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Still Moving Means Still Alive

November 23, 1987|LESLIE POWELL | Leslie Powell is a Southern California writer.

My neighbors in the motel miscalculated when they thought they could make it in Orange County. Orange County has become the leaching zone where their lives proved less than limitless, where their lives came to a standstill.

They own next to nothing, know next to nothing except that still moving means still alive. By turns talkative and sullen, they tell me there was something they savored about the feel of the land back East, but it wasn't the closing of the plants or the months of rain. So they abandoned what could be abandoned. They threw the rest into the car.

The migratory flight of the American poor--enough money saved for gasoline or for a Greyhound ticket to the next town or for the weekly rate on the rented beds of this motel. Nothing can make them any more than what they are, homespun America, increasingly lost to the main chance, seemingly beyond the reach of trendy federalese and gassy talk of "private sector participation."

My neighbors: heavy with children and hopelessness, tenacious as conifers. Whatever was left behind in those towns east of the California line has boiled down to this stucco motel south of Disney's Magic Kingdom. There is little enough magic in these rooms, unless knowing how to keep the rent covered and the children fed counts as conjuring.

The large print of the rental rules: "no alcohol outside, no defacement of rooms, no harassment of other tenants." The stark admonishments serving to shame the decent many for the surly few who would resolve to break them all.

In the ecology of families, these may be depleted resources, for little in their pasts has ever borne fruit. They have cobbled together one job with the next, one plan with the next for so long that they are resinous with failure. They seem families too big for the city, for this motel, too big, it seems, to find their future. (Or is it the land that's grown too small?)

I want to convey to you the parameters of their poverty, the intimate archeology of poor , of people avoiding the shoals of homelessness only by the daily or weekly payment of room rates exorbitant to the point of whimsy. I want to limn for you the precise anxiety engendered by an existence lived one step above the gravel.

I want to portray for you this archipelago of residential motels growing fat off these bankrupt individuals, these lives at the tag end of hope.

I want you to remember.

People who are caught between the coordinates of nothing and nothing don't complain about the accommodations: four walls, a floor, blunt brown furnishings that keep the rooms dark as mercurochrome against the California sun.

They are not scared by much, not by the shouting, the night bottles broken on the asphalt, the voices always cresting toward violence. This is domesticity devoid of cosmetics, marriage at point-blank range, where every connubial dissatisfaction that ever rankled erupts into the verbal shrapnel that passes for speech between the men and the women and the children whose lives fold into these rooms.

My neighbors, personal equations in the physics of deprivation.

Maybe like travelers anywhere they were not sure what they wanted besides a place where grace would find them, would make things easier on a given day. What they found in Southern California on this square grid of sunburned streets is what they didn't realize back in the gray and grit: that they were people who had somehow "failed" at life.

You work and you propogate and suddenly, by some miscue of navigation, you find yourself down to boilerplate, lightless, without a compass or a wallet, without even a friend to lament your lack of luck. You are destitute in a motel in Southern California. And there is a particular opprobrium to being poor in this place that has such grandiose ambitions for itself.

My neighbors move on, the men and the women and the dead-eyed children in creaking cars. They drive off to further failure. In the evening, the smell of furtive meals cooked on illegal hotplates will waft through my open door. New neighbors.

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