Adventures in the Poverty Scavenger Hunt

I think two things about my character stood out to my students last semester: 1) I like tea with a passion that some might argue borders on obsession and 2) I steal stuff from the lost and found. I hardly see the problem with finding things that I didn’t necessarily lose, but apparently, this is a moral quandary that I’ve found the wrong answer to.

I live about 5 miles away from my campus. To get there, I ride my bike. This is not to laud my physical abilities or anything; it’s just important to the story to establish that going home takes a lot of time and effort so once I’m at work, that’s where I stay.

I rode to work this morning. I made it to my office about 2 and a half hours before I had to teach. I usually use this time to prepare for class and listen to loud, angry music. It was hot in my office, so I left to get a drink. It was only once I was at the grocery store, my delicious drink selected, that I realized I had left my wallet at home. I am not quite in the age group that has their shit together enough to have all their bank information somehow available and usable on their phone, making them into some hybrid supercomputer accountant. I was stranded, and I hadn’t eaten breakfast, or had any caffeine, and there was no chance I would be able to have these things.

Saying this felt like being marooned on a deserted island might seem dramatic, but I really, really like my morning tea.

It has been a long time since I was barred from something because I wasn’t old enough to do it. I’m tall enough to go on the rollercoasters I want. When I lived alone, there was a night when I suddenly remembered cheesecake exists, and then I went and bought a cheesecake. But what if I went to get on a rollercoaster, and the weary teenager operating it said I couldn’t get on just because he thought I had a stupid face. What if I went to buy that cheesecake, and the cashier wouldn’t sell it to me because I didn’t have a license to operate a cheesecake which is something a law that had gone into effect in the time it took me to walk to the store demanded. What if things I’m totally used to having access to are taken away from me, and not by any means I’m used to or expecting like poverty or social privilege or a deranged oligarchy.

Obviously, you start stealing everything.

On my resume of life experiences I didn’t want to have, I could add being a homeless child. Under that depressing heading, I’d clarify that this meant I have a natural instinct for knowing what free stuff I’m technically allowed to take paired with a personal ethical ambiguity that lets me take it without really worrying. This doesn’t amount to outright stealing, just a playful disengagement with social acceptability. Our social conditioning argues that it’s probably not ok to snatch a handful of cookies from a sample baggy likely intended for children, but I see this as more of an invitation for an exploitation of a tiny morsel of something I want that is unsecured by the capitalist machine that produced it with no thought for anything more than getting kids to beg their parents to buy them a full dose of whatever someone deemed cheap enough to waste but expensive enough to try to get people to buy more.

I think I worried the NSA agent assigned to monitoring me to make sure I wasn’t some kind of sleeper agent using depression as a disguise.

I didn’t stop with a cookie. I still needed my tea.

But there wasn’t any way to get it for free, not at a grocery store. Strangely, they do not put out pots of sample tea. Maybe because nobody wants a tea fix as much as they want a sugar rush. I went back to campus to find a plump lost and found.

But there weren’t any. Apparently, when campus cleared out for the summer, so too did the little crates full of mostly-clean travel mugs that can, with a thorough sanitation process–involving boiling water, a lot of soap, and about 25 minutes of scrubbing–be used without risk of death. But there were no travel mugs, no mugs at all. Every lost and found I visited was barren except for one box which had a Gryffindor scarf. Buzzfeed had always told me I’m a Ravenclaw, so I’d have to leave that behind because I’m a good millennial and I listen to clickbait.

The greatest contributor to my office dishware had failed me. What could I do? I needed tea. I couldn’t just rob a Starbucks. My ethical boundaries keep me well away from any actual crime now that I’m an adult and there are real consequences for my actions. I’d have to stick within the realm of social transgression to get my tea, and I was going to get that fucking tea.

I stumbled out of the building defeated and feeling entirely disconnected from the powerful, self-sufficient individual I once was when I had access to a bank account with, on average, at least $25 in it. I sat in the grass, resigned to deteriorate, to sink into the grass and feed it with my decaffeinated remains.

