Monday, July 9, 2007

Criminal of Poverty

I’d wanted to meet Lisa Gray-Garcia for a long time. The San Francisco anti-poverty activist came recommended as a friend of a friend and is the founder of Poor, an occasional magazine produced by Bay Area “poverty scholars” that puts their experience into words.

My chance came when “Tiny” was in town last month to read from Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America. She was sitting alone at the Elliott Bay Café when I arrived and we had a chance to connect. We could be friends.

She’s the real thing. Fiery and authentic. A great writer. An electrifying speaker. She is a poet and a revolutionary, a mother and a leader, an author and an activist. There’s a lot to admire.

Her beautifully written memoir should be cut into digestible pieces and force-fed to every victim-blaming poverty bureaucrat who ever looked down when they should have been looking across.

For the rest of us, a more leisurely read will do. I tore through the thing in a day, mesmerized.

She begins with her mother and her mother’s mother and the abandonment, poverty, and vulnerability they experienced in their own survivor’s tales. Her mother, Dee, a vivacious beauty who was sometimes able to hide the pain of her origins, briefly rose into the middle-class as a doctor’s wife. When the relationship soured, she was dumped back into poverty with a four year-old along for the ride. She and little Lisa became each other’s everything.

This is where the story behind the story becomes as intriguing, at least for me, as the story itself. Lisa and her mother (Tiny was chosen as a street name to rhyme with Dee) become joined at the hip and heart as a single, survival-oriented, unit. While there are good years and bad years, the bad years eventually become more of an unbroken line, and Tiny becomes her mother’s confidant and caretaker.

At six, she is working the phones in search of resources. By twelve, she knows how to put on a suit and pose as a model renter who is twice her age. School was always off and on, but after sixth grade, there was just no more time. Survival and taking care of mom trump all else. As Tiny moves into her teens, she and her mother become street artists and peddlers, staying half a step ahead of the landlord. They are reduced to living in their car, and eventually, Tiny is jailed as a poverty criminal.

There is a striking absence of bitterness over the missed childhood and lack of normal teen relationships. Instead, there is only fierce mother/daughter love, which survives in all of its complicated intensity all the way through Tiny’s twenties to her mother’s death.

What to most people would look like completely dysfunctional co-dependence is defended as placing family relationships ahead of selfish individualism. To Tiny, the equation is simple. Her mother needed her, and she was there for her. End of story.

The last several chapters describe the Poor Magazine years, after Tiny and Dee found their voices and were able to help others articulate and publish their experiences. She describes a rollercoaster of foundation funding received and withdrawn and stability won and lost. The twelve year-old who learned how to show landlords what they wanted to see becomes the twenty-something nonprofit grant writer and poor people’s leader. As a reader, one gets the sense that this part of the story is incomplete.

This is a haunting read — equal parts love story and poverty memoir — that gets at the realities of class in America. Poverty and law enforcement are the rock and the hard place, and the poor are in the middle, getting squeezed off of the streets and into the jails. If you don’t understand this, you understand nothing. This book will help you to understand.

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