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'I feel uniquely poor'

Scenes of ruin in a changed country

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I was pumping gas, excited that the price was under $4, although I knew the total would exceed $50. I locked the pump on automatic and took a walk amid the other pumps to see what people were spending.

Six of the eight pumps were showing $5 to $10.

A woman pulled up in an old Taurus. I watched her put $8 of regular into the car. She turned to me and asked for directions to Lenox Square.

We were in Grant Park. I told her it was a fairly lengthy drive. "I'm not sure $8 of gas is going to get you there and home," I said, laughing.

"I know," she said, "but I am returning a gift someone gave me, so I should have plenty to buy more gas after I get there."

A baby in her car started to cry and she took off.

A friend in Florida called. I hadn't heard from him all summer, despite numerous calls and e-mails. I'd actually checked the obituary columns.

I asked him why he'd been out of touch and he replied that he'd felt "overwhelmed" all summer.

"My business has dried up. It's less than half what it was this time last year," he said. "All I do is work, trying to make up the difference."

My friend is one of those people who is used to a prosperous lifestyle. He moved to Florida last year and bought a lucrative business after being laid off by the international company that paid him enough to own three high-rise condos in Atlanta.

"The economy seems to be tanking big-time," I said. "And nobody's really talking much about how bad it really is."

He agreed but admitted that he didn't like to think that way. "I have to believe things are getting better," he said.

I stopped in a smoothie shop for a shot of protein on my way home from the gym. The woman behind the cash register was fast asleep. I knocked gently on the bar and she awoke with a start, apologizing.

"Rough day?" I asked.

"Same as any other day," she said. "I have two full-time jobs."

"George Bush complimented a woman at one of his town hall meetings in 2004 for holding two jobs. He said that was uniquely American," I told her. "Do you feel that way?"

"Well, like many Americans right now, I feel uniquely poor," she said.

The bridge that connects Hill Street in Grant Park to Edgewood Avenue has reopened after being closed for many months. Before the area under the bridge was fenced off, it had been a crash space for many homeless people.

Now, they're trickling back, spreading out their bed linens on the sidewalk to sleep or just hang out. Grady Memorial Hospital is just around the corner.

I parked my car and as soon as I got out, two men were on me, asking for money.

"I'm just visiting," I said, giving each of them a dollar.

It was about 2 p.m. and there were 10 people on the sidewalk, most of them sitting. It was an odd encampment. Where I expected despair, I didn't feel much besides my own. I was embarrassed to be there, feeling like an anthropologist exploring a village little more than a mile from my home.

A woman held a cracked hand mirror into which she gazed while moving strands of her thinning hair around.

"How's it look?" I asked. She laughed and turned to face me directly. She was about 30, I'd guess, and looked tired but not unhealthy.

"I'm heading to work," she said, "and I have to look decent." She explained that she worked for a nearby fast-food restaurant.

"Do they know you're on the street?" I asked. She said that she'd been homeless only six weeks and that her employer thought she still lived with her sister, who had kicked her out when her boyfriend moved in.

"What will you do?" I asked.

She looked at me and didn't say a word. Then she looked at the broken mirror and held it up to me. "Do you want this?" she asked.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For his blog and information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.

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