Doc Stevens on The Cycle of Poverty: Part Four - No Room to Make Mistakes

Friday, February 27, 2009 5:36 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: If you follow this blog, you know that I write it from various interviews and encounters with Doc Stevens, in the USA. He is the kind of American that we don't see on the telly, but that is very common in the rural areas of the States. He is a hard worker, and has a very simple life. He works, plays music, travels and does his best to help his friends and family members. He takes pride in his niece, Marilyn. He is fiercely loyal to his friends.

This series of postings is from interviews with Doc more than a year ago, when I was on assignment in America and was able to get several evenings with him, and also spent my days off with him and his friends. We were talking about poverty in America, and how even a sober, hard working individual can get caught in the cycle of poverty.

America is not like the U.K. in that there is not massive public transport, they don't have the dole as we know it, and many Americans have too much of a sense of independence to accept public assistance. I have discovered that for many Americans, there is a lag time between applying for public assistance and actually receiving it. During that time, which may be more than a month, people are on their own, and have to live by their wits. It is surprising, really.

I got several hours recorded on this topic and am posting them as I get the opportunity to transcribe them and post them. I have no idea how many postings this will produce, since the cycle of poverty and the ripple effects of it are a major part of the lives of America's working poor. I have learnt that these people tend to be caring, friendly, once you earn their trust and have the same needs, wants and hurts as anyone else. Just on different levels.

Doc and his friends are a hard working and hard playing lot. None of them are lazy, but they are not always the most efficient or savvy individuals. Now, on with the interview.

Doc: Here's a thing about bein' poor, Tondy. I figured it out. When you is close to the edge, you aint got no room for ANY mistakes. One bad move and you are done. Like a man with money can lose a $20 bill and he still got a place to live that night. It don't mean nothing. But if I am new in town, and all I got is $50, and the room for the night is $50, and I lose a twenty, I am not only homeless that night, but I can't get to my guitar or tools, if they is locked in the room, til I pay that night's rent and the next one. All 'cause of losing a $20 bill!

"When you is close to the edge, you ain't got no room for ANY mistakes.
One bad move and you are done."

Aint no room for mistakes, if you're poor. I ain't no troublemaker. But If I am new in town Doc Stevens Commerce TXand aint no one know me, and someone hits me and I hit him back, guess who goes to jail? Me, cause I am the new guy, and aint got no family or roots there. Everything matters when you're poor. You cant pay a traffic ticket. You lose your license. So then what you gonna do? you still got to get to work, so that means you still got to drive. In a small town, that same cop is gonna see you an' pull you over again.

One time, I was in jail for a couple days, and had a court date in another county for driving on suspended. Suspended why? Because I could not pay the traffic fine earlier. But I was driving on suspended because I was fixin' a lady's car, for some rent money and was test driving it and a cop pulled me over cause he knew I didn't belong in that car! Thought I'd stole it! He knew the lady! But he didn't know me as a person. He just knew my license was suspended.

So here I am in jail in another county, and my court date comes up and I didn't make it to the courthouse! I was in jail! They revoked my license! But I still gotta drive to go to work, but the boss man was gonna fire me for missing three days of work. Then, I couldn't pay my insurance.

Three days off work can mean a lot to a person's life if they ain't got much to begin with. Now what if I had a ol' lady an' kids what I was tryin' to feed at that time? They woulda been put out on the streets with no food, no clothes, no nothin! At checkout time on Friday evening, they are told they gotta go! Now where they gonna go? Specially in the winter! Lotsa families live under that pressure day after day.

When I showed up for court, and the cops what stopped me didn't show up, I COULD have probly got off. But I done what they said I done, and told the Judge that yeah I done it. He gave me a $90 fine, court costs and 24 hours community service. When I showed up for community service the lady there told me I had to first pay the $90 plus court costs before doin' community service. But I ain't had $90. I ain't had but bucks. And I had to take off a day of work just to get there to be turned away.

Doc Stevens in TX 4Folks what got money, even middle class people ain't never been in that position, so they just say to get over it. But you cain't get over it when it is your life and you aint got nothing, and your family aint got nothing and your friends aint got nothing and you caint go to the bank and get the money pout it on a credit card. When you close to the edge like a lot of us is, you aint got room to get a ticket, you aint got room to get fined, you aint got room to miss a day's work. You caint afford none of that. When you fall into a ditch it is hard to get out.

