In The Face of Poverty
There is a house in the north side of Akron in which live a single mother and her two children.
When judged by their scant material possessions there is no doubt that this is just one of the 1.5 million Ohio families hounded by poverty -- a number that, it was reported last week, has grown by 59,000 in the past year.
For four days earlier this month, this family, which is economically better off than most in poverty, opened their home and hearts to a reporter and a photographer.
What they saw was a family that on occasion, transcends poverty. This is an account of those four days.
Charmone Marshall is sweet-talking the old vacuum cleaner into working again.
"C'mon baby, c'mon," she croons softly.
The cajoling fails. The machine still refuses to start. And anyway, what Charmone really wants to do is to kick the wretched thing.
But she can't. Her mother, Barbara Marshall, won't let her. Talk nice to the sweeper, she tells her daughter, and it will work. The Good Lord will make it.
This is the kind of attitude that Barb has toward everything. She calls upon God the way other people call upon a telephone operator. To her, God comes in many forms -- car mechanic, vacuum cleaner repairer, benefactor when the money runs out, confidant when the future looks bleak.
There is a facile innocence to Barb, 45, that sometimes hides the complexity of her life and mind. With her two pigtails, wide eyes, and thin, pixieish body, she has the look of a young girl.
At 16, Charmone is different from her mother. A heavyset girl, she too has her mother's innocence, but without the quick sharpness. Her movements are slower than Barbara's, perhaps because of the slight mental disability she has.
Quietly watching the two fussing over the vacuum cleaner is Barb's son James, 11. A stocky, affectionate boy, James has the raw energy and exuberance of a young puppy. And a smile that lights up the room.
Although the Marshalls seemingly are battling with a non-functioning sweeper, what they actually are fighting is poverty. The bulky, ancient sweeper is but a manifestation of what is all-encompassing -- from the cluttered living room, to the telephone that's held together with masking tape, to the anger that constantly smolders in James.
With an annual household income of $7,700, the Marshalls fall about $2,850 below the federal poverty line. Out of the $642 a month that they get from Charmone's disability check and Barb and James' ADC check, about $69 goes toward rent for their subsidized housing. Another $100 goes toward utilities.
This leaves $473 for the three of them for gas, clothing, school expenses, personal items not covered by food stamps and entertainment. The family also gets $100 in food stamps -- money that runs out within the first 10 days of the month. Canned goods and other food come from area churches. Still, the children complain about being constantly hungry, of never quite feeling as if they've had their fill.
"When I get hungry I could eat a house -- or a horse," says Charmone urgently.
The irony is, among the area poor, the Marshalls would be considered to be the elite. If Charmone receivedADC instead of her disability check, their monthly ADC income would have been only $334. Only about 20 percent of those who apply in a year for housing from the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority get it.
Having a car makes Barb mobile enough to go to different churches to pick up food and other items. And one of Barb's three adult daughters is attending college on scholarships and loans.
But although the charity of neighbors, churches and local agencies protect the Marshalls from absolute destitution, their poverty casts a shadow over every day, of their lives. It is what defines what they will eat, how they will spend their day. It robs them of all impulsiveness.
Finally, at about 10:30 p.m., the sweeper starts up again. It is so deafeningly loud that while it is running, no one bothers to hold a conversation.
Throughout this evening, the conversation has been desultory and random. The family had sat watching television, Charmone doing her homework in front of the set.
Barb talks in incredulous tones of how much money Bill Cosby earned last year. "He used to be on welfare you know," she adds, in a statement meant to inspire the kids.
"When will we have our show?" Charmone asks dreamily, without a hint of irony or factiousness.
Almost all of Charmone's dreams these days revolve around having money, lots of money. Money to buy a big house. Money to buy a white car that does not rattle. Trouble is, she has no idea how to proceed from wanting money to getting it.
"Where do you get money to buy a house?" she asks in genuine puzzlement. "I mean, where?"
Both Charmone and James are of an age to know shame. They cringe each time their mother mouths the word welfare. They bristle with anger at any mention of their poverty. They live in fear of their classmates knowing about their home situation.
Barb understands. But pride is a luxury she cannot afford.
"Does pride take a beating?" she asks rhetorically. "Question is, from which end?"
Once there was a husband and money, but that was many years ago and is no more. After the separation in 1973, Barb Marshall got on welfare and spent the years rearing her five children. The other three are independent now.
"God gave me -- loaned me -- these children. It is my responsibility to take the best care of them," she says.
But while there was a husband, there were days of relative prosperity. There were two happy years in Japan, where he was stationed while in the service. Now all Barb has to show for those years are the few Japanese songs she has taught James and Charmone.
Barb does not talk much about those days. But she does confess to an old, old desire.