 

A young person was near me. This is usually cause for alarm and retreat, but I was tired and sad and completely empty of synthetic herbal energy. Another youth joined the first. They did not look at each other but stood near enough that they seemed to be connected by something. A third came, and this one was flanked by two older individuals with similar features. A mix of youths and their progenitors coalesced near me. What were they doing? Why were they here? Did they want to watch my slow departure from the world? And why did they all have name tags dangling around their necks.

Young people torsos! Run!

It was a tour.

They were just standing around, entirely unsupervised. For weeks I had seen these little tour groups wandering around campus. Wide-eyed and innocent, they’d point at different buildings or to the “scenic mountains” or at people near them who just wanted to get by but first had to politely “excuse me” their way straight through a dense squadron of them. I went on a tour like these once. It had been a president and a half ago, but I still remembered it somewhat clearly. The main thing I recalled was what they gave me along the way: a really poorly made metal water bottle, the kind that are nearly useless except as advertisements for the university. Here they were, this unsupervised tour group, and I wanted something to hold my tea. I walked over.

Infiltrating a university tour is not so complicated a process. You stand near the group, make sure not to look too confident in your sense of direction, and plaster on your face a look that is both bewildered and excited and layered over that is the facade that you’re too cool to really be enjoying anything with the innocent glee that you probably feel. This amounts to students at any given time looking like they’ve just been asked to take to do complex math while picturing two dodecahedrons making out.

A pretty accurate re-imagining of the tour guide.

Their guide came. He was a peppy young student wearing a shirt with the school colors. We began the tour. I don’t think I infiltrated this group with perfection. I didn’t have a nametag or look much like a new student or a parent. However, I looked like I belonged just enough to stay with the group without interrogations until we got to a small table outside the student union. And there they were, a box of individually wrapped small metal water bottles. Everyone took a turn at the table, which was apparently there to give more information on student housing. I told them I was considering living off campus. This is not a lie. Considering I already live off campus, saying I considered it is similar to just saying I was thinking about it, and I think about home and my big bed a lot.

I had the water bottle. I left, all pretenses abandoned. I don’t think anybody noticed or really cared that a member of the tour just walked off. I’m almost certain most of them knew I didn’t belong, but just like a bystander seeing my flagrant attack on the free sample bag of cookies, it seemed nobody felt like the offense was egregious enough to merit trying to stop me.

I had the container, an imperfect host but it would do. All I needed then was the tea and some hot water. These were the easiest to come by. A few summers ago, I worked as a receptionist at an administrative building. That building had a tiny kitchen, and in it was a little rack of tea they gave to anyone who worked there. I walked in, made a beeline for the kitchen, a small room near the front desk that felt like a repurposed storage room. A kettle sat on the counter. I turned it on. I stood in the dark for however long it took the water to boil. I thought light would attract the attention of someone who actually worked there, and I didn’t want to explain myself. Next to the kettle, on a little wireframe rack, were prepackaged bags of tea. I took an Earl Grey, shoved it into the weirdly narrow spout of my water bottle, and then made tea.

I left the building, returned to my office, hidden and sipping the smooth culmination of more work than I probably should have devoted to getting a small cup of tea. Still, it was mine. I drank it while I taught, and none of my students asked why my shitty school water bottle was steaming, but I would have told them it was my trophy.

12 Replies to “Adventures in the Poverty Scavenger Hunt”

    1. I wanted to, but the trick is to have a lot of spare time and a near-obsession with your goal. Also, I’ve reached the point in my life where I have a job I can’t easily be fired from and have consolidated all the opinions I care about to like 2 people. Nobody can take me down now

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I bet the ill-gotten tea was pretty good, wasn’t it? I have no idea why, but every time I would sneak out of bed at night to eat a piece of the cake my mom had made and offered me a slice of after dinner it tasted much better than if I had eaten it when I was allowed to. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. During a very different time of my life, my friends and I had the motto “things taste better when they’re stolen,” and even now I can’t deny how true that is. There’s some wonderful flavor when it’s wickedly eaten

      Liked by 1 person

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