Downturn Dialogue

In recent conversations, I have commiserated over furloughs, a slow real estate market, loss in investments, hiring freezes, and pay cuts. Since the words recession and depression have become a part of our everyday parlance, many of my colleagues, friends, and I have been talking as if we were victims of this recent economic downturn.

This past week, I began to wonder what we are really talking about? Almost everyone I know, except for some of the people who stand in the bus shelters I frequent, own or rent the roof over his or her head and will not go to bed hungry tonight.  

So, why are the people with financial means commiserating over the recession? I’m growing more and more concerned about these conversations because I get so caught up in them. I act like a pathetic victim when, truth be told,  more than my basic needs are met.

The endless tips about the best $5 lunches in town and how to protect your portfolio are distracting many of us from helping people whose need is real.  Even if I blow all of our family’s savings in the coming months, we have family who love us and would help us out. If all else failed, I have kept a guestbook for fifteen years. We could visit or solicit the list.

In an unrelated conversation, one of my professors suggested I read Down and Out In Paris and London, an account by George Orwell, about his work in the kitchens of Paris and the streets of London. Over and over again, Orwell was penniless and had to hustle to figure out where to sleep and eat.  He always knew exactly what being broke meant. He knew what it was like to hit bottom and this knowledge made the anxiety go away, he said. 

George Orwell has helped me to understand that the conversations I have been having are not really about means or money. They are role play or an opportunity to talk poor or brag about being thrifty. For an example of the lure of  this talk, read up on Hodding Carter’s latest venture

The reality is I know where I am sleeping tonight and, if it rains, I will be dry. Conversations about becoming down and out in Chapel Hill are over.

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One response to “Downturn Dialogue

  1. peter lynch

    there are four vacant mill homes and three less substantial residences, all owned by one couple, on the property adjacent to the garden apartment complex-cum mill house where i live.

    one of the small places on the property next door, a log cabin of sorts, has a very occasional occupant, a rather threatening-looking man who uses the place while he does repair work on the larger houses. another, a very small cottage, has an even more occasional tenant. she seemed frightened of the one time i saw her; i’ve heard her perhaps two other times in almost eighteen months. the rest have remained unoccupied since the last regular tenant in the largest house received an eviction notice for subletting illegally while unable to work during the final stages of her pregnancy and staying with her boyfriend.

    the owners, an unfriendly couple who come by from time to time to mow the grass and do other errands, have their reasons for leaving the houses largely unoccupied. a developer had an option to build an upscale apartment complex on these two properties. that plan has apparently fallen through–rumor has it the developer can’t afford the project. so, the owners of all those mill houses have started, oh so unbelievably slowly, to take care of the property again. they show some signs of renting one of the houses. a “for rent” sign has perched forlornly and teetered closer and closer to the ground the last few months. nothing seems to happen.

    enter a rather spectral homeless woman, diane keaton on a hunger strike, clearly unwashed for weeks and in only feeble touch with reality. or rather exit, as i saw her first emerging from the rear of the house now for rent a couple of weeks ago, then again from the back door last week during a rainstorm. she sputtered on about renting the place, and how one of the small places would do just beautifully for a friend of hers. i saw her last saturday, as the owners mowed the lawn, and almost didn’t recognize her. she had shed her insulated overcoat, had apparently bathed, and had commandeered a grocery cart to carry a few bags of her belongings. she had taken on a kind of mad dignity.

    out of an access of sympathy that struck me as sheer lunacy as soon as i’d said it, i pointed out to her the lawn-mowing landlords. she seemed stunned. speechless, i was no longer “the man who walks his dog” of our second encounter. i obviously disturbed her. she didn’t know how to respond to someone taking her ravings about renting a place seriously.

    i didn’t watch her after my dog and i turned into our driveway. i didn’t need to watch. i had a roof to go home to, fifty yards up the hill. she had an illusion which she clearly felt impelled to flee. and the couple mowing the lawn sits on a number of places where people could live–but not homeless people, only people moving from some other roof somewhere else.

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