True Privilege In the Face of Poverty

We feel our way down the dimly lit stairwell. This old church, no longer used for services, houses a business. The sign ``Used Books and Goods'' points to a bottom-door entrance.

On the steps leading down, two broken-looking young men from the shelter next door sit quietly together. They pull in their feet in an act of politeness. Their eyes are dull and anguished, and we try not to meet them, for what we see there is poverty at its lowest. We look away.

We go down the steps, through the old wooden door with a fresh coat of paint slapped on it. Here are rows and rows of books - dusty, forgotten friends. We search out the section we have come for. The book I seek is no longer in print, and the library has noted that I have borrowed it 20 times or more. They have suggested that I look for my own copy.

I go through the covers and book jackets, placed in jumbled piles on the fold-up tables. The books are not in any order; everything's in disarray. I turn to the scores of boxes, filled with untouched, unsorted knowledge, that sit under the labored frames. Here, where the floor is dull yellow and brown, marred with muddy footprints, I continue my search.

The proprietor has ignored us. As is our custom, my middle-class friend and I have dressed ``poor'' for this part of town, so as not to gain unwanted attention. The owner is busy, trying to sell a stereo to another customer. He plays pieces, phrases of songs at ear-piercing levels. Then, nodding at his customer, he looks at us and turns up his nose.

Some of the music I can remember hearing as a child on the old wooden radio that took up the entire living-room corner in my mother's house. But some of it is unknown to me. Music is a personal thing, and I am beginning to doubt the proprietor's taste, and what is more his tact. His loud blasts begin to feel deliberate.

It seems the men's attention has turned toward us: They play ear-piercing parts, then look casually toward us. They seem determined to drive us out, and for a moment I wonder why.

Then I remember the way we are dressed. ``Poor'' so as not to attract attention. Poor so as not to arouse approaching hands and cups. But we have gained attention of another sort.

The proprietor would like to remove us, but it is against the law. So, as the decibels of the music peak and tear away at us, we leave. They howl in happiness when the door opens back to the street.

Before we leave this place, we take the $30 we would have spent on the book and place it in the donation box of the homeless shelter. The shelter that encroaches on the proprietor's territory. We hope the money is well used.

The word ``privileged'' suddenly rings in my mind. Privileged meaning that the way a person looks can guarantee her good service or a cold shoulder. Privileged in the way we felt, at first, masquerading as poor people so as not to be confronted by them.

Then I think of the word underprivileged. Ashamed that I have become so calloused as to not meet people's eyes anymore. Underprivileged, as the heart of the bookstore owner is, who drove us away with his cruel tricks. We leave the area. My friend asks if I want to look anywhere else for the book, and I shake my head.

For in seeking knowledge, I have left with something far more useful. I have left with an education. And that alone is a privilege.

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