041: Love Your Neighbor
Jakob Guanzon's "Abundance," the social safety net, the power and limits of connection, the waste of guilt and self-abnegation, and why love will always conquer all + Doodle Dispatches
Earlier this week, I took a break from the day’s online meetings and stepped out into the screeching, mind-meltingly hot morning to go and buy some dish soap at my town’s rambling, quintessential, “if we don’t have it you don’t need it,” general store. I was inside for about ten minutes and when I came out, I had a coffee, duct tape, two squares of Lake Champlain chocolate, some pine nuts, the dish soap, two bags of potting soil and a bag of composted manure. The store had these things, and apparently I needed them.
As I was shoving this stuff into the steaming hot car, I noticed a young woman walking purposefully toward me—she seemed to looking for directions or to have some other, similar question. Within seconds, she had moved into the small space between me, my car and the car next to me. I was a bit startled.
“Could you give me a ride to the bus stop?” She was young but had the bearing of someone older who had responsibilities. She spoke from behind a black, sequined face mask—very pretty and girlish—and was wearing something that was bright pink, maybe a dress or a blouse. She had big, flashing brown eyes and a quiet voice. Her air was direct and confident, but respectful. Not apologetic, but not entitled. There was desperation somewhere, but it was coming from her circumstances: the urgency was pegged only to departure times and public transit. She was in a predicament, but she wasn’t giving off the energy of someone who was experiencing a crisis. She was solving a problem. She was determined.
I shoved in the last bag of soil and closed the trunk. “Do you mean up in Hanover? The Dartmouth Coach?”
“Yes, I just missed the last bus from here, and I’m going to miss the Coach to Boston if I have to walk.”
When you live in NYC, you get used to people coming up to you and asking you for money for bus fair. It happens a lot, 2 or 3 times a week if you commute to work on the MTA. Sometimes you have it on you and you just hand it over, knowing that’s probably not what it’s going for, but also knowing it’s not for you to decide that. Sometimes, you don’t. The decision is sometimes because of the vibe of the person asking and sometimes because of where you are in your day: are you tired, beset, in a hurry, feeling your own pain? Or do you have a moment for another person. It all happens in an instant.
When you live in rural America, you know you aren’t supposed to pick up strangers. My dad did it when I was a kid, but even then I knew that women weren’t supposed to do it.
But this was a young woman, it was mid-morning, in the middle of a public parking lot, with plenty of people around, she was certainly not going to kidnap me, nor was she likely to be a decoy for someone who was, I knew exactly the bus she was talking about, whatever was waiting for me at the work from home office was certainly not urgent . . .
All of this and innumerable other assessments ran through my mind in the .5 seconds it took me to turn from the trunk of my car to face her.
I popped open the locks on the doors. “Sure, absolutely, hop in.”
Her eyes above her mask filled up with tears. “You can take me?”
”Yes of course, let’s get you there.” I opened the passenger side door so she could throw her bag into the back and then walked around to the driver’s side, jumped in and started the engine. “I’m Courtney.”
She told me her name, but I can’t remember what it was. “Thank you,” she said, “this means a lot.” She paused for a second. “I am crying because I am relieved.” She spoke in unaccented English, but carefully and with very clear diction.
“What time’s the Coach?” I asked as we swung into the road. She told me. I nodded and tried to say reassuring words. I wanted to convey that I would get her to this bus connection because there would be no other one today, that I had done this trip many times, and it was not a big deal for me to drive her. I wanted to set her at her ease. I always want to set people at their ease.
It was a seven minute trip over a river and up a hill, and so I had just enough time to ask her if she was a student. She paused just a moment before answering in that same, slightly formal way.
“Courtney, I am from Pakistan. I’m older than some of the other students, I had to work a few years before I could come here. Dartmouth is amazing in its support, but it doesn’t cover everything, and I have no one else to help me.“ It seemed like something that she’d said many times, and it startled me for the second time in ten minutes to hear her use my name so formally.
She told me she’d been looking at a room for rent in the town next to mine. It was hard to find housing this year, she said, everything is more expensive now. I nodded again, signaling that I knew what she meant. The place she’d seen was 20 minutes away from campus and it was the right price, but she wasn’t sure . . . she could bicycle in the fall and spring but . . . she trailed off. We both knew the end of the unsaid sentence . . . but what about the five months of Upper Valley winter.
I pulled up to the bus stop and not a minute too soon. I offered to give her my number in case I heard of other housing options for her. She rummaged for a pen and handed it to me while she grabbed her bag.
“It’s a silver glitter pen—it’s a good sign for a good thing that you did,” she said. I looked up to see if she was smiling, but her face was still hidden behind the sequined mask. I handed the pen and the piece of paper back to her. And then she was gone, disappeared into the crowd of people pushing into the bus.
