We are They

By Piper Bayard

Remember all of those Jeff Foxworthy “you might be a redneck if” jokes? I didn’t know I was a redneck until Jeff Foxworthy identified me.

“If you’ve ever honked at chickens while pulling into your driveway . . .”

Chickens in driveway canstock

Didn’t everybody?

“If there are more than five McDonald’s bags in your car . . .”

Hey. I needed something to cover the bare springs on the front seat, and that cheap old tablecloth I hid them with was kind of pretty.

“If you met your spouse at a family reunion . . .”

Well, we didn’t actually meet at a family reunion, but we could have. It’s a long story.

So when I went to law school in my 1969 Volkswagen Beetle that left me stranded more times than I “forgot” to look for my toddlers while playing hide and seek, let’s just say it was something of a culture shock.

I remember getting my class schedule and wondering why I had a class in “torts.” Weren’t torts* fancy French pies? I’d only just learned that, and I was still proud of being so worldly.

I sat through my first two weeks, reading opinions by Mr. Justice Black, Mr. Justice Douglas, Mr. Justice Stevens, etc. and thinking, “Boy, there sure are a lot of judges named ‘Justice.’” No, I’m not making that up.

It wasn’t just the classes that had me feeling like I’d wandered into the Twilight Zone. It was the people. I’d just spent almost a decade living in the poverty culture of New Mexico with one foot on the street and the other on a banana peel. So when my upper class classmates would say they were broke, I would invite them over for dinner and send them home with the leftovers. That’s what decent people do, right? They thought I was insane. After a year or so, I finally grasped that “broke” in trust fund lingo meant going skiing at Copper instead of at Aspen this week.

But the biggest shock of all was finding out that no one was out to get me. Living in a poverty culture, I became ingrained with the “They” mentality.

They are out to get Us, making mandatory insurance laws so we have to choose between eating this week and insuring our cars. They are trying to keep Us down by raising tuition costs because They don’t want Us in school with their kids. They are always profiling Us because They are afraid of Us.

Along with that perception was the idea that They never have to work for what They have. They are all greedy and privileged and look down their noses at Us.

image from openclipart.org

Are you perceiving a bad attitude on my part? You betcha. I didn’t just have a chip on my shoulder, I was proud of having earned the chip on my shoulder. I went to law school to become a warrior for my people, the poor and downtrodden, against the tyranny of They.

As you might guess, I was not the only person who showed up on the doorstep of the Hall of Learning thinking that I knew something and wanting to teach the world a thing or two. I found, in fact, that law school was a distillation of bad attitude. A collection of shoulder chips, and, to my surprise, many of those resentments were directed at me.

While the majority of my fellow students of all races and faiths were stellar individuals, I also knew wealthy African-Americans who would not speak to me because I was white. A few wealthy Latinos told me outright they would not work with me because I was white. I knew Native Americans who treated me with disdain because I’m white. And I knew people of all races and financial classes who would have nothing to do with any of us, not because of our races or our financial classes, but because of our bad attitudes.

In summary, I was standing there pointing a finger at wealthy people of all races and faiths, only to turn around and find many wealthy minorities pointing a finger at me, finding me indistinguishable from the people I labeled as “They.”

Is this sounding incredibly stupid yet?

That’s when I learned one of the most important lessons of my life. We are They. Each of us is a “They” to someone, and that someone is probably someone we don’t even know exists.

The fact is that I loved being different and special in my sense of persecution. I loved thinking I was important enough for entire groups of people to conspire against me at a governmental level. It gave me a tribe. A people. An identity, an enemy, and a purpose. But it was a lie. A self-deception of perverted elitism that kept me from succeeding in life, because the bottom line is that no one wants to work with an assclown.

I buried my chip and opened my heart. It was a struggle to find a new sense of self with so much of my identity having been tied up in being a redneck reject from a place where there were only two colors of people, Poor and They. But what I found was that, though people live and relate differently at different financial levels, there are genuinely good people everywhere, and while some people are actively hostile, they are the true minority.

When have you been a fish out of water? When has your attitude held you back?

All the best to all of you for a week of harmonious integration.

*A tort, for those of you who, like me, didn’t know, is a civil negligence case. For example, if you bring a civil lawsuit over a car wreck, it is a tort.

Rockin the Road

Last week, I was reading The Road. It reminded me of unemployment and got me thinking about going vegetarian. Since then, I’ve worked a bit of meat back into my diet, but I think cuts with bones may always give me pause.

