Or, Why the Poor Gamble…
by Mary Sojourner
“Pin your ear to the wisdom post; Pin your eye to the line; Never let the weeds get higher; Than the garden…” — Tom Waits, “Get Behind the Mule”
Four years ago, I was meeting the moving guy to bring my seven pieces of furniture from Twentynine Palms to my new one-room cabin in Yucca Valley, California. I’d been renting a 16’ x 10’ jackrabbit homestead. Sharing a kitchen and bath, one mid-May day of 111-degree heat and one day of 50 mph winds that ripped a window off proved me to be the Hippie American Princess I had always suspected I was.
I pulled into the cheapest gas station to fill up. The cheapest gas in the cheapest gas station was $4.15 a gallon. I shoved my credit card (SHOVED is the operative term) into the slot and watched the numbers launch.
A middle-aged fellow in a puke-green El Camino drove up to the opposite pump. He looked at the prices and put his head down on the steering wheel.
“That good?” I said.
He climbed out. He wore faded cargo shorts and a Metallica t-shirt. The back of the Camino was packed with ladders and painting gear. He shoved his long graying hair back out of his eyes, looked down at the ground and nodded.
“Let me tell you, lady,” he said. “I work steady at odd jobs. Right now I’m handy-manning for a real estate dude. Me and the truck are racking up the miles. In the last week, the raise in gas prices has cut my wages by half.”
I smiled. I knew what he saw when he looked at me. A short old broad with a beige sunhat that made her look like a wrinkled mushroom. We both wore shades. He couldn’t see what glinted in my eyes.
“F–k this s–t,” I said pleasantly. He grinned. “Hey,” I said, “They — and I do mean capital T-H-E-Y — who are getting rich off of the rest of us are headed for a big wake-up. It’s going down. And, when there’s no U-S to shove money in their pockets, who the f–k are T-H-E-Y going to drain next?”
He pulled off his shades and looked me hard in the eye. “Call me a conspiracy nut,” he said, “but there is something really bad and weird going on. They are lying to us. The price of oil dropped. And, gas keeps going up.”
The woman filling her old pickup at the pump ahead of me nodded. She was impeccably groomed, her long hair a dark halo around her face. “I just wish,” she said, “they’d just jack it up to five bucks and get it over with. They’re like mean dogs playing with a rabbit.”
The tank topped-off at $41.50. I shook hands with the other victims and headed to the super-market for coffee. The store was quiet. I remembered the last time I’d shopped in the place.
It had been a late Sunday afternoon. I’d been grateful for a long line. It meant I could be out of the heat long enough for my mind and vision to clear.
There was a longer line at the Coinstar coin redemption machine. An emaciated couple pushed a shopping cart with a little boy in the toddler seat. The sides of his head were shaved. His Mohawk had been dyed orange-red. A four hundred-pound woman in a tropical print muu-muu rolled her motorized cart up to the kid.
She ran her hand over the top of his hair. The kid giggled. The weariness in his parents’ faces did not lift. She pulled in line behind them.
The line moved slower than mine. People dumped coins into the machine: out of a knit cap, a nickle slot bucket, a backpack with a faded Cardinals logo. I knew the story. The weekend was almost over. The money was all the way over. The kids were hungry. You were thirsty. The jacket-pocket safari yielded enough loose change to make the last trip to the Coinstar worth it.
But June 2, a month later — with gas prices and all — it would be only enough for mac ‘n’ cheese and a quart of Old Mil. Maybe. So, you strolled over to the lottery machine, shoved in two bucks and took a shot on a bigger maybe.
Mary Sojourner is the author of the novel Going Through Ghosts (University of Nevada Press, 2010) and the memoir She Bets Her Life (Seal Press, 2009), among her many books. She is a National Public Radio commentator and the author of numerous essays, columns, and op-eds for dozens of publications. Sojourner is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision, where her columns appear on the third Friday of every month.