kills your husband=death to that ox

I have sex with an ox=death to me

Now, before I get letters accusing me of being soft on hot loving between men and beasts of burden, I don’t think men should put their private parts inside any creature incapable of saying, “Ohhhhhhhhh!” or “Are you almost done?”  Still, to return to the ox-caused death of your husband—and now that you’re a widow, why don’t you give me your number?—I think most folks would stipulate a fundamental disconnect between the dead, uneaten, ox and a human life.  Most folks except Yahweh and his amanuensis, Moses.

As I said, I am not a biblical exegete, someone capable of reading scripture and bringing moral lessons out of three-thousand-year-old civic codes seemingly based on an unrecognizable notion of justice.  Still, I do like dipping into the Bible now and then, if only to show myself that I’ve positively evolved over time, even if it hasn’t.



You’ll Like This If This is the Kind of Thing You Like

Most of what I know I learned on the way to looking up something else.  For example, in writing a piece on justice . . . Let’s pause right there, and examine what a pompous proposition that is.  A thousand words on justice?  Really?  Really?  Let me guess, the mini-essay was going to come down squarely on the side of doing the right thing.  How groundbreaking!  How daring!  How brave!

I can tell I’m starting out wrong.  Let me begin again.

“Let Me Begin Again” was the title of a story I published long ago in a long-dead magazine called the Hiss Quarterly.  For some reason, I’d gotten it in my head that Alger Hiss, or his assignees had somehow been involved in putting together the mag, as though it had begun with a re-examination of the early career of Richard Nixon, Whittaker Chambers and microfilm in pumpkins.

If you’re looking to lose an audience, obscure references to 60-year-old political scandals are a great jumping-off point.  Still, isn’t Richard Nixon the hard-working Horatio Alger story—clerk to law school to presidency to disgrace—made flesh?  Although he claimed to love the beach and the ocean, can you picture Nixon in a bathing suit?  Nope.  He may stroll along the sand, but he’s in a post-Navy-blue suit, carrying his wingtips and socks.

When I couldn’t sleep the other night, I reviewed the presidents of my lifetime, trying to decide who I would have (or did) voted for at the time and who I would have voted for now.  What this says about me is scary and sad, I’m sure.  A quick analysis shows I’ve voted in 10 presidential elections, and in half I would today change my vote, or at least strongly consider doing so.  Part of this, I imagine, is because I can’t forget the actual results.  My next step in going to sleep is to picture I am the sole deciding vote, and see how this would change my decisions.  I’ll spare the chart and say, if I’d been king of the world—yet still lived in a democracy where my decision was the only one that mattered—the presidents since 1980 would have been . . .

Wait a second right there.  This tangentalizing must stop!  I do have a point, raised in the opening sentence, and it needs to be developed, lest your readers believe you’re nuts.

Thank you.

Although I can’t prove it, I don’t think it is true even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut.  Blindness would be insurmountable for a tree-dwelling animal that relies on its ability to leap from branch to branch.  Even if we posit a squirrel who is struck blind in some divine judgment, and already knows his home tree like the back of his creepy little paw, the proposition is absurd.  Squirrels are not solitary creatures and nuts are a finite resource, so a pack of squirrels would likely have gathered all available nuts before the blind squirrel had gathered his courage and ventured ground ward.  The blind squirrel would almost certainly die of hunger (or predation) (or an untimely fall from his tree) long before finding even a single nut.

And that would be an example of the tooth-and-nail justice of the jungle—or forest—or park.


Feelings Aren’t Facts—But They Damned Well Feel Like It!

Objectively, I am not a fat man.  I feel like a fat man.  Objectively, I was not a fat boy.  I always felt like a fat boy.  No jokes this time.  No humor.  (Or at least I’ll try my best, best, best!)

Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve felt fat.  Sometimes I was just chunky or “husky,” but mostly I felt like a tub of goo.  Interestingly, there are no surviving photographs of me as a fat child, unless you count a baby picture where my body looks like a large canned ham with an admittedly cute face plugged on top of it.  Or one of me as a well-tanned five-year-old in pajama bottoms with my tummy inflated.  It’s hard to describe exactly, but think of the pictures of children with kwashiorkor, the protein deficiency that causes the belly to expand while the child dies of starvation.  Now, stop thinking of that, because it’s entirely too melodramatic for me to compare a picture of a dying African child to me in front of a fireplace with a goddamned cute smile on my face consciously blowing my belly up.  Trust that only a few pictures of me from early childhood show me as anything approaching overweight, much less fat.  Still, that’s not how I felt.  I felt fat.

