The Art of Being Poor

Sometimes you have to walk. You have to walk miles to tramp out the shame and disgust. I had to walk 6 miles. I had a supermarket coupon - 50% off a bag of frozen paella. The cashier shook her head and handed me the coupon back. Her enamelled red nail poked at some pygmy writing on the reverse.

"Not here," she said, directing her eyes up at me.

"I received it from this store."

"Yes, that's right. But it's an offer valid only in our Super-Stores. The nearest one is in town."

"In town?"

"As I said. But pay attention: the offer runs out tomorrow and is conditional upon available stock. Would you still like to purchase the item, sir?"

I cast my eyes down at the frozen sack of paella and shook my head. “No,” I said. Without looking back up I grabbed my empty shoulder bag and snook out the shop, cursing and furious, a pressure building in my head and blood flushing through my face. Sure, I could have bought something else, something cheap, but my mind was set on the paella, sweet, golden-yellow Valencian paella with rice and peas and chicken and seafood. I could already smell it cooking up in the pan, the rich aromas steaming away on my plate and drifting around the room. “Fucking shysters!” I hissed, tramping furious down the street. My mind throbbed away, a-rage with thoughts of retribution. I envisioned scenarios from thumping the cashier to sending a notice of civil claim to the stores' Regional Director, citing public humiliation as my grievance. I made raving promises to myself that, in revenge, I would return to the store with a similar coupon, shop hundreds of pounds worth of produce and when the coupon was declined refuse to buy a single item. Fucking villains! Vile dirty shit-eating fucking villains!

$ $ $

My step-father was a poor man. Not as poor as me, but poor nevertheless. He was a gambler. That was his problem. He showed me how to cook a meal in an electric kettle. That's how we'd cope for hot dinners when the the gas had been cut. By the time it was reconnected the electricity would go. Then the oven became our most valued asset. It was not only used to cook and boil hot water but also for heating and some light in the kitchen. We'd run a cable in from the neighbour's so as we could watch TV. People passing by outside would always slow down and gawk in at us all huddled up like that. The dog would go crazy, do cartwheels up at the window and shit at the same time. My step-father said it had a phobia about big noses. We'd throw a book at it and it'd lay down for a while, whimpering. When it thought it's crime had been forgotten it'd creep in on his stomach and smooch in close to the heat.

I only ever remember being poor. It's all we were. My mother was poor as well. She would have been even poorer if it wasn't for her looks. She did well with them in her youth. But she drank, chronically. That was her problem. Later she accepted poverty, seemed to kinda enjoy it, enjoyed totting up the pennies and just barely making do. Hanging on like that, with so little and never being late on a payment, somehow made her proud. She made the most out of poverty without ever doing anything too crazy. Poor people are always doing crazy things. I guess rich folks do too. Only rich people actually go crazy. They don't have the burden of needing to appear stable to the landlord to keep their feet on the ground. They kind of fly away, take on a type of insanity that looks like their high on drugs. They probably are. Poor people look more crazy than they really are. My step-father again. Walking around with his split shoes stuffed with newspaper and cardboard, his big toe and heel painted black with shoe polish so as to hide the holes in the leather. Only his shoes weren't leather. He found that out each summer when the heat would get so bad that his feet dimpled from the moisture. That's when he'd slice the top inch off the toes, turn then into sandals for their final half a season. By the time he threw them away there wasn't much left of them. My step-father knew all about the supermarket racket. Before there was ever a documentary on 
about it, about the cunning offers and positioning of products on the shelf, he'd already sussed it out and told me all about it. That was his thing: corporate corruption. He despised it. Corruption and incompetence both. It was a mixture of the two which killed him, left him flipping out on a hospital bed as his aneurysm exploded and his heart gave out. That's how it ends when you're poor. Not very nice at all, and even worse if you live in America. 

