The American billionaire Elon Musk, lately much in the news on account of his ambition to send apple pie, solar energy, PayPal, and Ninja Turtles to other planets in our galaxy, was once a cash-strapped college student. The experience, as he boasted to the Los Angeles Times, had taught him frugality:
“I tried various experiments to live on less than $1 a day without getting scurvy,” he said with a chuckle. “You can cook spaghetti sauce with, like, a third of a green pepper, or buy a thing of sausages and a loaf of bread to make hot dogs for 25 or 30 cents apiece.”
What sort of civilization, I invite the reader to speculate, will Musk be exporting to the remoter extremities of the solar system? What sort of olive and what manner of vine will this Roman colonist of the new millennium be planting throughout a future United States of Solaria, for future generations of compatriots to husband and cherish? Like, a thing of sausages? Inevitably, his advice to the indigent made me think of Nat King Cole.
Cole, as far as I’m concerned, had but one masterwork in his entire singing career, a song he recorded roughly at Musk’s cash-strapped age. Basically, “Calypso Blues” is a comparison of the buying power of a dollar in America and the singer’s native Trinidad: “Fine calypso woman, she cook me shrimp and rice / Dese yankee hot dogs don’t treat me stomach very nice.”
Cole exults in his morbid act of enumeration, dwelling on the various aspects of what amounts to homesickness:
In Trinidad, one dollar buy
Papaya juice, banana pie,
Six coconut, one female goat,
An’ plenty fish to fill de boat.
One bushel bread, one barrel wine,
An’ all de town, she come to dine.
And before anybody can scowl and spit out some why-don’t-you-just-go-back-where-you-came-from generality, there’s the crash of juxtaposition: “But here is bad, one dollar buy / Cup o’ coffee, ham on rye . . . ”
Yet a third strand of my epistolary rant is the memorable passage in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London where he says that in his most destitute moments a want of tobacco—“snout,” as he calls it—would make itself known far more keenly than the need of bread. I’m quite sure Musk was never a smoker, and these days, anyway, no smoker can hope to survive on a dollar per day; in Britain, a pack of cigarettes will now set you back ten times that amount, with Italy and the rest of the Continent not far behind..
The items whose necessity is most palpably felt, apart from snout, by an otherwise civilized man living a life of absolute poverty are toilet paper and kitchen towels. The first is really a kind of psychological Rubicon, as being frogmarched by progress and circumstance back to a childhood when the newspaper Pravda was a staple of every bathroom in Russia would be humiliating in the extreme, even if one were to replace it with La Repubblica. The second represents the all-too-easily bridgeable chasm between an artist down on his luck and a kitchen maid, as only the most slovenly—that is to say, best educated—maids are in the habit of using disposable paper instead of washable cloth to keep their employers’ kitchens from becoming emotional Afghanistans and marital Vietnams.
I have read that “absolute poverty” has been defined by the United Nations as a global condition “characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education, and information.” An obviously surprising aspect of the definition is that it does not include free prophylactics, access to abortionists, sex-change operations, gender counseling, and handheld video-game consoles, though probably all that has been hidden in the small print of “health.” Less obvious is the extent to which its authors are estranged from the very idea of virtue, safeguarding which on one dollar per day is the real challenge of the kind of poverty they term absolute.
Food, water, shelter—in the First World we all seem to have them, yet the truth is that we have them only as simulacra, much in the same way as we have education and information. To paraphrase the Psalmist, I can find rejected vegetables in my garbage can—leaves of chard, spinach roots, tomato skins—that could be the cornerstone of fine dining in a place like London.
In the end, life comes down to issues of nomenclature, as Cole understood so well:
Dese yankee girl give me big scare,
Is black de root, is blonde de hair.
Her eyelash false, her face is paint,
And pads are where de girl she ain’t.
She jitterbug when she should waltz,
I even think her name is false.
But calypso girl is good a lot,
Is what you see, is what she got.