Rooms For Rent

While I was out late this afternoon, I snapped a few photos.  This old motel was seedy when I moved here in 1976.  I don’t think much has improved about it since.  I cannot imagine the roach population in that damp, crumbling place.  I see this motel every day as I drive down the main street that runs through the entire town.  I think the arrow lights stopped working many years ago.  Everybody knows where the motel is anyway.  No need for the lights, I guess.

I assume people pay by the week or by the month.  Maybe, by the day if they find themselves stranded unexpectedly in Victoria.  Occasionally, a homeless person scrapes together enough money to stay overnight to wash himself and his clothes.  To sleep soundly once in awhile.  To feel a little like a real person.  I bet.

This motel is one of the few rundown old haunts where I don’t recall having had a client.  I was a social worker for the Department of Human Services for a few years after we moved to Victoria.  I had to find the mothers of the children who were eligible for our medical screening program.  That took me into most of the dark hovels in downtown.  If any of them lived here, they didn’t confess it.

Although I was parked in an empty lot across the little side street, I could hear the television going and see the flickering lights from it.  The fan was going too.  I’m sure it was damp and hot in the room.  Perhaps, the tenant was attempting to dry out the mold.  People lose a great deal from poverty, but the sense of smell is not one of them.   I noticed that one room with an open window had an air conditioning unit in the other window.  It was running full blast.  It interests me that proprietors of these kinds of buildings simply nail plywood over any window when they no longer want the window to be where it is.  Then, they simply paint over the plywood as if it were part of the original construction.  Something about that practice bothers me.  I think it’s an indication of a particular lack of respect for structures and the people who live and work in them.

This woman came out of the motel and walked down the street beside the motel into a residential area.  She lurched along due to some disability.  She had graying hair and looked to be about thirty-five or forty years old.  Perhaps, she’s younger.  Perhaps, she works there.   Although I was out of my car with a camera as she walked by, she didn’t look in my direction.  She’s accustomed to street noise, I thought.  She minds her own business.  Whatever I was doing with a camera was not her business.

What I am doing with this camera is meddling in other people’s business, I thought to myself as I got back in my car.  Why aren’t you over on the other side of town photographing nice, new hotels and their patrons?  Is there something about paying by the week that separates people?  Something about poverty and hard luck that appeals to us?  Broken buildings and broken people.  Does our fascination with the details of their lives lie in our innate smugness.  We don’t know this place.  We don’t know this woman.  Neither of them is our business.

I stopped at the Subway for a chicken sandwich for my dinner.  It didn’t sit well on my stomach.  I couldn’t shake off the feeling of unease, almost shame, that I felt.  People are all the same.  I know that.  Pain and sorrow and brokenness and every foible of mankind is shared equally across cultural, religious, socioeconomic, and caste lines.  People who have more resources are able to bring their lives in off the street where their problems are not as visible.   Money covers up most problems like a thick scab.  The kind that covers a deep, festering sore, I thought.

NOTE:  Terri over at Daily Sweet Peas reminded me today of  Jacob Jacob August Riis ‘ photographic chronicle of immigrant life in 1890 in NYC in the classic, How The Other Half Lives.  Not a great deal has changed about the circumstances of poverty in this country.  What has changed is the cycle of poverty.  A permanent underclass has developed over the years.  Poverty is no longer a temporary condition.  It is an established way of life for millions of Americans.

36 Comments on “Rooms For Rent

  1. This is very much like post I have planned for Denver when I return. I love this kind of look at life which so many of us conveniently ignore each day. You are an artist and the best kind

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  2. One of the crucial questions that has stayed with me from this post for the last several days is how does one document and represent poverty in a way that is honest at the same time not invasive or exploitative. It is an important subject, one we must not turn away from, and yet how do we can we look at it without lowering our eyes? What sort of representation examines poverty fearlessly and lets us see straight on, without detachment? An excellent post, George. One that is sure to continue to occupy my thoughts, and I thank you for that.

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    • I never had a second thought about it when I worked in the middle of it, but being on the outside now looking back or in, I felt a little strange. I don’t know how one does that. It’s not easy because you can never determine how your work will be interpreted. I suppose you record and don’t worry. However, what do you choose to record? There again, you are interpreting for the viewer or trying to express your own agenda. Aren’t you?

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    • Thank you for reminding me of Riis. I couldn’t find my book so I ordered another. Your presentation of his work made me think about the differences in the forced poverty of circumstance of the immigrants versus the cycle of poverty that we see today.

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  3. One of the illusions of American & Canadian society is that somehow poverty is a choice. That if you try and really work hard you can escape. Poverty is accompanied by poor nutrition, unhealthy living conditions, and inadequate health care. It means any child being raised in these conditions will be physically, intellectually, and emotionally ill-prepared for taking advantage of a proper education ( assuming that there is a proper education being provided). Without an education chances are that they will be trapped in poverty.

