Poor Like Me
My parents wouldn’t like to hear me say this, but I grew up poor. As a young child living in a public housing project, I heard my parents bicker about bills and bank accounts. I experienced winter conserving heat before the energy crisis or global warming and learned to choose meals from a restaurant’s menu based on price rather than what sounded good or what I felt like eating. I’m uncomfortable around excess and queasy when I talk about money, especially my own. That’s why today I believe I’m more prepared than most for the global financial crisis, yet, I too am just a paycheck away from serious problems.
When a friend called to say she could only go out for drinks because drinks and dinner would be too expensive, I thought: “welcome to my world.” When another friend couldn’t come to Mexico because he was afraid he wouldn’t have a job when he got back, I replied: “I understand completely.” On the phone I now chat about my monthly expenses, gas prices, my retirement account, and if my university job is stable. On TV I watch the perp walk of a succession of white collar crooks who’ve stolen our money, then on the radio hear the stories about the people who’ve lost their jobs and homes because of them, and think: thank god it’s not me.
The scenario of total economic ruin is one I’ve been silently living with for years, yet ironically, for the first time in my life, I feel financially stable. Five years ago, at age 44, I took my first full time job and have been receiving a bi-weekly paycheck with increasingly comforting regularity. I know that my employment could be terminated at a moment’s notice, but since I’ve spent the balance of my working life as a “temp” in one field or another, I’m very familiar with the idea of short-term employment.
I cringe as the heat in my coop apartment cranks up at day’s end, mentally calculating the monetary waste, but also remember all the years I spent huddled under covers stiff and cold in the winter. As I purchase a variety of groceries to fill my refrigerator so my 15 year old son can open the doors and see bounty and promise, I’m well aware of the privileged life I lead: my steady job, my warm apartment, those Mexican vacations, being able to provide so much more for my son than my parents ever did for me. In reality, could I ever go back to living the other way?
On most days, I think I could. The survival mechanisms I learned as a child haven’t left me. The night my frugal friend and her husband came over for drinks (and not dinner), we didn’t go out. I served them samosas and a delicious gooey mixture of yogurt and chickpeas called Chat that I’d bought at a local Pakistani sweet shop on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, all for $8.00. Even if we’d skipped the $10.00 bottle of wine, we still would have had a good time.