Photo: Luigi AnzivinoOh, say — can you see, by the dawn’s early light? Broke-Ass can, though when her electricity gets turned off tomorrow, that’s about the only light by which Broke-Ass and the crew at the Rancho will be seeing anything. God Bless America!
Yet, in spite of the blunt reality that she is flat-out cashless until her book comes out (July 12!) — and that she lives in a country in which corporate interests threaten to trump availability of safe drinking water; in which there is neither decent, affordable health nor child care; in which fair tax laws or a reasonable minimum wage do not exist — do you know the very first thing visitors see on the wall, upon crossing the threshold of the Rancho’s cramped entrance?
Old Glory, baby. Surprise: Broke-Ass loves, and has always loved, this crazy country.
You want to wear your burka to school? Go ahead. Want to be an asshole skinhead and march through Peoria? Go ahead. Want to work your ass off as a nurse and send money back home to the Philippines? Get political asylum and start a new life in Portland, Maine? Get rescued from Nazi invasions? Done and done. You want the best hospitals, colleges, and universities? You’ll pay for them, sure as Bob’s your uncle — but we got ’em.
What Broke-Ass most loves about this country, however, is the continuous malleability of its authentic citizenship and culture — which combines to produce its unique, inherent weirdness and heart. Broke-Ass wouldn’t trade that for all the goddamn bicycle lanes in Northern Europe.
Which brings us to bicycle lanes, Northern Europe, the eco-movement in general, and a few little stories, which will culminate in a realized, loving portrait of what makes this country great.
So, as many of you lovelies know, Broke-Ass has friendly feelings toward The Environment (even though she loathes the imprecision and jack-off-y-ness of that term). Many of these feelings are, however, motivated by the wish to provide a wholesome and inexpensively run household for her family. To tell the truth, this is pretty much Broke-Ass’s motivation to do anything. If The Environment is better off for her using baking soda and vinegar to clean; raising her own veggies; keeping her own chickens for eggs; etc.; well, then, hooray.
Because of this, Broke-Ass has been asked to write stuff about her life, and while the vast majority of the response to her humble foray into environmental writing (or whatever you’re supposed to call it) has been really lovely, the pointy barbs that have on occasion been smugly poked into her side have served as rather hurtful reminders as to why poor Americans often fucking hate eco do-gooders and Northern Europeans: They’re smug as shit. Or they sure as hell come off that way.
For example, when Broke-Ass recently wrote about feeding a family of five for under 10 bucks, she received a response chastising her for even having three children in this age of overpopulation and saying that it would be easier to feed one or two people. Oh, shoot — you’re right! Broke-Ass will definitely decide which child to feed and starve the other two: It’s the environmentally thoughtful response. And it sure will make dinnertime easier! Hey, thanks for the tip!
When she wrote an innocuous article on why raising chickens in the city is cheap and cool for kids because they can see that — in spite of inhabiting a rawther broke household — there are inventive ways to be self-sufficient, someone wrote in to make fun of Broke-Ass’s “ability to get so much rhetorical meat off of poor, asthmatic, miserable city chicks,” before going on to write: “What wonders could you perform with a Ostrich or better yet a Dodo?”
What wonders indeed! Oh me, you clever little dickens! Broke-Ass reckons she’ll just light up her corncob pipe, lower NPR’s “All Things Considered” a tad, and quietly strum a 19th-century sea shanty on her artisanal mandolin as she ruminates on what a smug fucking prick you are.
Now, Broke-Ass happens to live in one of the only parts of Brooklyn that is not accessible by subway, which sucks, and she has ruined the planet by having three children, as noted. The only driving she does is transporting her children two miles to school in her junky 11-year-old minivan. When said minivan was recently stolen from her crap neighborhood, she was devastated: She had $61.25 in the bank. A Northern European friend responded thusly: “Well, now you will just have to buy a cargo bike, like us!”
Broke-Ass was dumbfounded. For one thing, those cargo bikes cost a few grand and are dangerous as hell: This isn’t fucking Copenhagen, it’s Brooklyn. For another thing, is this flip, smug, we-know-better-because-our-country-subsidizes-every-aspect-of-our-lives retort really what comes to mind when looking into the tear-stained eyes of a broke, beleaguered mother?
There is a good reason that the environmental movement in this country — and those tiny, blonde Northern countries — do not win the hearts and minds of most Americans, particularly during this economic period. When people who have no money are lectured about how they’re doing everything wrong already, and are then, in the lightning round, told they don’t have any consideration for anyone other than themselves and their appallingly bloated families — much less for “the planet” — it’s one of many daily slaps in the face they have to endure. And are then asked to be grateful for the chance at enlightenment.
Most people struggling to get by are simply trying to do what they can for their families today, and maybe, if things are going slightly better, a week or two ahead. There is no time, no mental energy — no fucking money — to consider the aerial environmental view. Criticizing people under egregious stress is not only an ineffective tactic, it frankly lacks even baseline compassion. And this, in Broke-Ass’s view, is fundamentally un-American.
Though we’ve botched it a million different ways, a keystone of American culture is grassroots community-building — in other words, helping each other out. It still happens all over our weird country, and it’s part of what gives us such heart.
