I grew up poor, and I don’t say that in the lower-middle class Roseanne or even Raising Hope sense. I mean: destitute. Three kids, a single father, all living in a dilapidated 800-square-foot house with a giant hole in the ceiling, that had been abandoned by my great grandfather after his death. Typically, the three of us kids would eat one meal a day — either from Sonic or Taco Bell (often depending on the fast-food specials) — while my father’s lone meal would usually consist of store-brand potato chips that he would dip into a peanut butter jar. My father worked two jobs, nearly 70 hours a week, and his annual salary was somewhere around the $12,000 range (I know, because I helped with the taxes). I had a fake ID that I had forged myself, not so I could drink, but so I could donate plasma two to three times a week for the cash, and at 6’0”, I still had to drink a gallon of water before each visit to weigh in over 145 pounds, which allowed me an extra $5 per plasma donation. There was a drug house across the street from our home for a few years, until our house became the drug house. My father drove a car made up largely of scrap-yard parts, and when it broke down (which was always), he drove my grandmother’s 1970-something Ford Maverick. Our wardrobe came from yard sales, although my yard-sale clothes had name brand labels sewn into them, which made me the snob in my family.
I mention this only to highlight why I love Showtime’s Shameless as much as I do. Because no other show on television — and certainly no hour-long drama — has better captured the reality of what it is like to be poor. Most typical viewers of the drama like it for a variety of reasons: It’s funny, it can be heartwarming, there are some great underdog stories, and the relationship turmoil is fantastic (especially if you like seeing Emmy Rossum in various states of undress). But few typical viewers understand the reality of what it is depicting.
Some may argue that it’s a “heightened” reality, and in certain cases, maybe it is (no one in my family, for instance, ever intentionally harmed themselves in order to collect disability or insurance, although we knew plenty of people who did). But as someone whose brother manufactured meth before he entered high school (which he dropped out of), and whose sister spent most of her days holed up in a dining room that had been converted into a bedroom (which held only a bed and no walking space) listening to Jane’s Addiction, much of Shameless doesn’t feel “heightened” to me. It feels all too authentic. Of course, no one in my family prostituted themselves, as one character does in Shameless, but there were a few hookers on First Street. We, however, lived on Second Street, and we were better than that, thank you very much.
But where Shameless especially gets it right is not in the setting, or even the circumstances, but in the way that bad luck seems to follow you everywhere you go when you’re poor. You’re doubly f*cked, not just because you’re without money, but because being poor puts you in circumstances in which it’s almost impossible to succeed. If you finally get a job that pays above minimum wage, for instance, it’s almost guaranteed that your car will break down the next day, and you’ll lose that job because you can’t get there on time. When you’re asked to look presentable for an interview, or a school function, that’s sure to be the day that your sewer line leaks into the water line, and both your bathtub and your shitty washing machine will fill up with sewage. It’s practically inevitable.
It breaks your heart, too, because you work so hard to advance so little, and something out of your control will completely set you back. You will end up feeling like a failure because of something beyond your power, and those with control over their lives will make you feel worse because they will insist that a more together person, a more worthwhile person, wouldn’t allow for these kind of setbacks. If you’re poor, you have to anticipate bad luck.
All of this was running through my mind in the most recent episode of Shameless, when Lip — who against every odd imaginable — made it into college, but that sh*t luck followed him even there. Despite studying his ass off, despite preparing himself for a test he wasn’t as well equipped to handle as many of his classmates, he missed the exam after his laundry was stolen. He ended up arriving a couple of minutes late to the exam in wet jeans, and the professor wouldn’t allow him in because he didn’t arrive exactly on time.
Something weirdly similar happened to me in my freshman year of college. I was a bright enough kid, but I didn’t have a basic understanding of certain things one needs to know for college, like how to use a computer. During a writing lab, my professor kept coming around to my computer and asking me to change my font. I would sheepishly fiddle with the keys for a few seconds, and go back to writing, and he’d come around again, and reiterate that I needed to change my font. The third time he came around, he was furious. He must have thought I was being a little sh*t. He stuck his face an inch away from my nose, vein popping out of his forehead, and he screamed: “Change your goddamn font or get out of my class!” I felt too stupid to say, “I’m from Second Street, you asshole. I don’t know what ‘font’ means,” and so I left the class (it was, thankfully, early enough in the semester that I was able to pick up another writing class).
In situations like these, your heart sinks, and you have to resist every temptation in your body to give up, to go out and bust some car windows out of frustration (as Lip did), and put yourself back at square one. I cannot describe to you how horrible and powerless situations like these make you feel, knowing that there’s no way to get out of it or fix it. It’s what can make crime so appealing: There’s two upsides — either you make money, or you wind up in prison, where at least they feed you three meals a day in a temperature controlled environment.
The difference between reality, and heightened reality, however, is this: In real-life, that hard-ass professor doesn’t say f*ck it and give you a second chance, as he did for Lip in Shameless. In reality, you’re screwed. In reality, if you are poor, you are not allowed mistakes. In reality, if your car breaks down, you put on those sneakers you have “fashionably” duct taped together, and you run like you’ve never run in your life, and if you arrive five minutes late, you don’t make excuses, because people with control over the lives do not give a sh*t about your excuses. People with control over their lives have mortgages to pay, and they can’t make those payments if they hire some poor sod who shows up ten minutes late to work because their dog hung itself on its own chain earlier that morning.
There is no worse fate than being poor in the land of second chances, and this is what Shameless understands. There are minor victories along the way, and heartwarming family moments over a shared bad luck story, but in the end, you’re still going to be in that house, you’re still going to be paying for groceries with quarters, and around every corner is something shitty waiting to happen. This is why there’s no social mobility in this country, because when you’re shit poor, no one will give you a goddamn break.