FROM THE BEGINNING, this was going to be a jolly piece, maybe even a silly piece, certainly not a piece having to do with something as somber as the poor. I promise you that. This was going to be about us, and the things we find funny, and not about them and the lives they lead. But something happened and it all got changed along the way, and now, I suppose, the only way to start is to go back to the beginning and pretend nothing's changed, and give you the ostensible subject of this column - cockroaches.
They are gone from our house. They somehow did not survive the move last winter from the old house where I had taken them, I think, from the house before that. This is an endless chain, the first link of which was probably a furnished apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was a long time ago, but it was then that I first encountered cockroaches. They were a credential of sorts. I had left home and I felt, at last, properly poor.
The little buggers have been with me ever since. I sometimes think of myself as a Cockroach Mary - a spreader - but it became apparent about a month ago that a link in thechain had snapped. They were gone. I would come down to the kitchen in the middel of the night, throw on the light, and they would not be there. Nothing would be crawling into invisible holes in the wall or cleverly freezing in their tracks in imitation of a crumb - nothing would be there. It was downright eerie. It seemed, somehow unnatural.
I thought I could make something of this. I would sit down at the old typewriter and take something a lot of us have in common and work it until some sort of meaning came forth. I started working the cockroach thing, keeping it in the active file in my had and asking people about it.
I, for one, was prepared to tell funny cockroach stories. I had one about my former roommate, Sam, the first man I ever knew to have a nose job, who became absolutely paranoid about cockroaches. He woke, once, to find one perched on the tip of his rather expensive nose, and he discovered one, the next day, in his soup. I think it was vegetarian vegetable. He was never the same after that.
But there was one person I talked to who thought that cockroaches, while funny, were also significant.He said they taught you that there were limits to what you can do - limits to science, and technology and even tactics. You cannot outthink a cockroach any more than you can actually rid your house of them and those of us who have listened to the exterminators in their white coats knew all about Vietnam before the generals and politicians did. There are times a body count is not a body count, and when your home is not your home - at least not yours alone.
The fellow had a point. Cockroaches could indeed be significant, but I thought, also, that there was something about cockroaches that took the edge off affluence. I mean, it was as if you could have kids and a stationwagon and maybe even live in the suburbs, but if you still had cockroaches, you were young in a strange way and still not middle-class and still, you know, the sort of person who went to movies - foreign films, especially. To put it another way, if you had cockroaches you didn't have to jog.
Anyway, I was still working this all in my head, doing an on-the-hand number, when there came to lunch one day a man named Elliot Liebow. He is the author of "Tally's Corner," a classic study of street-corner society in black Washington, and he filled us in on what has happened to the people he studied back in the early 1960s.
He was sitting around a nice table here at the newspaper and we were being served a good lunch and Liebow, who has a rich and warm speaking voice, told us about one of the people from the corner, a woman. The city has taken her children from her. She was poor, desperately poor, living in a rat hole where nothing worked but the landlord's constant threat to evict, and her daughter, aged 11 or something like that, had gotten gonorrhea. All the kids slept together, four or five or six of them, and they all had gotten gonorrhea, including a boy who was 4. It was the end for them all as a family. A judge's gaven came down and the children were taken from her.
Liewbow told this story and somewhere along the line, either right then or a bit later, I thought about my cockroach column. I mean, here was Liebow talking about a woman who would not think such a column was funny - whose life was full bugs. She would not complain, she would not write a letter to the editor, she would not, probably even read the column and I would not, hear from her. You almost never hear from the poor.
I don't know if this works. I don't know if you think of the poor more than I do, if the '60s some-how have stuck to you more than to me, but most ot the time they are not with me and most of the time I think that taxes really are too high and that the middle-class is really suffering and the Proposition 13 may be a terrific idea. Most of the time I forget about the poor.
It seems we often do.