Feelings, I know, are not facts, but they still goddamned feel that way.  As a perhaps related example, I was a “precocious” child in school.  Precocity can be demonstrated a number of ways; mine was to treat the class as my audience, my teacher as my straight man and to work slightly more comedic gold of any situation than was actually there.  In kindergarten, I was sent home from school numerous times for misbehaving—most disruptively for pulling down my pants to show Cathy Palmer what I was packing down there.  Suffice to say, I was a pain in the neck to every teacher I was ever inflicted on, including Mrs. Fullam, my second-grade teacher and my favorite of all time.  Like many class clowns, I suspect, I had a view of myself at odds with any available evidence.  To wit, I viewed myself as shy, reserved and soft-spoken—while standing on a chair and calling out for attention.  Anyway, Mrs. Fullam had the good sense to encourage my interest in writing—it seemed productive, it kept me quiet and it allowed her to get some teaching done with the rest of the class.  Were it not for Charlotte Fullam, I almost certainly would not be here writing this, or, in fact, maybe here at all.  One more reason for singing Mrs. Fullam’s praises:  when I confessed to her, this saint who’d had to fight with me for the class’s attention, that I thought my voice was too soft, quiet and hard to hear, she didn’t laugh out loud.  She may have chuckled with her back turned, but she didn’t give the guffaw I deserved.

I started this essay with the word “objectively,” so let me give some facts.  All my adult life, I’ve falsely claimed to be five-feet, eight-inches tall.  I’ve never been five-eight, but five-seven just seemed short.  As a high school athlete of more will than ability, I was five-seven and weighed 145 pounds.  Whatever BMI chart or healthy weight comparison one uses, that’s not fat.  I understand that.  Still, I felt fat.  Today at 58, I have just lost an inch to gravity, and weigh 145.  That’s not fat, but don’t try to tell my heart that.  It feels very fat indeed.  My weight has gone up and down over the years, with a low of 135 just over 30 years ago, right before I was hospitalized with suicidal depression, and a high of 155—that latter still, I think, in the normal range.  The normal range of fat, is how it appears to me.

Objectively, I am not a fat man.  Since America is in the midst of an obesity epidemic—and “midst” may be highly inaccurate, for overweight seems to have been normalized enough to cause a statistical shift—I’m not looking for sympathy for my weight, nor understanding of my feelings.  Off the top of my head, I can name a hundred things more important than my feelings about my weight, starting with the importance of slaying the ego to stop worshiping at the altar of self.

Still . . . I feel like a fat man.




My Third Favorite Holiday!—Next Saturday!

My friends J.P. Marzullo and Jeff Chidester, political gadflies both, are neither Native American nor, as you might guess from J.P.’s last name, Englishmen who came over on the Mayflower.   JP and Jeff had nothing to do with creating my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving.

My friends J.P. Marzullo and Jeff Chidester are not women nor, given their marriages and children, likely virgins.  They had nothing to do with creating my second-favorite holiday, Christmas.  (I know I haven’t mentioned Jesus’ paternity.  Trust me, neither J.P. nor Jeff is Him.)

Although my friend Jeff Chidester is a proud veteran of the United States Army, my friend J.P. Marzullo isn’t a veteran of either the Navy or the Army, but together they created my third-favorite holiday, and it’s coming up in a couple weeks, the celebration of the Army-Navy football game December 9 at Murphy’s Taproom in Manchester, with all proceeds benefitting Liberty House.

Details and tickets are available at the Liberty House website (, and I’d encourage you to join us, particularly if you are a patriotic, proper-thinking American who will join Jeff and me, Cold-War soldiers both, in rooting for Army in its quest to remain unbeaten in this series ever since President Donald Trump was elected.  J.P., having been house mother to Naval Academy midshipmen while living in Annapolis and having a love for bellbottoms, will be quietly begging for Navy to avoid humiliation.

Those last two sentences are why the Army-Navy Game celebration has rocketed to third place in my list.  On December 16, I’ll gather with one or two hundred fans at Murphy’s, having made a donation to a good cause, and spend three hours trash-talking the opposition, eating more than I should and perhaps looking for bargains among the silent-auction items.  But mainly talking trash.

I know a silly football game will not determine the better branch of the armed services, the bravery rankings of Soldiers versus boatmen, er yachtsmen, er Sailors or the relative badassness of soldiers, who are often required to travel long distance by foot to look their enemies in the eyes, and sailors, who flit about from port to port, occasionally shooting off fireworks.  Football doesn’t decide those things; reality has.  At the end of the game, when Army has trounced Navy, all of us at Murphy’s will have had a great time, the Navy fans having thrown in the towel by the third quarter and started rooting for Army.  It will have been fun, the way life spozed to be.

I mentioned in the lead Jeff and J.P. are both political operatives/commentators.  I didn’t mention they are both conservative Republicans.  I am not a conservative, and although I’m a registered Republican, I’ve been a Democrat before an may be again, having switched to vote for John Kasich in last year’s New Hampshire Primary.  Regardless of party, I am a moderate to liberal voter, certainly much more so than Jeff or J.P.  Although I’d known Jeff a bit before the first Army-Navy fundraiser, I met J.P. through their work in setting up the event at Murphy’s.  I have tremendous respect for their intelligence and integrity, even when I think they’re politically wrong, and I believe the feeling is mutual.  Two weeks from now, Jeff and I will be together rooting for Army while J.P. will be dreaming of the glory days of Roger Staubach and weeping in his diet Coke.  When the three of us walk out of the game together, I’ll be bonded to Jeff, sharing our Army connection, J.P. will be bonded to Jeff, sharing their political connection, and the three of us will be bonded together sharing a love of country, a love of football, a love of food and, in Jeff’s and my case, a love of victory.