Folks with money pays car insurance 6 months at a time. Rich folks pay a year at a time. Folks without money get charged more for insurance and we pay it every 30 days or we get reported to DMV, and our tags are suspended! So we got to drive without insurance, so we can have food and a roof, hope we don't get stopped for a tag light out, and hope the person with us aint got no drugs in the car.

If they got drugs in the car, the car gets impounded and if it's lot of drugs, or if the cop SAYS it's a lot of drugs or he plants a lot of drugs in the car, everyone in the car is goin' to jail.

If I got a car or a truck, I can just sleep in that til I get on my feet. My boss thinks I get there early for work and just snooze till he gets there. No. I drive off at quittin' time and try to make some money playin' music or fixin' someone's car, and then I circle back to the shop and park in the parking lot or out back for the night. That's the best I can do when I am new in town. And I'm a lucky one, Tondy. I aint a drunk. I aint a druggie. I got a trade. I can talk ok. I can play guitar an' sing. An' I believe in the Lord. You aint gotta be a choirboy for him to give you a helpin' hand from time to time.

A man's gotta keep tryin, and not give up. When he falls down, he gotta get up as soon as he can, and learn whatever he can and keep tryin' and keep his attitude good.

Doc Stevens on the Cycle of Poverty: How a sober hard working man can be broke. Part Three - Food, Dumpster Diving and Stealing

Friday, February 20, 2009 8:27 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: This is part three of a series of interviews I did with Doc Stevens more than a year ago, and never typed up. We're talking about how a sober, hard working man can be in poverty, and how hard it is when a person is in a new area, with no family support.

"Doc, you've talked about living in the streets, and the other night you talked about how you survive if you're new in an area, and you have found a job, but you haven't got paid yet. And you are staying in a room or motel that you rent by the week. You said if you don't pay the rent by checkout time on Friday, they will lock you out of your room, with all your possessions in it, until you pay in full. You said that you sometimes will steal to get the money you need. Can you tell me some more about that?"

Doc: Right. Well, what you said is right. Most folks know that stealing aint right. I aint like stealin' an' I ain't like gettin' caught or goin' to jail. But I have stole before. I have tookin' things what ain't mine, and sold them to pay rent or buy food.

I aint a drunk and I aint a druggie. I am the first male in my family bloodline to not give over to alcohol. The very first one. All of the rest of 'em did. Not their whole lives, but they all have lost jobs and been in trouble for drinkin.' I ain't gonna lie, cause I have drank before to keep warm. And I aint no thief but I have tooken things what ain't no one want, or was 'bandoned to get something to eat. Nothing too big, cause I aint wantin' to go to jail, specially in a town where the law aint know me.

I ain't a shoplifter neither. Shoplifting is low. Them people need that stuff to sell so they can pay their bills.

Tondeleo: "How can you know if somebody doesn't want what you think is ok to take because you've seen it sitting untouched for a while? That sounds a little strange to those of us who don't do things like that..."

Doc: Well... Dumpster ["Dumpster" is the Yank word for "skip" - Doc Stevens Dumpster Tondeleo] divin' ain't strictly stealin' and I will go through dumpsters behind stores for food an' things to sell. Panerro Bread throws out stuff on Thursdays what is still good enough to eat. So'd most grocery stores. In Winter it's better cause the food stays cold and fresh longer.

Toys R Us throws out toys an' bikes sometimes what I can sell. They could call it stealin' but I have had a sheriff pull up one time when I was in the dumpster, an' he knew who I was an' just tole me not to get hurt or fall asleep in the dumpster. I go either about 5 in the morning or about midnight. I take a shoulder bag for what I can carry and if it's big stuff, I hide it in the woods til I can get it home.

Tondeleo: What kinds of things would one find in a dumpster? I can't imagine going through the rubbish like that.

Doc: People in America throw away anything they ain't feel like keeping. Radios, computers what's a couple years old, drills, saws, clothes what's takin' up too much room. You name it. Stereos and TV's too.

