Sunday, December 5, 2010

Images of resourcefulness: Part 3

I am poor.

My last tuition bill ($1,089) is coming up, and my savings continue to dwindle away ($1,933). When I graduate in May, I will--if all goes well--only have a couple hundred dollars left. To fix my money woes, I have upped my hours at my part-time job (from 7 to 13), but these gains have been offset by more van repair costs.

For the past month I haven't been able to start my van without a jump. At first, I thought this was a minor battery issue, but after having the battery charged by a friend for three hours (and it dying soon after), I've been told that I need a new alternator, which supposedly will cost me another precious $200.

I rarely drive the van, so this is no big deal. I have, however, had to begin walking to work, which is 27 minutes each way. Needless to be said, this is inconvenient, but I've enjoyed these long, leisurely walks more than I thought I would. On them, I find myself thinking more clearly than I do on, say, arduous mountain-trail hikes, or on my comparably smaller walks around campus.

Because of limited funds, I decided to cut back in other areas. For one, I haven't done laundry once in the last two months. Laundry can actually be a fairly large expense--sometimes it costs as much as $10 per visit. I've found that the size of my laundry bill is largely determined by the weather. In hot weather, I do laundry every two weeks since I'm constantly sweating; in cold weather, I wash them about once a month.

Above, you can see that my laundry bin has begun overflowing. My goal is to go without washing my clothes until Dec. 17th--the day when I'll finally have access to a free washer and dryer. I started last week with my last two pairs of clean pants. Despite my dearth of pants, I thought that reaching my goal would still be a piece of cake. This, however, became all the more difficult because--when tutoring at the elementary school I work at last week--I'd unknowingly sat in a chair that had been soaked with spilled chocolate milk.

I didn't realize my pants were soaked until I stood up and Tanee--my 9-year-old tutee-- exasperatedly remarked, "Mr. Ken! Whaddyou do to your pants?" I quickly discerned that I was in a precarious situation. I've developed a solid reputation at the elementary school these past couple years, and I knew that, within seconds, that reputation would be compromised if news of me peeing my pants spread to all other tittering classrooms. But after two years of working closely with little kids, I've learned a great deal about child psychology--especially that you can make anything sound cool as long as you say it with a bit of sarcasm and bravado. I responded: "What do you think I did? I peed my pants...... duh."

So now, the only pants I have left are my dress pants that I bought for my 1997 freshman high school homecoming dance. It's the great irony of my situation that the poorer I get, the better I look.

Seeing as how I only have about 7-8 pairs of underwear, you can easily do the math to learn how much use I get out of a pair before it's relegated to the laundry bin. While this normally hasn't been the case, I've been wearing each one until I could no longer trust my pants to keep inside the eye-watering smells steaming from my groinal region. As each week passed, I observed--with due disconcertion--that I'd soon be out of undergarments. I did an inventory of the rest of my clothes to see if it really was time to spend my $10 at the laundromat. But I learned that--as long as my pair of 9th grade dress pants stayed clean--I had more than enough socks and shirts to get me to the 17th.

As you'll see below, I've dealt with the situation by washing my underwear with me in the shower with bar soap, and drying them under the hand dryers, which has worked out fairly well.

This semester I joined the campus farming club. Amazingly, Duke has a small garden and an apiary. Here we are harvesting fall vegetables. I took to the van with me peppers, broccoli, sweet potatoes, squash, and jalepenos.

I think having a campus farm is a wonderful idea. Wouldn't it be great if the dining halls were supplied with homegrown food? What if students were obligated to work five hours a week on the farm, or some on farm-related activity like canning, building outbuildings, milking cows, etc. This way, students could cut back on food costs and learn valuable manual trades to complement their theoretical education. Also, I see that Duke has tons of oak, maple, and dogwood trees. Why aren't there more apple, peach, and pear trees? Not just at Duke, but everywhere? Why not plant a tree in your lawn that looks pretty and produces tasty food? But why bother asking... These ideas probably make too much sense to actually work.

My new parking lot has hardly affected my life, except that I'm no longer within walking distance of some of the libraries. So some nights--when I've been up most of the night working on an assignment--I must find other places to sleep. Here, I've pushed two chairs together in the library and used my coat as a pillow.

I've continued to get meals any way I can. After my op-ed ran in the student newspaper, I got an email from a student inviting me to "Asian food night," hosted by a group of young Christian ministers. I ate from the buffet, gluttonously, like a camel storing water before a long march across a desert. I also filled up my Tupperware so I could eat for free the next day.

