Hold the wall. Your fingertips should always graze the tile. It is unsanitary. Do not lift your fingers to your mouth or to your eyes. You could become infected; you could die. The walls underground are filmy with sewage, are coated in the filth of those who’ve died and who’ve survived. Survivors hold the wall. They do not allow themselves to forget where they are. They know that no wall is endless, that someday their fingers will again find air.
You will be hungry, often. The occasional mole person you pass will show you all the manholes, will tell you where the dumpsters are the richest. And you will decide whether it is worth it to breach these stark parameters and dive. This act will prolong your stay; but sometimes, the lengthier stay is the wisest. Sometimes the lengthier stay will be your last. You will determine whether or not you’d rather starve or eat what is surely the innards of rats, proffered in the thin skins of sausages. If you have a bit of money, you will count the costs of low-cost markets, of bread two days past molding, of fruit not just bruised but left to rot. Your children must eat when you will not. Try not to be ashamed of what you feed them. Humiliation does not kill as quickly as hunger. After they are sated, do eat their crusts.
When you are alone, when money is no longer your currency, when you’ve seen too few people with whom you might barter, when you no longer understand the function of days, this is when you are closest to the feel of nothing, to an opening through which you can grovel and claw, escape.
But it does not end with air. Freedom is never as simple as breath. Breath is a beginning. You have exited into the world of the employed, a world you once knew well and have forgotten. For so long, this has been a citadel on the other side of a sea. The underground has been neither a bridge nor a buoy. And here, you can no longer feel the walls.
Soon enough, a way, however winding, will become apparent. Employment is an invitation; depending on its type, it will arrive on filigreed parchment or on an inscrutable scrap. But neither the invitation nor the work will reacclimate you to air’s architecture. It will be the pay and how far you can stretch it. It will be how you behave, above ground, when there is nothing left.
You will remember how thoroughly forgotten you were when you were too poor to be more than cellophane to the people who now use expense accounts to treat you to lunch. You will avoid mirrors, because they portend a regression into your more desperate self. It is in the shabbiness of a too-worn dress, in the raggedy soles of your only shoes. It is in the hair and the skin and eyes — you swear it — that film that cannot quite scrub off. It isn’t permanent for people like you, up here, experiencing air. Poverty above ground is a different beast’s belly. Roomier. You can slosh around; you can wait. This beast regurgitates. And when it does, you will find yourself, at least temporarily, free.
But there is something wrong in a world where some live in constant fear of being swallowed whole while others remain blissfully unaware of the rampage. If you have ever been poor, if you have scraped to afford furnishings then found yourself hastily throwing them away in a sudden move to a city with more livable wages; if you’ve been down to a dollar, swinging wildly at debt collectors to stave off an overdraft fee; if you’ve begged for payment arrangements; if you’ve been denied a bank account; if you’ve eaten Saltines as a meal: you are at war; you are being hunted. And an estimated 80 percent of the people in this country are crouching and flinching and looking over their shoulders right along with you.
Someone wealthy will tell you it is peacetime. You are no longer eating entrails, so we are in recovery. They are wrong. It is neither the opinion of wealthy nor the condition of the world that will determine when you are in recovery.
Only when you are no longer so reliant on walls that you waste whole years building them yourself, only when you are no longer afraid of what may await you underground, only when, upon seeing a hand emerge from a manhole, you can kneel and clasp it and pull with all your might — without fearing it will snatch you down before you can lift it up — will you know that you’ve reached recovery.