Behind a store you can find whatever they sell inside and aint want to deal with. Like things what people returned, or been on the shelf too long, or got some fingerprints on 'em from bein' on display. I got computers, tools, all kinds of electric stuff, and things what's perfectly good. I can sell 'em cheap and help people out and help myself at the same time. Aint nothin' wrong with that.

Oh yeah, Tondy, you wanna take a cane with you to pull stuff out with, what might have other things piled on it, and to help pull yourself out with if it is a deep dumpster. And for protection from somebody tryin' to rob you. You ain't gonna get in trouble for carryin' a cane, but you can protect yourself with it real good.

Tondeleo: Back to stealing. I can tell you're avoiding me a little bit here, Doc.

Doc: Ok. I aint like talkin' about stealin'. But like in the city, at a liberry, hospital or a college, I have tooken bikes what have been left chained up in a public place where the owners 'bandoned them. You see that all the time. Chained up, the chain is rusty and that bike has been there for weeks. I will take one of them and not feel bad at all for doin' it. It's doin my part to clean up the city when the locals won't do it.

I have took a hack saw blade and cut a few minutes at a time till I could get the bike. One time I cut the frame on the bike right there in front of the seat, where the hardened chain went through, and then welded it back up at the body shop where I had just got a job. I cleaned up that bike and sold it for 30 bucks for a room that night. I done that moreBike1 than once, now that I remember it. But I aint did nothin' wrong. It had been there a long time, I could tell by the dirt the way it was on it, and around the bottom of the tires, and on the rims, all the dirt was old and at the bottom. So it aint really stealin. More like recyclin'. And eatin' and keeping me off the streets. Uh... and givin' someone else a chance to own a bike pretty cheap. Maybe twenty bucks or even ten if it ain't too good.

I have tooken parts of abandoned cars and sold them. I have found things what has sat outside too long and sold them too. Or when somebody moves and leaves things in their shed. I have tooken things what was left, like a lawnmower before someone else took it. I needed the money.

Mostly when I go to another place to live, I aint got much money an' sometimes I have to move cause I aint got no money at all. I got to sell somethin', play my guitar or do some work for somebody and get paid before I can even get a room for the night. In the winter that's hard. That's why in the winter I try to stay down south.

If I can get 50 or 60 dollars the first day in town, that' money's goin' for a motel room and some food. But I know I am homeless by checkout time the next day, so I got to get all my stuff out and try to hustle some money somehow, so I got a place to sleep that night. If it's warm weather, it aint so bad. A man can find a place to sleep in a lot of places. A unlocked car behind a body shop or garage is a good one. You just have to be able to wake up when the sun comes up and get your stuff and get outta there. Boats is a good place for a poor man to sleep. People leave 'em on their back yards and they don't pay no attention to them for a month or two at a time.

You can sleep in new houses bein' built, too. I done that plenty. I don't go to no 'bandoned houses. Too many crackheads and drunks. A crackhead will kill you for $5 which you might not even have. I don't hang out in alleys. Don't sleep in no dumpsters, none of that. I aint no bum or mental case. I am a hard workin' man, but when you first hit a new place and aint got nothin' you got to find a place to put your stuff, and to sleep and get food til you get a job and a couple paychecks. Then you can do all right.

Doc Stevens on the Cycle of Poverty: How a sober, working man gets caught in the trap of poverty: Part Two

Thursday, February 19, 2009 8:30 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: In the previous post,which is from an old interview with Doc, he tells about how he got laid off his job at the plant in North Carolina, and couldn't pay his rent. He had a truck with a bad transmission that he was capable of fixing, if he'd had the $175 for a used transmission, and a place to work on it. When he could no longer pay the rent, he had to sell the truck, because it had to be moved. He only got $400 out of it, due to its having a bad transmission.

With that money, he took a bus to Orangeburg, South Carolina, where he had a friend who helped him find a job at an auto body shop. Since Doc was poor, and desperate for work, the shop owner only offered to pay him $8 an hour, with no taxes, social security or other taxes taken out, and no benefits whatsoever.

Doc said this is common for employers of small businesses when they know that a person is broke and needs a job immediately. Of course, the bus ticket cost Doc about $50, and he spent $!39 for a room for a week at a bad motel, and spent some money on groceries and necessities. So he went busking to get "walking around money" and so he could eat.