Oftentimes I'll go to a new place to study. (I've found that a change of scenery sometimes improves my studying habits.) Once I sat at a table next to a campus restaurant. When they were shutting down, one of the employees--not knowing who or how hungry I was--asked me if I wanted a chicken salad that they hadn't sold and were about to throw away. I can't express how delighted I was; she might as well have been handing over a brick of gold.

After that, I found myself habitually wandering back there at night--around the restaurant's closing time. Much to my delight, they continued to offer me sandwiches, subs, and salads that they didn't sell. Sometimes they wouldn't offer me anything, but that was okay because I'd been observing what they did to all that uneaten food. When I saw them dump it into the garbage, I knew that I'd found a nightly source of good, clean, healthy food--all wrapped in protective plastic. Since then, I've been fishing out my favorites.

Below, I'm eating a turkey and cheese sandwich along with a mozzarella salad with Italian dressing.

I laugh whenever I get away with things like these--perhaps because it feels like I'm breaking the rules or doing something wrong. But I'm really only violating people's perceptions of what's wrong. While finding free food and washing your underwear in the shower may seem aberrant to most, it's far more sensible than going back into debt to me.

And of course I'm not really poor. Real poverty is what 1/5th of the world lives in. No matter what, every day I have food to eat and a warm place to sleep. And even though I will graduate with hardly anything in the bank, I know I have friends and family who I can rely on for help. I certainly will not have a degree that will get me a million-dollar job, but I can always teach or go back to the Park Service--and live more than comfortably on the wages from those jobs. Real poverty is having no way out; I'm just playing with poverty.

But there's more. There's a poverty of the mind. One is not poor because of the size of his wage, or the brand of his car, but because of the makeup of his mind. One is cast into a chronic state of need when he--by comparison--perceives himself to be less well-off than those around him. Put a man in a country club and he will suddenly feel the "need" for a yacht; put him on a solitary island and his only desires will be food, shelter, and companionship. Being "well off" is not a matter of fulfilling needs or hurdling over poverty lines; it's a matter of outdoing your neighbors; and it's a matter of buying into their notion of wealth, without ever thinking of creating your own.

The van, for me, has been a quarantine of sorts. While I am around thousands of students physically, I've severed myself from them in almost all other ways. And while this severance has generated a good deal of personal anguish, to learn that I'm no longer plagued with emulative desires has been one of the great rewards of my experiment. I no longer want what other people want; instead, I can, from my upholstered hermitage, define my own wealth, my own poverty.

But of course you don't have to separate yourself from mankind to alter your perceptions on wealth and poverty; it is, I think, merely a matter of getting in tune with yourself, and impeling yourself to acknowledge what things you seek in order to outdo those around you, and what things actually contribute to your subsistence and happiness.


PS: After the semester ends (in one and a half weeks), I plan on moving back in with David at Acorn Abbey because I don't have enough money to travel home to Niagara Falls, but also because I can't wait to resume work as his groundskeeper.

[Click the following for previous installments of my "Images of resourcefulness" series: 1 and 2.]


-Heidi said...

This is one of my favorite blog posts to date. Excellent!

Carlos said...

I'm glad you'll be revisiting Acorn Abbey for a bit during break. I enjoyed your stories and pictures from there last time.

julie g. said...

You really lost me with the eye-watering smells.

I love your frugal lifestyle, and I give an automatic yes to almost every resourceful idea you come up with. But the living in your own filth until the stench gets to be too much? The weeks and weeks of laundry that's all bagged up? For me that really carrying it too far and bordering into "nutty homeless guy" rather than "frugal guy." How about setting up a trade with someone for $10 worth of labor so you have enough to do laundry? Can you pick up an extra hour at your job?

Chris said...

Kenny you should move to Charlotte when all is said and done and look for a teaching job here! I'll offer you a room to stay until you find a job and a place of your own. The schools in our area are really good I hear and our neighbors are both Social Studies teachers. I could use an old friend living in town! Think about it!!!

Ken said...


Carlos--I look forward to it too. I miss a lot about that place. I'm especially looking forward to the outdoors work.

Julie--I see that I have a whole bunch of new people reading my blog. If you're one of them, you should know that my posts are often fraught with hyperbole. Certainly, my eyes never watered because of the smell. Nor is my van that smelly, if it's smelly at all. And to be honest, the main thing keeping me from washing my clothes is the fact that my van is inoperative at the moment, and I really don't feel like hauling all my laundry to the laundromat--which is a lengthy walk. Plus, if you met me on campus--I'd presume you'd find nothing about my appearance/smell that would give away the fact that I live in a van. My life is far more ordinary than extraordinary. BTW, I have nothing against being the "nutty homeless guy." ;)

Chris--As tempting as that sounds, I don't think you want me indoctrinating your two sons. :) Plus, I'm trying to find a way up to Alaska for the summer. But your offer, as always, is greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...


