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Abandoned Building, November 2006

Being poor isn’t just a relative thing or simply a state of material lack. It can be measured by far more than the amount of money in someone’s savings account or by the gut-wrenching feeling at the bottom of one’s stomach when it’s time to choose between the telephone bill and the electric bill. Beyond the material and the emotional, the relative state between a lack of money and a lack of a spiritual center isn’t completely measurable. But, poverty, in its most general, community, and familial sense, can be experienced through all five of our physical senses.

1. Smell — This is perhaps the most powerful sense of poverty for any of us. Stairwell in project high-rises full of garbage. The tell-tale scent of overused cooking grease in an apartment or other impoverished living space. The odor of rotting animal flesh, of expelled farts, of roach spray and borax and cheap pine oil. The smell of clothes that have been exposed to all of these smells. Or,

better still, a smell of lingering cooking oil from frying chicken the night before, combined with the body odor and sweat of numerous people, combined with basura and excrement. Not to mention the release of flatulence and the drawing in of exhaust fumes from the outside world by fans running on high because of the lack of air conditioning.  There isn’t enough Febreeze in the world to cover up the smell of poverty.

2. Sight — We can all be fooled by what we see with our own eyes. At least by all but the poorest of the poor in the world and in the US. But children and their faces tell the truth of their lot in life more than any pair of Jordans or dress clothes can hide. The tired, almost dead looks of children, whether in the Bronx or in Burkina Faso. Their eyes detail a sense of hopelessness, a momentary glance that gives away their suspicion that there is no future for which they should be ready for. Of course, there are more commonplace signs around us. Homeless folk in their old, wrinkled, tattered, oily, soiled clothes, with aluminum cans and liter soda bottles in beat-up shopping carts. Women and children looking a bit older than the few years they’ve spent in this world. Unkempt hair, chipped and worn fingernails, dirty faces in public places, can all be signs. But the eyes are the key window into someone else’s poverty.

3. Hearing — The sound of poverty is deafening. It cannot be hidden by clothes, nor covered up by an aerosol can. Take any urban community in which poverty has taken a firm grip. The sounds of living have been disrupted. Adults are out and about, conversing and cursing, foaming and fighting in the middle of the day, the time in which they should be hard at work, in an office or factory or somewhere else. The cries of children out with their mothers at all hours of the night. The constant beeping of cars, the sirens of ambulances and police cars, the screams of mothers, fathers and siblings at hours well past club-closing times. Poverty disables the need for a schedule, the need for a bedtime and a wake-up time, for a rhythm that requires sleep and renewal.

4. Taste & Touch — Though underappreciated, these senses can also be used to deduce poverty, or at least, the lack of things. Taste and smell go together, so many of the smells of poverty find their way to the taste buds on our tongues. The taste of bile, of acid reflux, even of blood usually come with the violent smells of being in an impoverished environment. The rough touch of clothes unwashed, or at least, washed in hard water and without fabric softener, is another indication.

But there’s also the lack of variety that’s typical of being poor that are told to us by taste and touch. Eating almost nothing but processed foods, fast food, or aid food, and the tongue becomes as a dull knife, unable to appreciate the subtle differences between onion and garlic, or the more distinctive flavors of paprika, nutmeg or cinnamon. Wearing nothing but hand-me-downs or hip-hop gear makes one’s sense of touch as rough as a jagged boulder, as unfeeling as stainless steel. Even a close hug in this kind of environment can be jolting and disconcerting.

Through our five senses, it becomes easier to understand why fighting our way out of poverty is so difficult, why being poor can disable and debilitate so many. That so many don’t have to breathe, taste, hear or touch it is the very reason why so many of us don’t understand it.