Being poor sucks. It just does.
I’m not poor now. I have been, but I’m not anymore.
To be clear, I’ve never been poor while trying to raise a family, and while I’ve been food insecure, I’ve never really been in danger of starving. I’ve skipped a few meals unwillingly, but I’ve never gone a full day without eating (unwillingly). I’ve never been responsible for feeding someone other than myself while poor, and while I’ve hustled for my rent, I’ve never been in danger of being evicted.
But I have rummaged in my couch cushions looking for change to buy toothpaste.
I have looked through my neighbor’s garbage cans for bottles to return for enough nickels to buy a stamp to mail my resume for a job (yes, I’m old enough to have performed a job search via the USPS to mail resumes. Suck it).
I’ve poked a new hole in my belt to hold up my loose pants after losing a pants size worth of weight after being consistently food insecure for a brief and temporary 2 month mini-struggle.
Digging deep into my past, I know what it’s like to hold a malfunctioning freezer door shut in fear that the cockroach spray would contaminate the food within for long enough for my mom to come home and fix the situation.
Being poor is a waste of time. I suppose digging through trash to recycle metal cans and glass bottles helps the environment, but while I didn’t resent it at the time (I’d been poor up until then and I was no stranger to this type of low-value activity), from my current vantage point looking back, I can’t help but think of all of the other job searching activities (or, hell, even volunteering) I could’ve been doing that would have been such a much more worthwhile use of my time than cleaning up other people’s recycling. As a child, it would have been more productive for me to study than to physically use my body to hold together a falling-apart refrigerator, by myself for hours at a time, waiting for a grown-up to show up from their (probably second) job. I wouldn’t have been late to work that time I ran around looking for a store to take my pennies in exchange for dollars because the NYC MTA didn’t take pennies for tokens (I’m old, I told you).
There’s a stigma attached to being poor. Even in my neighborhood, where I know for a fact that my neighbor playmate at nine years old pretended she didn’t know it was dinner time when she knocked on my door (then was invited and stayed for dinner), there was a stigma. I burn with shame when I remember teasing a classmate about living in a half burnt-out low-rise. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe to cover up the shame I felt when I asked another classmate if I could have the scraps of lunch she was about to throw into the garbage.
Being poor is a skill. I haven’t been poor in a very long time. My family is longer poor – my mom eventually graduated college, got a good job, my dad eventually became secure in his employment after a shaky start. Everyone my generation and younger are educated and professionals. But I don’t think there is even one of us that doesn’t know that you can brush your teeth with baking soda, clean your counters and floors with vinegar or lemons, I don’t think any one of us doesn’t have some kind of hoarding habit or know exactly where and how to get a payday loan. We are adept at using things for jobs they were not designed for, like sticking a pencil in the carburetor in a 1980s Buick Regal to get it started. We know the value of doing a favor for a neighbor, and ensuring the favor is returned in times of need.
My dad says I have Judy Garland syndrome. I hoard things I don’t need to hoard, like single dollars. I’m not joking – I have a thousand single dollar bills in my safe besides my actual investments. As far as retirement funds, taxable investments, alternative holdings go, I’m normal. But I have a thousand single dollar bills within reach because if there is one lesson I’ve learned, it’s that the money isn’t yours unless it’s in your hands. Literally. I’ve always, ALWAYS kept a current passport – my step-grandmother that had numbers tattooed on the inside of her arm and spoke with an Eastern European accent listed that as a rule that should never be broken – always keep a current passport and always have jewelry. As a child I didn’t know why, but I formed the habit anyway. Now I know why, and I think these are pretty good rules.
Anyway, yeah, poor sucks. I don’t have a solution for Poor, but I’m goddam grateful not to know it anymore.