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Politically Incorrect

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Would you like to buy some dirt?

About all you hear these days is that it’s time to “tighten our belts.” The economy is in trouble and we’re in trouble right along with it so we all better get used to making do with less.

Finally, my life experience will come in handy. I am used to being poor.

The poorest part of my life, the time when I had the least amount of resources available to me, has to be when I found myself as both a new mother, and a divorced wife, back when Misty was about two months old. We lived in my car for a while, me, the baby, and a wild yellow cat. But I can’t remember anything especially funny about that time, which means there aren’t any good stories to tell, so instead I’m going to talk about the second-poorest time of my life, when I sold dirt.

At this time, Misty was just a little over two years old, and I had gone to Arkansas to live with my brother Boyd, his wife, and his two kids. Shortly thereafter, my sister Faye and her daughter Katrina (Four years old? Five?), on the run from a man who had beat her many times pretty close to the edge of death, joined us, making for a household of eight.

Eight was enough.

I won’t go into detail about what my brother was going through at that time, because the surface is enough... he was going crazy. I mean, really crazy. He’s dead now, so he won’t mind my saying that, but even if he were alive he wouldn’t care because after a while, he admitted it himself.

Boyd worked for the state as an electrician, keeping things powered up in the state parks. At least, until he decided that his fellow workers were trying to kill him by sabotaging electrical fixtures. So he quit. His wife, Sandy, didn’t work outside the house at all and my sister, Faye, was still trying to learn how to get through a day without looking over her shoulder for a killing blow every other minute. That left me as the sole provider of a family of eight. I wasn’t an especially good one.

I got a job at a truck stop in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, a little place where road weary warriors would order gallons of black coffee and enough breakfast food to feed a family of four. They were full of smiles, jokes, laughter and stories but not full of money, so most, when they left, would leave two or three shiny quarters to the side of their plate for their hard-working waitress. That was a good tip for the time and the place, but it didn’t do a lot to feed a family of eight.

Before Boyd went completely off the rails, he did some sort of electrical job for a neighbor also poor in cash but rich in potatoes—so he paid with 20 or 30 five gallon buckets of big white spuds. Those potatoes saved us. Fried potatoes and homemade biscuits for breakfast every morning. Fried potatoes and beans for dinner every night. Once a week or so I would come up with enough money to buy a little bit of hamburger, and spaghetti was on the menu—obviously, this all happened long before the days of Top Ramen.

We planted a garden and I spent an entire day tilling an area for potatoes—this Irish girl now had first hand experience in how important potatoes can be to a poor person. We planted an orchard, too, thinking beyond the next harvest, but Mable the F***ing goat (as I fondly called her) ate her way around the trunk of each of those trees in just two short days, killing every one of them. I don’t know why we had that stupid goat—she didn’t give milk and Boyd wouldn’t let me kill her after she killed the orchard. I guess she hung around for atmosphere.

When not gardening or serving truck drivers I would sit with Boyd and listen to Simon and Garfunkle, or sit with Faye and talk about our dreams for ourselves and our daughters.

A month or so into the Arkansas adventure, Boyd got a severance check from the state. It never saw a bank account as he cashed it and then immediately bought a business, and a new Ford Escort for running it. He was quite excited when he came home in the new car to tell us all what he had done, which was the first time we heard about it.

Boyd was a little too old to read comic books so I’m not really sure where he found the ad for the business he bought, but you can imagine our surprise when we learned we were now in the business of making air fresheners for cars. I continued to work at the truck stop and Boyd made the rounds of every small business in Arkadelphia and beyond, getting their agreement to sell our creations once we made them. And we waited for our new business materials to arrive.

Oh, what a day when the UPS truck arrived with the basics of our new livlihood. We all gathered in the back family room to open the boxes and discover just what pattern our lives would now follow.

Four large five-gallon restaurant buckets, just like the ones that held the potatoes we still lived on, were filled with eau de fragrances—each meant to be a perfect imitation of some famous perfume and each not coming within a country mile of actually smelling that way. The lighter boxes held small plastic bags, a heat seal machine, and a large collection of metal display racks. The largest, heaviest boxes contained 2-inch by 2-inch squares of... I’m not sure what it was. It looked a bit like particle board. Soak the blocks in the buckets of perfume, heat seal them into a bag, hang the bags on the metal racks and sell your way into riches. That, apparently, was the plan.

