The photo above is all-original content. I snapped it this morning at the gas station on my way to work. It has not been Photoshopped, although I think I used the Mayfair Instagram filter. I’m such a cheater.
In our house, when my wife and I find money, or get an unexpected check in the mail, or realize that our bank was kind enough to reverse one of our overdraft charges, we call it a Christmas Miracle. Like in that O. Henry story where the husband gives the wife a brush after she cuts all her hair off. Well, maybe that’s not the right metaphor, but you get the picture.
Both our cars’ gas tanks are almost on empty. My gas light is on. My wife’s gas light is always on because the gauge has been broken for about three years. So my wife did we did what she always does in situations like this. She checked all the pants’ pockets on the floor of our 9-year-old son’s bedroom.
And guess what? It was another Christmas Miracle. She found a wadded, forgotten five-dollar bill. Finding that money, we felt like Ernest Shackleton wandering into the village in Antarctica after living in a cave on whale blubber for a year. Our villagers looked up from their Honey Nut Cheerios, frightened by our tattered sealskin overcoat and our smoke-blackened noses when we crawled downstairs, pretending to be slightly humpbacked (because that’s how you get when you have to survive on whale blubber for a year. It’s the scurvy) and holding up the found money, wailed, “I am Shackleton! ” in unison, as milk dripped from their chins.
No, we didn’t. But we totally thought it. Because these are the peanut butter days. The steak and ice cream days were about three weeks ago. Payday is nigh. That five dollar bill was probably a birthday gift from an auntie or grandmother. No matter. In our house, we stick together. Whatever resources we gather in the wild, dangerous world outside our hut, we place them humbly into the family pot. And let’s face it; what nine-year-old kid will miss a crumpled-up Abe Lincoln?
That money, combined with some loose change on the bathroom floor, put gas in both our cars. It was like we won the Powerball.
We read daily about voluntary simplicity. I’m just here to remind you of involuntary simplicity. I’m not writing this to make you feel sorry for me. I’ve written about my first-world problems elsewhere. I’m just writing to say that poverty can be fun. Really. Going to the laundromat because your dryer has been broken for two months can be cathartic. You meet some really interesting people, catch up on The Bachelorette, and on quiet nights you can peacefully sip your iced tea, update your blog, and get a fair amount of pleasure reading done.
Try this little experiment. Buy your toilet paper one roll at a time. When you run out, wait like a day or two before you buy more, using whatever scraps of recycled tree products you find around the house in the meantime. I’m not saying that’s what we do. This is just a fun game to play when you’re bored. Buying your toilet paper one roll at time is what it feels like to live on the edge. Theoretically speaking, of course.
I suppose most people are getting by just fine, thank you very much. Outwardly, folks scurry about cheerfully, exchanging pleasantries in line at the grocery store. That’s as it should be. That’s how society works. Chatter and pleasantries are the glue that holds it all together. If, when asked the question we are all asked twenty times a day, “How are you doing?” we actually gave honest answers, civilized society would come to a screeching, burning, smoking halt. I was passing by someone at work a few months ago, someone who works in another department and who I barely know, and asked him, “How are you doing?” He replied, perhaps a little too forcefully, “Probably not as good as you.” And you know what? He was right.
As Thoreau said, surely joy is the condition of life. Yes, but.
The noonday demon stalks us all. Or at least me. Our bank calls us on Sundays. Or at least mine does. It can’t all be as perfectly wrapped with a bow on top and ribbon-that-curls-when-you-zip-it-along-the-edge-of-a-scissors-to-make-the-curlicue thingies as it seems, can it?
We all have issues. At least I think we do. I just choose to write about mine. And this is today’s.
Because in our house, when we find money in our children’s discarded clothing, we don’t throw it into the overflowing funny-money bowl on the kitchen counter.
We take that motherfucker straight to the Puffin Stop.
A long time ago a philosopher, maybe Sartre or Camus or some other pissy Existentialist, said nothing tastes as good as one’s own earwax. Isn’t that a delicious metaphor for suffering? In other words, we might complain about our own suffering, but we certainly wouldn’t want to swap our suffering, or our earwax, for anybody else’s.
In my case, life is good. I was blessed with a happy childhood. I have a college education. I have two smart, healthy, happy kids. I’m married to a beautiful, funny, compassionate and socially engaged woman. I really have it all. I shouldn’t complain. So you should know that the things I’m about to confess could definitely be categorized as first world problems. Or, as Brad Pitt put it so poetically in Moneyball, uptown problems.
Like Thoreau does at the beginning of Walden when he tells us, piece by piece, right down to the nails, how much he spent to build his cabin, I’m trying to give some kind of accounting here. I’m not dirt poor, but compared with many, many people I know, I’m pretty broke most of the time. Maybe it’s just the era we live in. Maybe it’s sequestration, austerity, or all the swapped derivatives still fluttering around. Maybe the giant pool of money is being shy. Maybe it’s the by-product of having children. Maybe it’s because I can’t make small talk with people and I sweat like a pig in most social situations, which makes it really difficult to go to cocktail parties and frequently causes me to step outside for air right in the middle of a conversation.
Or maybe it’s really because of the choices I made, because I didn’t want to work a job where I had to wear a tie or because I went to three colleges, one of them twice, before graduating. Maybe it’s because I dropped out of grad school, even though I didn’t officially drop out. I just stopped going.
