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Family Background and the Gray Period - Part 2

Aspects of Poverty

When I think of the decade in my life after I had polio – from the age of one to eleven – I usually picture scenes and events in a grayish tint – like an old-fashioned photograph, except that instead of the warmer, predominantly brown, sepia tones of aging photos, the images I conjure up have a drab, gloomy-gray cast to them, as if they took place within a pall of thin dark fog or behind a sheer gray veil. My recollection of the years of this “gray period” as dull and dreary is to a large extent colored by my family’s poverty during this period. We certainly were not among the poorest people in America or even in our city of Evansville, but, as the saying goes, “we could see it from there.” And as writer James Baldwin later observed, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”[1]

Aspects of Poverty – Food

My brother Jack, my sister Sherry, and I all knew the experience of going to bed hungry, or of making a meal of “mayonnaise-bread,” or of scouring the alleys and trash cans to scavenge empty beer and soft-drink bottles in the hope that we could get enough bottle-deposit refunds to buy some food. The latter practice, foraging for useful items in people’s refuse, left me with an ongoing scrounging impulse, that I have had to suppress later in life, which causes me to want to check out people’s trash as I drive or walk by on the chance that I might see something worth salvaging. Sometimes, when we were still quite young, we kids were sent to the small corner grocery store on the next block in the hope that Mr. and Mrs. Wessel, the kindly couple who owned the store, would take mercy on us and let us get some food products “on the tab.” A big crimp in our meals occurred when G&M Meats, the store from which my parents routinely bought meat on credit, finally said “enough is enough” and refused to extend any more credit to them until they totally paid off their sizeable outstanding debt balance.

We got occasional gifts of food from our grandparents, especially when, every once in a while, Grandpa Merrick showed up at our house with special treats of carry-out orders of fried shrimp, oysters, or knockwursts and bratwursts; or even more exotic things like pickled pigs’ feet, or chicken gizzards, hearts, and livers, some of which, despite our meager food supplies, we kids turned up our noses at. I suspect, but do not know, that our grandparents may have sometimes given Mom and Dad money for food, but I am certain it was far from enough.

A major reason that we escaped serious undernourishment or prolonged hunger was that we were recipients of the U.S. government’s “surplus foods” program. Under this program, eligible poor folks could receive free food items that farmers had produced too much of. With an exaggerated and, I would say in retrospect, misguided, sense of pride, our parents insisted stridently that they would never “go on welfare,” which presumably would have included the food stamps of subsequent years, but they did accept the giveaway groceries, probably through the rationalization that the program was a help to someone else, i.e., farmers. Every month or so, a big box of food was delivered to our house. It routinely included cheese, butter, flour, beans, powdered milk, and lard; and sometimes rice, potatoes, and apples.

I particularly recall what came to be called “government cheese,” which was actually a processed cheese product containing a blend of different cheeses and other ingredients (such as emulsifiers, salt, colorings, and whey). Slightly soft and pliable, with a color somewhere between yellow and orange – not unlike the hue of what we call “American cheese,” or of Velveeta "Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product,” to both of which it is akin – it was delivered in large wrapped bricks weighing 5 pounds or so. Although I have known people to describe government cheese as a nasty, hard block of imitation cheese whose ingredients were undeterminable, disgusting, and indigestible, I actually have fond memories of surplus food cheese, which did very well in macaroni and cheese; or, cut in slices, melted in a grilled cheese sandwich or on top of a burger; or served uncooked on a sandwich with bologna or ham whenever we had such meats available. When we did not have other ingredients and accompaniments, the cheese was even OK eaten in slices or chunks by itself. I feel just a bit sorry (a tiny bit) for those kids who did not get to enjoy government surplus cheese.

Not at all so positive are my recollections of the powdered milk that came in the surplus food deliveries. Our parents, quite understandably, wanted their growing children to have the nutritional advantages of drinking milk. To avoid losses from spoilage, the government obtained dehydrated extra milk from dairy farms in a powdered form that could be stored and kept much longer. The suggestion that when the dried milk crystals were restored to liquid form by mixing them with water they would have the flavor and consistency of milk was, however, not just overblown but patently untrue. I have always liked milk, but it was only with a shudder and a grimace that I could force the strange-tasting reconstituted milk into my unwelcoming mouth and down my throat. Nor were my siblings any more receptive to the powdered milk. Mom had more luck in using the powdered milk in cooking, but I am sure that more of the hated powder went unused than any of the other surplus foodstuffs we received, most of which we consumed eagerly and swiftly.

