Fuck being poor. There is nothing noble about not having enough money to pay the light bill. I’ve been poor and I’ve been not-poor. Not-poor is orders of magnitude better. These days I’m downright prosperous by the standards of the daughter of a Ford mechanic.
My parents were working class people and my sisters and I grew up knowing better than to leave the goddamned lights on in the other room.
Heating water in an electric skillet to do the dishes when the gas has been cut off for non-payment again didn’t make me a better person. Making cunning little hand-sewn Christmas decorations when I couldn’t afford to buy presents (only to find several of them inadvertently tossed out with the wrapping paper) may have given me something to write about but damned little else.
My first strategy for not being poor was to steal even though I was raised by the hardest working man I have ever known. I stitched inside pockets into a baggy old black coat and shop-lifted like a maniac. I stole from friends. I stole at work. Do I really need to tell you that this was not an effective strategy? It didn’t get me not-poor. It did get my ass locked up for an afternoon and I had to pay a $50 fine for petty theft.
I was a little old to be re-thinking strategies, but at the age of 38 I went to college. There came a day when I was sitting in the little poster kiosk where I worked in an open mall-like place and the boss came by to prod me into selling. Get over there and get those people idly browsing through the Georgia O’Keefe’s and Ansel Adam’s posters to buy. To buy more! That’s when I realized I was never going to do better for myself than this sad silly charade unless I did something about it. I applied for admission to the local state university.
To my utter astonishment I loved college. It turns out I’m smart. Now, being smart was a real liability in high school but not in college. I thrived. I met my mentor. I maintained a 4.0 gpa without breaking a sweat. Then a friend suggested that I was in the wrong school; that I needed to be in a program where I had to bust ass to make B’s. So I transferred and then really had to work. But I did it.
It took me 8 years to earn my BA. Starting at the age of 38, I figured I was already so far behind in the race that I may as well take my time and not kill myself. I may still be lugging along a heavy chunk of student loan debt 12 years after graduating, but somehow I always earn enough to give Sallie Mae her cut and cover all the bills. Plus I save a bit and get to travel from time to time.
Know what I love about being not-poor? Going into the grocery store and buying whatever I want to buy without calculating if I can afford it. Paying my bills early or on time and not thinking about it. Being able to help a friend out who may be in a tight spot and not need to have them pay me back (I do tend to be pretty particular on this one). Sliding into payday with something left in the checking account. Treating my partner to a fancy meal when I feel like it.
Doing without the basics never made me a better, stronger person. It made me greedy and grabby and dishonest. Do I worry about being poor again? Oh hell, yes. I don’t have a nice fat 401(k) or a pension to keep this enterprise afloat after I can’t work. There are a million good reasons for me to wake up in a panic at 3am.
And, yet, each morning I step off the cliff of a new day and somewhere from some unseen canyon floor a mile below me one piece of ground shoots up to land right under my foot. And then another. And then another. And I don’t do any of this alone.
When I was poor, money wasn’t the only thing I was without. I was without friends or support. I shunned help and was sure everyone was out to take what was mine. Being not-poor is much more than simply having enough money. Being not-poor is being generous and open. Being not-poor is asking for and accepting help, then being ready to help another person. And in this way I get to help someone else be not-poor, too.
That builds character.
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