At the age of 18 I hit rock bottom. I had no work experience, no education – high school and low paying jobs didn’t count – no family money or connections. My entire family (not that they had any resources) had cut me loose and for all practical purposes I was all alone in the world.
The only job that I could find at the time was cleaning up a tavern from 5 am to 9 am. And I was living in flophouse where you paid by the week. Those 6 months (or was it 9 months?) were one of the hardest times of my life. In fact it was so hard that my mind for many years all but blanked that time period out. I’ve personally discovered that certain traumas do that to a person.
I don’t remember if my descent into poverty began in the spring or summer. I do remember when it ended: November of 1974. That was when a student loan application was approved and I was accepted and enrolled in university by January of ’75.
Until that time I was living a life in Northern Michigan which can best be described as a threadbare existence. I was a ghost and I had reached that particular place – one step away from homelessness – incrementally and almost unnoticeably. Prevailing lore had it that hippies were supposed to be poor (but not that poor). In fact I only became aware of my extremely diminished state when my clothes were wearing shiny and thin and I hadn’t the means or the money to replace them.
The hotel (aka flophouse) I was living in at the time had only the barest of facilities. It was a second floor walk-up over a shop holding no more than ten or fifteen rooms with two shared bathrooms. There wasn’t even a manned reception area. We paid rent to the manager – a middle aged derelict alcoholic – who occupied one of the rooms.
Everyone of us there were on the down and out and it seems we all just barely managed to scrape together the twenty-five bucks each week to pay our rent. Those of us who weren’t hardcore alcoholics spent what discretionary income we had on food which we heated up on hotplates in our rooms.
The only other person my age was a girl by the name of Cynthia who left Cheboygan on the other side of the state for the shaky promise of a better life in a more up scale town on Lake Michigan. I never knew her long enough to learn if she found it. My guess is she didn’t.
My town was cruel that way. If you weren’t born into a family who owned a business then it was highly unlikely you’d ever work there. The best Cynthia and I could ever hope for at that age was for her to clean motel rooms and me to pump gas.
Stay longer and your trajectory was even more certain. I would have been consigned to a trade like a laborer or carpentry. Six months out of the year spent pouring concrete and pounding nails and the cold winter months idly spent warming a barstool drinking cheap draft beer while drawing unemployment compensation; or UE as we called it back then.
It’s funny but I don’t ever remember filling out the application for a student loan. And so it came as quite a surprise when I got that letter in the mail from the bank telling me I was approved for something like five thousand dollars. That was an immense sum of money at the time to someone my age.
The money was a lifesaver. Without it heaven knows how I could have ended up, probably as just another poor drunk misfit. But with it I joyfully threw myself into the arms of higher education. I was like that newly emancipated cage-free chicken; once that gate was opened I was gone.
I had sense enough even at that time – however dense I was in so many other ways – to be able to clearly see how fortune (sweet, sweet mysterious fortune) had just thrown me a lifebuoy; forever which I will be eternally grateful.
So I discovered first hand how the romanticism of poverty existed only in the literary realm. I learned much like the protagonist in Orwell’s, ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, the heroism inherent to such situations was brute survival.
The true profundity is how that close encounter with poverty shaped me in ways I probably don’t even fully understand to this day. I do know I went through a long, scary dark tunnel of fear. I questioned life. I questioned God. But by miracles of miracles, I didn’t lose my faith.
PS – I came to imagine during my youth that money (wealth) was the solution to every problem – so it is majorly ironic now that those hard days would later be worn by myself as a badge of honor.
And it took me a long time to learn that money and wealth – as I then couldn’t imagine – could be as much of an obstacle to honor, personal growth and happiness as abject poverty.