On the whole, the products we received from the government surplus food program were pretty much a life-saver for our family. It was a program that helped needy families while addressing the problem of overproduction of certain agricultural products and benefiting farmers by maintaining crop and other farm product prices. When I hear debates about food stamps and other economic safety net programs, I recall the critical significance of the surplus food program to my family. One other lasting effect in my life of the period when food was lacking or in short supply has been a tendency to eat up whatever food is available. Some parents try to get their children to eat enough by encouraging them to join the “Clean Plate Club.” For some of us who have had periods of insufficient food, we learned to eat all of what there is, on the theory that there may not be enough next time. Accordingly, we became pretty much charter members of the Clean Plate Club, and had to try to unlearn that tendency later in life when food is available to us in more plentiful quantities and we need to avoid overindulgence. Concern about having enough food for the next meal was certainly an important worry of my young years.

Aspects of Poverty – Shelter

In regard to another necessity – shelter – Mom sometimes called our rented apartment on North Heidelbach Street a “two-room shack.” It was not literally a shack but the back apartment in a modest house that had been converted into three tiny units for rental. The house was located in one of the poorer areas in the central part of Evansville, not exactly a slum but hardly a middle class neighborhood. In addition to a small bathroom with a toilet and bathtub, the entire living space in our unit was two rooms: a medium-sized kitchen and a bedroom. The latter contained my parents’ double bed and a sleep sofa. Jack and I slept at one end of the fold-out couch, and poor Sherry had to sleep at the other end.

The heat in our “house” came from an old gas stove, with a long metal vent-pipe that served as a chimney, augmented on the coldest winter days by turning on the oven in the kitchen and leaving the oven door open to let the heat spread. The gas stove in the bedroom scared the bejeezers out of me, largely because of the pungent smell of gas it always gave off. I worried about it a lot, particularly at night, when, in bed a few feet from the stove, I would lie awake tormented by the thought that a gas leak would kill us all during the night; or that it would explode in a ball of fire; or that continued breathing-in of the gas fumes would eventually make us sick, stunt our growth, sap our health, and cut our lives short. My fears of the stove were taken to new heights one winter when it had been on continuously all day and we looked up to see that the entire metal chimney pipe – from the top of the stove to the metal plate covering the hole where it passed through the wall – was glowing bright red, truly “red hot.” The sight was extraordinary and weirdly beautiful, but also, to me, very frightening. It added to the unpredictability and danger I associated with the stove.

As it turned out, the gas stove never did explode and burn down the house, kill any of us by gas poisoning during the night, or, as far as we can tell many decades later, have any serious health ramifications. At the time, however, the fears I had were very real and alarming to me and I am not certain, even today, that they were unfounded. Whether they were or not, I, as a young boy, and my family, with parents who were young and struggling themselves, did not have any real choice but to endure the living conditions in the only dwelling they could afford.

With the five of us living together in two rooms, privacy was nearly impossible. We had to learn to share the limited space and try to find ways of getting dressed, changing clothes, and using the bathroom quickly and discreetly; keeping any other activity or goings on private was almost out of the question. The general household overcrowding was exacerbated by the fact that the two rooms that comprised it were connected by a broad doorway without any door. This meant that the two rooms were in some ways just one room, not unlike the open architectural approach often considered stylish today. If living in two rooms was difficult, living in a dwelling in which the only interior door was to the bathroom made things even more intolerable. Fortunately, my siblings and I had not reached puberty while we lived in the house. It is hard for me to imagine how Mom and Dad ever had sex in those close quarters, although, looking back now, getting the kids out of the house by sending us to dirt-cheap, Saturday-morning double features at the Woodlawn Movie Theater probably played a major role.

Our parents, in their twenties during the time we lived in the apartment, occasionally invited friends over for drinks and card-playing, after we kids had gone to bed. To block the light coming into the bedroom from the kitchen where they were carousing and socializing, they hung dish towels from the top of the door frame. While this presumably made Mom and Dad feel better about partying in the tiny unit (if having drinks and playing cards constitute “partying”), it was little consolation to the three of us who were trying to go to sleep, because the dish towels were neither long enough nor thick enough to keep much of the light from the bright overhead light in the kitchen from flooding into the bedroom, and certainly were no effective barrier to the noise (that only increased with the consumption of alcohol) and the cigarette smoke that continually wafted into our sleeping area and mixed with the gas fumes about which I was already fretting. Some years later, Julie Andrews would sing, in the song “I Have Confidence” in the Sound of Music, that “[s]trength doesn't lie in wealth. Strength lies in nights of peaceful slumbers.” In the movie, she sang the song on her way from her cloistered convent to encounter, for the first time, the extravagantly opulent Von Trapp family mansion with its abundant (Von?) trappings and trimmings of affluence. What the song does not acknowledge is the difficulty people have in getting peaceful slumber when they are hungry, worried, afraid, and otherwise far-from-peaceful, due to problems directly related to not having enough money and the necessities and comforts that money makes possible.

