In July of 2014, I was confronted with a money problem. The money problem terrified me. For months, I would stare at the ceiling before falling asleep, that high, rugged, exposed beam ceiling of bare planks, and writhe, inside and out. What the hell am I going to do? I have no idea.
It was not an "I need money" problem. I've been really poor for a long time and I've learned how to survive on almost nothing. My first year after I left Indiana University and moved into this apartment, my first year as an adjunct professor, I earned, and lived on, six thousand dollars. No food stamps. No welfare. I did not apply. I certainly had no health insurance. My apartment is government subsidized – the rent I pay is calibrated to my income – but other than that, I lived on that six thousand dollars.
I ate rice and beans. Cheese, even the most basic cheese on sale, was a luxury. I walked almost everywhere I went, supplemented by the occasional hitchhike. A dollar ten bus fare was a major expense. I found clothes on the sidewalks surrounding the laundromats and Salvation Armies I passed. I got a mint condition, bright red, Woolrich winter coat, khaki shorts, an endless supply of socks. All those socks that people claim that they lose when they wash clothes? I've got 'em.
If I went to the movies at all – I love movies, and love to discuss recent releases in online discussion boards – I would attend the six-dollar morning feature, and stay all day, sometimes watching three movies at the multiplex back to back.
I spent all my free time applying for tenure-track jobs. I was still naïve enough to think that a PhD from a good school, a published book, published articles, good reviews on my teaching and letters of recommendation from world-class scholars would land me a job. I didn't yet know that that would never happen. So, life was okay, if not great.
So, no, the money problem that confronted me in July was not an "I need money" problem.
It was an "I don't know anything about money" problem. It was an "I have to ask someone to educate me about money and I have no idea whom to trust, and I don't even know what vocabulary words to use" money problem.
I know that "poor" equals "cooties." I know that people hate the poor more than they hate any other group, except maybe for ugly people or sick people.
We like to pretend that hate is something that other people do, not us. We like to pretend that National Public Radio could eliminate through judicious, clever and censorious essays. It's not.
Our human essence produces hate constantly, just as our bodies constantly produce shit. We all confront hate. We all feel hate. Jesus offered the antidote to hate: love. But we have to climb that hill every day. We have to consciously choose to defuse our hate. Be pretty, independent, rich, powerful, and people will like you, but also envy you, which is a form of hate. Be poor, old, sick, or just a bit weird, and people will hate you. We all really are still in a high school cafeteria, and the same likes and hates and popularity contests are ongoing.
If I approached too many people, or the wrong people, with my money problem, it would merely serve to remind them that I am poor, and they would hate me for that, and I would lose people in my life. I need people in my life. I didn't want to lose people in my life.
I was afraid to ask about my money problem because I was afraid to lose people in my life. I was afraid to talk about it for another reason. I've never been taught about money.
My parents were very smart. They were Eastern European peasant immigrants and they were smart in the wrong way for immigrants who wanted to latch on to the American Dream. The peasant immigrants who did well were like Vito Corleone – ruthless and amoral. Or they were skilled technicians who could rake in the bucks in the higher paid jobs in the coal mines and steel mills.
My parents were readers, debaters and storytellers. There was no way a little immigrant boy who mined coal, or a little immigrant girl who was sent out to clean houses, two original thinkers who liked to read books in their spare time and ponder the meaning of the universe, would ever have any money. My mom, one of the smartest people I have ever met, cleaned houses and worked in factories. My dad was a caddy at a country club. My brothers who worked with him told me that the rich men whose bags he carried treated my dad badly.
My mom used to tell stories like this. When she went to clean a new house, her new employer would leave a large roll of bills in some obvious place, like the mantel, to test if she would steal it. Such gestures inspired great contempt in my mother. Money was indeed proving who was superior and who was inferior. It wasn't what the rich thought.
No. My parents didn't have money, and they didn't know anything about money, and I learned nothing about money from them. Too, my mother cut me out of her will. So, money. Clean slate. Don't have it. Don't know anything about it. July, 2014: suddenly, a money problem. Needed information. Had no idea how to get it. Was afraid to ask. There was a deadline; this was urgent. I had to act fast. I choked.
I struggled against self-hatred. I was absolutely certain that everyone knew the answer to my money problem except me. I couldn't ask them, because asking risked losing the person from my life – oh, you poor ignorant white trash child of low class immigrants. You just reminded me that you are poor! Be gone!
And I didn't even know the vocabulary words to use to ask the question. If I opened my mouth and tried to articulate it, what would I say? I'd make porpoise sounds. "I am scared because woop woop squeal squeal and I don't know if I should framistan the gizmo or hyperlude the thingamajig!"
