Wednesday, April 9, 2008
What does it mean to be poor anymore?
My dad had a saying- one of a thousand or so - that he would use when he felt like he was engaged in something indulgent: "I wonder what the poor people are doing?"
This was irony, don't you know, because I think he always considered himself part of the "poor people," and for the most of his life he had good reason to think so. When I grew my hair long in the 70s he didn't like it, but not because it was rebellious. To him, having shaggy hair meant you didn't have enough money to get a haircut.
Daddy would say "I wonder what the poor people are doing?" when we were doing something extravagant, like ordering the fried shrimp at Burl's Drive-In. Fried shrimp was the most expensive thing on Burl's menu, maybe $2.99 back then. "I wonder what the poor people are doing?" would be asked when we had dinner at a place like Wilder's, where people drank cocktails and ate 3-course meals. Dinner at Wilder's was, at best, a once-a-year thing.
Not to say that he was cheap. Cheap is a term for people who have plenty of money but can't stand to spend it. You can't be a poor person and be accused of cheapness, too. He was thrifty, let's say. After he died, I remember running across a coffee can full of soap scraps, the little pieces you're left with when you can't hold onto the bar of soap anymore. Turned out he had a plan to melt all the little pieces down and mold them into new bars of soap. That's thrifty.
That expression - "I wonder what the poor people are doing?" - keeps coming back to me when I am doing things that Daddy would have never allowed himself to do, even if he had the money. Traveling, for example, and choosing the more expensive hotel just because I can. Drinking good wine when there's no special occasion. Paying more for a round of golf than he would have spent on a full winter's supply of firewood. I have always had, to use another of his expressions, "champagne taste on a beer budget." But these days, you could say I have a microbrew beer budget. Maybe even a Belgian ale budget.
I can't say "I wonder what the poor people are doing?" with the irony intact because I'm not poor people. I don't even know any poor people. Being "poor" today means having more possessions and a higher standard of living than the average upper middle class person of two generations ago. Today we are in a recession, and the unemployment rate is only a little over 5%. I think we don't have much idea of what it means to be poor anymore, and I hope we don't have to learn it again. And I wonder what Daddy would make of it all.