(I should have been a nun,) she says. "I was meant to be with God. The children I don't regret. If I could've had the children and (still) become a nun ... "
It is now after 11:30 p.m. and the children kiss their mother good night and prepare for bed. A silence descends on the Marshall household. The only sound is young, allergy-ridden James' heavy breathing.
At last the children are in school and Barb has a few minutes to rest.
But not for long. At 10 a.m. she has to be at a doctor's office in Tallmadge to take a physical for the bakery job she has applied for. She is pumped up, confident that God wants her to have this job. (A week later, she will find out she didn't get it).
The part-time job will pay only about $5 an hour, not nearly enough to make a dent in Barb's financial problems, but she wants it for reasons beyond money. It symbolizes independence and dignity.
This is not Barb's first foray into self-sufficiency. In fact, her life in the past 10 yearshas been an absurd chronicle of misfortune, where fate and illness have thwarted attempts to get off welfare.
In 1980, she started a secretarial course at a local center and finished it. But, she said, the course turned out to be fraudulent.
In the summer of 1982 she started attending the University of Akron part time. But at that time there were no welfare programs to provide day, care for children whose mothers were in school. After 1 1/2 years Barb had to decide between the children and school. She chose to be with the children.
She still defends that choice.
"I'm at the bottom of the list," she said. "The children come first. I'm very, very responsible for them. I have to stand in judgment. I'm not important at all."
In January 1986, she began working part time in the food service department at Jackson Elementary School. But a few months later, she said, James fell seriously ill and she had to quit.
Then in May 1988, Barb had health problems of her own. A stomach operation resulted in a 15-day, hospital stay. When she came home, she had shrunk from 130 pounds to 96.
Somehow, the family survived that bleak period. Barb's older daughter looked after James and Charmone and then the children looked after their barely recognizable mom when she got home.
In March 1989, Barb got another job at The Reporter, an Akron newspaper.
But that December she slipped on the ice, injuring her left hip. And early this year, she took ill with jaundice.
In April, she worked for a month at a drugstore. Less than a month later, she suffered heart palpitations at work and an ambulance took her to the hospital. It was time to quit another job.
On this Friday, morning, even on the way home from the doctor's appointment and the physical, Barb is a little shaky because it is past lunch time. Three times a day, she eats the same meal -- fresh vegetable soup and chicken drumsticks. It's food to help her insides heal, she says.
The rest of the afternoon goes by calmly, with no premonition of the high- strung emotionalism that will mark the day, once the children get home.
They arrive around 4 p.m. and there is an immediate panic when James notices a photographer's camera. There are tears as he and Charmone say they do not wish their pictures in the newspaper for fear of being ridiculed. They calm down when assured that they will not be recognizable in the pictures. They say they have no objections to their names being used.
Soon after, the children feast on the chocolate cake brought by a visitor. James also chews insistently on the candy that he had purchased a few days ago. Barb tries to stop them from eating the junk food but with no real conviction. The children have a compelling rebuttal -- there is no readily available food at home, other than Barb's bland soup.
At about 7 p.m., James prevails on his mother to order a pizza. Before she agrees, there is some tough negotiationing to be done. She calls a family meeting. Explains to the children that pizza tonight means giving up on the fast-food lunch she had promised them on Saturday. Gets them to agree.
And despite all of this planning, things still don't always even out.
"It's not whether you can afford it or not," Barb says. "You just do it and sacrifice on something else."
During dinner, the TV set sells the children the lures of a consumer world to which they don't belong. During a Taco Bell commercial, Charmone smacks her lips.
At another point, James asks the visitor in a hurried, urgent, fierce whisper, "Tell me the truth -- is Mom Santa Claus?" Then he adds gloomily, "I bet you we won't get hardly anything for Christmas."
After dinner, James, Charmone and the visitor start hitting a cloth football around the room. Sometime during the game, the tenor changes. James is in a trance, hitting the ball hard. It is as if all of his helplessness and anger come out in the game.
But the children also are contending with an instinct as old as civilization -- showing hospitality to a guest. At about 11 p.m. they offer "the best puppet show in the world."
In the bedroom, James and Charmone each hide behind a stuffed animal. In high-pitched voices, they imitate the slick, jovial manner of puppeteers, singing songs, making small talk, laughing at each other's jokes.
But slowly, almost inevitably, the mood changes and the play becomes rougher. Charmone's puppet assumes the role of the harsh, punitive father and James becomes the rebellious son. The show ends in a puppet fight.
When they leave the room to prepare for bed, their pleasure at having entertained their guest lingers in the night air.
James and Charmone have been waiting for this day, all week and finally it is here.
