If You Came This Way: A Journey Through the Lives of the Underclass

If You Came This Way: A Journey Through the Lives of the Underclass

by Peter Davis

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At each stage of their lives—from infant cribs to teen dropouts to welfare dependents to basement shelters for the elderly—the people of the underclass are shunned by the rest of the population, even by the working poor. The cycle is vicious: Underclass children get little help in their own homes (when they have homes); they are shoved aside at school until they drop out like their parents did; they are unable to find decent work without an education; they have children of their own for whom they cannot provide adequate care; and finally, they are dumped into human (but inhumane) warehouses for the not-quite-deceased. America cannot afford to do this to its poorest citizens; we cannot afford not to rescue the underclass. In the richest country on earth, the people of the underclass are not merely a problem, they are a scandal.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497682320
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 05/19/2015
Edition description: Digital Original
Pages: 188
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Peter Davis is an acclaimed author and filmmaker whose writing has won praise from Graham Greene, John Irving, Robert Stone, and William Styron. He covered the war in Iraq for the Nation and was a contributing editor for Esquire. He spent eighteen months traveling among the poorest Americans for If You Came This Way, the title of which is from a poem by T. S. Eliot. Davis’s films have won many prizes, and he received an Academy Award for his documentary on the Vietnam War, Hearts and Minds.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Is This Trip

Introduction and quiz: Who is the underclass? They're not you and they're not me. They are our enemies, and they know it even if we don't. I would have denied this before. I wasn't aware of an inherent hostility between classes, or perhaps I was and I wasn't. I did not, certainly, admit it until I took a journey through their world, a journey to an American hell.

I went there after being mugged. A blurred ghost out of the shadows, a nylon stocking over its head. Metal glinting in my eyes. My wife fumbling in her purse. Would he hurt us? The metal again, dull, dim, up under my nose. A .45, thick, potent, military. Our wallets in his hand. He's gone.

This was at night on a sidewalk in New York City, a few feet from our own apartment, described by the police as a garden-variety heist, just your basic mugger with a stocking over his head. The mugging did not launch me on the trip to the underclass, not by itself. A carnal aspect to the incident—inescapable, frightening, tempting—would not let me alone. I was provoked, curious, curiously lured. The mugging started a process that brought me to the decision.

Is it not possible to get excited about a problem until it comes home? Of course, there are those whose combination of personal fervor, emotion, religion, ambition, and ideology drives them to commitment. There is no record that Gandhi, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King was ever on the brink of starvation, yet they all became tribunes of the dispossessed. Most of us are not crusaders. I'm not. Most of us find it difficult to care, for very long, about whatdoesn't directly affect us. I do. I've seldom dwelt more than passingly on these other people, these people in the underclass, especially when their otherness seems so total. I can be sympathetic and cerebral but not passionate and pained until I'm threatened close up, face to face with the enemy.

As the days passed after the mugging, I began to think about what would have to happen in my own life to bring me to the point where I would confront two adults on the sidewalk with a gun in my hand and demand their money. Hardly immune to social sloth, periods in which I dream that everyone and everything in America are sort of improving on their own, I suddenly felt violated in my civic certainties. Conditions I had grown to accept became a menace. What had been sad became urgent. Possibly I only wanted to see the face of the man who had scared me so much. Maybe he was more afraid of me than I was of him. I decided to find him. To find—more accurately, more feasibly—the kind of person who had mugged me, his background, his family, his home if he had one. If my mugger had been in a police lineup with, say, an undersecretary of state, an NFL lineman, and a neighborhood patrolman-each of whom I may have glimpsed once or twice—i could never have identified which one had mugged me. Yet he had identified me so easily. My trip to find him, this generic desperado from the underclass, was conceived as a way to restore my own sense of who I am in the society that surrounds me. The trick would be 'doing this so I would enter another America feet first, with the rest of me following, as an inquisitive traveler, not a disguised Yupster gone slumming.

Much later, finished with my research—alleys, soup lines, empty faces, broken faces, faces of the American damned—I went for a walk in the woods on a crisp September morning when the leaves had begun to turn. I live in Maine now, where the fall comes early, and the butterfly I saw must have known it would either not last long in Maine or not last long at all. As the butterfly made ready to leave—the state or the earth, I couldn't tell—it seemed to enjoy itself perfectly, heedlessly. Rainbow wings, sailing into the wind, movements like darts of a laser beam. The air was lost in pigment. I followed the butterfly as it dipped away from me, swooped under a branch, dived back in my direction. It was happy, beautiful, free—and I wanted to smash it.

