We dried the furniture indoors on folding racks and the backs of chairs. We tried to stay ahead of it, but clothes can take a day or more to dry and hand-washing takes a long time. The laundry pile grew as high as the furniture piles in the alleys. In the very hottest, most humid part of summer, where nothing dried unless it was inches from the air conditioner window unit, some of it started to rot.
That doesn’t smell good either.
I didn’t smell good. And, with my home haircuts and nothing to wear but stiff rack-dried secondhand clothes, I looked worse. My house looked like a haunted house from a scary movie. My neighborhood was a patchwork of people each with struggles as bad as mine or worse, and the houses reflected that. Some looked fine, some looked ugly, some were rotten eyesores like my house. Of course, no one would want to live near us. We didn’t want to live near us. But we didn’t have a choice.
Over the past two years, thanks to my job here at Patheos and to help from dear friends and a few family members, we’ve gotten to a much better situation. I’m writing this sitting on a couch that doesn’t squeak, though the cushions need mending. We have a table that doesn’t wobble; we have frames for our beds. We have a washer and dryer. The lawn is finally short and going to stay that way this time, as long as our famous neighbor I call Miss Manners leaves us alone. We even stand a good chance of moving out of this neighborhood all together, later this year when Michael’s mother comes to live in West Virginia. We’re on the cusp of not really being poor or needing so much help anymore, and that’s exciting. But I have no illusions that that’s completely or even mostly due to our hard work and not being lazy. I’ve worked very hard, but I’ve also depended every step of the way on help from others. When I had little help, my house was what Rod Dreher and Donald Trump would deem a sh*thole. Now it’s only a rickety old rental on the slightly better side of a sh*thole neighborhood. The neighborhood is filled with children of God whose intrinsic dignity is beyond measure, and whose earthly means are meager. And our houses often look horrible.
This summer, I was excited to see on the news that town meetings were being held to decide what would be done about the eyesores in my neighborhood. I naively pictured a brigade of boy scouts with lawn mowers, tool kits and cans of paint, going from door to door and offering to spruce up houses for the poor, to beautify the neighborhood. I pictured a private hauling company getting rid of the rotting trash in the alleys. Maybe they’d even plant flower gardens in the vacant lots.
What happened, of course, was that the police started ticketing poor families with unkempt lawns and dilapidated houses. Those tickets can run for well over two hundred dollars for each offense, and the offenses pile up fast. If you can’t pay them, you risk jail. And of course, the poor can’t pay them. If we had two hundred dollars for a ticket, we’d buy a lawn mower in the first place.
I’m not saying that there aren’t poor people who are lazy. There are many, just as there are many rich and middle class people who are lazy. There are also many industrious poor, and many whose work ethic is about average. The poor don’t have a particular culture of laziness; they’re just the ones who get caught holding the moldering bag whenever the culture they belong to makes a mess. People with money can afford to turn their hard work into nice neighborhoods, or to hire someone else to do the same, but poor people have no money to spend.
The reason poor neighborhoods aren’t nice places to live is not that we have some kind of degenerate culture Mr. Dreher doesn’t share. It’s because people with the power to help us make the changes we desperately want, won’t help or choose to make matters worse. It’s because, in this sh*thole of a culture, even notable religious celebrities who write whole books named after saints view poor people as parasites to be quarantined away from them instead of children of God who need a hand. They punish the inability to pay a bill by hanging a rotting upholstered albatross around our necks. They punish the inability to buy or hire a lawnmower with more debt. They think we don’t deserve help because we live in sh*tholes, and the cycle goes round and round. Shit, if you’ll forgive the term, begets shit.
I think we can easily apply this rule of thumb to poor countries and regions of the world, as well as to poor neighborhoods, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
If you drive down to a poor neighborhood, don’t gawk at our culture. Our culture is your culture. Our dilemma is often the direct result of your errors. You can improve the culture by helping, if you wish.
Or you can take the Dreher Option and blame us.