“Can I get a ride to the State Store?”
“Sure,” I said “Hop in.”
Leon lives upstairs, mid-40s, Black, with an oversized head on a small frame, talkative and personable. He’s a Huntsville native and knows the region like the back of his hand; that makes him my go-to source for local information. Leon drives trucks for a nearby thrift store and has worked trucking and factory jobs all his life. Although he tries to disguise it, I can tell he has a lot of “street” in him: drugs, jail, homelessness, who knows? We have a cordial, neighborly relationship. His girlfriend drops off food from the church food banks outside my door and I drive them when needed on errands.
We drove past the Downtown Rescue Mission, with its homeless sitting at the Mission picnic benches all day, waiting for the shelter to open; past a non-descript commercial district full of mattress warehouses, tire dealers, and foreign auto repair shops until we got to that strip mall on Henderson. The University Mall is a mélange of Indian and Latino groceries, a Pistol and Pawn store, the Platinum Koi Tattoo Parlor and a now-vacant former adult bookstore. And of course, our destination, one of the state-run liquor stores that bizarrely – because they probably collectively sell enough booze to fill the Tennessee river – are called Alabama Beverage Control (ABC), probaby a relic from Prohibition.
The strip mall is hemmed in on both sides by several blocks of by-the-week hotels such as the Southern Comfort and Knight Inns, part of Huntsville’s “neon wilderness” of back-to-back strip malls sprawling for miles before petering out in the fields of rural Madison County. These hotels exemplify a form of tenant debt-peonage; another example, so common in the South, where old wine gets poured in new bottles and past social relations blossom anew. Most people staying there have evictions, bad credit or felonies cutting them off from the regular rental market. These hotels are housing of the last resort, since Huntsville public housing, like everywhere else, has years-long wait lists. Even if both regions see homeless hotels crop up, what up north might be overlooked in someone’s personal or credit history doesn’t escape the harsh and punitive glare of authority and custom in the South.
The hotels charge wildly inflated prices, roughly around $230 a week – or over $920 a month for a single, poorly lit, dank room, the cost of a luxury apartment in a good area in Huntsville. Those on Social Security or working low-wage jobs shell out meagre checks for rent, rarely managing to save for a regular apartment, even if they qualified. As a result, many stay trapped in an insidious, hard to escape cycle. Those that get out are almost always couples, newly formed or old, because two incomes become enough to make staying at the hotels a temporary stop. For the single, though, the weekly hotel more often ensnares long-term, a precarious, fraught–with-peril limbo with the shelter system always beckoning from below if a paycheck is short a day or two.
I casually knew of one man, approaching 70, staying at one of these hotels who got up every day, rain or shine, and scoured dumpsters for tin cans to sell to make up the difference between his Social Security check and the rent. He was hardly “innocent”; he had been staying in the projects, but while drunk, got in a fight and pulled a gun on another tenant, thus getting a lifetime ban from public housing. No one is entirely a victim of external circumstances and no one is entirely an architect of personal destiny, responsible for everything that happens. It’s the grey areas, the overlapping Venn diagram between these two poles on the continuum,that map out a life.
Leon comes out of the State Store clutching a brown paper bag. On our way back, he asks how I’m enjoying retirement. I told him, “I’m loving it,” as I will always tell anyone who asks. But then I just had to proselytize, because if there’s one topic I get fever over, it’s getting out of the job market as soon as possible. My pitch goes like this. Look, people like us who do hard physical work or work under high stress can’t wait until 65 or later, when our bodies and minds are too worn out to enjoy life. There are no guarantees. Don’t put it off. Get out while you can. Leon agreed and told me about an uncle who worked at GM and kept working past the early retirement age because he wanted to buy a Winnebago. The uncle dropped dead from cardiac arrest before he enjoyed retirement.
I’ve heard similar stories many times over the years. I once worked with an older woman in Baltimore who in her 70s was working double shifts back-to-back because she wanted to drive a Lexus home to her family reunion in North Carolina and impress her relatives. She too died from a heart attack a few weeks before the reunion. The most tragic story I ever heard was from a Jamaican aide who told me of an uncle who migrated to the U.K. in the early wave of migration and worked his way up to a low-level but secure civil service job. Her uncle barely spent anything beyond necessities his whole working life, saving money to build a house in Jamaica to retire to. Leaving the Kingston airport, he was robbed and killed on a back road before he ever had a chance to live in his nearly-completed house.
I am aware my proselytizing goes against the message pumped out non-stop by television pundits and financial advice gurus; the Jim Cramers, Dave Ramseys and Suzi Ormans pounding drums telling people to stay in the job market to full retirement age at 67 and warning of dire financial catastrophes if they don’t. But their audience are executives and symbolic analyst types, people who have desk jobs, not factory and fast-food workers; those for whom working “ ain’t been no crystal stair,” in Langston Hughes’s poignant phrase.
The one time I believe my proselytizing had an effect, or at least I flatter myself that it did, was with a man named “S” with whom I worked night shift with here in Alabama. During slow periods, we’d talk a lot to stay awake and “S” was a thoughtful and surprisingly radical man. He was a Vietnam Vet and told me one of the biggest mistakes the US. made in Vietnam was not understanding that “Ho Chi Minh was a socialist and not a communist” and the U.S. policy drove him into Russian arms.
After “S” got out of Vietnam, he lived the Florida beach bum life (the down-the class-rung counterpart to California surfers) on the “Redneck Riviera,” that fabled stretch of coastline starting at the far-western Florida panhandle through the southern Alabama coast, ending before Mobile (1). At one point, pre-environmental consciousness, “S” was catching sharks and selling the jaws to restaurants and bars for display.
“S” followed me a few months later from the hellhole we worked at to a better gig I had migrated to. I again, sermonizer that I was, harangued him about retiring now (he was nearing 64). I think my pitch worked, because “S” talked, with the fiery conviction of a newly converted believer, about quitting work and hitting the road with his wife in a RV to explore the country for a year. A few weeks later, he did something intentional to get fired and I lost track of him. Several months later, I accidentally ran into “S” on the streets and he told me half-apologetically that after being retired for a while, he went back to work to “have something to do.”
I can understand that. For many people, not working, besides making it possible to spend more time with immediate family, reduces connections to others and all that remains are unsatisfactory substitutes such as watching television, shopping, or hitting the casinos. The purpose of a new and different form of social organization will not be to homogenize everyone to the same level, but to allow “different strokes for different folks,” providing support for nurturing capacities and interests in ways that don’t exist today. For me, though, I find retirement helps me live very close to Marx’s famous “hunter-fisher-critic” dictum (with walking the dog and taking out the trash in-between) (2).
(1) The “Redneck Riviera” was a vacation destination for white workers in the South where people bought or built oceanfront “shore shacks.” In the early 1970s, a major hurricane struck, destroying much of the area’s housing stock. Developers then moved in, bought up properties and built upscale high-rise condominiums. Little exists today of the former “Redneck Riviera.” “Disaster capitalism” is nothing new, as some would have it; it’s the way the system has always worked.
(2) “In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” – “The German Ideology”