Boyd was crazy, but he wasn’t that crazy. Even he realized that no one in the world was stupid enough to buy an ugly block of wood that smelled like something rancid to hang from their rear view mirror. Our new business was bust before we even finished unpacking all the boxes.

That’s when we decided to sell dirt. Although you might not know it, Arkadelphia, and moreso nearby Hot Springs, is a tourist town. Tourists will buy just about anything, even if they won’t buy perfume-impregnated blocks of wood. And not far from Arkadelphia is Crater of Diamonds State Park, which got its name because it’s the only place in the world open to the public where a person can dig up diamonds.

Arkansas dirt (clay, actually) is bright red, but the dirt at Crater of Diamonds is a deep, soft green, the eroded remains of a volcanic pipe that almost 100 million years ago sent these gems to the surface where they can be found today lying loose in the soil. The most perfect diamond the American Gem Society has ever certified was found here in 1990, and the 40.23 carat “Uncle Sam,” the largest diamond ever found in America, in 1924.

A trip to a print shop was made to create labels for our little bags that read “Genuine Arkansas Diamond Dirt,” followed by a trip to the park to collect dirt to sell in the little bags.

Just weeks before, however, the Park Service decided that visitors could no longer take dirt with them when they left; at least, not without paying. Seems park officials had decided right about the time we did that tourists would be willing to pay for dirt. And paying for the dirt we had planned to sell just didn’t fit into our bare bones business plan.

But that didn’t stop our entrepreneurial efforts, not at all. Another trip to the print shop for a stamp that read “imitation” (the labels would now say “genuine imitation Arkansas diamond dirt”) and then for the next few weeks my sister Faye and I sat in the back yard with big mixing bowls of red clay and green food coloring, creating imitation diamond dirt to sell.

When you spend hours trying to recolor dirt, it’s hard to avoid evaluating where your life is at and where it’s going. Not long after Boyd delivered the first round of packaged dirt to stores to sell, Faye and I packed up our cars and moved on down the road to my parent’s house in Tennessee, at that time sitting empty and in need of some tender lovin’ care from a pair of sisters ready to start building new lives that didn’t have anything to do with selling dirt.

That was over a quarter century ago now, and Faye, Boyd and I went on to do many things in our lives.

Boyd would leave Arkansas, and his wife, not long after we did. Eventually he would find himself back in Houston, the town where he was born. An unfortunate accident with a match and an uncapped gas line would lead him on a ten-year journey into disability, during which time he had a hand in helping to write the Americans with Disabilities Act. A quadruple bypass ensured his contiued decline, and he died December 29, 1996. I can’t say for sure whether he ever got sane again.

Faye ended up in California, where she helped the daughter she escaped with grow into a beautiful young woman. Faye worked in security, and became a high mucky-muck for the union, traveling around the country before an unattended cyst on her ovary burst. She lived through that, though most of her intestines did not; she also lived through her son’s two-year battle with a failed heart and grew to the point where she could finally tell him it was okay for him to go—and he did. A month after he died, she collapsed and was diagnosed with the kidney cancer that would eat her life in just seven short months. Faye died on September 6, 2005.

I, of course, the last of the dirt sellers, found my way to North Idaho where, another failed marriage and two more children to my name, I put together this magazine you hold in your hands and continue to develop my experience with living in poverty. I still love potatoes and still hate goats, and still eat beans and biscuits.

Every now and then I think back to those crazy Arkansas days and I pull Boyd’s ashes down from the shelf, set him by the computer speakers and play him a little Simon and Garfunkle. And I talk to Faye about how well her daughters are doing, about how beautiful her grandchildren are, and about how those dreams we dreamed while coloring dirt turned out. I tell her that times are tough and that I’m tightening my belt... but I’m not planning on selling any dirt.

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

poverty, Arkansas, Faye, Boyd

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