Anyway, the unemployment road isn’t quite as grim as the post-apocalyptic devastation in the book. In fact, I can honestly say that I laughed more there than anywhere else at any time of my life. Thought I’d share with you some of the ways I found to have fun on The Road.

I categorize these into two groups. Things to do that don’t mess with other people, and things to do that involve messing with other people or might kind of sort of be illegal. Ok. That might sound a little mean, but let’s be honest. The cheapest entertainment around is pulling people’s chains, only I prefer to call it “sociological research.” So here are a couple of lists. . . .

Fun Things to Do That Don’t Really Mess with People

  • The most obvious is getting together with your friends and pooling your edible resources for dinner. Grilled cheese sandwiches go really well with the five year old applesauce someone had in the back corner of the pantry.
  • Pool your drinkable resources and let the singing, dancing, drumming, and laughter commence. Do this in public places, and people might even give you money.
  • Rediscover doodling. All it takes is a pen, a piece of paper, and a lot of boredom.
  • Take the chance to educate yourself and go to the zoo and museum free days in your area. If you want to go, and it’s not a free day, call ahead and talk with the manager. Tell him you’re unemployed and can’t pay, and ask him if you can come anyway. You might mention you’re applying for a job that requires you to know a lot about Egyptian mummies or the history of cereal boxes, or whatever, and it would really help you to review their collection. Hey. You never know when you might need to doodle up that Quisp alien for a job interview, right?
  • Collect anything you can part with and go in with your friends for a booth at the open air flea market. For you flea market noobs, here’s how it’s done. Do not price your items. Have an idea of what you want, and then watch the crowd. If it’s early in the day, and someone makes a beeline through two toddlers and an old lady to get to your table, increase the price accordingly. If it’s the end of the day, and someone has a nominal interest, take the minimum. Just give it a try. You’ll get the hang of it.
  • Cut your hair and make jewelry out of it to sell at said flea market. It’s actually a time-honored art (see below).

Fun Things to Do That Mess with People or are Sort of Maybe a Little Illegal, aka Sociological Research

  • Pair up as a couple and pretend to be Big Daddy gambler and his Little Darlin’. Dress casually, but cleanly, and be confident. Many people with real money, and I mean REAL money, don’t give a crap what they’re wearing as long as it’s clean and comfortable. Go to the Lexus dealership, and tell them you’re looking for a car, you’re going to pay cash, and you want to test drive the best they’ve got. You plan to head to Atlantic City tomorrow, and you really don’t want to go through the TSA grope again. Enjoy riding around in those fancy cars all day. Be sure to sneer at any cheap, plastic trim, and indulge in all of the coffee and pastries they’ll bring you. Oh. And pick the designer interior before you walk out without leaving your number. . . . Yes, I’ve done this, and I can tell you, the salesmen will drool. Just be careful not to break character under any circumstances.
  • For ladies, you can do a similar thing with jewelry, but you don’t need to be as elaborate. Just act like you belong there as you try on those $50k jewels. Ask about their Buccellati collection, and be sure to get the clerk’s business card. (Had great fun doing this with my daughter just the other day, in fact.) If you like looking at beautiful, high-end jewelry, click here for their collection.
  • Put on those clothes that you’ve been washing with soap you stole from a public bathroom because you can’t afford laundry detergent. Have a contest with your friends to see who can scare the most people into locking their cars doors by just walking past them. No fair making gestures or mean faces, other than the mean faces people get when they can’t afford soap, that is.
  • Build a fire in a barrel and throw in different stuff you find in it to see what happens. You can do the same in a metal bowl in your house if you don’t have a barrel or a yard. I found Vitamin E pills are kind of cool for this. You can see the stuff inside the capsules bubble a while just before they pop. Keep your face back, though. Use your cheap sunglasses as eye protection, and keep a fire extinguisher handy.
  • And one of my personal favorites . . . tie a long thread of fishing line to an old purse. Leave the purse beside the road and hide, holding the other end of the line. When someone stops to pick up the purse, wait until they’re bent over and their fingers are almost touching it, and pull it just out of their reach. See how long it is before they figure out they’re being punked, and then enjoy a good belly laugh. One caution, though. Some people can get really pissed off by this one so be ready to run like hell if you have to.

You see? Just because you’re on The Road, it doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.

All the best to all of you for a week of cheap fun.

Piper Bayard 

Unemployment, a.k.a. The Road

By Piper Bayard

I’m reading The Road. Not only is it making me seriously consider becoming a vegetarian, it’s striking me as an extreme form of the personal apocalypse a lot of folks are facing right now. Unemployment.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road. They’re busy avoiding cannibals. Click here for the movie trailer.

