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  • Ken Ilgunas

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.]


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