I stumbled upon your blog through the Twohundredthou girl. I would much rather be in your situation thsn hers! I appreciate what you are doing and have enjoyed your blog. You are a very good writer.

Natalie said...

"I'm just playing with poverty."

^^Terrific phrase! Although I don't live to the awesome extremes that you do, I do revel in what I like to call "chosen reduced circumstances." Without barriers such as kids and a morgage, it's freeing to live small, just for the heck of it. Cheers!

Mike said...

Isn't it funny though that, despite your 'squalor', the people who are actually impoverished are your fellow classmates who are tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

That's how it goes though I suppose. The frugal millionaire has the used car and small home, while the neighbor with the new cars and McMansion can't even afford to go a couple of weeks without working.

Anonymous said...

I also found your blog via twohundredthou blog. "There's a poverty of the mind" paragraph is brilliant.

Elle said...

Isn't it amazing how your ideas of what constitutes clean laundry changes when you not only have to do it on your own, but pay for it as well? Among my friends, washing underwear in the shower was a regular occurrence.

I deeply admire your philosophies.

Anonymous said...

Another great essay! As you were writing about your laundry, I was thinking why not hand wash some of it - and so you are. You could do a few other garments in the shower facilities if need be.

Dumpster diving! There is so much good stuff thoughtlessly tossed. I think it's great you've found it right as it is fresh.

Too bad about the alternator. Old cars do wear some parts.

The campus garden is great. I used to browse the one at my school almost like a goat. Edible landscapping is some thing I've done for decades. Fruit trees, herbs, berries are very pretty. Tucking in veggies amongst the flowers is easy & pretty too. Plus the bonus of helper bugs to eat the pests are attracted by the other plants.

Hope you make it for the next few months.


Ken Householder said...

Ken - I sure enjoy your blog. I feel a real connection to your philosophy and utter amazement at your dedication to principle.

Regarding your battery/alternator issue - it still might be your battery. Eventually a battery will not be able to hold a sufficient charge.

Stay warm, man.

Anonymous said...

My mom has planted over 10 fruit trees in our backyard. She believes that plants should work for you (produce fruit) since you are giving them water and a place to grow. haha

Great blog post! :)

Anonymous said...

Do you have a mail box for donations if one wants to give for your needs? I've been thru some car troubles in my life time, and friends have saved my butt, helping me repair it, so I could live a more comfortable life while I was making my life.

Lyndsie said...

I spent the summer working in Uganda and washing your underwear by hand was a way of life. It builds character. Besides, a little body odor has never killed anybody.

Ken said...

Anon—thanks. I feel bad for Kelli, though I’m happy she’s using her experience to bring awareness to student debt.

Natalie—Freeing, indeed. I think many would benefit from a year of singlehood and destitution before committing to family life.

Mike—brilliantly said. I remember boasting to a girl last year that I might be the richest person on campus. I justified that claim by noting I was not in debt like most everyone else, and that the things I had and the money I had was not given to me, but earned. I’m sure there were richer people on campus according to this criterion, but I’d wager to guess that I was in the richest top 1%. That said, my boast failed to impress.

Anon—thanks. I’ve since given it a good edit—my entries tend to me typo-ridden right after posting.

Elle—I once went two months without taking a shower, washing my clothes, and only used the bathroom a couple times. This was accepted behavior because I was living outdoors, and while it was trying at times, by the end of those two months, I hadn’t the slightest desire to have back those things I’d previously accustomed myself to.

Mary—I wish it was acceptable for me to have a washing basin by the van; I could just sling a rope up and air-dry all my hand-washed stuff. But that wouldn’t be “low-key.” In the arctic I’d pick tons of wild blueberries and cranberries—though I wish I knew how to spot other wild edibles.

Ken—thanks. I had the battery tested at Autozone and they said it was fine; just needed recharging. I figured they, if anyone, would jump at the opportunity to tell me I needed something that they could sell me. And my goodness it’s cold! Got down to close to 20 last night. I was in both my sleeping bags.

