Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Frances Lefkowitz is the author of the memoir To Have Not, about growing up poor in San Francisco. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Tin House, The Sun, and Good Housekeeping. She lives in Petaluma, California, and is working on a book about fear and surfing.
Do I need to go into what turns an eleven-year-old into such a stoic: embarrassed to be sentimental, determined to be detached?
So many times I would take risks that should have scared me but didn’t. When you grow up in a big city with hands-off parents, you become accustomed to harrowing situations. You may even come to feel that the wet plum of fear living permanently in your gut is essential to your being.
Jimmy nods toward his tow truck, and Davis gets in the passenger seat. Sliding in beside him a minute later, Jimmy offers coffee and some kind of airy sweet, the exact right thing. This is how a moth must feel when it finally gets to the light: warm inside and out.
I was on a trip back home to northern California — part work, part vacation — and I had a terrible head cold. My research for a magazine article on the wine country north of San Francisco had brought me to a chilly town on the edge of the San Andreas Fault, a place populated by a combination of wealthy tourists, ranch hands, and hippie holdouts.
I appreciate her boldness, and I respond with a giggle that sounds like her father’s, he who laughs. This kind of conviction can be endearing in a four-year-old, though not so endearing in a talk-show host, nor in the president of a country — people who hold the fate of so many lives in that slender gap between their confidence and their ignorance.
The eviction notice arrives in the mail, just like any other bill or letter. There’s no sheriff, no knock at the door, no sign posted for everyone in the neighborhood to see.
I have nothing to say about the politics of poverty, what causes it and what it causes and how to make it go away. I can only tell you what poverty does to a person. It gets inside you, nestles into your bones, and gives you a chill that you cannot shake. Poverty becomes you — it shapes what you see and taste and dream — till there is no telling where you stop and poverty begins. To be poor is to live in denial — not the denial of professional counselors and self-help books, which is an avoidance of some truth too painful to admit, but denial in its most literal sense: you must say no to yourself constantly.