Being poor. I can tell when people don't get it. I didn't get it when I was a kid. I grew up with a pretty decent life. My parents both worked professionally and once we moved to U City, things were pretty good. I went from a public school to a private school and we lived in a nice house. My mom was always talking about not having money for this and that and she was frugal about everything but there was always milk in the fridge and always food on the table.
So, I guess I just took it for granted that it wasn't that hard.
I was smart and I knew how to work hard so I wouldn't be poor.
I think a lot of people think that.
My boyfriend convinced me to drop out of high school and move in with him the day I turned seventeen. Neither one of us had jobs and we moved in with another couple in this tiny three room apartment in South St. Louis. There wasn't a door to separate the rooms and we hung a curtain for privacy. We slept on half a mattress on the floor and dragged a couch out of the alley. Our dresser was made of milk crates turned sideways that we stole from the local grocery store. That was where we put our clothes. In the beginning, I loved the freedom from parents all the time. Even though we had no air conditioning in the height of summer, we turned on a box fan and sweated it out.
I did not understand what I was in for.
When we moved in, each couple had about $165 dollars of starter money that came to us unethically but not illegally and we were just going to find jobs. I remember the first day we went grocery shopping and we spent about $20. That was when I figured out milk was kind of expensive, so I got some kool aid and I thought it was no big deal. it was one of the first things I missed on a regular basis.
The thing is, when you have no skills and no value, no one really wants to hire you. Especially when you're seventeen. So, you think you will get a job and it will be no big deal until no one will hire you. I went to place after place after place and could not find anything. Finally I got an interview at Jack in the Box. This was the place I thought I would work. It was close by. They hired teenagers. It looked like something I could do. They did not hire me. After that happened I was kind of devastated and desperate.
We were out of money, we were out of cigarettes. My idiot boyfriend insisted we buy pot with some of that money. It did not make sense but he didn't care.
When we ran out of money, I stood outside the grocery store with a charity can and asked people for donations and we lived on that. Eventually, I was able to get a job working at a little diner cooking and waiting on customers at the counter. The tips were nothing. I made about five dollars a day if I was lucky and the Korean man who owned the place gave me $2.75 an hour. He was really nice but he only wanted me three days a week for about nine hours total. My boyfriend got a job running a hot dog stand downtown. At heart, my boyfriend was just a lazy, unpleasant person. He found the job hot and difficult and he just quit. Or he got fired, I was never clear on what happened.
My guess is that he had a shitty attitude and he probably stole some hot dogs, left the stand unattended and showed up baked. He told me he quit because "Fuck that job" but it is more likely he got fired.
At the end of the first month, we didn't have the $75 we needed for rent because we barely had enough for groceries.
Meanwhile I was working pretty hard at the diner. And I liked my boss and he seemed to like me pretty well. At the end of the shift, he always let me sit down and have a hamburger and fries and he used to give me a pack of cigarettes. One day his wife showed up instead of him and I could tell by the way she was eyeing me up suspiciously that she didn't like me very much. In my imagination, he had hired me without consulting her.
The way I got hired was this. I walked in to this diner and asked if they were hiring and he said to me "Come back at 6 tomorrow and I will talk to you."
So, I left and went home, figuring I had an interview. But when I got home, I thought to myself, did he mean six am or six pm? Because the diner opened at 6 am! I fretted about this for an hour and finally decided this was not something I wanted to be wrong about. So, I got up at five am and made sure I was there at six on the dot. I wanted that damn job. I needed that damn job. You don't know humiliation until you have stood outside the grocery store and begged for money.
No one was there at six am. The place was empty. Even though the sign on the diner said they opened at six, apparently those hours were just a suggestion. He finally showed up about 7:30 am. I sprang up and told him "I got here at six like you asked!" He shook his head at me and spoke gently to me in broken English.
"You come back at six tonight."
I hung my head. Sorry, I said and walked away. He smiled at me, though and when I showed up at six that evening he negotiated my hours and salary with me. He might have pity hired me. he might have hired me because I showed up at six am and he felt bad but I didn't care.
I knew his wife had just had a baby when I started working there, and I knew the way she was looking at me I had to be extra respectful and extra diligent. So, I was. There was no extra pack of cigarettes that day and she grudgingly made me lunch at the end of my shift. There are lots of things you can tell without words and I could tell she didn't want me around. Too nice was not good. Too stand offish was not good. I had no idea what would make her like me, so I just behaved as normally as possible while being respectful and working hard.
