Traveling Light: On the Road With America's Poor


How far can you get on two tacos, one Dr. Pepper, and a little bit of conversation? What happens when you're broke and you need to get to a new job, an ailing parent, a powwow, college, or a funeral on the other side of the country? And after decades of globalization, what kind of America will you glimpse through the window on your way? For five years, Kath Weston rode the bus to find out.

Weston's route takes her through northeastern cities buried under layoffs, an immigration ...

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How far can you get on two tacos, one Dr. Pepper, and a little bit of conversation? What happens when you're broke and you need to get to a new job, an ailing parent, a powwow, college, or a funeral on the other side of the country? And after decades of globalization, what kind of America will you glimpse through the window on your way? For five years, Kath Weston rode the bus to find out.

Weston's route takes her through northeastern cities buried under layoffs, an immigration raid in the Southwest, an antiwar rally in the capitol, and the path traced by Hurricane Katrina. Like any road story, this one has characters that linger in the imagination: the trucker who has to give up his rig to have an operation; the teenager who can turn any Hollywood movie into a rap song; the homeless veteran who dreams of running his own shrimp boat; the sketch artist who breathes life into African American history; the single mother scrambling for loose change. But Traveling Light is not just another book about people stuck in poverty. Rather, it's a book about how people move through poverty and their insights into the sweeping economic changes that affect us all.

The bus is a place where unexpected generosity coexists with pickup lines and scams, where civic debates thrive and injustice finds some of its most acute analysts. Hard-working people rub shoulders with others who rap, sketch, and story new worlds into being. Folded into these poignant narratives are headlines, studies, and statistics that track the intensification of poverty and inequality as the United States enters the twenty-first-century. If sharp-eyed observations and down-to-earth critique-of the health care system, imperialism, the state of the environment, or corporate downsizing-are what you're looking for, Weston suggests the bus is the place to find it. The result is a moving meditation on living poor in the world's wealthiest nation.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this accessible gem of a narrative, Weston makes a special contribution to the conversation (and glut of ethnographies) that seek to describe how the "other half lives." Raised in the working-class outskirts of Chicago and trained as an anthropologist, the author is devoid of condescension or naïve astonishment as she zigzags across the country by bus-one of the last "quasi-public" spaces-swapping advice, snacks, favors, worldviews and nuggets of profound wisdom with her fellow travelers. Within these shared stories, Weston interweaves her own experiences in traveling on a limited budget with acute anthropological analysis. Attuned to the hardships of bus travel (no guaranteed seats after long waits to board, bad food at rest stops, hiked up prices for the poorest travelers ), Weston is also refreshingly self-reflective on her own relative privilege (being white and a citizen, having a credit card). Although her writing occasionally reads like choppy journal entries, her simple observations are marked by a spare grace: "Arrival is not all. Often the road is the thing." This book is a piece of 21st-century Americana in motion, and its characters and cities will resonate and linger with readers. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Part travelog, part polemic, this book follows Weston (studies in women & gender, Univ. of Virginia; Render Me, Gender Me ) as she travels around the nation via Greyhound bus. Combining anecdotes about incidents that take place on and around the bus with occasional didactic asides about the history and sociology of various regions of the country, Weston documents the extreme poverty and oppressive social structures that she encounters as she uses one of the only affordable travel options available to the least affluent people in the United States. Told exclusively through the first person, Weston's book includes autobiographical details about her girlfriend, economic situation, and Qigong routine. Although Weston's ambition to give voice to an otherwise often voiceless segment of the population is admirable, many of her character sketches of fellow passengers reduce them to mere caricatures with nicknames like Too-Tired and Bible lady. Unfortunately, her book offers no new solutions or information to those who are familiar with modern critiques of poverty in America; however, it will likely be an accessible and engaging read for those who are less familiar with the literature. Appropriate for public libraries.-April Younglove, Linfield Coll. Lib., Portland, OR