The point was: How dare any part of creation belong so cheerfully to itself when the misery I'd been observing—even, at times, convincing myself I was sharing—was so complete? How easily, in the end, I'd escaped it! Such an escape, the escape back to places where grace and beauty are daily possibilities, remained light years beyond the reach of the people whose lives I'd been trying to understand, people for whom "freedom" is not merely an abstraction but a term of mockery. I was ashamed when I realized I had never even contemplated them as fellow citizens. Fellows are peers who can do for each other. When I thought about it, these Americans and I offer each other virtually nothing.

For these fellow citizens I'd been with, learning to read, finding a home, stopping drugs, being accepted into job training can be achievements as significant as that of a paralyzed accident victim who slowly, agonizingly, learns to wiggle a single toe. The obstacles to basic survival can be colossal, Himalayan. For many of those I had lived among, getting onto welfare or even committing a crime—my mugging, for instance—would be a leap upward from where they are. A criminal act, however antisocial from the perspective of the state, would be an act, an assertion of self, a pledge toward betterment that is, for many of those I met, well beyond their reach. They have far more crimes committed against them than they can even conceive of committing. Freedom, rarely a collective proposition, is mine in abundance, but they experience it—at a distant remove, vicariously—mostly when they watch television commercials or get high. Which means, by any definition I can relate to, they are not free at all.

This book takes you on my journey into the underclass. Also known as the persistently poor, the chronically poor, and, lately, the outerclass. Whatever we call them (when we bother to call them anything), they constitute a class whose very existence is appalling because it is not supposed to exist in America. Yet the United Nations Development Programme reports that even Bangladesh has managed to immunize a greater percentage of its children against diphtheria than we have. The U.N. report was itself a kind of affliction for me, as it had been for the columnist Murray Kempton when he looked at the same figures: "A nation that we think of as hopeless struggles to make life a little better; and the nation that is the repository of our hopes indifferently watches it get worse for millions of our helpless own."

Meet our helpless own. Watch as what passes for their lives belies the myth of equal opportunity in America. My journey into the underclass, like all travels, was more about understanding than about seeing the sights. Yet it is the sights and smells, the images of perennial poorness, that I can't shake. The widow found with her legs frozen in her own urine after the heat was shut off, the family of six fighting with rats over rotten potatoes, the brother and sister arrested after killing a traveling businessman for his pocket change. I tell you about these people not to be sadistic, not to make you guilty in your complacency, not to present the smug machismo of the war correspondent filing a report from hell. I note these blighted lives out of the conviction—no, the fear—that where the underclass is concerned, what we don't know can destroy us as their reality is destroying them.

My journey left me with one dead certainty. This certainty was hard for me to learn and acknowledge, but it is what anyone in the underclass knows instinctively as a child. Wealth is not all that is inherited in America. So is poverty.

A person could always be born poor in America, as in any country, but we have now produced and devised means to maintain a poverty caste, an inherent underclass who are locked into their station and out of any other by virtually every institution they come in contact with. Even after my journey among them, it is not easy for me to count how many times a day, in how many ways, in how many efforts to do anything legal, these Americans are locked out. Forget, for a moment, about knowing how to read, or possessing basic skills, or even having an address. What about finding a place to bathe or shave, an article of clothing that fits and isn't torn, a meal that doesn't leave you hungry, so that when you try to get work you don't stink with something beyond sweat that we in the employing classes may recognize as hopelessness? What about having faith in nothing but your own inadequacy? These are the persistently poor. Their horizon has shriveled to a smashed window, a hungry baby's wail, a pebble of crack.

I hadn't gone far in my preparations, trying to make sense of the tangle between deprivation and public policy, when I realized that at no time in this century have the poor been our enemies to the extent they are now. It is not merely that we turn our backs to the very poor while we debate the most sanitary way of disposing of them and simultaneously spending less money on welfare. The enmity is personal. It's "us" against "them". We dread "them" as we walk to our cars, step over a body in the subway, hurry away from the cash machine. We build, one by one, on each other's enmity until it has become national. Only the elderly can remember when the poor were even poorer, when they were more numerous, when the Great Depression leveled the working class. But then the poor were so many of "us." Now the poor, specifically the persistently neglected poor whom I came to know best, are declaratively, definitively "them." I shun them, I fear them, and, as with any enemy, I cancel them out of my thinking whenever possible.