Barb has promised to take them to Chapel Hill Mall to see the Christmas displays. They will go as spectators of America's prosperity rather than participants, but even that doesn't dampen the children's enthusiasm.
Barb looks a little weary today. At her urging, James says a little prayer before the car takes off.
Here at the mall, at this temple of lavish consumerism, the Marshalls' poverty runs head-on into the wealth that surrounds them. It is a few weeks before Christmas, and the stores are filled with goodies, brimming with expensive clothes and toys and candy.
All around the Marshalls the crowds jostle to buy their piece of the American Dream. It is a dream that James and Charmone and Barbara are not ready to abandon.
They believe in America, rich, shimmering, golden America, land of opportunity where anything is possible -- and they measure their lives against that belief. But the dark underbelly of that belief is that if you're poor it must be your own fault.
Every object that the Marshalls stop to look at is prefaced by the same question: How much does it cost? And the answer is nearly always the same: Too much.
Inside a Christmas shop, Charmone pesters Barb to buy her a stocking. Barb asks her daughter to use pantyhose instead. They both laugh.
Despite it all, the Marshalls are having a good time. They walk close to each other, giggling among themselves. Barb also allows them small pleasures such as buying a packet of water balloons for James.
James appears content, despite his outburst earlier in the day. Before the mall, the family had stopped by Twin-Valu to pick up ingredients for cookies Charmone had to bake for a home economics project.
As he watched his mother and sister pick up what the recipe had called for, James erupted in a fit of rage. Hungry from no breakfast or lunch, he snapped, "we're wasting our money on sweets. I want real food."
The tantrum also was lined with the disappointment the boy felt from not being able to keep a $2.25 magazine with his beloved rapper M.C. Hammer on the cover. Because James had been invited to a birthday, party on Sunday, Barb had insisted that he take the magazine as a gift.
Later in the evening, she goes out again to buy some chicken fryers on sale. Charmone fries the chicken for herself and James. Barb eats more of the soup and drumsticks she had for lunch. For the children, it is their first meal of the day.
That night, Charmone asks her family to sing Christmas carols with her. As they sing Silent Night, Barb's beautiful, haunting voice soars over the rest.
And suddenly, sitting in that cluttered living room, without a Christmas tree or a single gift, it begins to feel like Christmas.
This is where it all comes together, here in this small and modest church, with its unpretentious altar and simple design, here in this humble house of God.
This Sunday, Barb is to sing a solo for the congregation of Riverside Christian Assembly. Barb's gift of song is one that she frequently shares with her church.
Watch her now as she makes her way confidently to the mike, listen close as she begins to sing a soft, slow, deeply mournful hymn that captures all the pathos and longing and unfulfilled desire in Barbara's life.
"Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me."
She is singing with her eyes shut, swaying lightly to the melody, an occasional smile falling on her lips. She is singing from a place deep within her, a place that somehow remains pure and untouched by the tattered poverty of her daily life.
Technically, it is a flawless performance -- not a single wrong note -- but it is not technique that makes the congregation sit as still and quiet as mice. No, it is something else they sense, the passion of the woman who gives the music all that she has got, because, in a sense, it is all that she has got, this ethereal music, this church, this God.
After the music dies, she walks back to the pew upright and straight- backed, moving with an oddly touching dignity.
The children are a different story. They sit out the long service, fidgety and oddly ill at ease. They are the only children left in church, all the others having trooped out earlier to attend the children's service. The Marshalls are also the only black family.
There is an awful, tense moment early on when the pastor asks the congregation to make special requests of God.
An adolescent, well-groomed girl raises her hand and makes "a request for Miss Barbara."
James and Charmone react as if struck by a cattle prod. James punches the air in anger. Their omnipresent poverty has been thrown into his face again.
Still, James has other things on his mind today.
After church, he has to hurry home to change into his regular clothes for the birthday, party. Charmone too, is eager to start on her cooking project.
But the pastor drones on. Barbara listens with her eyes tightly shut. An occasional `Amen' escapes her lips.
It is impossible to know what Barbara is thinking. Perhaps her thoughts are immediate and prosaic -- whether she has got the new job, what to get the children for Christmas, whether there is money left for gas ...
"Come to be restored, to be saved, if you're sick and want to be healed," the pastor urges.
Barbara rises to make her way to the altar. She is there ahead of the rest. She tightly clasps her hands, as if to hold on to all the prayers she has brought to God.
There is a moment during the service when Barbara turns around and kneels on the seat of the pew, facing the back of the church. She kneels there lost in prayer, the only person facing the other way. The gesture is totally un- self-conscious and natural and mysterious and inexplicable. It is almost as if Barbara Marshall knows something that the rest of us don't.
Akron Beacon Journal
Sunday, December 23, 1990