Other Effects of Poverty

In addition to scarcity of food and substandard, overcrowded housing, our financial neediness was manifested in all sorts of other major or minor ways. Unlike most of our neighbors, relatives, and school classmates’ families, my family could not afford a telephone. The lack of a phone led to all sorts of inconveniences and awkward instances of phone messages left with neighbors (sometimes amiable and sometimes resentful), or pleas to use their phones to make calls when we did not have sufficient money (a nickel until 1952, a dime thereafter) to use pay phones; and to embarrassing admissions, in the contexts of filling out forms, schoolmates asking for a phone number, or whatever, that we simply did not have a phone. Actually, apart from a couple of cheap electric clocks and a big cabinet radio given to us by Grandma (“Dink”) and Grandpa (George) Merrick – my mother’s parents – for much of this period there were no electric appliances in our house. At no time in their lives did my parents ever have a dishwasher or an automatic clothes washer or a dryer.

Health and dental care cost money, so we had as little as we could get by with. I do not remember going to the dentist until I was eleven or twelve years old. Every so often during those years, but certainly not on a daily basis, Mom got us kids to brush our teeth, sometimes with baking soda if we did not have any toothpaste. I never even heard of flossing until I went to college. The result of such dental neglect was that I eventually had a mouth full of cavities that had to be dealt with later in my life – fillings, extractions, and root canals. I also had undersized, oddly yellowed bottom front teeth that one dentist later suggested might have been the result of my having had polio, although I seriously doubt it. I also had crooked, overcrowded teeth that could have benefited from orthodontia in my youth, but that I shamefully lived with until I finally got braces when I was nearly fifty years old.

The question of going to the doctor when we were sick was sometimes a source of conflict between Dad and Mom (who was in the house with the kids and did all the caretaking during illnesses), but his argument that “WE CAN’T AFFORD IT!” most often prevailed. In addition to normal childhood ailments, I was plagued by frequent, very painful ear infections. Even though my Dad was incredibly stern about the need for us to go to school unless we were direly ill, during one school year, I was absent for more than 30 days, principally due to bad earaches. Jack and Sherry had similar ailments, although maybe a bit less frequently. Sometimes, if we seemed sick enough and my parents could scrape up the money, we did go to the doctor. The doctor we went to was chosen, however, in part because his fees were low, and I guess we got what we were able to pay for, because, as far as I remember from my young child’s perspective, he was neither a particularly good nor a particularly kindhearted physician. But at least his medicine usually produced some relief in the next few days. More horrible were the ear infections when we were not taken to the doctor. The pressure would build up in the ear of whichever of us kids had the infection, and the excruciating pain seemed to penetrate the very center of your being. In an effort to do something to help her screaming kid or kids, Mom sometimes resorted to unorthodox treatments. One of them was to heat up table salt on the stove, put it in a pillow case, and hold it on the painful ear. Another was to blow warm cigarette smoke (???) into the affected ear. The warming effects of these techniques sometimes produced temporary pain reduction, or at least may have had a placebo effect and gave Mom the consolation of doing something that might help. In fact, heating of the ear canal possibly made matters worse by drawing the infection toward the eardrum. Sometimes, with or without Mom’s home remedies, the earache subsided after some agonizing hours. At other times, the infected eardrum would rupture, producing a sudden feeling of dramatic relief by allowing the built-up fluid to drain out of the ear. Unfortunately, each time an eardrum bursts, the perforation produces scar tissue that reduces acuity of hearing to some degree. In my later life, when a doctor looks in my ears, as part of routine physical examinations or a visit to an ear, nose, and throat specialist, she or he usually comments on the scar tissue on my eardrums – just one of the consequences of not having enough money (or any health insurance) to permit access to needed medical treatment.