The consequence of so many with so little is a new cold war spreading over the land. Like the old cold war, there is always the menace that it can become hot, violent, deadly. And there are the brush fires we see on television and read about daily, little conflagrations that remind us of what lurks in the shadows. We in the many middle classes feel ourselves victimized by addicts, paupers, beggars, muggers. For us, the poor have replaced the Communists as our principal enemies. Even during the old cold war, much of the hysteria against Reds and presumed Reds was connected to a fear of the poor overthrowing the rich. With few communist states on the global horizon, with almost no Left on the domestic front, the poor have become our targets. The war on poverty of the '60s has become the war against the poor of the '90s.

And how do the poor see you and me, especially the most wretched of the poor who have never known either plenty or its prospect? I have found that these most damaged and undefended of our countrymen look at the rest of the United States, particularly the official United States, as an armed force attacking them. For them the cold war is already hot. "Every day I wake up, don't matter if it's in a shelter or under some bridge," a woman in Santa Monica told me, her in cut and her straw hair matted but her eyes clear and doleful, "and it's like this cavalry's charging down on me, going to hoof me under good." Santa Monica, where I was born, was a town I'd always thought of as one of California's gentlest, its people mirrored in its ocean: pacific. Yet there and everywhere, members of the underclass have used terms from combat to describe the rest of America to me. The marines are coming to get them; they will be strafed; heavy artillery is being brought up against them; the infantry is advancing; the mayor called in an air strike on them when he closed the downtown shelter.

I came to the underclass with questions. Who are they? Quite beyond my own—after all, harmless—mugging, why do I perceive this class that is scarcely more than litter on our landscape as a threat? What made them? Why should we care? If we do bother about them at all, what can be done?

Other guidebooks tell you how to capture the essence of your visit in an image. See the Iglesia di Santa Vittoria just after first light, if you can get the sexton to open the portals for you when the sun streams through the stained glass windows to give the human figures their most glorious incarnation. Here, with the underclass, you can use any moment for its reflection on the damnation of those you visit. See the lunch line outside the Salvation Army in Bangor, Maine, start to form shortly after 10:00 a.m. on a February morning, all dripping noses and shuffling feet and holes at the elbows, when the winter seems interminable, the berry-packing jobs that temporarily sustain the vagrant or migrant infinitely far in both the past and the future.

The difficulty of doing anything about inherited poverty is introduced by our difficulty in understanding it, in accepting it into our psyches. "Inherited poverty" seems a contradiction in American terms, a violation of our destiny. If you come from a middle-class background, a background even of struggle and occasional unemployment, you come from a background underpinned and legislated by hope. That makes a crime of despair, which becomes almost as hard for us to understand, or discuss intelligently, as sex was for the Victorians.

Much of the underclass is still invisible, holed up in shelters, manacled to ghettos, hidden in rural hollows. But many of the underclass, or persistently poor, unlike the terrified millions staring into the abyss of poverty but still above it, are in your face. The man who lives on the subway steps, the two women who huddle together in the doorway of the dry cleaner's, the family that sleeps in the park just outside your children's playground. How often can you ride a subway, walk on a crowded street, leave a theater late at night, use a bathroom in a public park, or even walk in that same park after sundown, without being approached by someone who asks for and sometimes demands the money you worked for and he did not? You feel assaulted, first by the panhandler, next by guilt, finally by rage.

Confidently assuming the rightability of wrongs, I have been a liberal or beyond all my life. But as far as the underclass is concerned, the unreached underclass, what good has that done? How can it be that in this country, the country I have an abiding though open-eyed faith in, a whole class of people can be consigned to a socioeconomic graveyard? Is it their fault? Is it our fault?

For now, I will make the simple assertion that we have not only abandoned but also condemned the least able, the least educated, the least successful among us. Can the society call itself great that does not assure to its disadvantaged food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and a chance to work? The poor are a judgment and a prophecy; they accurately if embarrassingly describe our concerns, define our goals, highlight the signature on our social contract.

The underclass-"Under" what? Under the rest of us, of course-challenges everyone, dares us, to care. By the nervous standards of middle-class morality, a promiscuous phrase granting its favors as readily to satire as self-congratulation, the underclass undermines. Its members are said to wander around aimlessly, they watch acres of TV, they drop babies here and there like bottle caps, they do an astonishing amount of drugs, and their thirst is reputedly unquenchable.

