The Rapidly Expanding Margins of Society

For a few years after college, I lived out in the margins. I rumbled around North America in my maroon ’91 Toyota Corolla, trying to split the difference between Jack Kerouac and Chris McCandless, and taking odd seasonal jobs when I was strapped for cash. I slept in cheap hostels and visited friends and family scattered around the country (and beautiful British Columbia). I ate cheap, makeshift, non-perishable “meals” out of the trunk of my car.

Sometimes to save money, I slept in my car for weeks on end. I slept at rest stops, remote pullouts, and Walmart parking lots. I remember waking up in my car on a morning so cold that the inside of my windshield was covered with a thin layer of ice. I remember being so foolish as to pop a sleeping pill 30 minutes before getting to my rest stop of choice, just so that once I finally pulled over I wouldn’t have to toss and turn in the cold darkness as I drifted off to sleep in the folded-down driver’s seat. I remember, 15 minutes later, my eyes getting heavy behind the wheel as I nervously scanned the side of the road for pullouts.

And I remember — or in some cases don’t remember — the alcohol and the drug use.

I’m deeply fortunate that I made it through the first half of my 20s in one piece. I’m truly, endlessly grateful that I managed to live long enough to find the love of my life, followed 7 years later by the two other pint-sized loves of my life.

And I can’t even begin to picture what it would have been like if a pandemic had ripped through every corner of this country while I floated around on its margins. I balk to imagine it.

I had minimal savings, no job for 7 months a year, no health insurance (this was before Obamacare and its protection for those 26 and younger), and all of my necessary worldly possessions fit comfortably in my Corolla. I would have been significantly unequipped for a quarantine — can you shelter in place in a compact car? — and significantly exposed as I drifted along the highways and backroads of the United States.

This was also the last chapter of my life before I owned a cell phone, so I would have likely learned about the pandemic while checking my email at a public library. I can only venture a guess as to how agonizing that moment of alarmed realization would have been, as I instinctively scanned the library in Forks, Washington or Missoula, Montana or Kelowna, British Columbia for a familiar face to share my panic with.

I would have of course found no such thing. I was in a wilderness of the unknown. I would have likely called my mom, and she would have likely — or much more than likely — begged me to come home. And I would have then likely driven 3,000 miles to Mechanicsburg with fear in my heart every time I stopped the car. Fear that I would come in contact with the wrong person, or that my car wouldn’t start again and I wouldn’t be able to get the help I need because of the new social distancing edict.

I had no safety net. And millions of people right now are in a similar position, out on the margins of society. Many are transients like I was, unemployed or homeless or drifting around in search of adventure. Those people are vulnerable in a way that’s hard to overstate.

And there are even more — tens of millions, I’d imagine — who are gainfully employed and now have either had their hours reduced to zero, been fully laid off, or still have hours to work but are thus exposed every day to the general public. Any one of those situations would be destabilizing at best and terrifying at worst.

I can sit here and tell you for the 5th time how warmly grateful I am that I am now able to work remotely, or wax eloquently for the 500th time about how lucky I feel having Danielle and the kids. But that feels so out of touch right now. What about those millions of people who are now at the mercy, both financially and physically, of this ravenous pandemic and its endlessly convoluted aftermath?

In a matter of one week, the margins of society have vastly expanded. The margins now encompass a panoramic array of people in a wide array of different kinds of situations. And it should certainly go without saying, but no one deserves to be in that position. Not low-wage workers (i.e. the backbone of a consumer-based society). Not the uninsured. Not the unemployed. Not those who are substance-dependent. Not the homeless.

And not young guys who frequently make bad decisions and are living out of their Toyota Corolla because they read Into the Wild and On the Road and decided to splice the two together.

No one.

We need to somehow find a way, as individuals and as families and as a collective nation-family, to protect the margin dwellers in our midst. Because one thing is certain.

There are exponentially more of them right now than there were just last weekend. The margins are wide and getting wider.

And we will have to think and act like a village if we want to get all of us through this unprecedented crisis in one piece.

Because those margin dwellers? You know who they are? They are not them.

They are us.


One thought on “The Rapidly Expanding Margins of Society

  1. I love this. It reminds me of those youthful years when I would often wonder – where is jer these days? I sure hope that guy is doing alright. I had no judgement for your wanderlust, as I, too, had read and re-read those world view altering texts you mentioned and often dreamed (and likely over-glamorized) trekking around with a corolla, or something similar, as my shell.

    I’m so glad that you WERE alright, that you made it home in one piece, and that you have the love and warmth of your family around you.

    May we all grow in our concern for the ones in the margins at this time. They are all our sisters and brothers.


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