Some memories resulting from my family’s impoverished circumstances are less objectively significant, but painful in a subjective, personal way. One example arose when I was in the third or fourth grade, and came home, all excited, with a trumpet. The band teacher had come to our classroom to recruit students for the school band; after he had me take a few practice blows on a trumpet mouthpiece, he pronounced me a potential trumpet prodigy. He handed me a shiny new trumpet and said that if we paid a modest fee for music lessons the trumpet would be mine as part of the deal. As my father had played trumpet in bands while in high school and I was quite interested in music, the band teacher’s hokey sales pitch had me fully sold on the idea. That evening, when I strutted in the house with my new horn, I heard a quick “Where did you get that?” from my father, followed by a stern reminder that we could not afford to pay for such things as music lessons. In the greater scheme of things, the incident was pretty trivial, yet to this day I still remember my shame and the sadness I felt when I had to return the precious trumpet and admit that we did not have money for such extravagances as music lessons. The feelings of shame and inferiority that I (we) felt from being poor were sometimes as distressing and perhaps equally or even more detrimental in the long run than the tangible results of our poverty. Years later, I came upon a scene in Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, the original version of that classic story, in which Pinocchio tells Gepetto that he needs an A-B-C book before he goes to school. Gepetto and Pinocchio then engage in the following interchange:

"To be sure! But how shall we get it?"

"That's easy. We'll go to a bookstore and buy it."

"And the money?"

"I have none."

"Neither have I," said the old man sadly.

The narrator then adds: “Pinocchio, although a happy boy always, became sad and downcast at these words. When poverty shows itself, even mischievous boys understand what it means.” Although I had not been a particularly mischievous boy, reading the scene made me remember the trumpet fiasco and how it underscored for me the sadness that comes when poverty shows itself and gets in the way of something we want or need.

Another example of the humiliation I felt about my family’s living situation that stands out in my memory involved an incident in which two of my school classmates, wandering around the neighborhood, happened upon our house, which they had never visited before, and found Jack and me playing in the yard. When they asked for a drink of water I, uncomfortably, went with them into the house. I saw both of them look around at the two rooms, and then was mortified to hear one of them ask “Where’s the rest of it?” I cannot describe how ashamed of our minuscule house I felt – how much I wanted to sink into a hole and never come out. I will, however, forever be grateful to the other boy, named Joey Elliot, for immediately shushing the other boy and whispering, “Don’t say that.” Joey gained my enduring admiration that day, but the incident reinforced my resolve never to invite any schoolmates to our home. During my childhood, I very often felt embarrassed and ashamed of our financial situation and the living conditions and constraints it entailed. Although we never discussed it directly, even among ourselves, and despite the fact that my family and I wanted to fly a banner of pride in the face of adversity, we were ashamed of where we lived, how we lived, and to some extent who we were. We believed fervently that we deserved better than what we had, deserved as much as most other folks, but we were greatly shamed by the reality of our poverty, and haunted by a suspicion that we somehow deserved it as a consequence of some kind of difference, some inferiority to other people. It hurt.

How poor is poor? Poverty is, after all, a relative thing. My family did not experience anything like the abject poverty that confronts millions of people in many third-world countries and in the worst slums that exist even in more developed nations, including the poorest Indian reservations and other pockets of scarcity and destitution in America. We had indoor plumbing and municipal sewers, electricity, clean running water piped in from the Ohio River, paved streets and sidewalks, decent schools, and fairly safe neighborhoods – things well beyond the grasp of multitudes of less-fortunate people. Our dwelling was shoddy, but at least we had a roof over our heads, and solid walls, and floors, and fuel for cooking and heating. We did not face imminent threats from malaria, dysentery, typhoid, “sleeping sickness,” and various other diseases that ravage many impoverished populations. Even in the worst periods financially, my parents, both of whom were heavy smokers, somehow found money for cigarettes and my father for his alcoholic beverages – a fact that troubles and perplexes me a great deal. My Dad even had a car (though he never had a new one in his life), pretty much a necessity in our society but beyond the wildest aspirations of many souls on the planet. And while we knew real hunger, no one in my family ever came close to starvation or went many consecutive days without eating anything at all.

But while our poverty was not extreme in a broader context, it was surely undeniable and substantial from the perspective of our community: we and everyone around us considered my family quite poor. And the broader perspective about the depths of poverty elsewhere in the world was not something we grasped at the time. I – we – felt strongly, clearly, and deeply that we were dirt poor.

From time to time, my mother used the phrase “poor white trash,” sometimes seemingly as a warning of what our family might become if we weren’t careful, and sometimes as a despairing lament of the condition we had already fallen into. Her despondent tone when she said it suggested that this was a horrendous condition or status, an appalling “bottom of the barrel.” I am not sure whether the word “white” in my mother’s expression was intended to indicate a racially pejorative assumption that being poor, white, and trashy was better than being poor and black, or that “poor white trash” were poor and trashy without even having the excuse of being black; either way, the racist implications are obvious. The implication was that we were perched precariously on the edge between decent folks and” trash,” and that it was not at all certain that we would not tumble over the edge.

Continue to Part 3: Parenting Skills


1 James Baldwin, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: a Letter from Harlem" in Esquire (July 1960); republished in Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961).