When I became interested in exploring the depths of this underworld, I realized how far away I was from understanding real poverty. For this subject, this inquiry, this search, I have a background that looks, at first, both unsuitable and unsympathetic. Growing up, I was a child of some privilege. At one house we had a pool, at another a tennis court. Yet it was shaky privilege.

My father was a screenwriter, a calling that has notable downs to accompany its occasional ups. In the totem pole of who was invited where when I was growing up, screenwriting was above stuntman, below associate producer. A screenwriter's job possibilities were uncertain, and screenwriters themselves never mattered much in the Hollywood hierarchy of my childhood, the '40s and '50s. They liked to say of their work, citing the Bible, that in the beginning was the word. This was not strictly true, however, even though a script clearly preceded the shooting of a film. For the motion picture industry, in the beginning was the meeting. Was and is. Screenwriters were seldom even present then at the initial meeting, and if they were, they certainly never ran it. Then, too, an important part of the job description was toadying. "What a fabulous idea, Harry, it'll be delicious right after the seduction at the start of the third act." I know my father didn't like that part of his work, and he did like to say he wasn't good at it, but people were fond of him and sought his scripts, and as I mentioned, he did well enough for me to have been a child of some privilege.

Still, my own history of defining "poor" made me think I knew something about the poor, about how they are like everyone else, about how they are different. In my background were the Okies, the Axis, the pickers, and HUAC. They all taught me something and left me ignorant.

As a boy on a California ranch, I went to school with children known to everyone, including themselves, as Okies and Arkies, their families having come west out of the Dustbowl. They wore no shoes to school even in winter, even when it was cold enough for their fathers to be lighting smudgepots in the orange groves every night. Though I knew our family had more and they had less, I played with them as equals and don't recall feeling sorry for them until my parents began to give them my old clothing. Tow-headed riffraff, my grandfather called my playmates. Noses always running.

Their families had come to California to pick not only oranges but grapes, lemons, and cherries. The cherries were grown by the few Japanese families who prospered in San Bernardino County before World War II, which, when it came, removed them from their cherry orchards. I knew the four Japanese children at our school, first as friends, then as enemies. Then they disappeared. We were taught this was unjust, but we were glad they were gone. Their fields lay uncultivated, they were gone, and we heard they were in camps behind barbed wire. They must be the new poor.

The Okies and Arkies were the old poor, and they were the poor poor. These children were a little wild, ungovernable, but also, I reflect now, somewhat resigned even at 9 and 10. It was the wildness, of course, that I liked. The doctor's son, the police chief's son, and I talked about what we might be when we grew up. The sons of pickers, I now recall though I ignored it then, talked only about the weekend and the fort we'd build and the enemy planes we'd pretend to shoot down, not about the adult future. The daughters of pickers, no bones about it, were studying washing and ironing. Yet if you had asked me I'd have said that my classmates' opportunities were equal—almost—to mine. Silly boy. What a gulf there was between me and these children I played with every day in school. I saw something real in them but also couldn't see it. I suppose it would have been too painful for me to understand how many ways they were not getting the chances I was. Perhaps we have to project an equality of opportunity onto the poor in order not to be horrified at precisely how deprived of opportunity they are.

While we lived on the ranch the only Latino or Hispanic—but we called them Mexicans then, as they called themselves—I knew was from Alta Loma and managed a lemon grove for my father, who was a gentleman rancher sort of and a well-paid screenwriter really. The Mexican's name was, of course, jesus. He was not poor. He looked down on the Okies and refused to hire them, preferring his compatriots, who were so poor they often wore rags. We saw the Mexicans as poor—and scary—because they were foreigners. I thought many of them looked diseased, and whatever they had I didn't want to be near it. The native born fearing and misunderstanding the immigrants: I repeated that ancient pattern with the Mexicans.

Later, our lemons were picked by German prisoners of war, who also looked poor because they were the enemy brought low, and we exulted. I decided that the enemies of the United States, first the Japanese and now the Germans, the major Axis powers, would become poor because they were enemies. (Today the underclass are our enemies because they are poor.) I have never seen anything so shiny as the gold front tooth of jesus as he smiled while wreaking vengeance on the Germans by ordering them to pick faster. "Andale! Andale!"