Kirkus Reviews
A feminist anthropologist shares observations gathered during seven years of crisscrossing the United States by bus. Between 1999 and 2006, Weston (Women's Studies/Univ. of Virginia, Gender in Real Time, 2002, etc.) traveled from Albuquerque to Missoula, from Boston to Milwaukee, from New York to St. Augustine, from El Monte to Bishop and back, along the Gulf Coast to New Orleans before Katrina. The bus may have been the slow way, but for those without credit cards or much money, it was the only way, and the long hours and close quarters encouraged a rough intimacy. The author made the most of the situation. When she wasn't taking note of the bleak neighborhoods and fast-food franchises on the outside, she was listening and talking to the men and women riding inside-or, too often, huddled together in a decrepit depot waiting through the night for an overdue bus to arrive. Weston minded their children, kept watch on their belongings, studied their behavior, took note of their appearance and listened to their hopes, dreams, hard-luck stories, opinions and gripes. The resulting accumulation of details provides a sobering picture of the circumstances and hardships of America's poor. The author's sympathies are matched by her scorn for greedy corporations, globalization, strikebreakers, public-health authorities, racism, the government's statistic gathering and reporting and the monetary policies of the Federal Reserve, to cite a few of the evil forces she blames for having created or abetted the sorry plight of the underclass. At times, Weston oversimplifies the economic issues, but her eyes are sharp and her heart is in the right place. A gritty portrait of hard-pressed people moving throughsome of the least attractive real estate in America.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807041376
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 9/1/2008
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Kath Weston grew up working-class, dreamed of becoming a writer, put in time on the street, and trained as an anthropologist on scholarship at the University of Chicago and Stanford. She has taught at Arizona State, Harvard, Wellesley, Brandeis, and Tokyo University. In 2008 she will join the faculty at the University of Virginia. Her previous books include Families We Choose; Long Slow Burn; Render Me, Gender Me; Gender in Real Time; and The Apprenticeship and Blue-Collar System.

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Read an Excerpt

Traveling Light
On the Road with America's Poor

By Kath Weston
Beacon Press
Copyright © 2008

Kath Weston
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8070-4137-6

Chapter One Pennies from Heaven

A fistful of coins went rolling, spinning, all over the cafeteria floor, with a handful of children skittering after. Get them! the children's mother cried. One of her small traveling companions raced toward the wall, where a metal disk had settled into the dust. Another cupped her hands to receive the bounty gathered by a waiting passenger. The youngest emerged from under the table at his mother's leer, a piece of copper displayed triumphantly between his fingers. Gracias, mijo. Six pennies in all, some shiny, a few green with age.

Some years ago investigators used a hidden camera to find out whether people would stop to pick up a penny dropped onto a city sidewalk. It turned out that most wouldn't bother. These days, what could anyone buy with a penny? Why go to the effort of stooping down to collect a coin whose purchasing power was almost nil? Inflation and devaluation had eaten away at the currency, the investigators concluded. Perhaps the penny should be retired.

Of course, the investigators did not station their camera in a section of the city where people scramble to put together a life. Nor did they follow the movements of the low-paid workers who keep the city running when they announced that "people" could not be bothered to pick up a penny, even if it fell from the sky. The woman sending her children in hot pursuit in the Albuquerque bus station is not "people." Her name is Dolores, she's about to board a bus for Socorro, and for her this is a game played in earnest. Put those copper coins together with their cousins and someday they might add up to breakfast.

Let's sec how many, Dolores says to her son, who is learning to count. One, two, tres, cuatro ... The numbers sizzle through the gap where the dentist had to pull a tooth because filling it was too expensive. I know, Manta, I know! her boy cries, surveying the pile of coins. It's six. Six dollars is enough for candy? Not dollars, mijo, cents, explains his mother. Six cents. Not enough for candy.

Her son closes his eyes, clings fitfully to the bougainvillea pattern of her sundress. In the course of shepherding their meager assets, his mother has him chasing change of another sort: the transformations wrought by global capital flows in the everyday lives of people without money. When inflation hits because oil prices spike on world markets, Dolores can't pretend that she has the luxury of ignoring coins that come in low denominations. She simply has to work that much harder to amass them. When pennies from heaven drop into her life in the form of an unexpected gift from a brother who has found work offshore, she immediately puts those coins to use. It's not just because the need is so dire. It's also because she does what she can, while she can. In Dolores's experience, the celestial administration isn't particularly concerned about the impact of unemployment or war of currency fluctuations on her small-small life.

Emma Tarlo puts her finger on the operative dynamic here. "Far from standing outside national policies and events, the urban poor often find themselves deeply implicated within them," she writes in her study of the forced relocation of poor communities in India after the suspension of civil liberties during the 1970s Emergency. Why? Because in a cash economy, people without money "lack the political, economic and educational resources with which to build a shield in moments of crisis." In Albuquerque just as in New Delhi.

Be that as it may, most are inclined to do something rather than simply suffer the consequences of events beyond their own making. Dolores won't, can't, pass those pennies by, because for her family even the smallest sums are integral to getting by.