    The art of documenting this situation through photography is challenging.

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    • You are right, Joseph. When I was a social worker for poor and disabled and old people, I was asked to justify expenditures on programs for them. I could never get a fix on how it was possible that another human being did not understand the situation instinctively. People still cling to the nineteenth century concept of the “deserving poor”. Little is widely understood about the dynamics of poverty. I wonder where that will take us in the end.

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    • Thanks, Gail. I was surprised by how uncomfortable I was with the idea of having taken that woman’s photograph. Poverty, like war, is a sterile concept until we are forced to look at the bodies in the bombed-out shells of buildings. I can’t imagine how journalists handle those kinds of questions.

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      • I think (they must think) they are making people aware of what is going on…at least thats what I think I would feel….
        I try to give a buck to two to people I steal a picture from….
        G

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    • I wish I could come to a place in which I am comfortable with presenting poverty. I do not want to contribute to the body of ignorance about the dynamics of poverty that is already ingrained in the collective social psyche. As I mentioned to a blogger here, the image of the baby girl in Bangladesh crawling weakly toward a food station with the vulture following her is imprinted on my brain. The journalist did not touch the child. He left her there and never knew whether she made it. Three months later, he shot himself. Chronicling human suffering is something I could never have done objectively. There are too many ethical problems associated with it. It is just too difficult to do.

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      • Hmmnn…I agree. I wrote a poem on poverty and I looked at it loosely from my experience, environment and thoughts. It’s unfortunate that we live in a world where innocents are starving from hunger and lack of water, and yet men and women in the later years of their lives are sitting on millions stolen from the people they swore to protect during their campaigns. It’s disheartening that despite how far we have come as a world, we still have very far to go.

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  4. Your post makes us think and be grateful for what we have. I liked the last sentence of the post…how true. We never know what goes on inside those mansions.

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    • The same things go on. We don’t want to think it is true, but it is. What difference does it make if one is screaming grammatically or ungrammatically as he beats his wife or drinks himself to death?

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    • Well, we all care. I don’t know anybody here who simply doesn’t care. Sometimes, I think we forget and that’s normal because desperate situations are not common for us. We can’t expect ourselves to bleed to death for another, can we? I am no good at telling an objective story. Everything I see is very personal to me. That is no good for social work or journalism. Actually, I was a good social worker for years. Now, I had trouble with the ethical question of invasion of privacy when I took that photo of the woman. I have never been in that situation before. I think if we record another person, we bear the responsibility to do it objectively. I don’t know that I could ever do that.

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  5. i can remember two times in my life when i was about two weeks away from being homeless. i remember wondering what and how i was going to tell my kids and family. each time, luck – which i don’t believe in – showed up. the first time i was in a very poorly-paying job and got a phone call while there about a new career position that saved me. i remember walking out of the crappy job without a word to anyone. i was so happy i didn’t care, but i also didn’t want to seem like i was demeaning anyone there. the second time, a lovely person invited me to live with her for what turned out to be years. now, i’m blessed with a wonderful home as well as a place at the beach for when i need to get away from other things and other people. but i didn’t sit on my ass and wait or pray. i kept digging until i hit something. or something hit me.

    i realize that has little to do with your post, but it’s what came to mind.

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    • In your case, you were unfortunate to have found yourself in a “homeless” situation. The real reason you did not remain there is because you did not belong there. You did not see yourself there. It was abhorrent to your sense of self. If you’d grown up there, you would have remained there most likely. It’s a shock to think any of us might just find ourselves in that situation. J. Paul Getty said that even at his most successful he was one bad deal away from being penniless again. I never forgot that. I read his book many years ago. He kind of put things in perspective.

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  6. I think it good that it didn’t feel quite right to take the photos once people were involved. You knew they were there, behind the windows and curtains, but once you see them it changes everything. We would never go to a wealthy person’s home and assume we can stand across the street and photograph them, yet it seems ok for others. Its something I’ve questioned myself about many times.

    Your narration on this post was excellent.

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    • I know. I never felt uncomfortable when I was a social worker in the most desperate of situations. But, suddenly, I was confronted with being on the other side of the fence looking in and I had no excuse for being there. It was a sobering feeling. I have to rethink my feelings about that. Do you recall the famous photo of the starving child in Bangladesh who was crawling toward a food station with a bird of carrion following her? That journalist did not touch the child. He shot himself a few months later.

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      • Wow…I remember that.

