In George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, the author of Animal Farm and 1984 describes what it’s like to be down right broke in two great European cities as a young man at the tail end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s. I recently picked up a copy of Down and Out and am about halfway through the book’s first section, which is about Paris. It’s my first time reading the book and, so far, I’ve been most struck by Orwell’s humor (part Woody Allen, part Larry David) and by the vivid, varied, specific details Orwell gives the reader about life under the poverty line.
Of the beginning of his time living down and out in the city of light, Orwell writes:
From the start it entangles you in a net of lies, and even with the lies you can hardly manage it. You stop sending clothes to the laundry, and the laundress catches you in the street and asks you why; you mumble something, and she, thinking you are sending the clothes elsewhere, is your enemy for life. The tobacconist keeps asking why you have cut down your smoking. There are letters you want to answer, and cannot, because stamps are too expensive. And then there are your meals–meals are the worst difficulty of all. Every day at meal-times you go out, ostensibly to a restaurant, and loaf an hour in the Luxembourg Gardens, watching the pigeons. Afterwards you smuggle your food home in your pockets. Your food is bread and margarine, or bread and wine, and even the nature of the food is governed by lies. You have to buy rye bread instead of household bread, because the rye loaves, though dearer, are round and can be smuggled in your pockets. This wastes you a franc a day. Sometimes, to keep up appearances, you have to spend sixty centimes on a drink, and go correspondingly short of food. Your linen gets filthy, and you run out of soap and razor-blades. Your hair wants cutting, and you try to cut it yourself, with such fearful results that you have to go the barber shop after all, and spend the equivalent of a day’s food. All day you are telling lies, and expensive lies.
In addition to further detailing his own life in squalor, Orwell details the equally squalid lives of some of his cohorts at the time, including a man named Boris whose wall above his bed was covered with “a long S-shaped chain of bugs” and whose “chest was spotted with insect bites.”
In any case, the premise of Orwell’s book makes, I believe, for a great writing prompt. And that prompts is this: Tell about a time in your life (or in a character’s life) when you (or a character) lived if not literally below the poverty line, then on very little money (think poor student, unemployed, in between jobs, raising children on a single income, etc.). What did you eat? Where did you eat? Did you lie about living on little money? What was difficult about that time? Easy? Embarrassing? Empowering? Enlightening?