Once, at the bus terminal in Mobile, a white kid with a nasty black eye who hadn't eaten for two days asked me for lunch money. He was so hungry he raced through the cafeteria line with the five dollars I gave him, devouring half his fried chicken plate on the way back. Then he settled down to tell me the story of how he got rolled for $184. Not $200. Not $185, mind you. There's no rounding off for auditors of their own lives when every dollar counts. It was his life's savings.

Capital accumulation, accounting, currency arbitrage: in this economy, nearly all market operations have counterparts run by people with few possessions. Farm workers who ride the bus to follow the harvest, then send whatever they save to their families across the border, are masters at leveraging currencies. Even after devaluation, a dollar stretches further in pesos in Oaxaca than it ever would if they had used it to buy property in California. Bus companies understand this well. The backs of ticket envelopes are filled with ads for money-wiring services.

Even more rarified economic transactions find a place on the bus. Later in this trip, during a layover at Idaho Falls, I would watch three friends who had been riding together since Alabama cash a dollar bill in order to get four quarters. After inspecting the quarters, they offered to exchange them for the quarters already in passengers' pockets. It looked innocent enough. Who could object to a one-for-one trade? The buses were running late that rainy day, so most riders willingly sorted through their loose change to pass the time. What were these young people up to? Their leader, a nineteen-year-old with shaggy auburn hair named Junior, took me aside to explain.

Early in 1999, the government began to issue quarters with a new design that would eventually feature scenes from each of the fifty states on the back. The Treasury Department dedicated the Delaware coin to a man named Caesar Rodney, a delegate to the Continental Congress depicted riding his horse to Independence Hall. Only thing is, said Junior, they misspelled "Caesar" on the back. At least that's what he'd heard.

Oh sure, the feds caught their mistake soon enough. But once they stopped striking the coin, the worth of those flawed "Cesar" quarters naturally skyrocketed until they doubled their face value. Imagine that! Junior's face lit up. Doubling your money! Of-course, the gain would only be the difference between twenty-five and fifty cents. No matter. The gleam in his eye at the thought of discovering the grail after an hour of passing coins from hand to hand would match that of any Wall Street trader on a good day.

But of course I'm still in New Mexico, about to board the first of many buses, and I haven't met Junior yet. My journey, like Dolores's, begins in Albuquerque, land of desert light and chile verde, one of the cities I rode through as a girl-child so many years ago. I arrange to spend the night before the trip at the Lorlodge Motel, which occupies the buzzing intersection of' the two interstate highways that bisect the city. Despite the one-star rating proudly displayed out front, the motel in many ways is typical of the kinds of accommodations within walking distance of' the bus depots of America. Concrete walls topped by razor wire skirt the parking lot. The towels are clean but threadbare. The phone in the room won't work unless the guest can produce a credit card. Well, at least there's a phone.

On this corner every day brings a new urban drama. Since I checked in, motel guests have been treated to a high-speed police pursuit with shots fired, a Chevy Impala wrapped around the pole that supports the canopy outside the motel office, and the cordoning off of the entire street by the city's Hazmat (hazardous materials) squad when someone sets the vacant motel next door alight. (Probably for the insurance, bystanders whisper.) Each one-act play is directed by patients at the psychiatric hospital across the way, where residents gaze down at the shifting scenes from the dayroom in a building that began life as a sanatorium for workers on the Santa Fe Railroad.

I have time to kill before getting on the bus, so I head for the neighborhoods around Old Town, the original Spanish section of the city, with its adobe bungalows, accordion-gated windows, and tourist traps. When I lived in Albuquerque during the 1980s in the neighborhood called the War Zone, where the real security came from relationships with neighbors, a little thing like the law would never have been enough to prevent people from running an auto repair business out of the garage or keeping chickens. Now the Old Town area, like the fest of the nation, has become a study in contrasts. Glitzy hotels built with out-of-state capital sidle up against yards with tin-roofed sheds. The backyard sheds and tamale stalls are not relics of' another era, exactly. They illustrate the kinds of resources that the low-paid workers who service the tourist shops and hotels command. Before long the hoteliers might agitate for the raggedy shacks and sheds to be cleared in an effort to "improve" the neighborhood, without giving much thought to how people displaced from the community would get to work when they had it. Then the local chamber of commerce would have to organize some facsimile of the old New Mexico in the modern register of "quaint," or what would tourists come to see? Imperialist nostalgia, the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo calls it. The process is already well under way.