But when people from small, homogenous countries who can safely rely on their government to look after them, and the relatively elite world of the American eco-movement, get involved, it somehow becomes “community outreach,” which has a richly condescending smack to it. It conjures up visions of “the community” being lured into marketing come-ons with free donuts and stale sandwiches so that they can be forced to listen to all the smart, educated people talk to them about things like “value of diversity” and “environmental impact.”
You think people don’t know what this means? It means they are, as always, being reminded that they’re so damn broke that they have to exchange their dignity for some free fucking donuts and lunch meat. They know that you don’t want to know about the realities of their lives: You just want them to shut up and do what you say.
You want to do “community outreach,” the American way? Hang out with your neighbors! Shoot the shit! Get to know them over time! Invite them over! Open your heart: Their world is very different from yours.
You might discover in due course, for example, that your neighbor grew up in central Mexico and that his
mom is a famous midwife there. He thus knows a ton of herbal remedies that you’ve never heard of but that, when he thoughtfully offers them to you, you discover work splendidly. You might also discover that he knows a fuckload about raising chickens and civil engineering and can give you a hand building coops, though he does not show up with great regularity. When you say, “So, where the hell were you?” you learn that he had to move out from the apartment with his wacko girlfriend and into a studio apartment with a ton of other guys, that he drinks too much on the weekends, that he is constantly harassed by the cops, and that because he has super long hair and his English isn’t great, they make proof-less presumptions and fuck with him because they can. You might get so mad that you start dialing the precinct and then hang up because he’s illegal, and you don’t want to get him in trouble. You tell him to call you if this happens again, and you will come bail him out.
You might grow to understand that he has several kids with a woman whom he did not treat well, and that woman is remarried and that though she has barred him from contacting his children, he also hasn’t made much of an effort. You might say to him, “Stop being such a pussy, and find a way to see your kids — you’ll be sorry if you don’t!” You might tell him you had an alcoholic asshole for a dad and that, after your parents’ divorce, he never really tried to see you and that even though he died a few years ago, you still have his number on your cell phone under “Dad.” He might then tell you about his own alcoholic, cheating dad, start to get sad, and then tell you to mind your own damn business.
But you also note that his eyes light up when your kids come home, and that they love playing with him. When he offers to watch your toddler when you have a surprise meeting and no childcare, you are about crying with gratitude, and when you return, he has the baby on his hip and is frying up eggs he collected from the chicken coop.
He might tell you that his mom’s household was like yours — lots of homegrown veggies and eggs – and that he’d never eaten anything with pesticides on it until he came to this country, that it’s outrageous how expensive chemical-free food is. You two might rant about this regularly for years to come, but in the meantime, you might tell him that the only reason you do all this DIY shit is because it’s cheaper than buying all that stuff at the market. He might tell you that you’re lucky that you have a house with space enough to pull it off, and you’ll agree.
You might tell him that if he wants to fix up the garage with your help, he can live there for free because over the past several years he’s become like a brother to you, and you want to be clear: He is not alone. He might look at you for a moment and then turn away, crying. You might tell him that if you have to eat another egg, you’re going to kill yourself — can’t he just make a cheese tamale or something? He tells you that you know he hates spicy food and that you don’t have cheese anyway. You might both howl loudly.
And you, the one in the comments, might also discover, if you open your mind, that the person you thought was a loudmouth, entitled yuppie masquerading as a dirt farmer in South Brooklyn actually never has more than $61.25 in her bank account after basic bills have been paid — and sometimes, not even then, after which the phone rings incessantly with calls from threatening creditors — and that she went though a divorce that left her all but bankrupt and that her divorce agreement precludes her from moving out of the city, though she clearly cannot afford to live here anymore.
You might discover that her own parents’ divorce impoverished her mother, that this person started earning a living as a reporter at age 18 to pay for college — that writing is the only thing she’s ever done for a living, and she loathes herself for not having learned a practical trade and for being such an errant failure for her kids.
You might discover that birth control doesn’t always work, even when correctly deployed. You might discover that stress and not-great nutrition can bring on miscarriage — or, in rare cases, the appearance of one. You might discover that when people are struggling and panicking and have no health insurance, they can’t spend days waiting in line at the free clinic because they’re terrified of losing their jobs. You might discover that when people in such circumstances learn that they are, in fact, well into their second trimester of pregnancy, they are stricken with fear and panic and a sense of hopelessness. You might learn that they are now just trying to do what they can to enjoy and support their children, to give them as dignified and industrious a home as possible — in as toxin-free an environment as South Brooklyn permits.
Here is an American story. Several days after Broke-Ass’ Northern European friend made her cargo bike suggestion, she sent Broke-Ass an email insisting on a loan of $5,000 to buy a used car. The friend would not brook a rejection, she said, because: a) she could not stand to see Broke-Ass look so worried; b) she and her husband had received help when they needed it; and c) Broke-Ass, Big Daddy, and the schmushkies had been good friends, making their whole family feel so welcome and at home in their host country.
Broke-Ass cried. God Bless America.