academic paper that touches on (living in) the streets

My second paper for the class I had last semester.

In Defense of The Culture of Make Believe 

Holly Troy

“I relate best with people of the underbelly of society – the whores, thieves, the ‘underworld,’” 1 and I still have difficulty feeling comfortable with the rest. I can look the part, and I certainly have the required credentials to fit in, but I feel a creepy sensation under my skin when I drive to work everyday to sit at a desk and push paper around for a bureaucratic system.

As I was reading The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen, I said to myself, “I knew I wasn’t crazy for feeling this way!” And I’ve been feeling this way for a long time (since Kindergarten). Jensen shows example after detailed example of the violence, repression, inhumanity and the ultimate insanity of which we are blind to and on which our civilization is based. Having stories of slavery, racism, sexism, rape, genocide, greed, isolation, automation, incarceration, corporate propaganda, and the destruction of our natural resources traced through the history of this country is painful. Jensen’s criticism is powerful because he takes big, impersonal stories, some of which most of us have probably skimmed over in high school history class, and gets deeper with them by telling the stories of the people involved, their suffering, or, of their heartlessness.

I was one of those students that my high school social studies teacher rolled her eyes at because I asked questions like: How can death squads in Nicaragua be a good thing? (It was the Reagan era) Mega-stores and malls are giving us less choice and forcing us to conform – wasn’t that your description of communism last week? If it is crazy to believe in reincarnation why is it not crazy to believe in the resurrection?

It bugged me that she taught her opinion as fact; I was not just being a smart-ass, I really was trying to figure out her logic. Was it not my civic right as an American to ask these questions?

Maybe she just didn’t see the hypocrisy she was teaching, or maybe she didn’t want to. Jensen’s book proves how difficult it is to live in our culture with eyes and hearts open. He says, “It was not so much my sorrow nor even my pain at seeing the destruction on which our way of life is based that hurt me so much as it was my resistance to acknowledging and feeling it.” 2

One message from school was clear, “Don’t ask questions and you’ll be just fine.” Repression began long before high school. If I look at Jensen’s four classes of people, my classmates and I were being trained to be at least second class citizens, if not, first. I say second class, because we were in public school, and it seems that first class citizens are born into the first class. Most wealthy people in this country become wealthy through inheritance, and most wealthy children do not go to public school.

Every class is caught in the corporate culture that is our civilization. We cannot see it because we are caught in it, we learn the rules and we abide by them willingly and blindly. Our rewards are comfort, or toys that keep us numb – or, goals that keep us too busy too think. “The most powerful system is that which leads people to take hold of their own leashes. That is, the system under which people do what is expected of them without any external control being exerted on them.” 3

Jensen’s four classes of people are as follows:
– First class: The “rulers.” They are “decent White men” who are “kept in line through inane and insane luxuries and by propaganda that . . . tells them they rule by the divine right of money.” 4
– Second class: “the majority of those who labor so the decent white man may enjoy the comforts and elegancies of life, have bought into the system of repression to the point that they no longer see themselves as repressed.” They are just comfortable enough to not question the system and are “self-regulating, not wanting to seem deviant, pathological, a blight on society.” 5
– Third class: “those who either do not buy into the system or who are unable to. They are the ones with nothing to lose” and therefore, are the most dangerous. Christian Parenti says, “This is the . . . caste . . . which must be constantly undermined, attacked, discredited, and ultimately kept in check . . . with ‘the language of naked force.’” 6
– Fourth class: “those who remind us of the flaws of our system. These are the homeless . . . the addicts . . . the ‘social junk’ [which] must be swept away from our sight, just as those whose land we covet must be swept away.” 7

I have moved between three of the classes. I have never made it to the first class, and, being female, am not sure if I could.

I uneasily entered the second class by default, through marriage and my college degree. Somehow, my training in art warranted me the privilege of being secretary for “decent white men.” I was much happier waiting tables and making music, which I still would be doing if I hadn’t fallen into debt.

My eyes have been opened to the social structure of inequality for a long time. I have had many people push me back with great force. I’ve teetered between second and third class.

When I was fourth class, I felt most alone. I remember the profound feeling of people not wanting to see me. It is awful to feel “inconvenient . . . unnecessary . . . in the way.” 8 Many people who fall into this category never get out. It took years for me not to feel invisible. The danger of being invisible is not being able to reflect with others.

The descent to fourth class was swift. After a series of traumatic events that became increasingly dramatic and spanned over a period of a few years, I decided that I would be better off taking my chances on the streets than living with my family. I was sixteen years-old.

I was not watching a movie or reading a book, the reality was I was homeless and I had to learn quickly how to survive. The rules of civilization trickle down even to the “lowest” places. They become sharp, black and white, are forced on you. The illogic is baffling and appalling. I often felt raw, and could feel that rawness coming from the other people I was struggling with. It was as if our very beings had been rubbed for too long, and we were throbbing – open and sore.

