It was hot inside the Green Hornet. My vision was blurry and there was a metallic taste on my tongue. My first thought was ‘brain tumour’ but then steam shot out the dashboard vents and made a V-shaped patterns on the windscreen. The hideous smell of burnt anti-freeze filled the car. I pulled over, luckily with a man who knew where the various parts of an automobile belonged and whether they should be a liquid or a solid. I would have just stood there on the side of the road wondering what to do, the only tool in the boot being a chainsaw.
The heater coil had ka-flacky-ed itself and I had to be at work on Monday. My limbs went all rigid, like a fainting goat after a handclap. And that’s the overwhelming truth of being poor: you live on a knife edge. After the mortgage, insurance, rates, whatever latest bill you’re worrying about and petrol, there is no buffer, no wiggle room. You can’t afford to get sick, go to the dentist – and if something vital breaks down it’s a disaster rather than an inconvenience. This is why the poor drive shit cars that get shitter. Poverty is a slippery slope, a slide that only the strongest self-arrest can prevent.
In New Zealand poverty is defined as living at below 60% of the national median income of $48,800 a year. I think I earned slightly over $20,000 in 2017. Whatever it was, it was too much to qualify for income assistance (something that, at my most stressed, had me weeping in rage and humiliation over a desk in the Work and Income office, refused even a food voucher because I owned the shower-less, kitchen-less bach I was living in) or a Community Services Card. No surprise that shortly after this I was prescribed anti-depressants (“side effects may include suicide” said the packaging, which is an awesome thing to say about any medication). And there are a lot of kiwis in the same boat as me: fortunate enough to have a job and thus respectability, this itself no alleviator of poverty. Just because you’re not on a benefit in this country doesn’t mean you’re not doing it tough.
The poor are more hedonistic, nihilistic. Poor people drink and take drugs because they aren’t going to Mooloolaba for their holidays. Everything is short term. Who knows what the future will bring, or if there even is one. Poor people barter, forage and upcycle. They don’t need lessons in sustainability, they are in survival mode. In Oamaru the going rate for pretty much any job/favour/is a box of beer. When you’re poor, it’s who you know. There was an auto electrician staying in the spare room of the Mountain Man’s house. Together they redirected the heater hose so I could dodge the bullet of unemployment. Of course, thanks to the internet, the chance of this was slim to non-existent – being a writer, no one cares where you are – but my point is, this is exactly how people end up homeless: their car breaks down, they miss a big meeting and lose their job, they can’t pay the mortgage and lose the house, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.
The middle class were once at the centre of New Zealand, but no more. There has been a huge growth in inequality, with the gap between rich and poor wider than at any time since WW2. When Mary Moeke’s marriage ended last year, she sold their house in South Auckland. Her ex disputed the sale so she, a middle-class Maori who earns a good wage teaching early childhood education, ended up homeless and sleeping in her van for six weeks. In the end Moeke was helped back on her feet by Te Puea Marae. I am being helped by a tribe of a different sort. They give me lemons, I make pesto. None of us have two cents to rub together. We are part of a phenomenon being called the New Urban Crisis: the decline of the middle class, which is ironic because the Mountain Man is always calling me a ‘classist dinosaur.’ Possessed of a good education, brought up to believe a degree was the gateway to a well-paying career, a home and comfortable retirement, I am disappearing, like the photograph of Marty McFly’s family in Back to the Future. In that instance love was the answer, and driving to work today in a ski jacket, down vest, gloves and a wool hat, I thought how lucky I was to still have a car, how lucky I was to be loved.