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The Middle Class Mystique

 The Contributor (USA) 12 July 2019

Homeless street vendors often have to live with the stigma and misconceptions associated with being homeless. But street vendor and formerly homeless writer Renee Sawyer explains that homelessness does not always mean a life of drug and alcohol abuse. Many have the same goals and expectations as everyone else but simply take longer to realize them. (1875 Words) - By Renee Sawyer

Weekday mornings and early afternoons, I am found out in front of the One Nashville Place building selling this newspaper to the business commuters of downtown Nashville.

Ever wonder what I am thinking as I stand there with my papers? It is a safe bet that I am watching the "fashion show" and taking mental notes of the styling details, the cut of the cloth, the colors/patterns/textures of the fabrics-just in case I ever win the lottery and can go to the mall!

Before I quit watching TV, my all-time favorite television program was Project Runway. I even got to view it once on a huge-screen TV; I was so excited-I was telling everyone, "You could see every seam!" Every day, I see such beautiful clothes on the business crowd, such gorgeous accessories. There is one particular pocketbook that is an absolute joy to behold. It is studded with deep pink rosettes on a lighter pink background, and it is a work of art. I look at it and I am thinking, "That pocketbook must have cost $500."

I hear sound bites, intriguing snippets of conversation among the lunchtime crowd milling by: "She got tired of picking up his dirty underwear;" "I wonder how many people are going to commit suicide today?" Just this past week, a man of maybe 17 walked past me talking to his fellow tourist companions: "All they'd have to do is look in the classified ads; there's tons of jobs in there." He was young and naive and I suspect he'll soon enough learn the truth for himself, the hard way. However, those of you who have arrived at a place in your career where headhunters seek you out may not realize how difficult it is in today's modern world to secure even entry-level employment. All the newspaper ads are posted online now too, reaping stacks of resumes inches thick for every posting. The resumes are computer-screened, because these jobs aren't even considered important enough to actually read the submitted resumes.

What are you seeing, when you look at me?

I am well aware that I am under scrutiny, by virtue of the fact that I am representing the homeless population of Nashville. In case you assume there must be something wrong with me that caused me to end up homeless, you'd be the one who is wrong. There are a few of them that stagger the streets drunk, stinking, filthy, insanely ranting to themselves about nothing. And many people think we're all like that! Most homeless people are nothing like that; they are like me. I daresay, like you.

Some of you will refuse to acknowledge this reality. You might feel threatened by it, because it would mean it could happen to you, too. Yes, it could have been you out here selling homeless newspapers to the middle class, but odds are it won't be you. Riches-to-rags is even less likely than escape from poverty into middle-class. It would take years for the resources of the average middle-class citizen to atrophy to the point of poverty. It is rare that one life sees both sides. Money is the sole difference between us and you; yet I tend to believe you cannot fathom how poor we really are. Our standard of living is intolerable, by any standard. Simply stated, it is a life without value.

Sometimes, I've studied, marveled at, the shoppers emerging from a supermarket with a whole cart full of groceries-some of them younger than me, some older, some fatter, some thinner than me, people from all races and ethnicities. I looked for, but was never able to locate, a common thread as to why their lives were so very different from mine. I had a friend for many years who I lost contact with several years ago when we both became homeless around the same time. Karen was one of the wisest people I have ever known. I said to her, "I don't want these people to give me half their groceries. All I want from them is for them to tell me how they did it, so that I can do it too. Why won't they tell me?" And my wise friend said, "Because you have nothing to offer them in return. They're not going to give away the secret for free."

Magazines promise the key to prosperity in their headlines. But without exception, these are useless articles always along the lines of cutting expenses. Talking budgeting to homeless people is preaching to the choir; no one is more resourceful than a homeless person! We are poor not because we have mismanaged our finances. We're poor because we are paid a poverty-level wage.

Many books have been written about how to attain success. They're all worthless. "Set your goal. List the steps to take to achieve your goal." If I knew what steps to take, don't you think I'd have stepped by now? No, the answer is not to be found in any book.

TV yields no insight either. Wayne Dyer said he was going to tell me how to change my life. About two minutes in he said, "I'm not going to tell you how to get rich." Those were his last words to me. Click!

In my lifelong quest for the secret to success, I have searched extensively online, using different search engines, various search terms. I must still have some faith that the answer is online somewhere, because I keep searching. Maybe one day I'll find it on page 10,014 of 240,336 results.