Unemployment is a lot like The Road. When you’re cut loose from your source of survival, it’s an apocalyptic event. Sometimes we can see it coming, and sometimes it leaves us like the man and the boy in the book wondering, “Wth?” But even when you do see it coming, there’s this flash, and suddenly the whole world goes to crap, and you’re left not knowing where you’ll live, or where your next meal is coming from.

Yep. It’s happened to me. I’m not sure it was such a mystery, though. That job was kind of ill-fated from the beginning.

During the recession of the late 80s, I had a temp job as a secretary in hospital administration. Here’s a little hospital secret that I learned there. Those $50 aspirins they bring you in your bed? Secretaries have dozens of them in their desks for free. They’re samples from the drug companies that come in single-serving packets. Little white pills wrapped in foil-backed plastic.

So anyway, that temp job led to a permanent job in the hospital as a sort of Julie the Love Boat Cruise Director, setting up educational programs in radiology for visiting doctors. My first day, I had a headache so I opened my drawer at my new desk and saw the friendly white pill I thought I knew from admin. Ok, so maybe it was a little smaller, but what else would be in the desk drawer, right? I took it. . . . I know. Incredibly stupid. Hey, at least I know better now, right? So moving right along. . . . An hour and a half later, I was passed out snoozing in a hard-backed chair in front of my new boss and a visiting doctor. Yes, really. Bad day to discover I was a Benedryl lightweight. It was my turn on The Road.

I learned a lot of invaluable lessons about the people on The Road. This calls for a list or two.

  1. Some people do all the “right” things and end up on The Road anyway. (I wasn’t one of them.)
  2. Some really bright people make The Road their way of life because they can’t tolerate the shallow, meaningless existence of thing-based, mindlessly bureaucratic mainstream. They need the struggle to feel alive.
  3. Some people are there because they are cruel, shifty bottomfeeders by nature.
  4. Some really good people are too broken to be anywhere else.
  5. Some live on The Road because they’re too busy taking care of others to get ahead themselves.
  6. Some are there to learn and move on.
  7. Some are tourists, slumming it because they have no confidence in their ability to survive without Daddy’s credit card. They want to know they could hang with the have-nots and make it on their own if they had to.

I also learned a lot about myself and human nature.

  1. Poverty is the father of rationalization. Hey, just because a guy pulls into to a gas station with an untied stack of premium Christmas trees in the back of his ’69 Ford pickup, and he’s selling them for $5 each, but you have to get them right now, and fast, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re hot, right?
  2. You really don’t know who you are until you’re faced with that lost wallet full of money in your hungry hand.
  3. Some laws create outlaws, such as mandatory insurance laws. Food is more important than car insurance, and that really is a choice for many of the unemployed.
  4. There’s a certain level of grubby that makes people lock their car doors when they see you coming, no matter what your race or theirs.
  5. If you overlap your electric bill and your phone bill just right, you can alternate paying them and never get services shut off.
  6. You can use “new sale” forms in your back car window when you can’t afford to register it. Warning: Don’t get stopped. Police will have no mercy for this.
  7. Barter is alive and well, and food is a medium of exchange.
  8. Poor people have the absolute best parties because they know how to entertain themselves with laughter, song, and dance.
  9. Government cheese is the best cheese on the planet.
  10. A Christmas when you have nothing to give is far worse than a Chrismas when you don’t get any presents.

Partly by luck, and partly by perseverence, the ash eventually cleared, the scenery greened, and I found my way back to mainstream civilization. I mean, as much as a writing, belly dancing, recovering attorney, Hospice volunteer who hangs out with spooks can be mainstream.

For those of you on The Road now, I will not insult you with pablum or cliches. But I will keep you in my prayers.

Looking back, The Road was a blessing for me. It broke down my delusions about myself and made me real, because the hard fact is that you don’t know who you are until your ethics are diametrically opposed to your survival. I now know what I am and am not willing to do to survive, and I’m at peace with what I found.

Don’t get me wrong. I really, really don’t want to go there again, but The Road doesn’t scare me any more. . . . Except in the book, The Road. That’s just creepy as hell, though it’s masterfully written. I highly recommend it for anyone who loves literary fiction or who just has too much happiness in their life. You know, maybe I won’t have beef for dinner tonight. . . . Or ever.

All the best to all of you for finding peace on your Road.