To Have Not by Frances Lefkowitz is a fascinating memoir about an impoverished street-smart kid growing up in 1970’s San Francisco. As Lefkowitz describes living amongst rats and cockroaches in her substandard housing, she describes poverty in terms that most of us “haves” have never experience; Lefkowitz says that poverty isn’t just a physical state, but permeates one’s sense of being.
Lefkowitz is a talented writer, telling her story with both humor and sometimes heart-breaking honesty, yet she doesn’t bemoan her upbringing. Instead, she states the facts with astounding detail, neither sugarcoating nor exaggerating the truth. What amazed me was Lefkowitz’s recall of her life as a child—of her house as 16 and Sanchez, the summer her father packed up the family and left the city to find Land (with a capital “L”), squatting with friends and camping into the autumn months. Lefkowitz talks about her parents’ divorce, life as a kid in Section 8 housing with her two brothers and mother (at one point Leftkowitz’s bedroom was a greenhouse on the apartment balcony.)
Brilliant and gifted, Lefkowitz excelled in school, got a taste of the life of the “have’s,” while her mother was off “finding” herself in artistic endeavors. Left to her own devices, Leftkowitz snagged a scholarship and headed off to an Ivy League school in Boston, though she never mentions the school by name. Trying to find her place, Leftkowitz jumps from place to place, always scrimping and saving, despite having the means to indulge a little. For instance, Lefkowitz learns how to surf and when moving from the East Coast back to the West Coast, her co-workers give her a gift card to purchase a new surfboard (apparently West Coast and East Coast surfboards are different.) Instead of buying herself that shiny new board, she instead finds a used board and then uses her gift card bit by bit on supplies, even though a new board was well within her means.
While the financial difficulties I’ve experienced since college are to a much lesser degree than what Lefkowitz knows, I saw bits of myself in her journey. In fact, in some way we’re all “have-nots,” which has shaped how we define ourselves—maybe we don’t have family or beauty or money or success or children or a spouse. Though, I suppose, Lefkowitz’s depth of not having permeates her entire being—it was all she knew, so when she started to “have,” it not only felt foreign, but scary. Like me, she knew that at any moment all that she earned could be taken away. Towards the end of the To Have Not, Leftkowitz does find a sort of peace within herself, but this book doesn’t have a pretty ending tied up with a bow. Lefkowitz’s life and story continue on.
Lefkowitz’s memoir is painful, interesting, and sprinkled with humor. You may never look at poverty the same way again, and if so, then To Have Not has done its job.
*Thank you to BookSparksPR and Frances Lefkowitz for my review copy!*