Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Kids Are Alright

I have sort of a pair of stories, loosely related.

Yesterday, I was trying to explain the basics of the differences between economic classes to my clients' medium smol kid. He heard me talking about some low four-figure amount (enormous to a small kid) and when I told him it wasn't that much when you have bills, he asked if I was rich.

*pause for big laffs*

So I started explaining some of the ways those terms get broken up (and broken down) and given superlatives (like "UPPER- or LOWER-middle class"), and how it kind of depends where you live, so there's no SET cut off, blah blah blah.

Well, I used myself as an example of upper poor. I'm fine. My needs are met. I even have those liminal not-exactly-LUXURY-but-people-could-live-without items like computers and cars. But ALSO I technically live below the Housing and Urban Development Bay Area poverty line for an individual (even with my jazz hands and shenanigans).

His face grew somber when he heard that I was poor. He looked down at the ground as if weighing a big decision, although it didn't take him long. "I have money, Chris. You can have it."

*cue barely-keeping-it-together Chris* 

Of course, I had to explain again that I was really okay. (Really.) I live in a tiny place (that, while tucked into a really cute and nice village, is in a depressed area). I don't spend much outside of my needs. And his parents can teach him about the myriad ways and places they donate money, but he can keep his tooth fairy savings.

He offered me his TOOTH FAIRY money after a moment's thought.

That kid's all right.

His compassion made me think of something from my own childhood that I'd aaaaaalmost forgotten about.

I used to walk everywhere in Santa Clarita (long before its current density––back when it was the very definition of urban sprawl). An up-and-coming suburb was where my parents could afford to buy a house. The streets crisscrossed through lots of undeveloped areas that made the best shortcuts. So I was constantly hiking through some construction site or dry riverbed or something trying to shave a half an hour off my walk time to the local anything. (This is five years before even the first  mall dropped in Valencia). These shortcuts were often through the kinds of places you can get in trouble for trespassing if you're an adult, but that most kids (white kids in particular) get away with going through. I used to steal laundry quarters from my parents and then walk three miles to a bowling alley to play video games––it was about the closest thing we had to a good time unless you wanted to bike eight miles to the movie theater.

It was there where I first noticed homelessness. Calabasas, where I'd lived before––at least the part I haunted––was a combination of extreme wealth––multi-million dollar homes on the hills–– and the bedroom community of condos and apartments that those homes literally looked down on. (That's where we lived.) The area I lived had anti-loitering laws, overnight parking laws, and even a sign in every park or recreational area that said plainly that it was for local residents and anyone else would be fined and removed. So homelessness wasn't something I was ever really exposed to there. I was probably too young to realize what I was looking at when we lived in Canoga Park. And Santa Clarita certainly must have had it, but most of the development of the bedroom community from farmland was only a decade or two old.  I just hadn't really dealt with it.

Then one day, on one of my adventures, I met a guy living in a copse of trees in the riverbed. He had a ratty old sun-bleached tent behind the trailer park by the bowling alley and I still remember his dog was named Kerouac. (One of those things you realize the significance of later. Although I could not tell you if the guy realized it or had just watched that 80s Nick Nolte movie.) I said hi as I walked past. He nodded at me, but didn't look away.

I couldn't stand it though. Why did I have a house and he lived in tent in a riverbed? It just wasn't right. I made it INTO the bowling alley but as that blast of cold air hit my face and I saw the electronic glow of the games, I just couldn't. I turned around and went back.

Kerouac's human wouldn't take my quarters though. I remember saying please, my voice shaking, and he said "four dollars is not the real problem here." That day I ended up playing video games after all. They felt miserably unsatisfying, and I took the long way home. I didn't want him to see me after.

Later, I tried to make him a care package of everything I could think of he might need. A jacket no one really wore anymore. An old blanket. Some TP. Canned food. I maI waffled for hours on the idea of putting our camping tent in there. I finally thought better of it. We only had one and I was an only child––my parents (almost always correctly) knew it was my fault if something went missing. Too risky.

My plan was to put the box nearby so he couldn't possibly miss it, but then run away so he couldn't refuse either. But it was too heavy. It was just too heavy. I could lift it but I couldn't carry it very far, much less walk it three miles through unpaved riverbed.

I cried instead.

My mom found the box and confronted me (thinking I had plans to run away or something), and when I broke down and admitted my scheme, she hugged me for a long, long time in a way that I didn't get then. The way I wanted to hug the medium smol. To hold out a world that would blast the edges of so much goodness.

Of course after the bowling alley guy, I imagined folks of such circumstance were few and far between. It would be more than a decade after that moment before such a presumption was shattered, when a trip to Compton cracked open a childhood of sheltered privilege and a young white Chris, being hugged and rocked by a homeless Muslim, openly wept on the streets of Los Angeles's worst inner city when that cloistered version of me learned unambiguously that a world I knew to be imbalanced and unfair hadn't even shown me the half of it.

We get such a fleeting glimpse of what injustice means and how truly, deeply, profoundly unfair the world is before we begin to look past it or even to rationalize it as actually kind of fair. Even those of us who don't ever want to lose that perspective often require some filter as a survival mechanism. And the twin drums of victim blaming and meritocracy pound ceaselessly through our culture's mantras.

But a lot of kids––and I can't say it's all of them because a sense of entitlement gets its hooks in us early––but a LOT of kids see right through that bullshit to the heart of it.

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