Monday, February 1, 2010

Open Letter to William T. Vollman

I totally wrote this intending to be funny but he's just so damn depressing that it didn't come out funny at all. He wrote an essay about an oil refinery in a place called Sarykamys near the Caspian sea. It basically made me see my van as an oven that bakes Kazakh children so I don't have to walk to Shaws.

If you want funny then go check out The Onion. "Bunch of Phonies mourn Salinger."

here it is...a flawed and rambling letter. If I can find his address in Sacramento or the address of his agent then I'll send it to him.

Open Letter to William T. Vollmann

Dear Mr. Vollmann,
In your book Poor People you asked a question of those you met: Why are you poor? I have decided to interview myself with your questions.
The questions are:
Do you consider yourself poor?
Why are you poor?
Do the rich have any obligation to you?

I am poor. I live on $12 of food a week and $107 a week in rent. So $119 a week. This is the minimum amount of expense to live independently. My current income is $0. My 2009 tax return showed $900 for my yearly income. Beggars on the street corner make more than that. Because I am educated I am often accused of being poor by choice. These are not the terms I use to define my life with but I can see how another person might use them. During a gang rape the guy who refrains from participating is considered disloyal, even flawed. That’s how I see myself. I’m the asshole who doesn’t participate in the gang rape.

I’ve often theorized that I am poor because I am educated. But then I remember that my nature had germinated before 2nd grade so that’s not a plausible reason. Gang rape never appealed to me. Am I poor? Yes. Have I met poorer people? Yes. Do I know poorer people? I thought so until one of them just told me she wanted to help me out by letting me work some rent off by putting tile on their bathroom. Here, I thought I was slightly richer than she is but to her I am the poorer one, the one who needs help. Incidentally, I do need help with rent. I can not afford the $107 a week. I can not afford any money for anything because there is no income to replace what I would be spending and debt is repulsive to me. I will retile their bathroom floor and whatever they think it was worth will be deducted from my rent. A month ago I told her I would do it for free but I think she waited until she could make me feel useful and pay me. Recently I lived in a van that I own and $100 a week would buy lots and lots of groceries and gas. In the van my daily expenses can be as low as $2. I am very comfortable with $3. (Before you say that my van is an asset I should mention that I tried to sell it and got one offer of $300 that the person later retracted once he saw it. The dump would give me $50 for it.) Now this money is spent on heat and electricity because I am in a place with sub zero temperatures. Am I poor in New Hampshire while in Mexico I was rich? Yes, it turns out; I was rich in Mexico, offering money for services, and am poor in New Hampshire, bartering services for less debt. Do my education and dormant job skills make me less poor? No, I don’t think so. I am poor and until I am not poor then I am poor. A parked car is not a fast car; it’s parked; it’s as speedy as a car in a junk yard with no wheels. They both have potential energy but one has more readily accessed energy. I have potential energy, but do I have more readily accessed potential energy than Sunee, the woman you met in Thailand? That’s debatable. If you had a bathroom to clean I would recommend you hire Sunee. Sunee could be trained to do everything I can do. If she failed to satisfy you in every way I would then examine your training methods. And if I did this job for you it would not make me unpoor. That money would simply pay off my necessary expenses. Also, if I cleaned your bathroom I would resent you and make both of us less rich.

Speaking of debt…the rich people you know, do they own everything they use? It’s theirs? They own their house? They are debt free? They are rich? They are not poor? What does that mean? I can say I am poor with no debt. They are rich with a gigantic amount of debt? I know one person who is not poor but he has a multi-million dollar judgment against him, a judgment he can not honor, and so has fled justice and lives in big house. Does that make him less rich? The house he lived in that he did not own still was warm in the winter. His car was bought with credit and then seized but does that reduce the luxury and service it gave him while he used it? He never owned it. He used the car and the bank owned his promise. His promise was not good so they took the car. But he was still using it on the strength of a bad promise. Do I see the entire population of the United State as fugitives from justice? Yes. Don’t you?