Anon—I have no idea why there aren’t more fruit trees. It’s absolutely baffling. I think part of the reason is that people perceive it to be a sign of socio-economic inferiority. Veblen has some keen insights. He says that the richer you are, the more useless are the things you want. Think about tiny, useless lap dogs. The wealthy like to have religious leaders that do not meddle in the affairs of the more needy lower classes. Think about how we buy jeans with holes in them. To buy something useless implies that we have money. It shows that we are a different class from those who must toil for their dollar. I think the same goes for fruit trees.

Anon—I really appreciate the offer—I am very appreciative. But I’ve promised myself to get my degree without loans and without borrowing or taking money from anybody. I’ll probably become less radical when I graduate in May. But again, thanks. I’m—as I’ve said—having fun with “poverty” anyway.

Lyndsie—Ha, I don’t mind a little odor. After a while body odor, no longer becomes odor. If humans for 99% of our species’ history can take it, we should be able to, too.

David said...

I too have puzzled about why people don't have fruit trees in their yards. Here in rural North Carolina, all the old homesteads had fruit trees around them up through the 1930s. When suburbanization started in the 1950s and 1960s, fruit trees were no longer part of the landscape. I think that part of the suburban mindset is that food comes from grocery stores. There's another factor that I've noticed just from asking people why they don't have gardens. They don't eat vegetables! I have the morbid habit of looking at what people buy in grocery stores. It's terrifying. Only a minority buy fresh produce. Many people seem to live on sweet drinks, meat, white bread, and potatoes, and they don't even use fresh potatoes. It broke my heart this fall to see how many rural people still have old apple trees, but they don't use any of the fruit. It just falls on the ground and rots. At grocery checkouts, many clerks can't identify common vegetables and have to ask me. I've even had that happen at Whole Foods. What this adds up to, I think, is a lamentable (and probably dangerous) deterioration of culture.

Trish said...

Ken-I know you are a devotee of Thoreau, and was wondering if you have read Helen and Scott Nearing's book, The Good Life? They were Maine homesteaders and are called the great grandparents of the back to the land movement. I am still hung up on the college as career training issue. I have mentioned it to several people and they shake their heads in disbelief.

Dian Yang said...

I really enjoyed this post, Ken.

It's really interesting to read about how you deal with the difficulties of a cash-strapped life.

I'll be going to Spain in a month's time for a student exchange, and taking the opportunity to travel around Europe(It's my first time there!). Of course I'll be on a very tight budget, and I think some of the tips you've given might come in handy.

Hope you're enjoying "Better Off"!

Anonymous said...

Ken, people no longer have fruit trees because they don't want the mess of fallen fruit on their pristine lawns. The majority of trees are male now with a huge increase in pollen and the consequence of increased allergies. The male trees don't fruit of course.

You nailed it with the wealthy attitude that food comes from grocery stores. Fruit trees are a lot of work with all the pests. Berries are much easier.

It's all part of the death of the agrarian way of life during the 20th century. Lawns didn't use to be monocultures either.

Some people seem to get a few bucks with minor ads on their blogs - just a thought.


Unknown said...

Fantastic blog, man. Well, more like fantastic life. I'm a new reader as well, and I'm very, very happy to have found your blog and your message. I'm an undergrad, about to leave college in May with over $55,000 in student loans. I'm terrified of what that means. I live frugally to make ends meet and work several jobs, but it's not enough to cover my public university tuition, monthly bills, and the debt I've accrued for paying for university housing my first two years. When the going gets tough, it's really the experiences of people like you that keep me going day after day. Thank you for that.

"I'm just playing with poverty" will be running through my head for weeks to come, I think.

Kevin M said...

I wish our "leaders" had half the resourcefulness you do, Ken. Instead of coming up with new solutions, they continue to throw my kids' future tax dollars after the tax dollars we've paid.

I really enjoyed this look into your day-to-day life.

Ken said...

David—Nicely said. The nutritional habits of Americans are worth a post in itself. The prevalence of diabetes in this country is outrageous. It seems there are two factors at work: an overabundance of cheap sugary produce, AND an apathy for one’s body—the latter of which I find especially confounding. Many view their diseases as if the disease has been handed down by the inevitable hand of god—when, really, they’re, in most cases, preventable and curable. So it’s not just ignorance at work here, but an apathetic attitude about the health and prolongation of one’s life. This thought process is alien to me.

Trish—I LOVED “The Good Life.” I’m also a big Wendell Berry fan. “The Unsettling of America” was a game-changer for me.

Dian—Good luck in Europe. I haven’t been off the Western Hemisphere myself. I have some radical ideas about traveling cheap across Europe—though I’m not sure how possible they are. This is close to the top of my to-do list.