        It’s strange that while in places like Timor, Nicaragua, or Bali I don’t think twice about pulling out my camera and taking pictures of people on the street, people in markets, even children. Yet in places such as the US or Australia one would never assume to take pictures…especially of children …without permission. I’ve have seen the work of Street Photographers who manage to pull it off quite well. I now play this by ear…unless it’s a crowd scene, or a shot where the activity is the focus…such as in markets, I now always ask permission. It’s true that in some places if one pulls out a camera on the street…children flock to you. I see this as permission to photograph…but maybe I’m wrong.

        I think with journalists it’s different, they are there to cover a story, and as such they must take photographs…but I do remember that one photograph you mentioned, and I can almost understand the reaction of the photographer.

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        • I think he was shocked by his own reaction when he looked back at it. When the photo became famous, he just couldn’t hide from it anymore. I did not hold his failure to help the child against him, but I did wonder how in the world he failed to react on a purely human level. I was confused about my reaction to photographing a perfectly well-fed woman on the street who did not need my help. What must he have endured? He couldn’t go back and fix that. It still bothers me every time I look at that child’s photograph. I know a young man who lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He was born there. I asked him about the photo. He said it was an accurate depiction of life for poor people there. I suppose things like poverty are relative depending on what we grow up looking at. There is a street photographer from Germany who posts several times a day. Cornelia Lohs, http://strassenfotojournal.com. She does not ask permission I am sure, but her photos are of “well-fed” society. I just can’t figure out why I reacted the way I did. I am intimately familiar and comfortable with that woman’s life. I just had some trepidation about showing her. I guess I just don’t want to add to the misperception society has about people in her life situation. I have to think about whether I should ever do this again. Thanks, Alex. You always help me.

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  7. A very thoughtful post, George. I remember not having enough to eat. I slept a lot and lost twelve kilos. People lent me some money for rent but there wasn’t enough for food. When I managed to get a full-time job for three months, I paid everyone back which meant that I couldn’t put any money aside for when my contract ended. I was never homeless because of the help that I had received, but it was a close thing. And the humiliation of having to ask for help… Bad times…

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    • I was never close to being hungry or worrying about a place to live. I know I was lucky. It just never occurred to me that things wouldn’t go along well. How naive I was. I could have gone home to my parents if worse came to worse. I suppose that’s why I never felt vulnerable in that way. I knew a girl very well who did have no one to help her. She is conservative with her money and even with food to this day. I am a reckless spendthrift by comparison.

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  8. Beautiful post, George…and the commentary is as compelling as the narrative. Thought-provoking…memories rise and swirl again…never far away…and the whiff of humanity endures. Thank you.

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    • Yep, Scott. I thought I’d found a convenient detached place for those memories. There is a kind of dissonance in my head about all of that. Where did we put ourselves when we were immersed in it all? I cannot remember.

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      • We were busy trying to do something about it, Dear George…our hearts were one or two steps away as they drove our brains to be active and doing something that might make a difference…. And then we moved on, and away, and doing something else…and we tucked those memories away where they wouldn’t interfere in the happiness that we were trying to create for ourselves…and then one day or many days, we drive past those places with rooms for rent by the hour, day, week…or for eternity, and we remember again, and our hearts are sad…and tired…because we gave so much…and we’re left with the aching memories, but we do remember and we’re richer because of them….

        Precious George and your tender heart…thank you for being you.

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        • Yeah, we didn’t have the time or the energy to think much about it then. We were too close to it…in the middle of it trying to handle the problems the best we could and worrying that it wouldn’t be enough. We knew it wouldn’t. It’s strange that I never even tried to tell anybody about the things I saw. Those things were hardly believable out of context. Things we saw and helped with would seem almost obscene unless you were there. The pain is hard to imagine. Nobody survives in our line of work unless he has the ability to remain one step removed. Maybe we just become one of the people we try to help. That’s how we stay. I dunno. I know the weariness you’re talking about. It wins out in the end. That’s what I felt looking into that window. I suspect I just did not want to go back there. Thanks for understanding this, Scott.

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          • Thank you for these words, too, George…so right on again…we just have to turn around at some point. And you’re most welcome…my Kindred Spirit. 🙂

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  9. I often wonder what kind of lives are lead in places like these. I hold out for hope that there is some happiness and the joys of family, but I can imagine the lows must be pretty low. That is interesting that you were a social worker. It must have been difficult for your kind heart, but I’ll bet you helped a lot of people.

    e.

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    • No. I suppose not. I never felt any guilt when I was a social worker. I felt a sense of unease about photographing the place after I saw the woman walking away. We can remove ourselves from any situation as long as there are no real people in the picture. It is when we see people that the circumstance becomes more than an academic exercise. As long as we don’t have to look at the bloated bodies among the rubble of gutted buildings, we are not horrified by war either.

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    • Yep. We forget to appreciate our good fortune, don’t we. I never forgot it as long as I was a social worker, but I have managed to push it to the back of my head for a few years now. That is not good. Thanks for coming by. I have to visit you too!

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