"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Eleven years ago, despite two advanced degrees and editing experience, I was scraping by, waiting tables a couple of nights a week, picking up the odd freelance assignment. I was in the midst of a divorce in which I had not asked for alimony or child support, and I had shared custody of my two daughters, who were 11 and 5 at the time. I held on to what little money was available for the days when I had the girls, and during one particular three-day stretch I had just under $6 to feed the three of us, so I didn’t eat.
I felt as if I were doing penance. The divorce had been my idea, and I carried within me the notion that because I had broken up my daughters’ happy home, I deserved whatever suffering came my way. But starving myself also made me feel I was the noble mother, the self-sacrificing she-wolf who would take care of her children before I took care of myself.
There were other options, but for the longest time, I couldn’t bring myself to take advantage of them. In my town, the local food kitchen serves two lunches and two dinners a week. I wrestled to overcome my humiliation in order to take my girls there and get fed. Even though I do not believe in the concept of the undeserving poor — no one deserves poverty — I had internalized the messages that float through our culture. Those attitudes have come back to the fore in this country; last week, the Republicans passed a bill in the House that slashes food stamp benefits, as if the people who need them right now are malingerers, refusing to go out and find the jobs that aren’t there to begin with. I never believed in this toxic “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” magical thinking, and yet, my sense of shame was powerful. I could not believe I’d been laid this low.
There were other concerns, too. Because the food kitchen is associated with a local Christian church, I was afraid that partaking of Christian charity would make me a hypocrite. I’m not a Christian; I haven’t raised my girls Christian, and I’d heard plenty stories of charities that would only feed you if you listened to readings from the Bible. After some research, I learned this wouldn’t be the case here, but I struggled. Still, we needed to eat. And so, I told the kids that we were going to a cafeteria to have dinner.
I pulled up in front of the whitewashed church that sits in the middle of town. It was called “Loaves and Fishes.” I arrived at the midway point to avoid a line of people gathered at the door, waiting for food. My pride told me that I couldn’t be in that line, and I couldn’t subject my kids to the possibility that one of their friends’ families would catch sight of them. I also didn’t want to risk my soon-to-be-ex-husband seeing us. I didn’t want him to know how awful things were going for me, that, barely employed and struggling to pay rent every month, I was now taking his kids to a soup kitchen to get them fed.
We walked into the dining room and headed for the cafeteria-style line where people were standing, waiting to select food to put on their trays. Around us, families sat at tables, eating that night’s specials. In addition to chicken and potatoes and vegetables, there were vegetarian options, too. A big basket of bread. Several types of salad to choose from. And dessert. The families that were eating looked happy. Kids were doing what they always do at the dinner table: telling stories, laughing, poking their sisters and brothers. The only thing missing was the dog, sitting under the table waiting for scraps.
At the front of the room sat an old upright piano. Two kids were sitting at it, playing “Chopsticks,” fooling around with the keys. Under ordinary circumstances, kids wandering away from a dining room table and playing the restaurant’s piano would have made me judgmental, wondering where their parents were, wondering why these kids were being allowed to disrupt other people’s meals. But this wasn’t the kind of restaurant where I had eaten with my husband and girls prior to the divorce. This didn’t feel like a restaurant; it felt more like a big family dining room.
Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad, I told myself. I didn’t see shame at these tables. I didn’t feel judgment when I made eye contact with the other moms and dads sitting with their kids at the tables. I saw families making the best of difficult situations. It didn’t matter if I was now a single mother. Mothers, fathers, kids, grandparents, homeless people: We were all here, taking in nourishment we needed so badly — food, shelter from the cold, the camaraderie of each other’s company.
Why had I stayed away from this place for so long?
I felt something shift inside of me. That anger, the determination that I didn’t need anyone to bail me out of this bad situation, that sense of failure, it all started to melt. Oh, not the whole thing at once. But the chunk of ice that had been in my gut for months began to soften. This was a better situation than the ache of hunger I had felt on those days when there wasn’t enough money to feed myself along with the kids.
I had expected to see people down on their luck, hunched over their meals. Instead, I felt more connected to our humanity. We were all in a difficult place, but we were in it together.
That was years ago. I have a steady, decent-paying job now. I have a roof over my head, and enough money with which to buy food and clothes for my daughters. I have volunteered at my local food pantry, and each month, I try to send money to the local food bank. We survived a bad time, but I learned that, even with my degrees, I was a couple of paychecks, or a man, away from living on the streets. We are not living in times where many of us have the types of financial margins that would allow us to live for years off our savings.
I’m here to testify that, for most of us, financial disaster is one or two paychecks away. Even today, if I were to lose my job, I would be in dire circumstances within four weeks. I wish that the Republicans who are waging war on the poor in this country could experience what it is like to find themselves in the position that so many of us face. That we’re all a small financial disaster away from not being able to feed our children. That punishing the poor for lacking money is bullying those who have found themselves weakened in an economy that is taking no prisoners.
But I’m also here to testify that there is no shame in being poor. That it’s not some moral failing to find yourself without money. That it doesn’t make us smaller to accept charity. In a way, it made me bigger. I pushed my ego out of the way long enough to really help my girls, to do what a mother should do — make sure that her children were adequately fed, even if strangers at a local church were the ones who made that happen.
Lorraine Berry is an associate editor at Talking Writing. Follow her on Twitter: @BerryFLWMore Lorraine Berry.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)