Photo: Courtesy Broke-Ass GrouchListen up, locavores, opportunivores, dumpster-diving fermentation fetishists, and Dave Matthews Band fans: A great many of us live by the same ecologically sound principles that you do. We, however, are not doing so because we nurture an abiding desire to “create choices” for ourselves or to “live intentionally.” We don’t have any more than a passing interest in “sustaining biodiversity.” We are known as poor people.
We grow our own fruits and vegetables because we can’t afford to buy them at the market, never mind green co-ops. We make our own bread because it costs a quarter, and the good kind at the store is $4. We knit, sew, and “upcycle” our clothes because we have no choice. We could go on family vacations for what you guys spend on Seventh Generation and Mrs. Meyers cleaning products every year.
Allow the author of this bilious vituperation to introduce herself: The name is Broke-Ass Grouch. Broke-Ass does not live in the housing projects — which are around the corner from the little house in the ghetto where she resides with her three children. But with her annual income lying safely below the poverty line, she’d qualify. She also qualifies for food stamps — excuse me, “SNAP.” That’s right, revenuers, dress it up in something perky. But you try filling out impossible forms, standing in interminable lines, and being subjected to the degrading interviews of people who exact unfettered pleasure at disemboweling your financial ruin, and believe me: “SNAP” emerges as an exquisite understatement.
Friends, it sucks to be poor. Just ask most of the world. Most of us would be psyched to have a job that would pay us enough so that we didn’t have to clear chicken shit out of our yards, buy prison-sized bags of flour to make bread, and DIY every damn thing. We are the original frugavores, sans the media coverage. The awesome Gustavo Arellano, who writes the “Ask A Mexican” column for the Orange County Weekly, summed it up on American Public Media’s “Marketplace”: “When young professionals and the socially hip raise chickens in their backyards, newspapers do articles with slideshows,” he commented. “When us Mexicans do it? People call code enforcement.”
Now, to be fair, Broke-Ass Grouch is neither Mexican nor was she poor until three years ago. Like many of you good-doers, Broke-Ass was raised by middle-class intellectuals to be a middle-class intellectual, and graduated from a snooty liberal arts college. Also, like many of you, she spent her career working at high-status, low-paying, terminally insecure work.
Circa 2008, however, Broke-Ass realized what an errant dumbass she had been to have accepted the counsel of her educated, middle-class parents and teachers who said, “You can do whatever you want when you grow up, honey!” The bald foolishness of that privileged ethos became harrowingly plain when the housing market collapsed, and along with it, the economy.
Broke-Ass Grouch, like many in America, found herself abruptly cashless. Like many of the heretofore liberal elite, she had been trained exclusively in a non-essential trade (writing for a living), and thus had no marketable value in the general economy. Having lived a life of unexamined comfort and self-satisfaction, Broke-Ass now found herself with never more than $37.68 in the bank, and three little children to support (though she did count herself extravagantly lucky that her two older children’s father sent them to private school, and that her 12-year-old used minivan hadn’t collapsed in vapors — yet). She began to see the primacy of McDonald’s Dollar Meal and rifling through the bargain bins at Walmart, searching for tube socks and jeans made by 7-year-olds in Bangladesh for a dime a day.
But she couldn’t do it. Again, like many of you, Broke-Ass wanted to feed her children wholesome, unpoisoned food, and still thought that it was bad to exploit the world’s poor to increase corporate profit margins. Plus, she still wanted her children to know the virtues of the liberal arts phenomenology — the unalloyed pleasures of reading, thinking, investigating, experimenting — even though said phenomenology had dumped her by the side of the road in middle age and left her for dead.
Thus commenced Broke-Ass’ Walden Pond revolution. She did not enroll in a cooking class (no money); she did not have a fancy kitchen (she lives in a little house in the ghetto). Recently divorced and with no funds even for a damn cookbook, Broke-Ass got free recipes and followed the instructions, often shamed by such bourgeois commands as “use your mixer’s paddle attachment.” Fuck you and your yuppie paddle attachment. If you asked someone for a paddle attachment in my neighborhood, you’d be in for an ugly surprise.
Figuring that peasants in 5th century Siena used a big old spoon — or plain old hands — and everything came out okay nevertheless, Broke-Ass gave it a try. She made bread; scones, muffins, biscuits; crackers. No big deal. At all. It was money in the pocket, and her children ate delicious food that they helped make. Awe. Some.
She learned the same thing about growing fruits and vegetables: Anyone can grow shit themselves. Anyone. Broke-Ass was sick of reading about kids who just graduated from art or architecture school manning their self-righteous food-coops with heirloom everything; looking down on everyone who wasn’t raising bees on their rooftops in Brooklyn. To Broke-Ass, it all smacked of Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess with her ladies at the Petit Hameau at Versailles. You don’t need to have white-kid dreadlocks, a degree from Bennington, or any more than a passing interest in limiting your carbon footprint to raise your own crap. You just need to be hungry.
Broke-Ass was, admittedly, lucky. Her little house in the ghetto has a yard ample enough to grow a shitload of stuff: beets, kale, chard, squash, green beans, apples, pears, every herb you can think of and some she didn’t know about until she said, “Why the hell not?” The schmuskies pick produce when ripe. Broke-Ass ordered mail-order chicks to raise as egg-producers, and they worked! Now, Broke-Ass can offer turbo Omega-3 nourishment, and her schmushkies have a gaggle of farm pets that they feed and play games with, such as “Fly, chicken!” (Relax, PETA — no one is forced to fly here.) The whole situation has rendered the Broke-Ass compound into Little House on the Prairie meets Do the Right Thing.
Broke-Ass’ biggest revelation in terms of self-sustenance has been: There is no big deal about any of it. It needn’t reflect a philosophy. As Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs reminds us, philosophy is a non-issue when you’re after food, clothing, and shelter. Since Broke-Ass was raised in a household that stipulated memorization of Donne sestinas as allowance chores, she had never learned shit about the finer, or coarser, points of domestic life maintenance. But arriving in middle age dead broke with three children, she learned that feeding a family on whole grain fumes was easily as complex as a sestina — and just as revelatory — but not symbolic.
Which is better. It is real. Vive la revolution.