So, what happens next, Doc?

Doc: Well, like I said, I'm down there with no transportation, and the body shop is maybe five, maybe six miles away. That means I got to hitchike which I aint like doing, or walk to work. I got to leave extra early for both, cause I don't know how long it will take me to get to work. If I get there late, the boss'll think I'm lazy and might fire me. I got to allow more than a hour for gettin' to work. Better early than late.

When a man's new in town an' the boss knows you NEED that job, a lot of times he'll take advantage of your situation. Threaten to fire you, try to cut your pay, yell at you or anything he can to make you scared that you'll lose the job and then lose your room and your stuff. Some time the other workers get jealous of you if you work hard and keep your mouth shut. Some of 'em don't like anyone what aint local. They can give you a hard time. I usually can get along with most anybody, cause that is a survival tool, too, Tondy. Gettin' along.

Pretty much on that first job when you get in town, you gotta take what gets disheds out, til you get on your feet. But you need transportation to do that. Til then, you are stuck and the boss knows it and you do. You might get a boss what is a real Christian, but I aint had but two or three. Most of them is just regular and try to make a buck however they can.

So I go to work leavin' early so I can hitch a ride and take my tool box with me, and my shbodyshopoulder bag. It's a lot for a man to carry. They got my body hammers, dollies, dent puller, DA [orbital sander], air file, primer gun and finish gun with me. If you aint got these basics, you aint gonna get hired no where. You gotta have tools.

Another thing. People don't wanna pick up someone what's hitchhikin' and carryin a bag or toolbox. They think you might have a gun in there and is gonna rob 'em and steal their car. The first few days, you just as well count on hitchhikin only for showin' your face to the people what drives by. After three or four days, they recognise you and then someone might pick you up or tell you to hop in the back of their pickup truck.

Now if you ever leave your tools in your room, they might get tooken, cause of the crack heads, thieves and drunks what stays at cheap motels. Plus me bein' from outta town, an' they seen me carryin' in my stuff. When I take my stuff to work, they might get tooken there, too, if the boss decides to fire me after I left for the day. Or someone may just break in the shop and steal stuff. Other employees might steal your stuff.

I ain't got no wheels, so I gotta keep my stuff with me all the time to keep an eye on 'em. I still got my guitars and little amp in my room what I'm worried about. That kind of worry is part of bein' poor and workin' hard. Bein' robbed, cheated and tooken from is regular when you're a stranger and broke.

"Bein' robbed, cheated and tooken from is regular when you're a stranger and broke."

If I had a van or a truck with a tool box on the back, I could drive to work in 10 minutes, an' keep my tools in the box, an' my guitars in the cab, locked up. And also I could play music somewhere an' pick up a couple of bucks after work. But without a truck or car, I cain't do nothin but work my 8 hours, an' that ties me up about 11 hours due to hitchin a ride or walkin. So I am more broke an' get less sleep than if I had my own wheels.

When I get back to the room, it's like 7:30 an' I have to walk down to the Gas N Go for some little cans of soup and veggies, and Vienna sausage for meat, them little hot dogs. And it costs more than it would at the Bi Lo, but I caint get there with all my tools, and still be able to carry anything, and I caint really hitch hike there, after 7:30 and then hitch hike back with groceries. It's too much. So, I pay too much for too little food, and wonder what I will do till payday. And that's just the second day in Orangeburg, Tondy. It's that way for any man what is poor and tryin' to start his life over.

I'm luckier than most 'cause I got a trade, I got tools of the trade an' Bodyshop2 I got 2 guitars an' I can sing. It's just about tryin' to last long enough to get goin' again, and get some wheels. Then it will be easier. But I will need enough for wheels, tags, insurance, fixin' whatever I can afford, cause all I'll be able to afford will be maybe $500, an' anything what costs only $500, will need a lot of work, and probably tires or a muffler or windshield. You cain't get nothing but a junker for $500.

I got to do that while payin' $139 a week, and always bein' a week away from bein' homeless, an' if I caint pay my rent, they will lock the motel room door on me an' I won't be able to get to my tools or guitars til they is paid in full. And that is every week. Even if you is sober, and got a trade, and a job, it's hard being poor.

