Susan Smith Nash




Urban poverty causes madness. 


I never quite got around to discussing why or how or when.


Madness wearing rags from the Salvation Army or Goodwill -- two competing mafias that exist to make sure that nice girls from good families who graduate with sociology or psychology or early childhood education degrees can remain middle class.


I'd like to say this is a poem, but it's not.  And, I'm on the verge of collapsing in a heap of trembling, anxiety-filled bone & spit. 

The idea of roaming the streets along, hearing voices that tell me:

  "Ask that bitch for a dollar!!"

"Write WILL WORK 4 FOOD on that piece of cardboard!"

"Kill that asshole for his Magic Marker!"

"Go home to Mom!"

"Shave your legs!"

"Stop eating out of Dunkin' Donuts dumpsters!"


"Study algebra!"

"Dig for bones and pray to God to die before it gets any worse!"


I looked out a broken window from a warehouse just south of the Jesus House Soup Kitchen just north of the big slaughterhouse that gives jobs to guys just paroled from the roughest federal penitentiary this side of the Mississippi.


I reached into my pocket.  3 dimes, a nickel, a crumpled dollar bill, a fluidless lighter and the grit from a generic cigarette.


The sun was sinking.  When I had thoughts, I began to ridicule myself.  Thinking that way would not help me.  Urban poverty causes madness.  Having a buck thirty and cigarette grit made me feel desperate and cold.  Work and other issues seemed far away.  Numbing the pain seemed clearer and better.


Strange how the winter's grays make colors seem superfluous, connectedness an impossibility.


I once had a friend who volunteered at every halfway house and women's shelter just so she could find someone with whom she could find non-condemnatory conversation - another person with similar experiences who could share and make her feel less alone in the world.


Great idea, huh.


What she failed to take into consideration was that when she entered these places, her persona was not that of confidante, but of privileged white bitch -- princess -- selfish and somewhat cruel in the interest she took in probing people's pain.


But, they put up with it because she signed the forms that allowed them free meals and temporary housing in the safe house.  She had no idea they considered her a selfish, perversely (and perhaps sadistically) curious rich woman.  She had no idea they were pandering to her.  She had no idea that what she really sought was a mirror of herself -- the reflection of herself to affirm herself -- or, the other fragments of herself with which she could establish communication and thus enter into the self-deception that an "integrated one-self" actually even exists.


She didn't know they didn't like her.  They didn't know how afraid she was of them.


They didn't realize how much they resented authority figures (now long internalized) who criticized incessantly in droning parental voices. 


She didn't realize how much she feared the helplessness of the infant who is abjectly dependent on a parent who could be capricious or simply immobilized by her own depression, lying in bed, staring at the ceiling as her infant daughter cried in her crib, wet and hungry and horribly alone.


And that the aloneness becomes a habit -- familiar although not pleasant.  Predictable and unshakable like all good compulsions, especially those accompanied by the internal conviction that the attitude or state of mind is/was necessary for survival.


And it's a hell of a bargain, isn't it?


Survival strategies that are 80% destructive, 20% constructive --  the 80% is in the emotional, hidden realm, the 20% is in the superficial appearance of things.


So she drives a late-model Lexus and suffers from panic attacks -- she purchases Chevy car parts and Arctic camping supplies from Wal-Mart, then returns them after 2 weeks, still in the plastic Wal-Mart shopping bags, virtually untouched.


Urban poverty creates madness.  It causes hallucinations that come first as voices, then as shadows in self-serve gas stations -- then as the delusional belief that every night will bring another step into a tableau vive / living set of Edward Hopper's Night Hawks.  Safety.  Salvation.  Refuge.  Warmth.  How?  How?  How?


Drink coffee all night, smoke cigarettes and order apple pie with ice cream.  Sit on the aqua vinyl stools and look out into the night on into the depths of the neon clock stuck between midnight and 2 a.m.


This is eternity.


And I still haven't figured out why, really, urban poverty ALWAYS makes people utterly OUTSIDE, which is, of course, what madness really is.