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October 10, 2010

What’s Poverty? What’s Wealth?

In 1975 I traveled to Nairobi, Kenya on a gift ticket. I stayed at the YMCA dormitory to save money and spent my days walking around the beautiful city. In Uhuru Park, in particular, pairs of well-dressed articulate young men my age would approach me to chat. I found this delightful, and we exchanged interesting information about our diverse countries. However, this fun meeting, which sometimes even included stopping for tea, always ended with an appeal on their part for money to help with their educational expenses. I expressed my regret that I had none to give, and tried to explain that though I was American, I was not rich. They never bought it and said, “All Americans are rich.” Are they?

Measured on an African scale, they are, we are. An entire district of Nairobi lives by sifting through the garbage pile created by their slightly more affluent neighbors. Few Americans live on garbage, and those that do have a richer lode to mine. Anyway, I was sorry that I was being set-up, sorry we couldn’t have a friendship that did not involve money changing hands, sorry that I was accused of being exactly what I thought I was not, but to them obviously was. Wealthy.

In 1966 I took civics in junior high school. The teacher talked one day about social classes, so I asked my mother, as we rolled newspapers for my route, what social class we belonged to. She had a degree in sociology from UC Berkeley. She answered: “If you judge class by income we’re in the lowest, if you judge class by education we’re in the highest.” We didn’t really fit into the ordinary social distinctions. My father’s pay was so low that people brought us hand-me-down clothes, toys, and food. But he spent 13 years studying at various universities earning about six degrees.

When I was a boy I had just three 45rpm records: One O’Clock Jump by Harry James, Caldonia by Louis Jordan, The Barnyard Song by Alan Mills. They came with the hand-me-down record player, and I played them over and over. That was all my musical education until I got a transistor radio with the money from my paper route. I can still remember those three songs perfectly. (I know One O’Clock Jump is instrumental, and they all had a B-side.) When I see my brother Paul we greet one another by singing, “Walking with my baby, she’s got great big feet …”

Now I have downloaded and collected and bought and pirated so many records and cassettes and CDs and Mp3s that I have thousands of recordings, several 500 gigabyte external hard drives full. Am I happier to have more music than I could ever dream of as a boy? Maybe three were enough. Not so long ago, many old time singers in the Appalachians were famous for singing moving versions of one song, the only song they knew! Is one enough? Or is no number ever enough? Am I sick with musical avarice? What if less is more?

Now that I think about it I had only three books too: A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Shirley Temple Storybook, and The Book House (a set of about 10 volumes of traditional stories). Okay, that’s not three books but close. With a healthy public library system it didn’t matter. I read library books since before I started school, checking out the allowed limit every week from first grade onwards through high school.

In San Francisco, they built the Parkside library on Taraval street, about three blocks away, just before I was born. I remember the low flat roof and huge concrete bricks that fascinated me as to how they were stacked to make the walls. In those days a five-year-old could go to the corner and ask any adult to take his hand to cross the big street; my parents let me go alone. In Antioch, the library was one house away from ours, practically across the street, not 50 feet away. I got so many stickers as rewards for reading books that the children’s librarian had to continually give me replacement cards. In Madera, I volunteered to work in the library shelving books and so on. (When my mother retired she also volunteered to work in the nearby public library for many years, so you know where I got all this love of libraries and books.)

Can a few books be enough? The early Americans had a Bible, a primer, maybe a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress or some subscription novels like those of Louisa May Alcott or Harriet Beecher Stowe. Not more than a foot of shelf space anyway. As they traveled across the plains they tossed the heavy books to save the oxen.

Now I probably have 10,000 books filling my home, basement, father-in-law’s garage and computer. No comment needed.

What else? Halloween candy lasted till Christmas, otherwise none until Easter. We played with a broken baseball bat and a tennis ball because we had no real baseball and no glove anyway. I borrowed a bike from my friend David so I could ride my paper route to get enough money to buy my own bike, which only took about two years of savings. And I never remember eating out as a child, except potlucks and a burger once at the bowling alley.

So growing up were we poor or did we feel poor? Yes and no. We probably were but didn’t suffer for it at all. Never crossed our minds. Would I have had a better life with more stuff? No. Do I now? No.

Some economist recently came up with a minimum salary on which to afford happiness or the pursuit thereof. Quality of life can involve basic necessities (hard to smile on an empty stomach), so he says we need at least $60,000 annually. That’s much more than I’ve ever made. Combined with my wife’s pay too. He’s telling us that on his chart we’re out of the comfort zone and in the suffering zone. Yeah, so? It’s my own chart that counts.

I’ll let you answer for yourself the implied question about spiritual poverty or wealth and the meaning of life. Good luck.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: Old professors never die, they just lose their class.
Jeff: We’re starting that again?
Mutt: Yes we are. Old doctors never die, they just lose their patience.
Jeff: Old hippies never die, they just smell that way.
Mutt: Old lawyers never die, they just lose their appeal.
Jeff: Old sewage workers never die, they just waste away.
Mutt: Old policemen never die, they just cop out.
Jeff: Old steelmakers never die, they just lose their temper.
Mutt: Old sailors never die, they just get a little dingy.
Jeff: Old hypochondriacs never die, they just lose their grippe.
Mutt: Finally, there is no conclusive evidence about what happens to old sceptics, but their future is doubtful.