I know a liberal who has talked in a way that suggests to me that he has money. Lots of money. At least a million. He has used that word "million." He is constantly bashing Republicans and capitalism and reminding his friends of the plight of the wretched of the earth, and when he does this, his friends say things like, "Oh, you, you are such a Robin Hood! A champion of the poor!"
I asked him. The conversation instantaneously reached absolute zero degrees. Any words I spoke after I broached the topic were utterly gratuitous.
Okay, one slammed door.
It took me a while to recover. To re-gather my courage, in rags around my feet like a tattered prom dress, to wrack my brains and to ask someone else.
I asked a Catholic priest. We made an appointment. We met in a café. Once I got the question out, it was as if I watched his cassock melt and his "survival of the fittest" human nature emerge.
He tried to "be nice" by lecturing me about why I am so poor and why didn't I just get a full-time job, because, you know, employers are chomping at the bit to hire older PhDs with a work history of teaching college. Yuppers. Helpful. Uplifting, even! Not.
I wanted to say "You have no idea how many hundreds of jobs I have applied for. You have no idea what it's like getting one rejection after another. You have no idea how terrified I am and how strong I have to be just to get through the day. What kind of priest are you?" But I didn't. I am too polite. I listened to him say stupid things for an hour. Then I left.
The next person I asked said "We'd prefer not to be embroiled." We – she'd recruited her spouse. Two against one.
I slunk away.
I will never forget the "we" or the "embroiled."
Again making clear. I wasn't asking anyone for money. I was asking people to help me handle money I didn't know what to do with, because I know nothing about money because I've pretty much never had any.
I asked someone else. He said he'd think about what he could do. Time passed. He was still thinking. For me, time was running out.
I approached Bob [pseudonym] another person who gives the appearance of having money. I figured he'd know. He said he'd put me in touch with Mr. Big [pseudonym] who was a really smart lawyer. I gave Bob my phone number to give to Mr. Big, the smart lawyer. And I pretty much forgot about it, because something else was up, in addition to my money problem.
I went to the hospital to visit my sister. This was one of three hospitals she'd be in in the space of a month. It was very hard for me to watch my sister suffer. It wasn't clear whether this hospital visit would be her last or would merely be one more milestone toward the inevitable fate the doctors have told us to expect soon. I felt as sad as I've ever felt in my life.
I am driving again after many years of not driving. I have not driven in rush-hour traffic … ever. I left the hospital and drove out on to the highway and was stunned that one can sit for ten minutes at time, not moving, on route 80, a super highway. I was tense because I'd just left the hospital, and because I needed to get to a diabetic dog I was babysitting. He needed a meal and insulin on schedule.
I made it through the traffic jam and to the dog. Phone rang.
"Hello, my name is Mr. Big."
"Oh, yes, hello, Bob told me you'd call. Thank you for calling. I can't talk right now. I just left my sister in the hospital and I need to feed a diabetic dog. Please give me a time I can call you back."
Audible, pregnant pause.
"YOU call ME back? YOU call me?? YOU cannot call ME back. We'll talk now."
"I can't. I just left the hospital and I need to feed this dog and then give him a shot. Now is a bad time for me."
"Oh. Oh. Oh. I see. Oh. Goodbye."
I think this guy really regrets that we're all using cell phones now and he couldn't slam down the phone.
I fed the dog, gave him a shot, and then I did what you do when someone you love has received a terminal diagnosis. I stared numbly into space while tears made their way down my cheeks. Thoughts of money were very far away. Death trumps money. Love trumps money. Dogs trump money. All these trump phone calls from pompous, self-important bozos.
I received an email message from Bob. Bob screamed at me. Mr. Big is very important! You didn't take Mr. Big's phone call! You are "ungrateful"! Never ask me for anything again!
Please note. I did not ask Bob, and I was not going to ask Mr. Big, for *money.* I was merely seeking *knowledge about money.* And for that, Bob and Mr. Big humiliated me.
See? Poverty = cooties, and we are all still in that high school cafeteria, one misstep away from becoming non-persons.
I took time to recover. And then I came out of my retreat to ask again. Mac is a Catholic deacon. "I will connect you with someone who can answer your question."
The man's name was Richard. He's a banker. I stumbled through asking Richard my question, in my embarrassing, clueless, porpoise language, all the while quelling my shame and terror.
In two brief emails, Richard the banker sorted it all out. He told me exactly where to go, whom to ask, and what to ask for. He used a vocabulary word that is utterly unfamiliar to me. I went where Richard told me to go, I spoke to the employee who has the title Richard said he would have, and I asked for the thing Richard told me to ask for, using a word I had never used before. It was actually quick and easy.
I went through six months of shame, terror, and confusion, because of my ignorance. I was rescued from all that by a man who knows what he is talking about, and who is willing to share his knowledge.