Near the historic Mission Church, a tourist trades stock tips and complains about what locals call coffee. There's a sprinkling of homegrown yuppies meeting for lunch, Hispaño store clerks, people from the Pueblos selling jewelry, and the occasional African American family with a guidebook in hand. Mostly, though, the place is overrun with middle-aged Anglos in slicked-back, sprayed-back hairdos who don't seem particularly interested in the sights. They spend 2.4 seconds absorbing the retablo paintings in the church, an hour in the sandwich shop next door. Could this be the national association of bowlers, warmly welcomed with red-white-and-blue signs posted by Old Town's merchants?

At the Western Warehouse on the edge of the square, where I stop to buy a shirt off the clearance rack, the cashier asks me how I'm doing. One of the enduring beauties of working-class life, especially in New Mexico, is that people who give voice to pleasantries often mean what they say. So I read the cashier's nametag and decide to take Leo Chavez at his word by telling him how I am. Not bad, as it turns out. I used to live here, I explain, but today I'm just passing through on the bus. Why'd you leave us? he asks. Let me guess: You left for the money. The only reason people leave us is because they can make better money somewhere else.

He's right. Albuquerque is, in many senses, a military town, heavily dependent on the cash that flows through weapons research laboratories and Kirtland Air Force Base. Yet the influx of funding from elsewhere hasn't done much to sustain households at the roots. New Mexico has long occupied the bottom rungs in state-by-state comparisons of income and employment. I want to know if it's still as hard to make a living here as when I left. Leo says yes indeed, but his girlfriend, who's been taking care of her mother in Louisiana, is returning anyway. She can't stand living anywhere else. Welcome back, he smiles, handing me my bag.

When I make my way to the bus station early the next morning, only folks without a roof to call their own are awake to see the sun split the peaks of the Sandia and Manzano mountains. A line of men waits to get into a shelter on Central Avenue for breakfast. To one side a Native American woman leans against the railroad overpass, belongings neatly piled at her feet, absorbed in a book by Angela Davis. Everybody is layered and shivering in the frosty air. As I pass I offer one of the men a cigarette from a pack I occasionally carry just for giveaway since I quit smoking years ago.

Generosity can be another currency. The Old Town cashier's openhearted inclusion of me in the ranks of honorary New Mexicans turned a passing encounter into much more than a business transaction. I had energy the rest of the day. If he had asked me for a favor, I would have seen what I could do, but that was not the point. What is it they say about the kindness of strangers?

Still, living according to the old ways under the pressures of the dog-eat-dog economy ushered in by globalization can be a struggle. While I wait for my bus at the station, I think about Yvonne, an Afro-Caribbean woman who rode with me into New York last year after the Christmas holidays. Like many border crossers, she described having to rethink the forms of giving, laboring, and solidarity that she had learned growing up in the islands. Where I come from, she insisted, we do not buy a person for favors. You either ask for something or you get it yourself. That woman I told you about, I sat down and embroidered her a beautiful apron. When she opened it she said, "What is behind this?" "You fool! Nothing is behind it!" That's when I stopped giving presents.

Wasn't there some way, I asked, to keep generosity alive in the United States? In my mind I saw the apron, its border of purple morning glories climbing up the fool's shoulder. Yvonne shook her head sadly. Don't you realize? she said. We are in the darkness yet. We art not in the light.

Final Call for Socorro, Truth or Consequences, Hatch, Las Cruces ...

Reveries don't last long for patrons of the bus system. If they do, you'll find yourself with more time on your hands for dreaming than you bargained for as your coach departs without you. While I'm thinking about Yvonne, cities and towns pour out of the loudspeakers, their names scrambled as only words in amplified announcements can be. "Westbound service to Socorro [click], T of C [pause], Hatch, La-a-a-a-s Cruces, and [long pause] Phoenix. With connections to Los Angeles and San Diego. Now departing from Gate 3." Does that give me time to pee? The perennial rider's question.

I duck into the women's restroom, where a vending machine hawks a bright orange plastic keychain with the slogan "A Tisket, a Tasket, A CONDOM OR A CASKET." All set to drop down next to the Swedish Massage Love Oil. Your pick, only $1.50. No time for such choices. I race back outside to find a place on the Phoenix-bound bus. Final call.