A new $600,000 home bought in California with little money down…a mortgage that becomes too great…the “owner” ceases to pay the mortgage…lives in the house…destroys it…the bank (via the original developers) now “owns” it…the owner was rich, no? Is he richer than me who lived in a van with no mortgage, eating $6 of food a day, richer than Sunee who lacked debt and also lacked food? Ah, this train of thought was already dealt with in your analysis of Thoreau. “Never mind; exclude Thoreau and nomadic hunters.”
Am I not a good example because of my Thoreauvian bent?
Yes, philosophy is not the main objective of your book and Thoreau posed transcendental questions that are fanciful compared to the real problem of poor children on the street. Thoreau did not travel very far so did not have your experiences. There is no way to address his philosophy at the same time as the practical U.N. type of dilemmas you raise. I wish I could stick to a question as doggedly as you do. (Did I mention how much I admire your writing?)

Still, there is something about my question about what makes a person rich? Is Donald Trump rich? What are his skills? Can he change the oil in my van? Can he clean my teeth or give me a drug to make my knee pain go away? What does he do? He lives like a rich person but is his skill in merely separating money from others at the heart of his status, and does he actually own what he uses? And is that the end goal of life, to use more things whether you own them or not? The casino he builds is worth what? The tradesman who builds the casino did exactly what for society? Erase Las Vegas and is the world poorer? Isn’t sociology a relative of philosophy?

When a man who lives in a van he owns is repulsive to people who live in homes they can’t afford because…then we are getting to the heart of the next question…

Why are you poor?
The first time you asked this question to Sunee, I thought, Why are you here before this person asking why they are poor? In fact, you never really explain your motives. Why did you write that book? Are you merely a journalist? There are lots of questions to ask, so why ask this one? Did anyone ever ask you why you were asking that question? You want to “show and compare” but why show and compare poor people? You want to “make sense of phenomena”, so why this phenomena? I don’t think you are being completely honest and I think that’s denying your readers and yourself some dimension of understanding.
Why are you poor? I think the answer extends back into so many divided tendrils of cause and effect it’s impossible to give a straight answer. So your thesis was more like, how would a poor person respond to this question, what reaction would you elicit, rather than what conclusion would be reached. I understand you must ask this simple question…but what does it mean to be poor? A person’s potential income is considered a bankable quantity. Why? When so much evidence would suggest you either own a house or you do not own a house. How can a bank own your house and allow you to define yourself as rich? Or take a mortgage broker, whose job is to create phantom owners of property, who is himself a phantom owner of a property. His currency is derived from what? What is the essence of his richness? What is the essence of my poorness? Ah, and then a government, a nasty government with a budget and debt so confounding I have no problem in pleading ignorance…but that doesn’t stop me from wondering what makes our country rich? Do we own anything? We consume lots, but do we own it? From small (my friend’s unpaid credit card) to large (our deficit to China) on paper we are poor…Incredibly poor, but skating by on potential energy, potential value, faith. What if I don’t acknowledge that potential value because my trust has been irrevocably eroded? What if I call out the national debt? If we were all expected to pay our debts, could you? Could our country? And if we could, is the “money” we use to pay these debts representative of something? The mortgage broker who collected his salary as his company pissed millions away on good faith debtors, and then was bailed out by an impoverished government to survive. I know you wrote your book before the current financial crisis but would you change your conclusions to question these false rich? He pays his house mortgage with what? What is his money worth? What service did he provide for his wealth? Nothing illegal, but what? He was arguably paid to tear up IOU notes. And where did his salary come from? What does it represent? I can’t help mentioning that our country spends more money fighting wars than most countries spend on everything! So where does our money come from? How are these wars funded? With federal taxes from the mortgage broker? And what were those taxes actually worth? Even a bullet? A rivet in a utility belt? A pedal cover on a Humvee? A bomb? I suspect that the real value of his taxes was zero and therefore not worth anything. His service was fraudulent and provided nothing to no one. It resulted in fraud and destruction. Thus he did not deserve any compensation and any compensation he received so far was valueless. He contributed an empty gesture to the war fund and nothing more. The wars are funded with phantom currency based on potential energy that is akin to a car in junk yard. The junked car and the mortgage broker technically have value, but only in how well you can dupe a buyer. We are rich, yes, rich in everything except a concrete way to pay for everything…a currency that represents something. I go to the store and see people buy grapes from Chile with food stamps. What does that mean in practical terms? We have a war that no country could ever actually afford…but it’s happening…so does that automatically mean we can afford it? How, with subsidized grapes? Or does it mean we are getting away with it. My friend who lived in the house he didn’t own, the million dollar judgment…what did he or does he ever own? His credit card was worth what when it paid for gasoline from Saudi Arabia? Sunee’s daughter had a job but that did not make Sunee less poor. I read your book on loan from the local library. Were the words scrambled because I didn’t pay for it? No. You are not poor but it isn’t my fault because I didn’t pay you any money. Do you provide a service worth a house? Or do you accept that because you live in a house you must provide a service worth a house? Because B, then A.

