[6 January 2008]
As a child of the ‘80s, it’d been a long-held dream of mine to eventually conduct some sort of grand experiment in undercover ‘immersion journalism’, the kind seen in some of the classic films of the Reagan Years. When I say “classics”, of course, I’m referring to Fletch and well, Fletch Lives.
Then there’s Just One of the Guys, a teen sex comedy tour-de-force that took undercover journalism to a whole new inglorious level by featuring an ambitious reporter who goes to high school disguised as a boy as the basis for her big story in the school newspaper. Indeed, the wacky crossdressing, gender-bendering antics ensued.
That’s to preface the fact that I have finally embarked on a grand journalistic experiment of my own, even if it resembles Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed far more than say, Chevy Chase in a funny wig. For those unfamiliar with it, Ehrenreich’s much-praised book involved the left-leaning social critic spending several months living as one of the members of the desperate underclass to deliver a first-hand account of the harsh realities of barely making it in America. Over the last handful of months I myself have delved deep into the lifestyles of the underprivileged.
There are, however, two distinct differences between my project and Ehrenreich’s. First, I don’t plan to use my findings to write a bestselling book decrying the abhorrent effects of modern free market capitalism on the less fortunate in society. I figure a column is good enough because I have a conspicuous lack of life-changing epiphanies to impart. That and I’m also lazy.
The other unfortunate distinction of this experiment is that my time living hand-to-mouth, unlike Ehrenreich’s, has been wholly unintentional. I didn’t necessarily expect to be laid off from a business that went belly-up and spend the next three months struggling worse than Corey Feldman to find work. I didn’t ask to be a position where I’ve sold half of my possessions and have been deprived of the internet, electricity, hot-water, and a bed for small stretches of time. If it’d been my choice, I’d ask to go undercover in the languid world of lifeguards on the beaches of Malibu, the secret drug trade of Space Camp, or even better—as one of Justin Timberlake’s backup dancers.
Then again, maybe my poorness is a more “authentic” experience because I don’t have the choice to waltz back to my job at the Los Angeles Times, drive away to my house in the Hamptons or as is the case in Just One of The Guys, take off my shirt and expose my breasts when I want everything to end. Maybe I’m paying the price for “keepin’ it real”
I may as well make the best of it and reveal some astute observations of the hard knock life.
Observation #1: Being poor in real life is different than it is on TV.
I didn’t necessarily believe I’d have an Ebenezer Scrooge-like transformation after living humbly, that I’d come into an awareness and find myself kissing infants and passing out flowers to strangers on the streets. I did, however, want to think that being poor would help me gain a profound new perspective on What Really Matters in Life, because that’s the sort of thing that happens in the movies.
Poor people (when they aren’t one-dimensional crack dealers, gang members, or white trash idiots) are often portrayed in Hollywood as simple, humble people full of down-to-earth homespun wisdom. Believe it or not, I haven’t found myself passing out quips like “Life is what you do when you’re waiting for things to happen” with a twinkle in my eye to overly cocky advertising executives or too-busy-for-his-family stockbrokers.
Instead, I’ve found I’m pondering my own plight more than that of humanity in general. For example, I used to politely decline or briefly entertain the efforts of local homeless and panhandlers, but I now find myself angrily responding to their pleas for change.
The last bedraggled bearded man who begged me got this response: “Dude, you have no money but at least you’re at zero. I’m at negative! You should help me, I’ve got student loans!”
I’m not saying being poor automatically lowers your moral standards, but I’ve done or thought of doing a few shady things that I wouldn’t have considered before. Like stealing ab $8 sandwich at an airport or getting a water cup at McDonald’s for free and filling it up with Sprite. I don’t plan to resort to the lures of pimpdom or becoming a low-level henchman for a local crime lord, but neither will I achieve sainthood anytime soon.
Observation #2: Being poor is boring.
Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted that one’s life is full of almost infinite entertainment options—movies, television, concerts, and YouTube. But here’s a bold revelation: these things cost money. Without cable, internet at home, or even gas money, I feel like I’m stuck in a late ‘70s timewarp. For fun lately, I’ve been engrossed in Three’s Company reruns and playing low-tech Boggle. I haven’t succumbed to having conversations with a Magic 8-Ball yet, but there’s still time.
Without the internet especially, I’ve felt strangely disconnected from the rest of the world. I used to be able to speak about current events fluently, but now when in casual conversation people bring up the Ohio mall shooting, the Drew Peterson case, or what that one blonde girl from The Hills wore to the so-and-so awards, I feel ashamed about being in the dark. On the other hand, I’m probably better off without the daily 2008 presidential candidate updates. I’m ready to break something expensive if I hear the name “Mitt Romney”, again.
Observation #3: Being poor is surprisingly expensive.
The amusing thing about the credit game we play in America is that companies give all the special perks and privileges to the people that need it the least. While my checking account dwindled lower, I tried to get overdraft protection from the bank in case I had an emergency that took me into the negative. I was denied overdraft protection because of my credit history. Yet this bank heaps that same protection on people whose bank accounts never dip down into the triple figures range.
So finally, I opened one of the one billion credit card junk mailings I get on a daily basis. But when I found out that there’d be a $50 activation fee (really, does it take $50 to hit the “OK” button on a computer?) and a $500 credit limit, I said no thanks.
But my checking account finally sunk to zero and I had to plead in an undignified manner with a sympathetic sounding woman over the phone to get my bank to remove the $104 in overdraft fees. When she finally returned from talking to her supervisor for 10 minutes while I sat on “hold”, my heart threatening to explode from my chest, I reacted with another undignified moment when she told me the fees were gone: A Tiger Woods-like fist pump in the air. When you’re desperate, the small victories feel like the stuff of epic poems.
But alas, there is little poetry in my life and my struggle is not a noble one. I’m just another bobbing head in a sea of doldrums. With apologizes to a great movie, I’m Just One of the Schlubs. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go before my roommate finds her laptop missing.