The schedule board here resembles the ones in small towns: a single entry for each cardinal direction. Buses don't head for Los Angeles or New York; they go eastbound, westbound, northbound, of southbound, with daily departure times listed. Quite the contrast to the airport-style TV monitors in terminals on the coasts. Although I've lined up for the bus that meanders through the truly small towns of Truth or Consequences and Hatch, once the driver hears "Phoenix" as my destination he points me toward an express bus. My pleas to board the local for the greater good of my writing project ("Your what?") only add to the confusion and make no difference in the end. In the bus system, the driver is a god.

Over in the express line, a Diné woman and her daughter carry a huge, if slightly wilted, stuffed rabbit with purple paws. The mother complains about the slow boarding. Maybe the next time she thinks about visiting relatives in Gallup, she says, she'll stay home. Where are you going? she wants to know. All the way to my nephew's high school graduation in Montana, I reply. I always try to have a reason for riding besides writing. This year, since I'm between jobs, I can't afford to fly any more than my seatmates. Besides, it gives me a story to trade.

An African American guy in a natural gets his kids settled near the wheel well. Time to send them back to their mother in L.A. I don't believe in long goodbyes, he says, then has a hard time disembarking. Most of the faces on this bus are Hispaño, Mexicano, Native, and black. The scattered Anglos are either very young-that is to say, adolescents-or very old. Hundreds of miles later, when we hit the Phoenix suburbs, this palette will start to shift toward white. In the meantime I imagine the children's father standing sentinel on the loading dock in Albuquerque, willing them back with the power of his longing.

As soon as the bus starts to roll the driver gets on the intercom to emphasize that this trip will be Rated G, which means that we all have to remember the three G's: Goodness, Greyhound, and ... I forget the third. Goodness stands for good language. This is a family bus, he emphasizes. Anybody who thinks differently can get off now and think it over until the next coach comes through. There's not a lot of conversation after that fine piece of oratory. People drift into sleep, in and out, in and out, scarcely distinguishing between day and night. Many have already been riding for hours. Too old to wail, "Are we there yet?" they wake up occasional]y to inquire, "What time is it?" The cry of the bus.


Excerpted from Traveling Light by Kath Weston
Copyright © 2008 by Kath Weston. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents Prologue: Freedom in My Pocket....................IX It's a Poor Rat That's Got But One Hole: An Introduction to Living Poor in a Rich Country....................XIII
I. When the Desert Fails to Bloom: Albuquerque to Missoula via Vegas Pennies from Heaven....................3
Final Call for Socorro, Truth or Consequences, Hatch, Las Cruces ....................10
Everybody Out! Hands Up against the Bus!....................13
The Trucker's Lament....................21
Keep Your Eyes on the Burrito....................25
Those Fools up at the VA....................29
Who You Calling "Food Stamps"?....................33
Next Stop, Sin City....................34
Wait Training....................38
The Trash Bag Racer Rally and Other Extreme Sports....................41
You Don't Say....................48
Already Got a Job and a Lot of Good It Done Me....................52
The Singing Bus....................59
II, Leaving the City of Cranes: Boston to Milwaukee in Two Alimentary Acts Awash in a Great Green Sea....................67
Master and Commander....................72
I Just Hate to Travel Like This....................81
Y'all Shouldn't Have Ate That Chicken....................87
Too-Tired Meets His Maker....................92
Ladies and Children First....................95
Anybody Asks You for the Time, You Don't Have It....................103
Sick as a Downsized Dog....................106
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?....................109
III. Going Coastal: Five Hundred Years of the Poverty Draft, New York to St. Augustine Port QuestionAuthority....................121
The Amazing Debt-Defying Disappearing Bus....................126
Todos Que Hermanos....................129
Little Box of Terrors....................135
Dr. King on the Waterfront....................140
Ready to Die but Never Will....................146
What Did You Do with My Aunt?....................147
The Castillo Economy....................151
IV. The Fine Arts of Moving in Circles: El Monte to Bishop and Back Riding Along with Princess Di....................159
All Snakes, No Ladders....................163
The Philosopher-King Does Sacramento....................175
To See What There Is to See....................180
Books Mobile and the Secret Stash....................185
This Place Is a Dump....................189
Ride in Beauty....................194
V. Living on Debts and Promises: Montgomery after the Boycott, New Orleans before the Storm Mickey's Hot Little Cousin....................201
The Back Is Where It's At....................204
Take a Deep Breath....................214
Vietnam Thirty Plus....................220
Snap! Judgments....................224
Another Get-Poor-Quick Scheme....................231
The Borrowed Time Club....................239
Author's Note....................249
Read On ....................255
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