The luxury of poverty

I was for a good part of my life crushingly poor, at least by the measurement of government measures, such as poverty lines. There were times when I made less than $3 an hour. Where what I owned on this earth could fit into just a few small boxes. When I lived in a bedsit of 60 square feet, just about enough room to put my feet down.

I can’t say I ever felt poor. The few people I knew did not seem to have a lot more (though they did have emergency support systems such as parents). I had everything I needed. I spent roughly $5 a day on food, a newspaper and other small items, and that seemed to cover all that was necessary. I do however remember that major expenditures like dish-washing detergents or lightbulbs would knock a hole in my carefully balanced budget.

I would like to think that I could live in such monastic circumstances again, if life demanded it. However, having a child, I dearly hope I don’t. My son, having grown up surrounded by many things, would feel poverty acutely. Poverty is, as has been often observed, a relative measure rather than an absolute.

Whenever I see Peter Hujar‘s photographs, I am reminded of Fran Lebowitz’s description of how he was so poor he owned just a single suit and shirt that he’d wash every night so could look nicely turned out every day. There are the stark backdrops in his pictures, the bare walls, the beaten up chairs. But they drip in luxury – the luxury of wanting exactly what you got, and having exactly what you want.