Go Army!  Beat Navy!


Splitting the Room:  The 2017 Tax Overhaul

I try not to write about politics much here for a few reasons.  First, I tend to go for laughs, and you can split a room with issues like terrorism, the rise of the totalitarian state and electing senators who’ve been accused of molesting schoolgirls.  On that last one, for instance, it’s been reported that Judge Moore first targeted, er started grooming, er became attracted to his wife when he was in his mid-30’s and she was a 15-year-old dancer, sort of like tagging next year’s Christmas tree in March.  But I digress.

Although I don’t often comment on politics, I have friends on both sides of the aisle who keep me apprised of the skullduggery, scoundrelity and perfidy of everyone in the opposition.  For example, the United States Senate, the world’s most self-important yet ineffective deliberative body, passed an overhaul of our entire tax system a few days ago, the first time that’s been done since the Mets beat the Red Sox in the World Series.  You might think it would be relatively easy to examine this bill, given that it will affect almost every single American.  And by “examine,” I mean read the bill, not listen to Republicans talk about how “this will supercharge the economy, providing enough jobs for everyone to have three” or Democrats whine that “this will give more money to the super-super-super-super-rich while taking the last farthing from the widow before she can buy a lottery ticket.”

Unfortunately, not only can I, not only can you, not only can WE not read the bill, apparently the Senators who voted for it couldn’t either.  Like college Freshman lashing together a term paper and hoping to get at least partial credit, the Senate voted on a bill composed of hundreds of pages of printed material that had marginalia, cross-outs, secret love notes and post-its with angry faces. No one really knows all the details.

Until now.

My good friend, Senator Jubilation T. Cornpone (R-Georgia), had all of his staff (or at least those who were not at sexual harassment training) spend the night sifting through and typing away.  Just today, Old Jubey sent me the final, approved bill.  Here are some highlights of the additions made at the last minute:

  • All money spent at Cornpone General Store and Intimate Massage will be completely tax deductible for 125% of the purchase price up to a maximum of $10,000 per day. Like the radio ads say, “The more you spend, the more you save at Cornpone’s”
  • Thou shalt not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people, nor vote Democratic, lest ye be visited by the Auditor
  • Georgia is now considered an “offshore haven” for tax purposes. All financial transactions within the state are completely private and secret. Georgia will officially be called the “Dry Cleaning State,” since it can get stains out of even the dirtiest money
  • You shall not delay in offering the first of your ripe fruits, your liquors and your sons to the government. Your daughters, like other chattel, are yours to do with as you wish
  • Churches shall be considered “pass-through” charities, so that money donated to them can be multiplied up to five times. For example:
    • A Christian donating $100 to his local Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptist Church may deduct $100. If that money is passed on to a foundation run by that church’s pastor, the Christian may deduct a second $100.  Likewise, further deductions accrue when that money is passed from foundation to pro-life center to paid volunteer counselor to the church again in the form of a Sunday donation.  To save time, each true Christian may simply deduct five times the amount donated
    • If synagogues, mosques or other “religious” institutions wish to apply for this “pass-through” status, they are free to do so. Details will follow. Eventually.
  • Remembering the sacrifice of our brethren, sistern, and great-grandpappyern in the War of Northern Aggression, persons may deduct expenses related to reenacting the successful battles of the CSA.
    • The Battle of Bull Run MUST be referred to as Manassas
    • Negros wishing to participate MUST sing those happy field songs, not complain about slavery
  • Given the godless nature of the northeastern part of our great country, along with the hedonistic ways of those on our west coast, it is right and just they shall be doubly taxed—first by paying state and local taxes, then by paying federal tax on these payments. Further:
    • Monies spent to teach evolution shall be triply taxed
    • If this teaching is done by “feminists,” homosexuals or Jews, it shall be quadruply taxed
    • The Congress may add further categories for increased taxation when we can figure out words for five-, six- and seven-tuple

There’s more to the bill, of course.  This copy, coming from Sen. Cornpone’s office, highlighted some of the 50 or so additions the Senator managed to sneak in—er, introduce–at the last minute.  This bill still needs to be reconciled with the House’s similar collection of favors, punishments and lunacy, before being sent to the President for his signature, the first piece of legislation to be passed in 2016.  There may still be time for calm minds and statesmanlike demeanor to examine what we’re doing here and craft legislation that will improve the economy, help business and lower the impact of taxes on the working class.

That last sentence is the kind of joke that splits the room.