Artwork by Leo Meiersdorff
(Album cover for Consummation - Thad Jones, Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra)
Used by permission.
Poverty kills. He is stealth. He snakes into your soul, a smooth night silhouette. When you are young, you never believe that it is you who is poor. It's always the other person. The neighbor. The homeless. The junkies. The other. In this country, you assume that you can climb out of the hole life has gifted your present. Your future is brighter. Then, as you get older and the gnawing in your belly grows omnipotent, your eyes no longer glisten. They assume a permanent opaque horror at the thought you will never smell the fresh air of economic freedom.
Poverty is insidious. It plants its seed in your soul before birth, while your parents wonder if they can afford to invite you into time's cacophony of pain. It is its own dimension. You do not notice. I don't know at which age scarcity becomes your permanent home. I suppose it depends on the strength of your light. Suddenly, a nourished shadow overwhelms the sun. Being young, you can fight. You become angry at the injustice of destiny. Your heated frenzy sustains you for a while. Yet, poverty is stubborn and remains fixed.
When I was growing up, there was a feeling that we were in this together and somehow, with help, we could ascend from the abyss. We could avoid eviction and even when we had no food in the refrigerator, I knew that my mother would soon solve that problem. Tragically, if your skin were pigmented your chances greatly decreased. As a poor white boy growing up in poverty, I looked to my African American neighbors, some accented by southern spheres, and marveled at how they could produce such beautiful colors, magnificent culture while being targeted by purveyors of hate. The blues of Ray Charles, the joy of Chuck Berry and the legacy of Bird, Diz and so many others mediated my own despair. I found courage in "the other" while I inhabited desolation in my familiar life.
I grew up in the North, less segregated, but separate nevertheless. But I knew where I could find my salvation. As a teenager, I snuck into Manhattan at midnight from my outer-borough prison to witness after-hour jams at Town Hall on 43rd Street. It seemed every musician who mattered came to these revival meetings. They chose Flip Wilson as their MC who at that time was still a struggling comic, before the fame of television. He knew that Chris Columbus would find Ray Charles! Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra was the house band. And oh what a time! Once, Flip was talking so much that someone actually got a huge hook to get him off stage. As he was towed, his voice continued to sail.
You could go to these shows with very little money, so poverty didn't stop you then. I think it cost $2.50. Today, it's impossible. There have always been people who believe being poor is a crime instigated by the victim. That belief seems to have been codified where you can actually have a Congress cut off extended unemployment benefits just 3 days after Christmas while they themselves enjoy a taxpayer paid vacation.
Poverty kills. Congress is its hit man. And in case you don't get it, then open your eyes. Our middle class is vanishing into ether. Choices between gas, heat and food are now commonplace. Add children into that mix and the choir of pain breaks your heart.
A light fast approaches. Upon its arrival, the yoke of suffering will be relieved. Firmly plant your soul. A storm hovers.