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30318

Excerpted from "Poverty By the Numbers"

This article originally appeared in our April 2008 issue.

"Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice."
—From "Where Do We Go from Here?" King's presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, 1967


One of the city’s poorest neighborhoods is a block-shaped section of the westside known as The Bluff. Nearly 4,000 people live there, on the rough end of the wealth gap. Some parts of The Bluff look so third-world, you can hardly believe you’re in Atlanta. If you’re white and drive through, the people who live there assume you’re looking for drugs. If you’re looking for drugs, you’re in the right place.

One Friday not too long ago, Victoria Carson was looking for food. She waited with her boyfriend, Will, in the rear of the fellowship hall of Antioch Baptist Church North. This is on Northside Drive, within sight of many of the rising, glimmering changes in Atlanta. The church’s grocery pantry would open at noon, but Vicky and dozens of others had started arriving hours before. The busiest man in the room was Collumn Jaffar, who was passing out numbered slips of paper to those in line. 1 . . . 50 . . . 100 . . . 150. He’d used a bright blue Sharpie this time. Jaffar used to write the numbers on notebook paper, in ordinary black ballpoint ink, but the more resourceful of those who arrived late got wise to the system and found their own paper, their own black ink, and wrote themselves a ticket to a few days’ worth of canned beans and fruit cocktail and salvaged bread.

Most had come on foot, wheeling shopping carts, collapsible dollies, empty baby strollers, large pieces of luggage—anything that would hold a box of food—until the church parking lot looked like an assemblage of misdirected grocery shoppers and wayward travelers. Vicky and Will were living over on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and had walked here. It was the second week of January but bright and slightly warm, and they had walked through King’s old neighborhood, Vine City, and up into The Bluff. Vicky has a broad, pretty face and a soft voice and looks younger than fifty-three despite untended teeth. Will, in his forties, tall and serious, walks with a slight limp (back injury; last job). “He doesn’t talk much,” Vicky said.

She had on tight brown loafers and navy blue cotton pants marbled with dust from the floor of the place where she and Will had been sleeping. Once a boarding house, the property was now in abandoned foreclosure, but Vicky and Will had sneaked in and intended to stay until someone ran them out. The plan had its hazards beyond the obvious. One day when Will went out to try again to find a job (he’d lost the one at the car wash), a guy they knew from the neighborhood came to the door, which Vicky barricades whenever she stays there alone. “That you, Vicky? You still here?” he said through the door. Vicky said it was. Already they had no electricity, no heat, no furniture, and already this man had made off with the water heater, and now he wanted the stove. Vicky told him he couldn’t come in; she made an excuse about not being dressed. “You better get dressed, then, and get out of the way, because we’re coming in,” the man said, and did. Others returned for the wiring—there’s value in copper.

Vicky is resourceful, too. Once, she said, she stole dog food right out of the bowl. “It wasn’t bad,” she said. Other days, she and Will pull their meals from the garbage behind the chicken place or the Chinese place, or they eat pecans from the yard. She washes clothes behind the house, with a hose and a bucket. “It could be worse,” she said. “Some people don’t have clothes. Some people can’t get dog food.”

Her mother lives in New Jersey and sometimes sends money, and adult diapers. The need for diapers—that’s the AIDS. Vicky pulled up her pant leg and showed a keloid radiation scar on her left calf. The need for radiation—that’s the cancer. Vicky keeps telling Will to leave her, to find someone who isn’t sick, who can work, who can run, if necessary. Will wants Vicky to live in a home for people with AIDS. But she won’t leave him. And he won’t leave her.

Vicky wouldn’t mind getting on disability, but she can’t figure out how. Her medication ran out and her T-cells are dropping, not that she really minds. “I just want to get it over with,” she said, meaning life.

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