Jakub Guanzon’s book Abundance has been on my mind all summer in parallel with the slow-motion disaster that has been the ending and then the extending of eviction moratorium and the performative monster show that has been swirling around the Senate Reconciliation Bill. My mind keeps shorting out on the sound bites and the hot takes and the hating on Kyrsten Sinema, and I keep refocusing on what is really at stake: the rising numbers of people who can’t afford rent, or childcare, or who don’t have health insurance, or can’t take time off of work to care for a newborn, or a parent, or someone who has Covid, just to name a few of the holes in our social safety net. Euphemisms like “asset recycling” (privatization of utilities and infrastructure) are creeping into the mainstream. Old phrases such as “we have to live within our means” are now just coded hypocrisy for we can give tax breaks to corporations and limit liability for pharmaceutical companies, but we can’t afford to pay unemployment benefits because they cause people to be lazy and not want to work for Frito Lay even though Frito Lay now gives workers one whole day a week off. Even relatively straightforward phrases like “universal childcare” or “paid family leave” are starting to seem like empty catchphrases.
I keep coming back to Abundance, because among its many other merits it brings a simple, abundant, specificity to why we need a federally funded social net. It is the story of twenty-four hours in the life of a father and son who have been evicted from their home and are living in their car. It’s often described as “wrenching,” and it is, but it’s also a deeply affirming portrait of the love between fathers and sons.
Much of the strength of the book lies in how financial precarity colors the details of everyday objects. For example, the father, Henry, has a F-250 truck that is a particularly poignant leitmotif. We see it first as Henry and Junior’s home:
Bolted flush under the rear window is a lockable, diamond-plated utility case holding the few valuables that hadn’t been set outside on the front lawn during a last-minute, mid-December yard sale…A narrow bench seat is littered with Junior’s bedding, toys, school books, a plastic gallon jug for water, and Mom’s bese saka-printed shawl. Lying tipped on its side is the heating crown, a metal, nest-shaped contraption Henry made by crimping and molding a wire clothes hanger to support the dashboard cigarette burner under a can of food.
Later on in a flashback, we learn of the F-250’s provenance. Henry’s father, after insisting that his son follow Filipino tradition and hand over his first paycheck, surprises him the next day:
Parked next to Papa’s pickup was another F-250, apparently the same year but free of dents, dirt, and scratches, its steel bumper unbent and shining…alone in the truck cab, Henry explored the dashboard’s radio dial and heating knobs, the adjustable center console and its inner slots. The cigarette burner, ashtray, and side-door compartments. The emergency brake lever, the hood pop and then he clicked the driver’s seat back to caress the smooth gunmetal nylon of the rear bench seat.
The story of Henry, Junior, and the F-250 drives the narrative forward, while the flashbacks fill in the story of Henry and his own father, as well as Henry and Michelle—Junior’s mother. In the main plotline, it is Junior’s birthday and Henry has a job interview, so he has splurged on a $40 motel room as a treat for his son and so he can clean up his suit and be sure to get a night’s sleep. But it’s too little, too late. Henry doesn’t have enough money to cushion himself or his son against the big and little twists of fate that threaten their safety. They need hot water to bathe, but the cheap motel requires a credit card to hold a hot water deposit. They need food, but Henry also needs a tank of gas to get to his interview and there’s not enough money for both. Junior is peevish and unhappy and then spikes a fever. Henry finds enough coins to buy him the Happy Meal that Junior wants, only to watch in dismay over his own empty stomach as the child picks at the food and then throws it in the trash. Later, as Henry tries to get ibuprofen at a doctor’s office, his anxiety and rough clothing mean that his intentions are misconstrued as threatening.
The story would be grueling but for the deft placement of flashbacks. We experience the joy at the start of Henry’s relationship with Michelle, and ride shotgun on a couple of hilariously hairbrained money-making schemes. When Henry’s parents die of cancer within months of each other, and he learns that their medical debts have been transferred to him, the blow is cushioned with the consolation Henry feels at the birth of his son. There are panicked moments amidst the slowly escalating disaster that leads to the eviction, but what knits all of the stories together is Henry’s methodical, relentless, love-driven problem-solving. As the world closes in, he is laser-focused on doing whatever he has to do to take care of his son.
Guanzon’s telling offers a clear-eyed, uncomplicated, ground truth perspective on something that I think is getting obscured in the roiling cauldron of politics and culture commentary and reporting. I can barely aspire to the miracle of observation that is the core of this book: it is detached but deeply tender; detailed, but not prurient; it neither shouts and screams, nor does it look away.