Most of the people I knew on the street were either lifers or kids. It seemed that everyone was really young or quite old.

The most vulnerable of us were girls. I say girls, because although we were young women – and growing up quickly – we were still children. Jensen talks about our culture’s hatred for women and children as “transparent.” 9 I felt it in school and at home. In living on the street, that hatred becomes more solid.

The Rules

Imagine that you are a girl (for this scenario, a female between the ages of 12 and 20) living on the street on the Lower East Side in New York City in the late 80s. You will learn that there is a hierarchy of power and rules you must live by. This is what you will come to know.

Girls need protectors. Protectors come in different forms. The two most common are:

The boyfriend (or butch girlfriend)
Protectors usually are boyfriends, sometimes butch girlfriends. Often, the protector knows the streets, what’s safe, what’s not, where to get food, where to sleep, the best squats. He has been at this for a while.

He may really love you, and might actually be afraid of losing you. There are tender moments. Sometimes it can feel like it’s just you and him against a world that wants to crush you both. Sticking together, no matter what, is most important.

Although girls are often the money makers in the “relationship,” they are considered helpless and treated as such. Protectors teach girls how to stay out of trouble by staying in line. You are his and he won’t have you misbehaving.

The following are some ways in which a protector will keep a girl in line:

You can’t live without him – He is the only one in the world who could possibly care about you. He makes sure that you are safe. If he knows about adults who have mistreated you, or other boyfriends, or friends, he will remind you of how badly they’ve treated you.

He may remind you that you are not very smart and that people are out to take advantage of you. He may be subtle about it, for example, if he sees you talking with a boy for a little bit too long, he might say something like, “Why are you talking to him? You know he only wants to fuck you.” Or, he might be less subtle and just call you stupid.

The tear jerker – You may hear any or all of these, “Don’t ever leave me, I can’t live without you . . . I’ll kill myself . . . You’re the only one who really understands me!”

Fear (of violence) –  He may promise that he will never hit you. Then, one day, he might have a bad day and you just happen to be there. Like his parents most likely did to him (there seems to be a high proportion of boys on the street who have been beaten by one or both parents), he will strike you.

He will be horrified and promise it will never happen again, and/or, he may tell you it was for your own good because he loves you. Anyone “out there” would have done worse.

Drug Addiction
Living on the streets is hard. If your protector does drugs, he probably knows where to get good stuff, and will most likely turn you on to it. You may resist at first, but he will explain that it is okay to take the drugs that he gives you because he loves you and would never do anything to harm you. He will probably control what you take and when you take it.

This is risky behavior which you should avoid, but probably won’t. If very careful, the use of drugs can help you survive, and hopefully get through this difficult time. Chances are you will be over your head long before you know that you are over your head.

Drugs mean power, and therefore have their own set of rules.
– snorting is OK, needles are bad
– if you shoot up, you are a junky
– hanging out with junkies is to be avoided, unless they give you money or drugs
– nobody likes a junky
– do not use the same addictive substance for more than three days in a row
– cocaine is expensive, therefore more dangerous to get addicted to than heroin
– heroin is far cheaper than alcohol
– heroin is the best drug
– you can get heroin for free if you are willing to buy it for yuppies who would probably be mistaken for narcs because they look too straight
– shooting galleries are not safe for girls, especially white girls

The benefactor
Sometimes people know that you are homeless. If you are young, and perhaps very pretty or have some kind of odd feature that is attractive, a more affluent potential protector may make it known that he wants to save you. (Again, sometimes a protector may be a she, but a he is more common). He may have a wife and even a daughter your very own age. He has all the best intentions for you – clean clothes, a warm bed, a shower, food. He might even take you shopping and out to a fancy restaurant.

He probably doesn’t care that you already have a protector; he promises he doesn’t want to be a “boyfriend,” just a friend. He might tell you that you are really smart and mature for your age.

You can expect that wealthy, usually older men, do not tell street girls the truth about their intentions. Sometimes they do, and sometimes a girl can try to play him (see power). Sometimes she will tell her boyfriend about the benefactor, and he will also try to play the benefactor. Trusting a protector in this way is very risky!

Usually the payback for a benefactor is very high. Because of the gap in income and usually, age, the benefactor sees you as an object. Once you agree to his help, the chances are that he will expect sexual favors from you. If it gets that far, the sexual favors often require humiliation and possibly pain. He will feel that he has the right to treat you any way he pleases.

In this situation, sex is a commodity. Do not expect him to fall in love with you.

Protectors of higher classes can be dangerous and, because of their power, feel that they can get away with murder. Take this literally. If he beats you, no one will help you. He will deny he knows you. Because of his standing in society, most people will believe him. Worse, because you are underage, police are not likely to help you.

