I was re-reading a book a while ago, actually the first book that I bought when I moved to Providence. I had to buy this book because it was Memorial Day Weekend when I arrived, and the libraries weren’t open. So for the first time (possible ever), I went into Borders and purchased two hardcovers. I then brought them home, and sat and read in my giant, nearly furnitureless apartment.
In the book, a recent college graduate struggles to find a well-paying job, lives in a hovel in NYC with three other girls, and scrimps along “borrowing” toilet paper and canned goods from her parents. The message that she is poor is insisted upon over and over and over to the point that it is just distracting.
When I started my job at URI, my boss lectured me on how to survive on the pittance that they pay me (I was just so thrilled that it paid my out-of-state tuition, I barely looked at the hourly rate). “What I did was take out all the student loans I could, pre-paid my rent for the year, bought the things that I knew I would want right away, and lived as frugally as possible.” Then he told me a story about how once upon a time he had $.85 to last him a week and a half. At the end of the week and a half, he still had the $.85 because you can’t buy anything for $.85.
I listened to this story thinking that it was not all that impressive– certainly I wasn’t as blown away by it as he expected me to be and as I pretended to be. If I didn’t have to commute (which he didn’t– he walks everywhere), I could go a month (recent evidence is contrary to this, but I still maintain that it’s true) without spending anything aside from paying bills. Also, I’ve never been in a situation where I had to suffer for a certain amount of time eagerly waiting to be paid, because I’ve had a credit card since I was sixteen and I always have a savings account.
Sure, I’ve been broke. I’m broke right now and staring directly in the face of a summer of underemployment and another layoff– but I’ve never been so broke that I haven’t had food, or any money at all. I’ve never been as broke as people who are actually broke.
When you hit a period of extreme cash poorness, you eat all of the food that you’d already bought and really didn’t like, but you couldn’t bear to throw away– the oatmeal, ramen, and disappointing pasta that was really on sale. If you have to buy things, you use that jar of change in your bedroom, or you just don’t buy things. The thing, I think that bothers me the most about these two stories is that they are based on choices. The girl in the book had a job interview, but decided midway through that she really didn’t want it despite the fact that it was well-paying. My boss is in his early 60s and has no credit cards, health insurance, or savings– retirement or regular, but has spent a lot of time telling me how much money he used to make. I’m not saying that I always make the right choices, but it seems that these situations were exacerbated by short-sightedness.
When my friend Map Fleece was in a period of utter destitution, she finally ate this jug of pre-made tomato soup that her mom gave her that she had been moving from apartment to apartment for more than a year, and it was just as gross as she expected it to be. I scam free meals every chance I get, and will take on every extra job that comes my way regardless of whether or not I actually have time for it (which reminds me I should get back to my data entry…) I guess my point is this– none of this is real poverty, it’s a setback or a temporary period of destitution. Perhaps I’m just as guilty since I talk about this stuff all the time, but I rarely complain about my circumstances, I just talk about them. If I had tried harder, I’m sure I could have gotten a real job with my MFA, but I wanted to be a librarian, so here I am. I made a choice.
I could insert all manner of pithy quotes here, but that’s obnoxious, and I have a saying that’s all my own– if you don’t like your situation, either change it or learn to deal with it. It’s all about attitude.
If anyone has and ideas for free or nearly free fun for this the summer of underemployment– let me know, I’ll have a lot of time on my hands.