From the moment I entered the gym, I was assigned an identity and role to play. I am Iris Isaacson, age 19, a high school dropout without a job or any job prospects. I have a one-year-old son and live with my boyfriend, who is 25 and, thankfully, employed. He is not my child's father but he does have a child of his own. We have one car that breaks down often. Our rent, utilities and food add up to more than we bring in each month.
Every 15 minutes is one week in our lives. We must circle around the gym and stand in long lines to get to work, the bank, the grocery store, the quick cash, social services, and the utility company. It takes one transportation ticket to get from place to place, including back home. It is a totally different world than I live in. Banks and quick cash places take money off the top to cash your checks. By the time you get to a place to pay your bill or get to the front of the line, it closes. Police offers take you to jail for loitering too long outside a place. You must choose between a week of food or taking your child to the doctor.
How did I do in four weeks as Iris Isaacson? Not very well, I'm afraid. I lost the rental trailer. I got our utilities turned back on finally, but I was still in the hole with the utility company. I did not make it to the required training to keep my unemployment benefits, so those will be taken away next month. I begged a transportation ticket from the neighbor family using a fake story about my sick kid. I also considered an offer to go home with a gentlemen in the bank line who would "treat me right" and got a monthly stipend from the government. I pawned my watch and all the furniture to make ends meet, which was small potatoes, because I was so desperate I probably would have sold my soul.
When I became Heather Feeler again, I had to report out how I felt about the whole exercise. I felt sad. I felt confused. I felt terribly unworthy to be living my carefree life where I whip in and out of restaurants and stores with my full tank of gas. My glass is always full. My stomach, too. For the first time, I felt how the cycle of poverty keeps spinning around and how hard it is to pull yourself out. I also found that my middle-class values, plus my quick judgments of right and wrong, don't always apply when it comes to survival. We do what we must to survive.
It's not easy to see the world differently, I'm discovering. It doesn't feel so good when you can't fix what's broken, or even see how you can do enough to matter. While I have no answers, just a discontented heart right now, I'm going to start by giving others my greatest respect, understanding and kindness. You never know their journey. It could be Iris, who is really me and then I am her. As it turns out, we are all the same.