Arleen is being evicted in one day and is still waiting for her welfare check. She was unable to give her sons any Christmas gifts. Within her family, only her Aunt Merva has enough money for things as “frivolous” as that. Arleen knows she can only turn to Merva in a real crisis, and this eviction doesn’t count. Sherenna brings the new tenant to look at Arleen’s apartment, and on hearing that Arleen doesn’t have anywhere to go after the eviction, the new tenant says she and the boys can stay with her in the meantime.
Arleen’s inability to buy Christmas presents for her sons is a startling contrast to Sherenna and Quentin’s statement that their tenants spend money irresponsibly. In reality, their tenants are so poor that they do not even have the option of spending money irresponsibly.
Alreen thanks her and hugs her, and both women cry. The new tenant’s name is Crystal Mayberry. She doesn’t own any furniture, which is perhaps why she let Arleen—and her furniture—stay. Crystal is 18, the child of two crack users who grew up in foster care. She left high school at 16, and is on SSI due to her bipolar disorder. She has been homeless in the past. Crystal’s offer to help Arleen reflects a long tradition of poor people depending on one another to “stay afloat.”
Crystal’s act of kindness again shows that for many poor people, instability and deprivation do not erase the desire to help others. Yet although Crystal and Arleen’s arrangement has the potential to be mutually beneficial, considering that they are both vulnerable with different (and perhaps conflicting) needs, it could also cause further chaos.
This tradition has been partially dismantled by problems such as mass incarceration and the crack epidemic, as well as government initiatives that reward people for living on their own (rather than in extended kinship networks). As people find it harder and harder to rely on family members, they make “disposable ties” with acquaintances and strangers. One day, a week after Crystal moves in, Arleen sits at the kitchen table circling apartment listings. Jori comes in from school, and Arleen scolds him; she has already received a call about him acting up. Jori tries to protest, but Arleen will not hear it.
The “disposable ties” that exist between people like Crystal and Arleen are not inferior to family because they are non-biological. Rather, they do not work as well because they are made in hurried, desperate circumstances. Having “chosen family” can be a vital survival tactic if that family is indeed chosen—however in Crystal and Arleen’s case, there was actually little choice in the matter.
Arleen goes out looking for apartments, and while she is out she gets a screaming call from Crystal demanding that she move out immediately. Arleen believes Crystal is really angry because she is hungry, so she spends her food stamps on meat, potato chips, and soda to bring back. She returns to find Jori and Crystal fighting. Soon Arleen and Crystal begin yelling at each other. Crystal claims that she wishes God had not made her a loving person, but she is filled with the Holy Ghost and thus cannot turn away Arleen and her kids. Arleen believes it is in fact the food that has changed her mind. Later, she apologizes to Jori for failing to let him know she was on his side.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Arleen and Crystal’s arrangement erupted so quickly. Not only are they two strangers suddenly confined to the same space, but both face the stress of being poor, hungry, and vulnerable. They need to act with a degree of self-interest in order to survive, and in such cramped conditions the balance between self-interest and cooperation is extremely difficult to strike.