The recent controversy about food stamps got me thinking about American hunger and what it means. Are there hungry Americans? In India and Africa you see people who are actually malnourished in the starvation mode and our hearts are torn by the sight, as they are torn when we see Dorothea Lange's famous photographs of starving American kids in the Dust Bowl years. In modern America, though, malnutrition seems to take the form of obesity, which does not have quite the same effect on our hearts. This is why Republican Congressmen can vote for literally taking the bread from the mouths of children without incurring much disgrace. No one in Congress really believes the children will go hungry. I am sure some of them think it'll do the kids good to drop a few pounds. It also does not help that many premier athletes arise from the ranks of the poor. It is absurd to imagine, seeing these splendid physiques, that food is a problem for the poor.
Anyway, food stamps have never had much to do with nutrition, one reason why they have always, until now, been attached to the farm bill. Farmers are subsidized for growing food, and the poor are subsidized to eat more of it. Neat. Also, we hate giving out money to people who do not work for it and giving it in the form of food makes our hard hearts easier, since they can't spend food stamps easily on drugs or liquor, which is what many people suppose the poor wish very much to do.
Is this really the case? How would I know? Like most middle-class Americans, I am nicely insulated from the poor by residential segregation. I live in an expensive house, as do my neighbors, and the poor live many streets away. From my car, I see them waiting at bus stops or trudging down the sidewalk. They wear the same kinds of clothes I wear---no rags or tatters---and they appear well-nourished or, as I say, over nourished.
But I do not wish to think of myself as a hard-hearted right-wing son-of-a-bitch, and so I bring up to memory a time in my life when I was actually starving and had not a penny to my name. This was back around 1970. I had been traveling with the Hog Farm, a tribe of hippies who toured the country in buses. For gas money, we worked rock concerts as clean-up crews and ate road kill and Dumpster leavings. I was the bus's cook and I processed this shit into edible meals: my road-kill dumplings were renowned for a time on the hippie circuit. During this cruise, we stopped at a progressive school in California, where I had the opportunity to use a telephone, at that era a large device that plugged into a wall and cost actual money to call long distance. My ex and my daughter were in Miami, and in the course of the conversation I discovered that all was not well there. I resolved to leave my vagrant existence and return to south Florida, to take care of my daughter.
A biker guy was going to San Francisco and I hitched a ride with him. It was a silent ride because I gathered he thought I was something of a pussy for wanting to look after my kid. He offered to take me to the rail yards where I might hop an eastbound freight, but I declined: a pussy for sure. He dropped me off at the bus station in San Francisco. My worldly possessions at the time consisted of the contents of a backpack and a hundred dollar bill, which I had kept secreted for many months in a plastic vial against emergencies, which this clearly was. The fare was $99. With the change, I bought a couple of rolls and a package of cheese.
I had never taken a Greyhound on a long-distance route before and was unclear as to the logistics of bus travel, The bus was billed as an express to Miami. I construed this to mean that the bus would go directly there, driving continuously with no stops along the way. I was not thinking clearly, as is now obvious, but I had spent a number of months in an extremely drug-rich environment and it never occurred to me to inquire how long the trip took. I assumed it would take about as long as it would for a couple of guys in a car driving flat out, or maybe I thought it would be like a plane trip--miraculously I would get on the bus and get off in Miami the next day.
In this delusion I happily boarded with my bag of bread and cheese. My first clue that I was gravely mistaken was that the first stop was Oakland, where we stayed for what seemed like a long time. By the time we got to San Bernardino my food was gone. By Albuquerque I had not eaten anything in 24 hours. By Ft. Worth, Texas, I was in full starvation mode, and was considering begging or shoplifting food. I did neither because I was terrified of being arrested in Texas and being put into prison for a year, as had recently happened to a friend of mine in a similar situation. It turns out you have to be more starving than I was to dare the law in that part of the country, plus my person and possessions were so permeated with dope particles that I probably would have been accused of being a droghero and sent up for decades. So I sat and ached, and starved. You get hallucinations when the blood sugar drops low enough and these were pretty interesting. You would think you'd hallucinate about food, but no. They were just regular hallucinations, blending into dreams, for of course, I slept as much as I could.
The trip took six days. Well, it's not a big deal to eat nothing for five and a half days. Many do worse voluntarily, but the key for me was that I was starving because I had no money and was too proud to beg and too scared to steal, like that guy in the Bible, and it was this that made it degrading. Yet though I was dead broke and starving, I was still not poor.
When we got to Miami, I shouldered my pack and began the five mile walk to where my ex lived in Coconut Grove. I was filthy, I stank, and I noticed that, for the first time in my life I shared the invisibility of the poor. Regular people looked at you and their eyes would flick away. A little fear in there too, which I found gratifying.
But still, I was not really poor. How did I know? Because along my route I passed a Holiday Inn. Now, the Gulf Oil Company had recently purchased Holiday Inn, which I knew because of the logo of the hotelier stuck on the back of my Gulf Oil gas card, which had sat uselessly in my empty wallet during the bus ride. It had never occurred to me to approach a motorist at one of the many stops and offer to buy his gas in exchange for cash. Again, starvation affects the higher functions.
I walked into the coffee shop of this Holiday Inn and showed them my card, asking if it were good for the purchase of food. "To go," I added when I saw how the cashier looked at me. It turned out the card was good as gold and I ordered the cheeseburger special and a large Coke.
Well, hunger is the best sauce. That was a wonderful cheeseburger. The Coke had the subtle complexity of a Chateau Lafitte. I later found I had dropped about ten pounds during the trip, surely the most effective diet I have ever been on. Another benefit was learning that starvation, even a little bit of it, makes you weak and crazy and stupid and not inclined to revolutionary activity. When I got a little food in me was when I started to get mad. So for rightists to starve the poor, as they seem to want to do, is excellent strategy, only they should make sure that they starve them to death.