$ $ $

So, it was late spring. A high sun was up above but there was a dampness in the air. Things were sprouting in parks and gardens and smells were here and there around the city. I hadn't left home expecting to go far and now I found myself marching at a wild pace towards the super-supermarket in the center of town. I was dirty and it made me hot and itchy. I pulled a few times at the neck of my jumper, creating waves of air beneath it. Damn fucking jumper, I cursed. I would have liked to remove it but my shirt beneath was not only filthy but also turned inside out. Through the winter I had gotten into the habit of only scrubbing the visible parts - the collars and cuffs.

It's too hot for dirty shirts now, I thought. It was too hot even last week!

I damned myself for not having had done a wash, but without a machine it was such a laborious process and was always put off until absolutely necessary. Filling up that deep plastic vat with cold water and dumping the clothes in. Stirring them around with the wooden handle off the broom. Just that alone took the entire light part of the day. In and out the bathroom every hour or so to give it a good ol' stir. Once the water was sufficiently black and swampy it was down on the knees, scrubbing the shirts and trousers on the floor of the shower unit. And that was the easy part. After came the wringing out. There was a time when even that was done purely by hand. That was before I found a method of looping each garment around and through the shower taps and then twining the ends together so as to twist the water out by pure force. It would still half kill me. Come the end of the day my palms would be red raw and every muscle in both my arms dead. For the next two days, with all the damp clothes hung on lines across my room, the place would resemble a camping den. A fucking wash, I thought. I could do with one too. 

Lost in such thoughts my anger faded. My step slowed a little too. That's when the perspiration came. I was still a good half an hour walk from the super-store and didn't much feel like steaming hot paella anymore. But loss of appetite never stays long when one's that low down. As was said: sometimes you just have to walk.

$ $ $

Butchers are strange people, at least most the butchers I've ever known were: they love animals. I love animals too, but I don't spend the best part of my day chopping them up. Grace wasn’t lost to this fact either. She realised that butchers like animals much more than they like people. Grace loved animals too, way more than the butcher knew. Every other day, on her bad week, she'd take up her five yapping mongrel dogs and pull them on by the butcher's shop. Then she'd turn around and pull them back again.

"Them dogs there seem hungry, Grace," he'd yell out. "Not right them going on without food like that. Need some good meat and marrow them dogs do."

"It's my low week," she'd say. "Dogs would be in fuckin’ Dog Heaven  if I hadn't 'av taken 'em in."

"Go an put them away home an’ come back. Won't have animals go hungry on my watch."

When Grace returned the butcher would beckon her over and, in front of his little queue of customers, give her a white, blood-smeared bag full of bones and gumps of dark offal. Of course, Grace never fed such cheap and rotten scrapings to her dogs. Grace loved animals. Her dogs never went without food. The bones from the butcher were boiled down into a stew for her and her crack addicted fella George. The offal she slung out back for the foxes.

"That cunt would let me and George starve to death," she'd say. "Just thankful human meat is illegal."

The week when one of Grace's dogs got sick and then died she stormed into the butcher's, in tears, and told him that his rotten offal had killed her favourite mutt. That really hit the butcher hard, especially as he knew the kind of offal she was talking about. From that day on, maybe out of a sentiment of real guilt, he'd then chuck in a half decent cut of meat with his bag of bloody, sour bones.

$ $ $

The super-supermarket was pack jam full of people. From outside I could see that the tills were overflowing and the queues were trailing far back into the aisles. I called to a young worker. He wore a slanted sweep of blond fringe which covered over his right eye. I showed him my damp and crumpled special offer coupon.

“I've been told this is valid here?”


“The coupon. Is it valid here or not?”

He looked at the coupon as though it were a cryptic puzzle. He beckoned for me to turn it over. Ever so slowly he squinted over the small print, probably hoping he'd find some clause which would allow him to give me bad news. He slowly nodded and then just as slowly shook his head.

"Well, is it valid or not?"

"Er... Yeah, it's valid... if we've stock."