Courtney, I am from Pakistan. I’m older than some of the other students, I had to work a few years before I could come here. When the girl from the parking lot said this to me, I quickly told her that I had been a nontraditional student, too, because I wanted her to feel that she didn’t have to explain being different than other Dartmouth students. I meant well, but it’s haunting me. There was something in it—not a big thing—but something—that dishonored her courage.
I do this kind of narrative code passing reflexively. I can channel teenage mom, student mom, evangelical Christian from a red state, military wife, divorced person, abuse survivor, mental health survivor, lapsed Christian, single mom, person whose house is on the wrong side of the tracks, person whose house is in a gentrifying neighborhood—whatever it is, I just get it out there. I do it mechanistically and mostly authentically, quickly choosing the phrases that will level the playing field between me and whomever I am speaking with.
It’s a well-intended impulse to connect (only connect, says Forster) and to make people feel at ease, and it’s been honed through years and years of teaching and writing and changing jobs and moving around, all of which require you to create interpersonal connections, sometimes out of thin air and almost always quickly.
All that said, I have never experienced anything like the poverty that is described in Abundance. As rough as it was in the early days of my marriage and motherhood, I was never at risk in any material way. Both my husband and I had—or were on our way to having—Ivy League degrees. The U.S. Army offered comprehensive health care without deductibles or copays. My father was paying my tuition. There was, actually housing on the base if something had happened—sure I would have had to postpone school, but I wouldn’t have been homeless. We were on our way somewhere better, and we had enough backstops to get us there.
Even the setbacks that were ahead of me, like the dot.com bust when we had to live with my parents for a few months and in a really horrible apartment for a few months after that, or the Great Recession when the school I was hired to teach at closed overnight because the donor had all of his money in sub-prime mortgages, were not catastrophic. Even the financial hit of my divorce, which felt pretty catastrophic at the time, is now firmly in the rear view after just a couple of years.
But as book readers we have another way to cultivate empathy and connection—the importance and magic of books is that they open the door to all kinds of empathy and love for humanity.
Good books portray experiences like that of Henry in Abundance with a dignity and multi-dimensionality that does not appear to be available anywhere else right now. Books like The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, which tells the stories of three, young, South Asian immigrants living in England, or Dominicana by Angie Cruz, which tells the story of a Dominican woman living in New York in the late 1960s, or Sally Rooney’s Normal People which portrays the vicissitudes of class conflict inside of desire in modern Ireland, or The Tulip Tree by Suzanne McCourt which tells the story of two Polish brothers whose lives are irrevocably altered by World War II. (There are, of course, so many others, and please, please, share the titles below!) In all of these books you will find portraits of people whose circumstances are beyond bearing and in all of these books you will also find depictions of family life, cultural traditions, obdurate hope, friendship, love, luck, and humor.
How much better is it to read this way, cultivating empathy and understanding on a human scale, than to read shallow, aggregate, non-fiction 'analyses’ that pose as culture critiques, but instead flatten the lush multiplicity of human experience into cardboard cutouts that create guilt and dogma, the kind of book that makes us powerless to do anything but excoriate each other in person and online?
When I read Abundance this summer, I was filled with sympathy for men who have been in prison for nonviolent crimes and how desperately the deck is stacked against them for the rest of their lives. I was able to more clearly see them as fathers and disappointed husbands and grieving sons, instead of felons. Now, I will be able to let this new understanding filter into my semi-conscious self and attitudes. Instead of laboring, self-consciously under the guilt of my entitlement and privilege, so that I do nothing but wring my hands and self-abednegate for fear of being wrong or offensive, I will let my imagination loose on the reframing of an old impulse or fear and maybe turn it into something more accurate and true.
So that the next time I’m in the parking lot of a general store and, instead of a woman wearing pink, a tall man in slightly dirty clothes comes up and asks me for a ride to catch a bus, I can run a .5 second safety differential in my head that includes the possibility that he’s a father whose car is broken down who needs to get to his son’s school or someone who’s been down on his luck and is dirty because he just started a job on a building site. And, if, in doing so, I can do for him what I could so easily do for a young Pakistani woman in a sequined mask, that is to say, react with an instinct to help, nothing fancy, nothing earth changing, just an assumption that he is doing his best, I will have done something useful.
If by filling my mind with better stories than are getting shoved at me all day online, I can more often find some small way to be of help, I will have, as they say, moved the needle.
Which is not enough, given the scope of this world’s needs, but is a start. And since love absolutely, one hundred percent, begets love, it’s a much better start than any other thing I can think of.
That’s it for this week. Next week will be the 2nd installment of “Socially Distanced,” which is our paywalled, serialized memoir series. Luckily, you can get the first two months for free if you subscribe by August 21st.
Here are some other things you can do: 👇🏻