And I know why.
When I was in college, I had very romantic notions of moving to Ireland to live on a farm like my ancestors. I even proposed to Mary by asking her if she would come to Ireland with me. In January of my junior year, I read an article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine written by Tyrone Guthrie. In it he described his efforts to reverse the depopulation of the countryside in County Monaghan. I wrote to him and told him of my hopes to return after two generations. Even though he was a world-famous theater director, he took the time to write back to me. I know I have his letter tucked away in a box somewhere, but it would take forever to find it. I do remember that he was very kind about my youthful naïveté as he gently tried to warn me of the difficulties of rural life.
I did get a taste of what he meant that summer when I spent the month of July in a student work camp in Glencolumbkille, Co. Donegal. My head was still too full of romantic notions to fully appreciate what I saw there. We never moved to Ireland, but were able to get teaching jobs in Kenya through a classmate of Mary’s. We lived for almost three years in the Meru District on the eastern slopes of Mt. Kenya. There the harsh lives of rural peasants had enough time to break through the fogs in my brain. I decided I needed to go to planning school to learn about economic development.
Every time I drive into Trenton I think back to the romantic ideas about poverty of my youth. There is nothing romantic about poverty. I’m not talking about the physical decay. I’m talking about what people do to other people and to themselves.
The ESL student I’ve had the longest has gone through a number of job changes. Even as I turned 70 during this process, I was astounded to see how many predators there are waiting to trap vulnerable people like him into giving them money in the false hope of getting a job. Even now as he works steadily at maintaining vacant, bank-owned houses, he is at the bottom of the food chain in which middle-men take chunks of the money the bank pays before the remnant gets to the person who actually does the work. So he works ten-hour days, six days a week to make a little over $20,000 a year. The system contributes to physical decay because they don’t want to pay for work like a new roof, essential to preserve the structure but taking too much out of their cut.
Do-gooders like me have a hard time understanding why someone who cannot read or write in Spanish doesn’t show up for her first literacy lesson, or even call to say she can’t make it. Or the other potential literacy student who never responded about when we could set up a lesson. I can think of a number of good reasons not to take advantage of an opportunity to learn to read and write—work, sick child, abusive mate, fear, shame, shyness. But in the end she stays trapped. There’s nothing romantic about that.
Then there’s the story my literacy student from Africa told me. He was hanging out in Columbus Park one evening recently and was approached by a teenaged girl. She said she was homeless because she had to escape an abusive father. She wanted his help. Perhaps he could bring her home with him. He asked her bluntly if she was getting by by sleeping with men. She said no. I’m not sure he believed her. As a middle-aged man whose wife is away on a trip, he saw the danger in taking her home. But he was asking me where he could find help for her. While he was talking to the girl that evening in the park, a pre-teen boy also approached him for help. The boy had run away from home because he thought his parents were too strict. My friend lectured the boy for not appreciating how much his parents had sacrificed to come to this country and give him a better life. He doesn’t know whether the boy returned home or not.
These lives are what gets swept into the broad category of “poverty.” When I first started driving into Trenton to meet with this student, the weather was cold. People weren’t staying out on the street very long. Now, as it’s getting hotter, more and more people are sitting on their stoops and steps, standing under trees, and squatting on the sidewalk in the shade of a wall. I see and think “What a fool I was!”
That’s why I dreamed of Tyrone Guthrie after all these years. He was talking-to a group of people about some building that he was pointing to, probably a theater. As the group broke up, I went up and introduced myself. We shook hands.