I think our economy is based not on production and consumption but on debt support. And if our economy is based on debt then that means the world’s economy is based on debt. The game then becomes who can accrue the most debt before they die. This is a simple yet complex game. Illiterate people can get a credit card…but the trick is to pay only the minimum while always spending more. That takes some skill because you are expected to patiently bleed the system and most people aren’t patient. If you can die any day, why should you be patient? Another friend maxed out two credit cards. $40,000 in debt (plus 23% interest). She didn’t pay a penny. 7 years later the collectors stopped calling. “It’s like it never happened,” she said happily because she is not poor now.

Why am I poor? Because this game is blatantly fraudulent to me. My country, my government, most people I know produce absolutely nothing of value or don’t pay for real value of what they buy. Everything, including pollution control and job security, is being postponed until later or outsourced to another country. Everywhere I go I see ignored debt, phantom industries based on other phantom industries (an example of this would be a food service that exclusively serves a football stadium), rampant drug use and a great maelstrom of money that has no recognizable source or system. The philosophical maxim seems to be “Get it in your mouth first. Chew. Swallow. Grab more.” Entertainment and drug related things seem to have greatest value as do their companions, prison and law. Education and farming are like dirty secrets. The rule seems to be that once you have the money then you should pass it off, launder it, to some one else and then that thing or service you bought becomes “yours” regardless of the source of the money. The Yakuza either must be good farmers to supply food for themselves or else their phantom currency is treated as good for some reason.

The city I live in has historic mills that used to make socks. A wood mill was nearby that made fancy banisters, wooden candle holders and golf tees. The area still has many manufacturing warehouses. I worked in one that manufactured industrial sized aluminum heat sinks. These heat sinks might end up in a cell phone transmitter tower or in a gigantic LCD screen. They sell aluminum, but did they ever own it? They paid someone to refine it, but I have to question if they owned it in the first place. Is that not a fair question to ask? Am I not responsible for my employer’s methods and designs? Can I morally trade disputed property or participate in non-sustainable industry? A man steals a VCR, sells it, is the money his? He can buy food with it. Does he own the food? Does it taste bad? A company takes aluminum, sells it. But did they own the aluminum? They paid me for my time and that money now pays for electricity and heat and space in a house. Does the heat still comfort me, though the money came from this suspicious source? No, but I know the difference between the sun and hot water heat. And I know where aluminum comes from. I may tolerate its production today but will that opinion never change?
Why am I poor? Because I will not beg, go into debt, or work for a company that sells what it doesn’t own. I will not commit theft or work for those who commit theft. Is there a water powered sock mill in town? Not any more.

Lastly, do the rich have an obligation to me? Yes, to be honest, to not steal, to indisputably own what they sell, to take full responsibility for everything they deal with, to sell products of value that do not impinge on the health and welfare of others, to protect the environment above all else, unless they personally planted a tree 800 years ago and tended it then they don’t get to cut that tree down, to accept that animals are not casual fuel for humans, to practice sustainable production methods, to use no more than they need, to accept only cash and to spend only cash, to balance their budgets to zero debt, to provide services that offend no one, to contribute something lasting and beloved by all of society. That’s their obligation to me and my obligation to them. If they don’t make some attempt to respect these obligations then they are thieves. They aren’t rich or poor. They are just thieves running free in a land of thieves. If you know someone who does respect these obligations please forward my contact information to them as I am looking for work. Otherwise, I suggest your next book be entitled "Rich People” and the question you ask is “Why are you rich?”
There is a land developer near Austin who was horrified when a vacant land plot he “owned” lost half its value because a nearby stream needed protecting. “Where did that ten million dollars go?” he asked. Start with him.

P.S. I forgot to renew your book on time so it became overdue. But my library doesn’t charge fines, instead it asks for donations to the food bank. Even though I live at a house the food bank provides for, I gave a can of food in exchange for my memory lapse. Did I not then donate to myself as a penalty? Isn’t that what took place on a grander scale during the mortgage meltdown on ’08 and the following bailout?
Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.