The subject of Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) by novelist George Orwell is about poverty in the late 1920s. For the poor, the fabled Roaring Twenties were dismal. Orwell came from an impoverished upper-class English family. The homelessness he experienced and described in his books may not have been strictly unavoidable. Even though a young man was expected to make his own way in the world, this young man’s parents would always have rescued him to the farthest extent of their ability.
But Orwell always wanted to know how the poor lived. He was never one to turn a blind eye to injustice, or to take the mass media’s word for anything. It was partly in the spirit of investigative journalism that he experienced homelessness and a tenuous hold on survival at the very fringes of society. James Wood says:
Even when he was working as a journalist in London, [Orwell] lived simply, without much luxury. There is a religious dimension to this, almost — a need to take a kind of vow of poverty, to dismantle his own privilege and luxury, to be other than his social background.
Like a war correspondent, he signed up for discomfort and danger. (Later on, he did actually participate in and write about a war, the one that idealists of his era volunteered for.) In Paris, he competed in the desperate scramble for work, showing up at a designated corner, hoping to be chosen for a miserable day’s employment. He took part in the exhausting life of the lowest-status drudges in great hotels and restaurants, working in 100-degree heat through 18-hour days, for less than enough to get by on.
In London, he became familiar with the free shelters, called “spikes,” where a man could only stay once per month. This rule kept all the tramps in constant rotation, walking from shelter to shelter, quickly burning any calories they might have gained from the dreadful food. In their waking hours, the homeless were compelled to stay upright and in motion, and in the hours of rest they were confined in prison-like conditions, to cope with the stark boredom of enforced immobility and idleness.
Orwell stayed in the lowest grade of private lodging houses, government shelters, and charity facilities run by religious groups. He learned about the hassle and humiliation of pawning one’s few shabby belongings. He learned about the choice between washing in bathwater already used by a dozen people, or not washing at all. He learned about the smells, the filth, the frustration, the shunning, the major disasters and minor inconveniences, and the need to always watch your back because not all the other tramps are as honest and decent as you are. On the other hand, he wrote:
I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny…
Author Michael Ventura writes:
True adventurers learn, eventually, that anything can be an adventure if you live with an adventurer’s heart and your life is not a lie. But I was a greedy boy. I wanted my adventure to look like an adventure.
Ventura hit the streets very young, and somehow landed in another state, with a dysfunctional family who accepted him. He learned at a very tender age that money can’t insulate anyone from unhappiness, and also that “normal” is nowhere to be found. Whether or not a child really, truly, technically has a choice about running away from home is not for us to judge. For this child, the place he found was better than the one he had left behind, and certainly better than homelessness. He writes:
Strangers took me in. I wasn’t grateful. I felt no loyalty. They were not my kind. But I’d been on the street, alone, and I didn’t want to go back to that… I had been uprooted at age 13. By age 15, I sensed vaguely that I would never be, or feel, rooted again… If the world is a shooting gallery – and it is – I wanted to be a moving target.
If Thomas Kinkade was the “painter of light,” T. Coraghessan Boyle is the writer of heartbreak. His novel The Tortilla Curtain, published in 1995, glows with the kind of compassion found in Bruce Springsteen‘s lyrics. It’s about people who camp in a ravine, in need so abject that a toothbrush is an unthinkable luxury. It’s about undocumented immigration, or at least that’s the aspect most readers and critics latched onto. Scott Spencer says of the main characters:
Candido and America are part of California’s unacknowledged work force, cogs in the vast human machine that does the state’s brute labor and without whom… the state could probably not survive. Mr. Boyle is first-rate in capturing the terror of looking for work in an alien society… “You didn’t ask questions. You got in the back of the truck and you went where they took you.”
Mainly, the book is about grinding, abysmal poverty, about the desperate willingness to work when there is no work to do. About being grievously injured when it’s impossible to take the risk of asking for medical care. Being victimized and exploited by people from your own land who are just as poor as you. The particular pain of being around food when none of it is for you. The pain of watching your wife go off in a car with an ugly stranger who hires her to use a toxic chemical that will affect your unborn child, and then cheats her on the pay. Of being hated for no better reason than that you have the nerve to exist and draw breath on the planet. Of being a husband or father or wife or mother who can’t provide. As Michael Ventura says,
If you’re the parent, the caring parent, the shame and guilt damn near kill you – you feel it’s your fault even when you’re caught in an economic storm not remotely of your making.
There are many facets to the larger condition of experiencing homelessness. For a runaway teen, some authority figure might question whether she or he really, really had a choice — but who is wise enough to second-guess a decision of that magnitude for someone else? For young journalist George Orwell, sure, he could have stayed home mooching off his parents. On the other hand, given his burning sense of injustice and his drive to learn about how the poor lived and his mission to convey the truth to a prosperous, complacent upper class, he didn’t have a choice.
Once the choice has been made to come north, the couple from Mexico in Boyle’s novel really don’t have any choice but to camp outdoors. Try as they might, and they do try heroically, things just don’t work out for them, and their connection with the rest of the undocumented alien community is so tenuous, they’re unable to network and attempt to get indoors somehow that way. There may be as many kinds of homelessness as there are individuals, and judging their worthiness and whether they are “deserving” of help is a job a little bit bigger than most of us fallible humans are capable of taking on. The one thing we know for sure is that they need help.
Source: “We’ll Always Have Paris,” NewYorker.com, 04/30/09
Source: “Letters at 3AM: ‘I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing’,” AustinChronicle.com, 06/29/12
Source: “The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle,” NYTimes.com, 09/03/95
Source: “Somehow It Gets to Be Tomorrow,” AustinChronicle.com, 02/26/10
Image by TheeErin, used under its Creative Commons license.