He cast his one visible eye at me. It didn't stare quite straight, seemed to be straining to get into the corner. He stood there looking at me like that, a slight smile on his lips like I was the mental retard. That's what working so many hours for so little does to a man.

"What's funny?" I asked.


I paused for a moment, tried to calm myself. Without warning I echoed an equally retarded sound back at him. It was so explosive that he straightened up and shot back in shock. As he did so his fringe swung off to the side like a battleaxe, uncovering his other eye for the first time. He looked terrified.

"HUHHH!!!" I moaned again before entering the store.

The frozen food aisles were at the very far end. I must have walked back and forth ten times, scanning the deep-freeze units and compartments before I discovered where the paella was stored. The freezer was in total disarray, a mix of various brands of paella all pulled and dragged and piled together. I began rummaging through the stock, sure that the one I searched would be all sold out. Almost. At the very bottom of the freezer was one last bag, split open down the back and with its contents spilling out. I palmed what I could back inside and took it anyway. While trying to fold the split in the bag over and make it good a man appeared besides me. He looked at me with a strange regard and then began burrowing through the freezer unit. After a moment he stopped, looked at me again, and then had another rummage through the compartment. When he next straightened up I found him not looking at me but at the split bag of paella I was holding.

"You buying that?" he asked, bluntly.

"If they let me," I said.

"Last one is it?"

"Appears so."

"It's on special offer, you know?"

I shook my head as if I didn't.

"You not got a coupon then?"

"What coupon?"

"Here, like this..."

I looked at the neatly folded coupon he showed me and shook my head like I wasn't petty enough to be using special offer coupons.

"Didn't know anything about that," I said.

He screwed his face up, cast his greedy little eyes about in the freezer compartment once more, smashed a few bags about and then left. He didn't even offer me his then useless coupon. If he would have done so I would have given him the bag. I watched him go, holding his little basket like an old woman. Down and along the far side product shelf he stopped and took a wad of folded coupons out his back pocket. He stood there going through them, stooped over like he was guarding the secrets of the world. I followed him for a while, stood watching him from afar, the words 'PIECE OF SHIT' circling around in my mind. Then I cut off to queue and pay and get the hell out of that place.

$ $ $

I hadn't told her that there was no hot water and no fridge, nor that the bed was broken and propped up on books for fear that she would decide not to come. When she stepped in with her suitcase I saw the feigned looked of being only slightly horrified on her face.

"You spent a week cleaning this place?" She asked.

"Not quite. Four days."


Later that evening I heard the tap running in the bathroom. After a few minutes she called in asking how long it usually takes for the water to run through hot. That's when I explained about the boiler and the small explosion I had had the previous winter.

"So how do we wash?"

"We boil water."

"How? You've only one electric ring."

"I've a kettle too. We just have to be organised."

"Your sink's cracked. It won't hold water."

"I know, we use the two buckets in the shower." She went silent just after that.

In the bathroom I went through the process with her, how with two pans and two kettles of boiling water, and by using both buckets, we could shower and wash our hair and rinse off.

"So I wet my hair first?" She asked, sounding like half the romance of love was already gone.

"Yes. But be careful to retain the water which runs off your scalp... you'll need that to wash with. Once your hair's wet, soap it. As the shampoo is doing its magic you wash your body. While you're doing that I'll be boiling the second lot of water that you'll use to rinse off with."

"And the radiator? Can I turn it on?"

"No... Don't touch that thing! It blows all the electricity. Use the portable fire from the room. But keep it away from the water or you may end up fried."

"Is there anything else I should know," she asked.

I thought for a moment and then said no, absolutely certain that there was.

