It’s been such a week I don’t know where to start, but I think things are getting back to normal now.
“Normal” is a word I’ve used quite a bit the past few days.
The Lost Girl moved into her new house: chaotically, as poor people tend to move. She was back and forth for hours in her car, moving what furniture was fit to keep. She’d planned on not telling her children about the new place as they were staying the weekend with family. She wanted to pass off the house as a birthday present to the middle child.
When she moved into the house, she found that the furnace wasn’t working: the gas lit right up, and the fan blew, but the air coming out of the vents on the bottom floor was tepid. She called the landlord to ask about this. I leant her two space heaters to use while she was waiting for the workman, who didn’t come for a day or two. The landlord did come, however, to yell at her about the blankets she had hanging over the windows. He gave her thirty days to put up curtains, which doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t see how it hurts his property to have a bedsheet or a thin towel hanging over the curtain rod instead of a curtain. I refuse to believe that there’s a law saying you can evict a tenant for having a curtain-shaped piece of cloth over the window in place of an actual curtain. But she scrambled to get curtains.
This is normal. Many, many people are one mistake away from homelessness at the mercy of their landlords all the time. I promise you there are plenty in your own community.
There was also the question of the other utilities. Steubenville has some of the most expensive water bills in the country. For what we pay we ought to have champagne coming out of the tap, yet sometimes we don’t even have running water. The city utility department was refusing to turn her water on at the new house until she paid them more than three hundred dollars in late payments. At first the water was still on in the landlord’s name, but then he found out about it, shut it off, and yelled at her for something else.
I’m broke, so I asked around my friends who had money to see if I could collect enough. Meanwhile, a new neighbor gave the Lost Girl several jugs of tap water a day.
This is also normal. You may not realize it, but I guarantee you that many people right in your city have housing but can’t afford to turn the utilities on.
The Lost Girl also scrambled to get the children something to eat. She had her EBT card, but the house didn’t have a stove or a fridge and the ones she’d been using belonged to her old apartment. She’d just moved into a house more expensive than she could afford. Where was she going to get the money for new appliances? I didn’t have spare appliances, but I leant her my two-burner electric hot plate. We used that back when our own stove was dying, right up until we got the Biden check in 2021 and replaced the broken coil range with a nice glass-top.
This, too, is normal. Many people have housing, the utilities are on, but they just don’t have money to adequately furnish the house. Michael and I washed our laundry in the bathtub for a long time before we got a washer and dryer.
Yesterday, I mentioned online that I had a friend who couldn’t afford kitchen appliances, and another friend said he had a minifridge he didn’t need. A few hours later he was in Steubenville, dropping it off at her door. Somebody else leant her a toaster oven. They’re still not in good shape. But they’ve got a minifridge, a hot plate and a toaster oven– something to bake in, something to cook on, and something to keep food cold. The Lost Girl made her children a big batch of bacon and waffles for breakfast this morning. She is an excellent cook!
Also yesterday, I went to get Serendipity from the Lost Girl’s block. She had brought the car back to my neighborhood to surprise me, when her uncle finished the electrical work. I’m going to need a wiring harness before long, if we can source a cheap one from the junkyard. The brake and battery lights are still on, even though the battery and alternator have been replaced and the new wires put in. The Lost Girl says they’ll stay on until I go to an auto body shop and ask them to reset the computer, even though the actual parts work fine. Our brakes are still metal to metal and there’s still a small exhaust leak, so I don’t dare go to Pittsburgh or Columbus or for a drive on country roads. But if I roll down the windows and treat the brake pedal like glass, I can go to the store. I can go to the library. The five-week ordeal is over. I thought the car would never run again, but it’s running. It’s running because the Lost Girl and her family helped me. Her uncle did all the labor for a ridiculously low price on his days off. He’s going to finish fixing it as soon as we can afford to buy the parts and pay him another ridiculously small fee. I hope we can do that soon. I could never, ever have afforded to save Serendipity without their help.
It’s perfectly normal to have a used car that breaks down and needs expensive fixes.
It ought to be perfectly normal to have friends you can rely on to fix it.
And it ought to be perfectly normal to have friends you can rely on to lend or give you appliances your house lacks– maybe not the best ones, but the ones they happen to have. And it ought to be perfectly normal to rely on your neighbors for jugs of water and to take up a collection for your expenses. It ought to be, but I don’t think it often is.
I think that one of the reasons our culture is as cruel as it is, is that we have a toxic and unreasonable notion of independence. We’re told that we’re supposed to fend for ourselves and be rugged, each individual and each nuclear family providing for their own brood without assistance. Nothing could be less natural. Nothing could be less human. Humans travel in groups, caring for one another, and we’ve been doing it from the very beginning. We are not supposed to be self-reliant. We’re supposed to be inter-reliant. We are not supposed to be a single self-serving unit or even a nuclear family; we’re supposed to be a herd. Moms and dads, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends should care for one another. That’s what’s supposed to happen. That’s the most basic human activity.
As Christians, we have even less excuse.
The Gospel doesn’t eliminate the notion of inter-reliance; it expands it. We are no longer allowed to only have compassion for the people in our particular household, to the exclusion of everybody else. We’re supposed to go out to the margins and help everyone. It’s the one who does this who is Christ’s brother and sister and mother. It’s when you do it that you’re being a useless servant, doing only what you should have done.
I drove my car home, carefully, cringing when I braked at every stop sign.
Just when I’d given up all hope, we got the last of the money for the water. A blog follower on Twitter sent it to my Venmo and I gave it to the Lost Girl. There was even a bit left over for curtains.
This ought to be normal.
Of course, just because it ought to be normal doesn’t mean you can’t be surprised and grateful when it happens, and I am.
Life is good right now.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.