Mark Reads ‘Street Magic’: Chapter 3

In the third chapter of Street Magic, Evvy must accept her magic. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Circle Opens. 

Trigger Warning: For talk of poverty, homelessness, hunger, body image, and eating disorders. This will be a fairly rough one, so please take heed if you’re triggered by these things.

It’s never going to be easy for Evvy to trust anyone, and there’s no character better suited to understanding that than Briar.

Poverty and hunger – which often go hand in hand in our society – change the way you think about your current situation. They change the way you think about the past, particularly if you weren’t born into poverty. And I can speak to the experience that Briar has here: they change how you interpret future events, too.

I was born into poverty, and then I was adopted into a middle-class household that, a decade later, slipped into poverty, too. I have spent so little of my life without an abject fear of money that it’s hard to me to even quantify the periods where I felt safe. Five years total? Maybe? I don’t even know because it’s all a specter of fear for me; it haunts my perception of my own history. I try to recall a bountiful Christmas, a time when that holiday did not remind me of how little we had and how different my own family was. The last one I remember was the Christmas after moving to Southern California. We’d made the long trek from Boise, and my father had a well-paying job with Micron. He’d commute hours each day out to their offices, and he would return with enough money that my mother was able to stay home and take care of us. That was the last time I remember a picturesque Christmas tree on December 25th, the final time it was piled with presents and gifts like you see in the movies or on television.

I may remember all this wrong, and that’s what poverty does to you. I feel like it was an overnight change; one day we had everything, and the next, our food was limited. Could it have occurred over months of time? Probably, and I’m sure that my parents spent those few months hiding reality from us. But my mother was confrontational and eager to fight, and it wasn’t long before we knew, very clearly, that we were poor. There were no rosy goggles which I could view the world through. The kids at school made certain of that, especially when the teasing started over the tattered and clearly-too-tight clothing I wore every day. But when the hunger started, that was something I suffered entirely in private.

I think that’s an aspect of hunger that a lot of folks either don’t realize exists or don’t think about. Being hungry all the time is something you normally have to cope with entirely by yourself. There’s a lot of shame attached to it, too. When I finally had to start eating discounted lunches, it was in a separate line that everyone knew was for the poor kids. Our meals? Different food. They were all signifiers of our status within this hierarchy, and everyone made sure we knew that. Of course, it got even worse later when I got to high school. Kids aren’t that perceptive of class in elementary school or even junior high, but that was not the case for me once I was in my teens. After I ran away from home, I qualified for a free lunch, not a discounted one. There was no way to hide this from anyone else. I could not get my lunch by standing in the normal line with all of my friends and peers. They could get pizza, salads, fresh fruit, sub sandwiches, a special made every day that changed… and I literally had to go into a different building to get my food. It sounds almost comical now, thinking back on it. It was the room the cafeteria was supposed to be in, but the student body had long outgrown the place. While everyone else had spread out across the quad, splitting off into familiar social groups and cliques, those of us on free lunch – who had bright yellow lunch cards, not easily hidden from the traditional white ones everyone else got – did not eat with them. No, we were required to keep our lunches in the cafeteria. We could not “remove” them from the sanctioned area because… well, I never really knew and it never made sense to me. Apparently they didn’t want us sharing this food with others, because then other people might get free food? I don’t know what they expected of us. If we were poor enough to qualify for this program – our parents’ or our own income could not be over $12,000 a year – then what did they think we were doing with this food? Selling it for a buck outside? It wasn’t even worth that because surprise, the quality of the free food was abysmal. Our lunches were mass produced, shipped in from an outside contractor and heated up in a massive oven, before the soppy, soggy vegetables or the burnt protein was handed over to us.

And I would still eat every bite, unsure if that would be my only meal of the day.

I went days without eating at times, prioritizing rent or school supplies or graduation fees or, at my worst, I’d put appearances at the top of my list. I wasted so much money that I should have used for other things – like food – in order to give the appearance that I wasn’t poor. I’d buy a flashy pair of Vans or go out to a concert or go on a road trip, all the while suffering from hunger pains, just so that my friends thought I was okay. This lead to a number of problems over the years, one of them being my tendency to suffer in silence. Why do you think this blog has provided me with such an intense outlet? I don’t have the expectation to be quiet anymore. I don’t need to perform any sort of role these days. But when you’re seventeen or eighteen, and you live on your own, and your well-being rests on the generosity and kindness of strangers, you don’t view the world the same way. When your social anxieties cause you to question every word out of your mouth, you try to do things that require no words that make people think you’re cool. That costs money.

So by the time I got to college and had a year of dependable food three times a day while on a meal plan, I had developed an unhealthy attachment to food. I had spent years never knowing where my food would come from in any definitive, concrete sense. Sure, I lived with people who invited me to dinner with their families, but I ate ridiculously small portions. I knew I was affecting the amount of food these people had, so I often skipped meals out of a pervasive sense of guilt, out of a subtle fear that I didn’t belong here anyway. I preferred to procure food on my own because then, I didn’t feel ashamed for eating it. And then there I was, at Cal State Long Beach, with an unlimited amount of food at my disposal, and no need to worry about paying for any of it. It was included in my scholarship.

So I started overeating.

If food was put before me, I felt an intense desire not to waste any of it. If something was cheap, I ate a lot of it, convinced in some warped part of my brain that I was storing things up for the inevitable moment when the food wouldn’t be there and I would need to avoid starving again. I began to equate comfort and happiness with eating, which is absolutely not a bad thing in and of itself. I never want to reach a point where I think the opposite because good lord, food is fucking incredible. But I started doing this thing where that was how I coped with stress and sadness and my depressive episodes. I was always convinced that the food would disappear again. They say that most students gain the “Freshman 15″ that first year of college. That was not the case for me. I entered college at 5’10”, fresh off five years of running track & field and cross country, and I was a thin, lean muscled dude at 140 pounds. By the end of that year, I was 167. It didn’t bother me so much, as I’d been trying to get bigger for all of high school. But I never adjusted how I ate until 2005, when I became homeless again. I dropped 43 pounds in that time, from 182 down to 139, and I kept it there for… well, for complicated, awful reasons having to deal with my first boyfriend. I have not been skinny since then, and I struggle with my weight and my body image, now nearly 100 pounds heavier than I ever was in high school or in 2005/6.

It’s only been in the past five years or so that I’ve begun to seriously think about how my experience with poverty and homelessness affected how I look at food. I’ve struggled with eating disorders since I was 19, but couldn’t ever afford professional help for them. Hell, I probably remained in denial about them until recently anyway. But Evvy’s hunger – and the choices she made in the chapter surrounding them – were familiar enough to me that I felt a need to finally talk about to… someone. I’ve briefly mentioned it to people and had superficial conversations about it, but I’ve only seriously had a conversation about all this to maybe five people ever. But I feel like it’s important, and not just for my own catharsis. I think that finding a way to connect to a text in personal, emotional ways is a rewarding experience. I think that analyzing a text with these experiences in mind can help to understand a character and their choices. When you’re so used to picking for scraps and someone puts out a platter of luxury before you, you often find ways to splurge, to make yourself momentarily happy because you know that in a day or two, you’ll go back to being miserable. There’s no sense of scope when you’re poor or hungry or both. You can think a week in advance, maybe. So I get Evvy thinking about better food and making that her primary goal. I get why she’s reluctant to make promises for even a day later. Who thinks of that when you’re trying to determine how you’ll eat or make a buck in the next couple hours? That sense of urgency is part of her characterization for a reason. It matters to have that kind of context, because it matters to have that context in our world as well.

The original text contains use of the words “idiot,” and “crazy.”

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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