You do the math, Tondy. I am tellin' you how it is, an' I ain't even talkin' about supportin' an old lady an' kids. Most men gots an old lady an' two or three kids, and tryin' to do all I'm doin.' Life ain't no good when you are in that kind of setup.

Doc Stevens on the Cycle of Poverty: How a sober working man gets caught in it. Even when he can play guitar & sing. Part One

Tuesday, February 17, 2009 11:03 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: This series of postings are from interviews with Doc Stevens when he was first starting to open up to me. Like a lot of rural Americans, he was suspicious of outsiders (meaning anyone he hasn't known for most of his life) and he was very edgy in his answers, especially, because I was taking pictures, making notes and recording his responses. The next few postings will be from these interviews more than two years ago.

Doc: You want to know how a man who aint a drunk or a druDoc Stevens52ggie ends up bein' poor? They's LOTS of ways to end up poor, Tondy! Lots of ways! I ain't drink or do drugs no more, an' I work hard. I aint gamble, well ... not more than buyin' a couple lottery tickets once or twice a week. You gotta play to win. I aint never won big, but got $300 one time, an it paid my rent.

A poor man has got to play the lottery. He aint gonna make no money on the job, and aint got no prospects. If a poor man is gonna get any real money it'll have to be through that lottery. YOU ain't never been in that position.

I been workin' hard for most of my life, and I have been poor most of my life. It aint laziness, it's just what happens to a lot of folks. Some ends up rich, some ends up poor, and some of the poor ones work harder and longer than some of the rich ones. Me, I'm a hard worker. When I go to work, I work hard and keep my mouth shut.

Tondeleo: So, Doc, give me some examples of how a working man such as yourself can put in a full week's work, and not drink it away or gamble it away and still be poor. A lot of people would not understand that. They say that poverty is a result of laziness, or substance abuse or both. They think a sober working man shouldn't be poor, so you're clearly a drunk or lazy or a thief, or something. That's what they think.

Orangeburg2Doc: You're right. And that's cause they have their heads up they's backsides, Tondy. Like when I went to Orangeburg, South Carolina a few years ago. I been living in Mt. Olive North Carolina and the plant where I worked closed down. I worked at a processin' plant an' did body and fender work on the side. The garage what I was usin' got sold to make room for a Gas N Go.

I had rent to pay and no pay check. Weren't my fault. I sold some things, kept my guitars and my tools for fixin' cars and doing bodywork, and got a bus ticket to Orangeburg, South Carolina which cost about 50 bucks.

Tondeleo: What about your own transport? No car? No pickup truck?

Doc: No truck. The trans had gone on it, and all I could get from it was $400 off a guy down the road. I couldn't afford to fix it, an' had no where to keep it, so I had to let it go. If I had money to stay where I was stayin, I coulda fixed my truck, and bought a trans for $175, an put it in myself. But I was outta rent money.

That's how it goes, when you don't have nothin. If I'd left the truck there after not payin' the rent, the land lady woulda had it towed off, an' I wouldn't have gotten nothin' for it. So 400 bucks was better n' nothin.' That's life.

Tondeleo: Why Orangeburg? How did you pick that city and state?

Doc: I knew a guy what I played in a band with over in Goldsboro, NC, an he moved down to Orangeburg. Said I could find work there and he'd introduce me to people. That's all.

So I got to Orangeburg and stayed that night with him and his old lady and their three kids in their trailer. Slept on the floor. Next day, he took me to a motel out on Rte 301, where you can rent rooms by the week. $139 a week, paid up front. Now I have spent $50 to get there and $139 for my first week's rent and I still aint bought no groceries and aint got no job.

Orangeburg Motel That dirty little room at $139 a week is $556 a month, but aint got to pay no light bill. But I am always a week away from bein' homeless and them keepin' my stuff what's in the room. That's how it is when you stay in a motel. One week away from bein' homless an' losin' your stuff.