$ $ $

By the time I got home the paella had defrosted. It wasn't any great tragedy. In fact, it was a good thing. I had no fridge anyway and defrosted it would take much less time to cook. I dumped the soggy bag in a saucepan and covered it with a plate to stop the flies getting to it. It was then late afternoon. Due to the run around with the shopping I hadn’t had time to raise money for tobacco. What cash I had in my pocket wasn't enough and was needed for food anyhow. What I did have were cheques... plenty of them. They were useless in most shops as they'd be processed too quickly and I didn’t have cash in my account to cover them. So the drill was to trade them in for cash at the local kebab place. For a twenty-five euro cheque Moustaffa would give me twenty euros in cash. It was a good deal, and a way to raise badly needed money when I had none, and too often I had none. Also, unlike most shops, Moustaffa only banked his takings once a week, always on a a wednesday when the Delice Kebab was closed half day. And so for money I didn’t yet have I bought less money to have immediately. I kinda gained. And if I didn't gain I at least got what I wanted. It’s the same old story just done in a different way. Like that guy who wrote to me once and explained how he bought marijuana on credit and then sold it for money to buy heroin. When he had funds a week later he’d repay the debt for the marijuana and it'd start all over again.

Moustaffa read over the cheque and then gave me a twenty euro note. I held it up to the light to verify it was real. Satisfied, I pocketed it and set off for the local square to buy some fake tobacco from the real Algerians.

$ $ $

It was the same set up most days. Big John Mcdonagh would march into each site and head menacingly towards the first young lad he set eyes upon. There he’d stand, his feet planted wide apart, his legs slightly bowed, his left hand scrunching away in his pocket, clutching and unclutching at handfuls of coins and keys. On finishing his spiel he'd raise himself on the balls of his feet and swipe the backside of his right hand across his bottom lip and then strain his face forward like a plucking cockerel.

“John Mcdonagh,” he'd bellow. “Tell him it's John fucking Mcdonagh!” The young labourer, sure his boss was ripe to take a good beating, would invariably run off and fetch him.

“Aye d'ere aw fella,” John would say, “hoi'm h’arfta tekkin away a bitta'yer O scrap,now---”

“You've already tekkin it or you’d like to?”

“Hah, uh sees we got us selves a bitt'ah da ol joker. Alroighty-O, Joe. Now wheres a tawkin’. Whaddya got fer da ’ol Mcdonagh Clan today?”

And that’s how it would go, each morning, five mornings a week. Most site managers would willingly oblige and give up their scrap metal and some would do so for a small fee. Of those who declined, some would decline because they did their own scrapping and others out of pure meanness. Whatever way it came, and whatever came, John Mcdonagh and his two boys would drag and carry the metal out and load it up on the back of the pick-up truck. As they made their way around town, from site to site, they’d keep their eyes peeled for any abandoned fridges, radiators or washing machines; wire, cable and aluminium sheeting. On finishing their rounds they'd drive back to the campsite and unload the wagon. The large appliances would be dumped with their stock to be stripped down by the younger sons and cousins; the smaller scrap sorted into individual metals ready for the afternoon runs to the scrap yard. This is where The Mother comes in.

The mother. The soundtrack of the campsite. A small hulk of a woman, 400 lbs on a good week with short, tight, black permed hair and a faint smudging of dark above her upper lip. In a tight Lycra mini-skirt and heels she'd spend most her time stamping proudly around the family’s main caravan, squawking age old wisdom to the half naked children who sat mesmerised and terrified by her. Her size and the energy of life she displayed represented the good health and well-being of the clan. She also represented the money and the collection and distribution of it. As such she never missed the afternoon trips to the scrap metal yard, taking the place of her youngest boy who’d stay behind stripping down car engines and making a noise. But it wasn’t distrust that took her along to the merchants. Mrs Mcdonagh rode shotgun for a very specific reason.