Mary—Thanks for the insights about the fruit trees. I laugh mockingly at those obsessed with their pristine lawns. Frankly, I find huge lawns offensive. Why are they so damn big!? In Stokes County people can be seen spending all their time mowing their gigantic lawns—often as large as several football fields. Why? I understand the reason behind a lawn, but when you’re not raising cattle—it just seems like another display of wealth. It’s sort of like saying—“I’m well-off enough to not need to use all this land for anything useful.” And frankly, I don’t find them eye-pleasing, either. I’ll take a forest instead any day of the week. Good for the animals, ecosystem, air, etc.

PS: I may put an ad up one of these days, but I’d rather not clutter my blog up with irrelevant stuff for mere pennies.

Anna—thanks, and good to hear. You’ll be okay! My friend graduated with 66K and a history/political science degree. He’s still in debt five years after the fact, but it’s been substantially reduced. I paid mine off in 2.5 years, and probably could have done it sooner if I didn’t take a summer off to canoe, and to buy a flight to Ecuador for a 3-week vacation. A little frugality, resourcefulness (and free room and board) can go a long way.

Kevin M—Ha, I wished our government spent a few weeks on an Amish farm—they have more than a few things to learn from people almost completely removed from our dominant economic system.

Vincent Cate said...

If you don't drive too much, you could get a little solar battery charger to keep your battery charged instead of an alternator. This 5 watt one for $47 would probably do fine.

Vincent Cate said...

Also, if you are fine once getting a jump, but 3 hours of charging the battery lasted less than 30 minutes, you may just need a new battery. After you get a jump to start has it died while driving? If not, sounds more like a battery than an alternator really. Borrow a volt meter and see if the voltage goes up fast or never goes up when charging (either is bad).

Ken said...

Vincent--thanks for the advice. The battery is fine, I've been told. I had it tested at Autozone and they said it just needed recharging. When I had it charged by a friend the voltage steadily dropped as the hours passes--which is a good thing, I was told. I may want to sell the van so I think I'll splurge on the alternator. Hopefully this'll be the last repair before I graduate.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I have a big lawn I mow all summer. What I don't have is a pristine monoculture lawn. It is very pretty in the spring as it is covered in blooms. I figure if it covers the ground & doesn't bite me, it is close enuf.

What I get for this (since I could afford it) is room away from my neighbors for peace & quiet, room for my dog to play & exercise, and a toxic free zone since I'm an organic gardener. I also have a lot of garden that produces a lot more food than I can eat. Until this year when the stink bug plague decimated almost everything.

But, now I want to downsize for my elder years.

Not a Spartan Student said...

Whose buses are those in the first picture?
By the way, you're photography skills are pretty remarkable.
And you're writing is amazing, but that goes without saying...

Keep on going buddy. Pinch those pennies, it's just unitl May!

Anonymous said...

My brother had a car that used to have battery problems. We knew something fishy was up when he put a brand new battery in the car and it was dead by morning. After that we ended up installing a (heavy duty) light switch on the wires leading to the battery and simply flipped the switch off when ever the car was parked. Apparently, even when the car was not running something was sucking juice from the battery.


Ken said...

Anon--sorry about my harsh language. I think a big lawn is great so long as it's used for something--like if kids played football or soccer on it. I'm baffled though when people spend all their time mowing giant lawns that serve absolutely no purpose. With that said, wouldn't a forested area also serve all your needs (privacy, place for dog, and toxic freedom)?

Not a SS- like the name! I have no idea what those buses are for. Someone told me they're featured in a parade. Thanks for the support.

George--I'm not sure what the problem is... the battery has worked wonderfully. Sometimes I go a week without driving the van and it starts up just fine. Once I didn't start it for a whole summer and it started up okay. But now, it's dead the day after I give it a jump. I'm taking it in for alternator work this Wednesday, I think.

Dolly Iris said...

Oh how this touches my memory with happiness. I often went stretches with no showers. Then when we would find one that was free (national park grounds/boat docks/etc) it was usually freezing cold.
Clean clothes? Well having two or three outfits for a year means having to stretch things out before washing. We would wait until there was nothing left without a touch of odor before resigning to a laundromat. Washing undies in the shower is a good way to help in that area.

In my hometown there is a charity group that offers to have volunteers come to your house and pick your fruit or veggies that are unwanted and deliver them to the needy. I like that idea.

Ken said...

Dolly--I once wore only two pairs of clothing for two months, washing them every week or so in lakes and rivers. Didn't bother me none. It's not until you go back into civilization when you become preoccupied with your appearance. I like the idea of the charity group!