And there is the crack heads, crack whores and drunks and thieves what hangs out around them places. Your stuff'll get tooken if you aint got it locked down. An' if you're new in town, they is always someone out there lookin' for a fight. I can fight, but I ain't lookin' to go to jail, an' if you is new in town an' get into a fight, you're the one goin' to jail, cause you ain't local. So I keep to myself and don't talk much.I ain't let nobody in my room to see what I got, neither.

Anyway, I had to eat, and ate at Burger King, and then went to the Gas N Go for some deodorant, shampoo, toilet paper and some food. Guess what, Tondy? None of them things is cheap at a Gas N Go, because they sell you little packages, but it is cheaper than buying it at Bi-Lo where you gotta buy more.

Them Gas N Go places keep you poor. You get a two pack of toilet paper for $2.50. 8 ounces of shampoo for $2.25. That aint no good, but it's all you can do when you're broke. It takes a lot of money to live when you're poor.

"It takes a lot of money to live when you're poor."

Then I had to look for a job. Kenny took me around to the body shops in near the motel, and one of them said I could start Monday, if I'd work for $9 an hour.That aint no good, but a broke man will take what he can get, and the bosses know it. Nine bucks an hour until he sees what I can do. That means he'll pay me nine bucks an hour as long as he can get by with it. I know it and he knows it. They still charge like $45 a hour for my work, but I only get that $9 a hour, under the table.

Tondeleo: Under the table? What's that mean, Doc?

Doc: Under the table means he's payin' you straight cash, no benefits, no insurance, no taxes takin out, no record of you workin' there, no social security. Bosses tell you that's the same as makin' $14 a hour if they was taken out all that. So I guess it is.

Now what am I gonna do for WAM while waitin for the first week's pay?

Tondeleo: WAM?

Doc: WAM - Walkin Around Money. W-A-M. I need money for most everything that first week or two I am in town. Got to eat, got to buy minutes for the cell phone so if I can get hired at a better job they can call. How am I gonna get work if I aint got no phone? Minutes cost money, Tondy. I'm on that 10 cents a minute deal, but you gotta buy 300 minutes at a time. That's 30 bucks gone. I need cash for laundry, too. I aint wearin the same drawers [under pants - Tondeleo] for three or four days in a row. Aint wearin the same socks for four days. Three is my limit.

That is where that guitar comes in. I gotta go play at a open mike or find a place to do some street playing. I got to keep batteries in my amp, too, or it aint no use going out there. So I spend $8 for a four pack of 9 volt batteries. When I went to Orangeburg, all I had with me was my Telecaster and that Peavey battery amp, and that little acoustic guitar.

I hitched a ride to Broughton Street and setbroughton street1 up there playin' for a few hours until the Public Safety cops moved me on. I made about $7 and some change. I played down in front of the Bi Lo for enough food for that Chinese Buffet. Marilyn weren't with me when I was in Orangeburg, so all I had to feed was one mouth.

Tondy, think about it. I got skills. I got tools. I got guitars an' can play an' sing, an' I ain't got no family, an I am barely makin' it at that point. And I am WHITE. A white man's got it a little easier than a black man, especially down south. I ain't gonna lie to you. If you is poor an' black, people automatically figure you're a drunk or a druggie, which you may not be.

Now think of this. What if I was a man with two or three small kids and an old lady? All of us in that motel room, an' her stayin' there with the kids whinin' all day, an' me out there tryin' to survive til my first paycheck? Am I gonna have to steal SOMETHING just to get through the week? What do you think? I'd have kids wakin' up cryin' with empty bellies and no food! Of course I'd steal something an' sell it. An' you ain't gettin' no help outta social services that first month at all. An' the churches ain't got the money people thinks they got, so they ain't no choice for a poor man with kids and an old lady but for to steal - at first, anyways.

That's the beginning of how a working man can get into poverty, Tondy. Bus fare, motel room rent, laundry mat, eatin' out cause he aint got no kitchen, and that room aint had no microwave, and waitin' a week to get paid just $350. That's all the boss is gonna come up with. I know it. And I will tell you after the first week, the boss is always tryin' to find a way to pay you less, like sayin' he had to pay his shop rent, or that a customer's check done bounced and he aint got enough for himself so how can he pay you? And, what are you gonna do about it? Nothin'. There ain't nothin you CAN do about it.

Like I say, that guitar is a lifesaver for a poor man.