Turning into the scrapper's yard Big John Mcdonagh would stop the truck to let his wife and son out. As they walked in he would drive the pick-up, get weighed, and then head on over to the unloading bays. Once unloaded he’d drive out, be weighed again and paid the difference. The other side of the scales he'd pick up his wife and son and head home. At least that was the drill for the cheap metals and tin and alloy. When it came to scrapping his grade A copper a small but important change would occur. This time only the son would alight and enter the yard on foot. The 400lb mother would remain, sat down low in the truck. The weighing in process and the unloading would be repeated. Then, as per usual, John Mcdonagh would drive out and his wife and son would make it on foot. No one ever suspected a thing. The scrap dealer, sat up high in his porta-cabin, would think nothing of it when Mrs Mcdonagh came waddling back out. If anything crossed his mind he’d just have thought he hadn’t noticed her walking in. In such a way, every cunning day, going on years, the Mcdonagh’s got paid for The Mother's substantial weight in grade A copper scrap.

Travelling folk. As wily as they come. Thieves as well, but honest with it. They’d never steal anything which was owned by a single person – at least not without good reason. And like many poor people they abhorred meanness - especially Meanness for the sake of Meanness. So, twice a week, once the evening was in, Big John Mcdonagh and his two boys would drive back around and revisit all the sites in which the managers had dumped their scrap metal rather than having someone else profit from it. They’d first empty their skips and then enter the site and make off with spools of copper cable, metal sheeting, lead and any power tools left lying around. As a final underarm salute, for personal satisfaction, Big John Mcdonagh always took a good, long piss in the cement mixer.

"M’oi fekkin piss holds up a good fair bitta dis town," he’d say. "Tiocfaidh ár lá!"

$ $ $

It was a little after 8pm when i finally began cooking the Valencian paella. Defrosted and raw and spewed out in the large frying pan it didn’t look quite as appetising as it appeared on the bag. The fish was cubed and made from the reformed waste of multiple varieties, and if that wasn’t off-putting enough each cube was run through with branches of fine blood vessels. The chicken was grey and of the cheapest cut. As it steamed in the pan it let of a stench reminiscent of dog’s breath. The prawns, all two of them, were the size of winkles, and as for the peas, well, they were rock hard and turned brown in the heat. After a few minutes of cooking the whole lot had become a stodgy mess, stuck and burning to the bottom of the pan. When I eventually spooned it out onto a plate it looked more like porridge than a fancy spanish dish. I looked at it and nodded knowingly. There's only ever two reasons for half-price offers: to introduce a new product on the market or to get rid of an old one. This was obviously for the latter. Rather than make a loss on a dish they knew wouldn't sell they were flogging of the remaining stock at break-even price. Alone on my bed I took up my fork and tucked in.

The first wave of vomit came just after midnight. Then came the shits. I lay on my back, on the bed, my eyes watering and a pond of gasses bubbling around in my guts. In that state visions came to me and went. I saw the cashier and her finger with the red enamelled nail. She threw her head back and cackled and that sound rang out for a long time in my mind. Then came the the old guy at the supermarket, hunched over and leafing through his coupons. Lines of shelves and products and people and queues and the ringing of tills and the rattling of money. I heard the beeping of products being scanned and the sound of people swiping their credit cards and machines munching off cheques. And there it came again, up from my stomach and hardly time to lean over the side of the bed and spew it out. It was all making me nauseous. This wasn't just about Valencian paella. No, there was something much deeper which was making me sick. Maybe it was the struggle? The struggle to get on and get by and the fight to wake up tomorrow with as much fight as one had yesterday. Maybe this sickness was me giving in for a moment at a moment when I could. It's a hard life when you're down to your last every day, when every thing is a calculation, when even one's small pleasures are sacrifices. It's not the fittest who survive around here; it's the quickest. When there's only one bag of frozen paella left and fifty hungry men after it, it's who goes furthest for the smallest gain. Sometimes it's just pure luck, but over time, tomorrow after tomorrow... that ain't luck. The junkies do it, and the whores do it, and single parents do it, and the low paid and exploited do it. Creative survival. The dying art of staying alive. 

- - -

Thanks as ever for reading, Shane. X

Lines for Joe M to follow shortly... ... ...