You know you’ve thought about it: running out of luck at last and being thrown out on your ear onto the mean streets. Foreclosure, bankruptcy, unemployment. The humiliating endgame you’ve dreaded and dodged your whole life. Exposed and homeless – at long, long last. It’s the ultimate American nightmare. Horatio Alger with a dark, nasty twist.
How much of a buffer do you have left in this merciless economy? Six months? Four? Or are you watching the red bar creep to DEFCON 1?
Suddenly you’re starring in the reality show about your biggest fear. There you are, pushing a liberated shopping cart, or dragging a bag filled with scavenged empties. Unwashed, bleary-eyed, raving to folk unseen. All the cliches. There you stand on the corner, not even trying to see through the whizzing window-tint to that life you once lived. Invisible. Damned to capitalism’s seventh hell. That’s the new you.
Me? I’ve been polishing the shopping cart for almost as long as I’ve been in the work force. I never felt secure about a purchase over $50; always felt like I was prospering at the whim of unseen forces. The more money I made, the further up the greasy ladder I climbed, the further I suspected I would fall. The safety net I had woven too flimsy for reality.
No worries, Mate. It’s not just you and me. Ask any psychologist. Practically everyone has similar fears. Doesn’t that make you feel better? Me either.
No matter how I prosper, I identify with that poor schmuck on the corner. I never shook the uneasy feeling that he was not something alien to me, not a different species, but a harbinger of all my tomorrows. And I always suspected any good fortune I came by was just a delaying tactic.
When I was a kid my father joked about the “poorhouse,” a quaint horror borrowed from our cultural forebears. A sort of concentration camp for the homeless. Now it sounds almost warm and fuzzy. A place to go when you hit bottom, a kind of afterlife for losers. Sure sounds better than the anarchy of a hobo jungle or an alley filled with soiled refrigerator crates. At least the olden destitute had three hots, a cot and a real address.
What drives this gnawing fear? Is it the lack of shelter? Insecurity? Poverty? Pride? What’s the worst thing about homelessness, anyway? Is it knowing that you’re culturally dead? –A shambling zombie doomed to wander the netherworld, no longer part of the economically living? Not inhuman. But definitely not living the dream anymore.
Then there’s the queasy suspicion that becoming homeless might be a relief. Maybe more authentic. What’s the worst thing that could happen? The shame of failure? A bad wardrobe? No car payment? An end to the financial madness? It can’t be lack of health care –we’re all going there.
I’ve spent a lot of time living the modern American life of credit cards, urban lawns, mortgages, well-paying jobs, most of it feeling like a poorly disguised impostor. Faking my way through success, terrified someone would blow my cover, call me out, expose me.
How about you? There you are, tap dancing your way through the obstacle course or teetering across the high wire, then somebody blows a whistle. For a moment all the lights fall on you, and –BANG!– you’re on a street corner and there’s no light at all. You’ve become invisible. You’ve been all that you can be.
Fear a thing so long, and when it’s on you, you don’t have to dread it any more. The worst has happened. It’s over. What else can they do to you? Isn’t that some kind of relief? At least you finally project yourself the way you’ve always felt. You no longer dread being found out. In the words of a dusty prophet of ages past, “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.” You’re the real thing, and you can finally be honest with the world about your true nature and your lack of worth. Authentic as your thrift store Dickies.
All that’s left is for you to push on, into this next American adventure. Not the ending you thought before the dreams all turned to dust. Not really even an ending. You still breathe, still think, still feel. But you don’t have to feel like a faker any more. It’s all horribly real.
You and your brand new set of fears may finally be ahead of your time.