The next day it was back to normal and he came in again. I was relieved. Everything went back to normal for about a week or so. Then, one day I showed up for work and they were both there. I was confused. He took me aside and explained to me that his wife was back and he didn't need me any more. He gave me a pack of Marlboro 100s and said he was going to open up another diner next year and that I should come and work for him there but he didn't need me right now. He tried to tell me that I was a good worker and he was sorry to let me go. I didn't drag it out. I let him let me go so I could get around the corner and burst into tears.
The business of living is expensive. The business of keeping your head above water is serious. I had no car, no job, no bus pass and my parents had explained to me in no uncertain terms that if I left that house and dropped out of school, there would be no money. So, I didn't even bother asking or telling them what happened. In many ways, my parents standing their ground on that line was the biggest favor they ever did me.
I got it. I understood poverty in a way I never understood it before. In that moment, the pure and utter desperation I felt was beyond description here. I left that place and went home to gather my wits and figure out how I was going to live. I cried for about twenty seconds, wiped off those tears and stopped feeling sorry for myself. I was going to think a way out of this. I was going to survive. I was going to make things better.
I think this was largely because I knew things could be better and that I could get there. My parents had both grown up in poverty, in very austere conditions. They had tried to explain it to me, tried to explain what it means to drag yourself up and work hard and get your education, do your homework when you're hungry, but though I had lots of sensitive feeling, I didn't really get it until right there. Getting fired for no particular reason from a crappy job that meant the difference between eating and not eating. I didn't even have money to do laundry. I was washing my clothes in the bathtub with shampoo and hanging them up to try. The week before we had shoplifted tampons.
The grind of this every day is something that wears on you. And yet it pulls from you the most creative ways to get by. Because you have to. And when it does, it changes your priorities about everything in your life.
This was more than just a social experiment. You can't just hear about this and understand it, you have to allow yourself to feel it. This was an important part of my development as a human being. Whatever dreams I had went on hold because- survival. I had put myself in this situation with my arrogance and my blind faith in my own ability to work hard and get by. And I realized I couldn't count on my roommates, my boyfriend or my parents to get me out of this mess. It was going to be me. At that point in my life, I was not struggling with depression and hopelessness because I think on top of the harsh realities of what I was facing, that would have been too much. That might have dragged me down to a place I would not have been able to come back from.
There are many ways in which I literally figured it out, but those stories are for another day. For now it is enough to say that I did. I'm writing this down because it's important to put stories in writing.
When I was eleven, there is no way I could understand what it was like to be a black boy growing up during Jim Crow until I read Black Boy by Richard Wright and came out of my little white world for a minute and felt things through those aching words, that every piece of what he was going through and I never looked at the face of things the same again. No, it will never be my experience but the first time I saw Roots, my eyes were opened to slavery in a way my textbooks were never going to get. The human experience is important to share. This is why I want to write books and movies and real stories and yes, comedies.
And we need to understand one another ever if we never mirror the experience. Because I want to be inspired and touched and grateful. History is not a series of dates. It should be alive in us through story. This is a piece of my past. It is a piece of my story. It is why I understand poverty in a way that is very intimate and painful. Because I really wanted a gallon of milk but when you have to walk three blocks home from the grocery store, you make choices. When you have three dollars and you have to choose what you are going to eat for the next couple of days, those choices are going to look different.
Once I was sitting outside Cicero's, back when I was the manager there and a homeless guy came around asking for money. After he left, one of the guys I was talking to said "How does someone get like that? I mean, it's just so pathetic to let yourself get that low."
I remember looking at him and saying "you are about three steps from where that guy is."
He argued with me for a good long time about it. But I know that we are all teetering there on the edge of where things can happen. Maybe not the one percent. Maybe those guys are safer. But those who knew poverty were not the ones jumping out of windows during the stock market crash of 1929. Those who knew poverty, they didn't give up so easy. They already knew how to survive. This is why I am grateful for that time in my life and grateful that it was just a time and not my every day any more. It's beyond fucking hard to live like that. And it could happen to me in a heartbeat of bad luck.