But "poor" was always relative because I didn't—couldn't, really—know what poverty consists of for those who endure it dally. I did know, though, that "poor" was to be feared and avoided. By the time I was a teenager we had moved back to where the motion picture business actually was, and "poor" meant kids whose fathers were chased by HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC slid into place as the villain of my teenage years, replacing the vanquished Axis who had been the villain of my boyhood. A variety of organizations calling themselves patriotic, led by HUAC, promoted a movie business blacklist for anyone suspected of communist sympathies. (I didn't know then that people in many other occupations were also targeted.) That was Beverly Hills in the '50s. We felt sorry for them, the children of the blacklistees, and superior to them. They seemed to become poor in a hurry, some of them disappearing to Mexico almost as fast as the Japanese had disappeared to camps a decade earlier. "Poor," as I said, was relative, but someone who lost a swimming pool seemed as deserving of sympathy in my adolescence as someone with no shoes had in my childhood.

The blacklist was an occupational hazard of the movie business—"like venereal disease for the other kind of whore," a self-despising screenwriter told my father—and it had nothing to do with how good an American or screenwriter you thought you were. When my own father eventually got blacklisted, my family shifted gears. Our attitude remained the same toward those we regarded as poor, only now we aimed the attitude in the direction of home. We felt sorry for ourselves, and we also felt superior to ourselves. During that time we were alienated from the rich, the families whose breadwinners still drew $5,000 a week—both more and less—as well as from the truly needy, which we were not and whom we never dared identify with anyway.

But of course we weren't really poor, we just felt that way compared with how we had felt before. Frozen peas and a Pontiac instead of fresh artichokes and a Chrysler. The buckles on our tightened belts were no longer silver but still brass. When I went to college, my parents were able to manage the tuition at Harvard. Poor people underwent still another transition for me, becoming the Irish. I noblessly tutored two of them, little Bobby and even littler Caroline, in the projects, as their matchbox brick housing was called. Even while I was doing a reasonably nice thing, my alienation from the poor was perfecting itself: I was trying to help them; therefore, they couldn't be like me because look how much they needed my help.

One Saturday I invited Bobby to visit my roommates and me, probably less an exercise in generosity than vanity. He didn't know what to say, we didn't know what to do with him, and nervousness soon gave way on both sides to boredom. The other poor people I knew in Cambridge, or rather never took the trouble to know, were called "biddies." They cleaned our rooms and, yes, made our beds. Five dollars at Christmas: that was as much attention as my biddy, Mrs. Ahearn, ever received from me. She could have been Bobby's or Caroline's grandmother; her dyed red hair had grown out so much the gray washed up under the red like a tide that wouldn't be stopped.

After I grew up, for 30 years in New York the very poor meant the people I was scared of, the people who threaten people like me. They were threatening not because they wanted our jobs or competed in any way that was meaningful to either us or them, but only because they threatened us physically.

When we walked down the street they at least cadged and at most mugged us. As the '80s wore on, you couldn't walk the few blocks from the subway stop to our apartment without fielding at least six requests for change. When they were young, my older sons were routinely relieved of their bus passes at knifepoint, sometimes on West 86th Street, or Amsterdam Avenue, once on Park Avenue at 79th Street, where my then-16-year-old was beaten up because he did not have a bus pass. It had already been stolen by somebody else. Before we moved uptown we lived in Greenwich Village, where our apartment was burglarized three times in six years. My younger children, born in the '80s, learned how to step deftly over the homeless, politely pretending not to notice, on their way to school or a play date. When my wife and I were finally mugged, we were undeneath our own apartment awning. I couldn't see anything but the .45 as I made the jittery grope for my wallet.

I never blamed New York. We had already decided to move to Maine before the sidewalk robbery. I loved New York the whole time I lived there. The mugging was because of the poor, not the city. It's satisfying to think I tend to support progressive social programs because I am generous and want to help those who have less than 1. But who am I to think I'm so generous? I'm not in fact so generous. As I try to understand my feelings and motives toward the poor, I'm forced to see that part of me hates them. I owe a good deal of my support for "progressive" poverty solutions to that hatred. I hate them so much I want to do away with them. Besides, we all suspect that what they have is catching.

Table of Contents


1 · Is This Trip Necessary?,
2 · Packing for the Journey,
3 · Babies and Children: Born There,
4 · Teenagers: Living in the Well,
5 · Working Hard, Hardly Working,
6 · Parents: Building the New Generation,
7 · Old and Poor: Where You Are Is Where You Stay,
8 · Journey's End,

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