This afternoon, as I parked my van at the entrance to my house/apartment, a woman pulled up and called me to her car. “Do you know where I can find the shelter around here?” she frantically asked. I thought a bit, and wasn’t sure what she was talking about. “The people from the Department told me it’s a brick house that looks like a factory? Is that it (pointing to a brick building across from my house)?” “I have no idea, but I bet that that women’s clinic over there can tell you.” “OK, thanks,” she said, hurrying off. I watched her pull away from the women’s clinic and take a left down State Street. Guess she was going to see if that building was the shelter she was looking for.
I live in a “real” part of Concord, and I’m grateful that I ended up here and not in a Holiday Inn. My roommates and neighborhood shows me a slice of New Hampshire, and probably the United States, that I wouldn’t see if I stayed in hotels. Then again, maybe not. If you haven’t read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, and if you don’t pay attention to the precarious working poor that live around you, then you might not appreciate where I’m living right now.
Here on 37 North State Street, right off of Main, I live with three true US citizens. We share our kitchen and bathroom, but I’m lucky enough to have my own half bath. My downstairs roomie, a recovering alcoholic, works second shift at a concrete fabrication plant. He runs the machine that makes the pipes and tubes for drains and such. The woman upstairs from me is on parole, takes an anger management class, works at Duncan Donuts, goes to church, bakes cookies to share, and dates a guy who’s still in jail. The other man I live with is on parole (my second day here, his parole officers rolled into our place checking on him) and I’m not too sure what he does for work. He left for a month and our landlord sublet his roomto a young guy who worked as a roofer.
Two Mainers that sealed roads that had cracks from the winter weather lived upstairs at the other side of the house. Their entrance faces the side of the house where I park my van and trailer. At first, I wasn’t sure who lived there because they always had people over. They seemed drunk all the time, and more than once I heard noise at the steps outside my window. The word “police” came up often on those steps.
I use the past tense here because our landlord/boarder just kicked them out. Today, I met two guys that worked with them. They told me that the “tools” got fired too, and were getting arrested every other day, The police showed up to my address last week to arrest them. I must’ve been in Boston at the time, because I had no idea that this had happened. Other than a little noise as they left to party, they were super nice, quiet, sharing, and willing to help me with unhitch/hitch my trailer.
The last tenant of 37 North State Street is an elderly woman who lives under the apartment where the two Mainers were. I have maybe seen her three times in 6 weeks, twice walking her yappy poodle, and once cleaning cobwebs off of her screened in porch.
So I hope you’re getting an idea of what life is like for me in Concord. Across from State Street, down the cross streets, lives a mixed neighborhood of lower middle class and middle class. Behind my house is the local women’s clinic. At least once a week I see Christian protesters silently praying at its entrance, so I guess that’s the only abortion clinic in the state capital. Beside the women’s clinic sits a biker bar called the Eagle Bar. I see more cars than bikes in the parking lot, and I wonder what they think of the message on my trailer’s banners.
Before the Memorial Day parade on Main Street last month, I met an obese woman who was walking her dog. She asked me about the parade’s route and I actually knew it because I was planning on parking the banners at its edge. She knew about my banners because she lived across the street from me. I thought that tall building (the second tallest in Concord according to her) was a dorm room for art students. It stands adjacent to Concord’s main theater and has a small theater on the side closest to my house. I’ve heard shows going on in there.
The building is actually a low-income apartment complex. The woman I met pays under $200 a month to live there and has a helper dog to get her through the tough times. I could tell that she had mental problems, so assumed that sick people lived there along with the elderly. Since then I’ve noticed that the ambulance is there a lot and that poor people do go in and out of the front doors.
Though these typical Americans live on the edge of a scary slope of ruin, they have all been nothing but nice and joyful around me. The folks who have walked up to me and asked me about my games have all looked poor as well, so they understand the squeeze that’s being put on our lives due to the war machine and tax breaks. Today, one of the crack sealers I met had just joined the Navy. He understood what I was talking about and was glad that, after two years of submarine school, he’d start his commission after Bush was out of office.
After the woman drove away looking for a shelter to flee whatever stood in her past, I realized that, though precarious myself, I’ve lived in a bubble these past 10 years (and most of my life). Don’t get me wrong, homelessness, drug abuse, and working poor lived with me in the Mission District. But I had my community of thinkers, activists, artists, and professionals, along with my supportive family, to distract me from the core realities that Ehrenreich richly covers in her book. And living here also brings my job’s message closer to home. As war rages, and a new front in Iran seems likely, US citizens that work hard and try to stay straight are being squeezed. Things are tight in my new neighborhood!
So the next time you leave your place to go run an errand, take a moment to think of all those stories that walk or drive past you. Pause to look at your neighborhood, or maybe a poorer part of the town you live in, and try to think about how others get by in this country. As hypercapitalism eats up the suburbs of the world’s megacities with shanty towns of poor, low-wage earners, those same folks could be sharing your kitchen, baking cookies to share, and trying to just barely stay ahead of the game.
Living in this section of Concord has humbled me and helped me stay focused on delivering my message to the state. Being here has helped me grow as a person, and given me a slice of urbanity that I thought I’d lose while in New England. Just like that: keeping things fresh and real.