Also, if you do take the benefactor’s help, and you already have a protector, you may have a compound problem. The boyfriend is probably insecure, and even if he has encouraged you to take the benefactor up on his offer, the boyfriend will at some point, feel threatened. He will take his frustration out on you (in the form of mental abuse, a beating, or worse).

Better to leave this alone.

Trust no one.
If you are a girl living on the street, you have probably learned this from your home life. Trusting someone is probably the one thing you want more badly than to be loved unconditionally.

Boyfriends: They have probably managed to find a way to mess around with your girlfriends.

Men: They want to mess around with you.

Girls: Girls may try to get information out of you, which they will use against you later. Sometimes they want to steal something from you, if not your boyfriend, then an item of clothing. It is also possible they want to mess around with you.

Police: It is best not to be seen talking to a police officer. If a police officer asks you questions, be friendly, but play dumb.

Be quiet and discreet.
Learning to walk on “little cat feet” is a good skill. Even if you are blitzed-out on drugs, it is best to be well-behaved and in control of yourself.

Stay clean and well-groomed.
Being clean while living on the street can be tricky, but, no matter what, it is essential. It is best that people don’t suspect that you are homeless.

Money is power.
If you didn’t know this before, you know it now. If you have it, you must be careful how you wield it.

You probably have a big heart and want to share what little money you do have with your friends, since you know how it is to be hungry and cold. Do not do this. If you do this, be discreet! Sharing may anger your protector. What’s yours is his.

Learn to “sock away” some of your money every time you have some. Do not tell anyone about your treasure, not even your protector. Hide it in a good place; you will need it at a later time.

Sex is power.
If you didn’t know this before, you know it now. If your protector’s friends perceive you as a “good girl” they will protect you as well. They may even stand up for you if your protector gets heavy-handed when keeping you in line.

You will probably not experience what is beautiful and mysterious about sex.

Always use condoms. You will probably not do this, but you will know that you should.

Always check for track marks before engaging in sexual activities. People are not always honest about their habits.

You may consider becoming a stripper or a prostitute, your protector may even encourage you. There is a lot of money in it. There is also much danger. This is a conundrum. This situation works for some, while it all but destroys others.

Never, ever, show fear.
Fear is weakness. Don’t ever show weakness.

* * * * *

I lived on the street for about a year. I managed to make it without too much physical damage, at least no diseases. Some people I knew did not fare as well. Some committed suicide or died of drug overdoses. One friend, who was younger than me, was found dead in an abandoned building with her hands and feet cut off, gang-style. Her death was not news, nobody cared – she was just a runaway who got mixed up with the wrong people (and didn’t follow the rules).

Some of the women I knew are doing very well. One is a school teacher for underprivileged kids, another is a professor of religion, and still another, who did work in the sex industry, wrote a fairly successful book about her experiences there. What we all have in common is that we’ve allowed ourselves to remain flexible, and despite what society would have us believe, that our lives have value. We have allowed that horrible shit to become compost for a better life. “For our system of production is, despite its awful momentum, extraordinarily fragile. All it would take to bring it to a halt is creativity, persistent, creativity.” 10

A gift of “falling” into the fourth class was that I learned that class is just another social construct. Identifying with classes takes away power. In a way, realizing that I’d fallen to the bottom has helped me fall right through the system. I see how transcending the system is freeing. “Our humanity runs far deeper than any mere socialization” 11

The Culture of Make Believe takes us through the destruction of our humanity, and shows us how it is an insatiable force that we all help to feed. It walks us through the darkest shadows of our civilization. It is haunting. Yes, it needs to be a long book. If I had suspicions that corporations controlled the way we think and relate to ourselves and the planet, I am sure of it now. The size and heft of the book a poetic metaphor! This is not light reading.

Many of us are finding ourselves plummeting through the class system as our economic system falters. We are learning the hard way that constant consumption is not a sustainable way to live as we lose our homes while corporations are being “bailed out.” Instead of conquering lands “out there”, we are conquering ourselves. We are reducing, reusing, and recycling because we have no choice. More and more of us are running out of things to lose.

Maybe things will get worse. Maybe that’s good. Without our mind-numbing toys to keep us distracted – without basics like shelter and food – we will have to think, and feel. “From a certain point onward, there is no turning back. That is the point that must be reached.” 12 I know by the creepy feeling under my skin that I am reaching that point.

Jensen suggests a return to our humanity. “We must . . . see the inhumanity of our current system for what it is, and we must speak about it. If the first rule of a dysfunctional society is Don’t, the first rule of a functioning society is Do.” 13

1 Derrick Jenson, The Culture of Make Believe (White River Junction: New York: Context Books, 2002) 239

2 Jenson 248.

3 Jenson, quote by George Ritzer 541.

4 Jenson 534.

5 Jenson 513.

6 Jenson 536.

7 Jenson 564.

8 Jenson 551.

9 Jenson 42.

10 Jenson 518.

11 Jenson 603.

12 quote by Franz Kafka, 230.

13 Jenson 602.

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