Traveling always in the circles of the poor and homeless, I've had no role models. Those few folks that I've known personally who have gone from poor to middle class have done so by extraordinary means, nothing that I could apply in my own life:

1) Blue-collar hard physical labor. Even "unskilled" labor can propel someone from poverty to middle-class-as well it should. These are the jobs that most females and many males would not be able to endure. Whatever they're paying them, it isn't enough.

2) Risk-takers. Like those game-show contestants willing to place the $5,000 they've just won on the line for a chance at $100,000. Most won't succeed; a few of them will. That gambler's instinct-it just isn't in me. I never could quite bring myself to spend an entire paycheck on lottery tickets.

3) The unscrupulous. Not an option for me. Just as there are those homeless con artists who latch on to individuals and churches and run a scam on them, there are also ruthless businesspeople who've sold out their coworkers, and sacrificed their own principles to scale the corporate ladder. If this life has taught me anything at all, it is that wealth nor poverty does an honest person make. An honest person is an honest person, whether poor or rich.

4) High-energy types. Those people who can survive, subsist and function on short sleep. These are the people who can work two, three, four jobs simultaneously-or work and go to college at the same time.

Their financial success is all but guaranteed. However, that isn't me-nor is it most people. Ordinary people are by definition, ordinary. And yet, most ordinary people are not poor, not homeless, but middle-class.

You look at us and wonder, how did they end up homeless?

We look at you and wonder, how did they not?

Historically, the upper class has consistently sought to distance itself, strived to differentiate itself, from lower classes. Back when poor people primarily labored in fields on farms, a pale complexion was in vogue because it signified the economic and social status of people who spent their days indoors out of the sun. Then, down the line, when the poor mainly slaved indoors all day in factories, suntanned skin became fashionable. It's got to be confusing to people nowadays, with so many homeless outside 24/7. The homeless suntans look just like the expensive ones acquired in tanning salons or at some tropical paradise!

In some foreign lands, in bygone days, obesity was actually regarded as a status symbol because their poor could not afford much food. The U.S. of A. keeps its poor and homeless well-fed! In every state where I've ever lived or visited, community resources (feeds, food banks) amounted to food overkill, at the expense of, even to the exclusion of, all other vital necessities. Because we don't wear the emaciated silhouette of Third World residents, the general public is misled to believe that since we must not be starving, we must not be suffering. Great press for, wonderful propaganda from, the "land of plenty!" As we, the poor and homeless, know all too well, poverty goes way beyond hunger. Try getting calamine for your itching, oozing poison ivy, courtesy of sleeping in shrubbery. Just try getting aspirins for your relentless headache that has plagued you for hours-or days. "No, we cannot help you with that. Here's a coupon for a coffee and a doughnut."

How often have we heard Oprah's guests tell her, "I've got it all-the house, the cars, this fabulous career-and I'm just…not…fulfilled."

Please understand. We cannot relate to a statement like that on any level whatsoever.

What do we, the homeless and poor, think of you, the middle class?

We think you have no real problems.

For those without money, all problems, worries, fears, hopes, and dreams revolve around money. Money would have prevented all of what we go through. Money would solve everything. Money and problems are mutually exclusive. Take Oprah's much-publicized battle with obesity. Karen, who has waged her own ongoing war with weight as well as with homelessness, said to me, "Oprah has enough money that she could pay someone to slap that fork out of her hand."

We think you are lucky.

We don't think you haven't worked hard to get where you are, to have what you have.

And so have we worked hard all our lives-to get nowhere and with nothing to show for it. We have eternally sought and endlessly pondered the secret of your success, to find no answer, no clues. To chalk it off to luck seems the easiest explanation. However, I think luck (the bad sort) plays a far larger role in our lives than it does in yours. Without money, we wield precious little power over our own lives. We are at the mercy of shelter directors or case managers or housing counselors, all too eager to dictate their will and inflict their whims upon us.

We are not substandard people.

We are not lesser, lower, lacking people in intelligence or competence.

We have not made bad choices. The opportunities were never there for us. Our "choices" were always decisions between greater and lesser evils.

Things are not always as they seem. And sometimes, you have to take things at face value.

Our lives are very different, and thus are our perceptions.

We all base our outlooks and philosophies on our own personal experiences. Perhaps our perceptions of you are as unfair and inaccurate as yours of us. Possibly, we are as wrong about you as you are about us.

Just maybe, we will never know.

The author is a formerly Homeless Writer for The Contributor, USA