This is how it smells when you're poor.
Musk. Dust. Dried sweat. Wood smoke. Tobacco smoke. Bad breath. Body lotion. Spanish rice. Cooking oil.
The last two odors rise from supper just cooked in the kitchen of the Merced Rescue Mission. All the other smells rise off the bodies of the 11 men spending the night on wooden bunk beds in two rooms on the second floor one Sunday night.
Men who stay here are at or near the end of the line. Ronny, on a bottom bunk, just got out of the slammer at Susanville for possession and sale. "I used my gate money to buy a package of crystal," he says, "and my parole officer didn't like that much. So here I am." He's been at the shelter two weeks and hopes to soon achieve "disciple" status, which means he'll live there for a full year, trying to straighten out. "This place ain't nothin' like the joint," he allows. "Nothin'."
Gino, who after chow scored an olive-green trench coat from the shelter's clothing window, is trying to kick booze and grass by attending four meetings a week. Now in his early 20s, he was evicted from the house he was sharing with three other guys when nobody paid the rent. "Just 'cause I ain't from Texas don't mean I can't be a 'Boys fan," the lifelong Merced resident declares. He sleeps with the trench coat over his No. 84 Dallas Cowboys "Galloway" jersey.
Before lights out at 10, they both rub some of the shelter's free lotion on their skin -- Ronny on the Asian symbol tats on his chest and back; Gino on his withered right foot. Eight other men next door -- black, white, brown and yellow -- have been asleep for two or three hours.
These are Merced's invisible poor. Even if you pass them, say in Veterans Park, with their little red wagon or rusted baby stroller piled high with black trash bags, they stay unseen. Try not shaving or bathing for a few days, wear torn warm-up pants, an old sweatshirt, a battered ball cap and carry a grimy army duffel bag. Then walk around downtown Merced.
"May I ask you not to avoid our eye?" pleaded Clarence J. Latta, who said in a February letter to the Sun-Star that he'd lost his home to foreclosure. "Take a few moments to say hi. You just might find a good, honest, drug-free, nonalcoholic, wonderful person under that little bit of dirt and grime. Please look beyond."
The county also hosts a lot of poor who are all too visible. With a per capita family income of just over $17,000, one-fourth of the county's kids are living in poverty, and the county's overall rate is 19.4 percent (defined as a family of four, including two kids, with annual income of less than $22,000). Roughly one of six households gets food stamps, and more than 5,000 qualify for public assistance.
"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
--Franklin D. Roosevelt,
second inaugural address
Merced County is California's Appalachia, without the trail; Detroit's 8 Mile, with almond groves; L.A.'s Pico-Union, with dairies; central Long Beach, without the Cambodian graffiti. This is a place where people stage car washes to pay for funerals. Theft of copper wire is a growth industry. Even the dogs are skinny in South Dos Palos.
Merced County presents a unique paradox of poverty. It's got the scary numbers of urban underclass neighborhoods -- yet its main industry is agriculture. Its fertile fields and orchards help feed the country and the world -- yet some of its own go to bed hungry. Its leading families have been here for generations -- yet it's one of the youngest counties, by age, in the nation. It hosts the first U.S. scientific and research university built in the 21st century -- yet it sends the second-fewest number of high school grads in the state on to college. Its main ethnic groups, Hispanics and Hmong, cherish family ties -- yet among Merced city families where a female is head of household, nearly half live in poverty.