Aggie Max grew up on welfare, ran away from home at the age of 16, had her first child at 21 and was a welfare mother and bag lady before she collected her experiences in a memoir, "The Last Resort: Scenes From a Transient Hotel." In this darkly humorous and painfully honest collection of essays, Max is as forthcoming about her own shortcomings as she is critical of the crippling machinery of public "assistance" in the United States. In the first of three tales from her book, Max, who writes under a pseudonym, recalls how a rat bite saved the family income. The other stories will appear in "Salon" in coming weeks.
If you're born into welfare, says Max, it is not just financial status or education but the whole culture of poverty that makes it nearly impossible to escape to a better life. While the "haves" have a standard set of milestones on the way to adulthood -- first date, first kiss, first car, first job, first credit card -- the "have nots" have their own coming-of-age rituals: "First cigarette, first drink, first joint, first 'sexual encounter,' first crime, first arrest, first shot (first intravenous and first subcutaneous 'skin-pop' usually count as separate milestones), and by the time you hit the Big One, your First Welfare Check, you're probably in the game forever."
Max was born in 1945 into what she calls "one of the first families in America to go on welfare." With her parents, a teacher and journalist who were "notorious" communists during the McCarthy era, she lived a nomadic life, bouncing between low-income projects in Manhattan. "We moved around 10 times within the same 10 blocks," she said in a recent interview. "It's what poor people do. You don't have a car, you just have maybe a baby carriage, and you put all of your crap in there and you move down a block."
Though taught to read by her mother before she started kindergarten, Max dropped out of high school and ran away from home as a teenager. She ended up in housing projects, "derelict" hotels and homeless in the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Throughout her chaotic life, she found the public library a sanctuary and writing one of the few links to sanity.
While raising two children on welfare and working at "many insignificant jobs too numerous and stupid to mention," Max returned to school, received her high school diploma at the age of 30 and then, after 10 years of attending various community colleges, she enrolled at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.
"One of the reasons I went to Mills was that they had housing and here I was, with two teenagers, being evicted again," she laughs.
After earning a bachelor's degree in English, Max was
awarded a scholarship to the prestigious master's program in creative writing at Mills, where she began a journal about her life. She was forced to drop out two credits short of receiving her master's degree when she was hospitalized for pneumonia.
With no marketable skills and again on the verge of eviction from student housing, Max was back at ground zero, and she resumed life in transient hotels while she continued to write. Her work drew notice from an English professor at Mills, who took it to Chronicle Books. Chronicle published "Last Resort" in May.
Though Max's book is filled with rage and frustration, in person she is quiet and easygoing, with a wry and self-deprecating sense of humor. She now lives in an apartment in Berkeley that is filled with the paintings she did as an undergraduate art major. Max no longer receives welfare but is on disability for chronic asthma. Her son is a filmmaker and her daughter (whom she describes as the "only person in my family who actually likes people") is trained as an emergency medical technician and has worked for the Red Cross as a CPR instructor. Max recently completed work on her parents' memoirs, which will be published later this year. Her mother, now 88, has been singing for 60 years with Pete Seeger under the stage name Sis Cunningham.
As someone who has finally managed, in her 50s, to escape poverty, Max says she is happy -- tentatively. "I always feel things could change cataclysmically overnight," she says. "I guess I'll never escape that."