Whatever the reasons, I know I’m less well-off than most of my friends. How do I know this?
I live in Maine and even though I was president of my high school ski club, I know I won’t go skiing anytime soon. Too expensive. So what that I’ll never be a member of the Sugarloaferati?
When I see a truck with the bumper sticker that reads “Life’s Too Short To Own An Ugly Boat” I want to rip its fucking bumpers off. I’ll never own a boat. Likewise, I will never have a need for a cabinetmaker. Or a gardener. Or a housekeeper. Or even a Merry Maid.
Landscape architects will remain one client poorer thanks to me. I will never go upta camp. I will never have mulch delivered. Guys won’t come to my house in some kind of loader or dumper or whatever and move aside a section of my fence so they can eject a huge steaming pile of composted tree bark onto my nonexistent flowerbeds.
True, all my white undershirts have Brooks Brothers tags in them. (My uncle was the CFO of a huge power company and at a young age taught me to worship at the altar of the golden fleece). But I only have three of them and they were all bought at the outlet after the holidays when a 40%-off storewide sale was on. I look good from a distance, but when you get closer you’ll see the heel-poor socks, the frayed cuffs, and the pants with the olive oil splotch that I got while cooking dinner one night and that will never come out in the wash. My cashmere scarf, bought with a gift certificate and at 70% off, is my only luxury good. I have exactly three nice shirts, two pairs of pants, one black crew-neck sweater, one pair of good jeans, one pair of work shoes, and one pair of running sneakers. Most everything else is socks, boxers, and old t-shirts. Both my coffee maker and my television are inherited from my wife’s deceased grandmother. The coffee pot only makes four cups at a time so I usually have to make two pots each morning. My television is so old it can’t even begin to conceive of a Roku, even with the right coaxials. When my kids need new shoes I have to ask my parents for money. I’m 46 but sometimes my mommy buys me underwear. I’ve had to beg off social engagements because I didn’t have the extra $20 for dinner. I have returned bottles to get money to buy food. Within the last three years. My porch is so broken down I’m thinking of creating a Kickstarter campaign just to raise the money to fix it. When my toilet broke and flooded through my living room ceiling and someone said, “Why don’t you just call a plumber?” I just laughed.
As expected, I have indeed defaulted on my student loan. Still, I feel some weird, Stockholm Syndrome-esque connection to the New York State Higher Education Corporation. They’re my people, it seems. I don’t expect to have my debts forgiven. I took NYSEC’s money and I spent it. And yeah, now I owe that money, even if paying it back feels like paying back the leg-breaker who lent me money to settle my poker debt with the local mafia don. True, most of the money I borrowed gave me life-changing opportunities at good schools to learn lots of really great, crazy stuff and to meet some of the best human beings on the planet and to make memories that will stay with me until there are worms crawling out of my eye sockets. But some of the money I also spent on Long Island iced teas at Fletcher’s Karaoke Bar, White Russians at the Starboard (when I was going through the first of my many recurring Big Lebowski phases), and a share in a Rehoboth Beach weekend house two summers in a row. All that time I should have been in class at AU studying Master’s degree-level philosophy. Kant do anything about that now.
But the truth is I’m OK with all of this. I’m blue collar to the core. I’ll probably always have champagne tastes on a beer budget. I can still walk by someone else’s beautiful flowerbeds and compliment them without the least bit of jealousy. Because what is jealousy anyway but the poison you swallow hoping the other person will die? Or maybe that’s envy. Either way, I’m good. Over 2,500 years ago Patanjali, in his yoga sutras , said the hardest thing for a human being to do is to take pleasure in another person’s good fortune. Dude was right.
I’m telling you all this because maybe you’re feeling the same way. Just barely hanging on. Maybe it’s not even money. It could be a whole shitload of things unrelated to wealth and/or material possessions. Maybe you’re hiding behind your plasma TV. Holding it in, whatever it is, hoping it will just not be there one morning.
If so, I should also tell you about the time, a few winters ago, when my family was so broke, so out of food, so low on heating oil, that I sat in my fifteen-year-old Honda Accord in the church parking lot across from my house and pounded on the dashboard and cried until snot ran out of my nose and screamed “Fuck!” twenty times in a row as loud as I could until I had a headache and my throat was sore and then punched the door handle so hard over and over until I thought my hand was broken. My hand was fine, but I had royally fucked up the door handle, so much so that I couldn’t lock the driver’s side door anymore or sometimes even open it from the outside and so periodically had to get in my car from the passenger side and climb over the gear shift like some kind of goober just to get back and forth to work.
I spoke about this incident with a friend of mine who is a pastor. He advised me not to get the door fixed. To keep the handle broken as a reminder of how bad things can get, and also of how we can recover from these very same bad things. I took his advice and let that handle stay broken. I couldn’t afford to fix it anyway. I traded in the car two years ago.
But all that’s nothing.
Someday I’ll tell you about the time my wife and I lived in Ithaca, NY, when we both worked for a video store chain making five bucks an hour because we couldn’t get jobs at Cornell and go to grad school for free like we planned and working at Video Ithaca was the best we could do and the only good part was that I got to watch every Woody Allen movie for free on the in-store TV while I was on the clock. We were always late on our rent, we lived in a crappy apartment in a run-down house on Cascadilla Street, charging our groceries to a perpetually maxed-out credit card, putting ketchup on our macaroni because we couldn’t afford Ragu and I spent too much time sitting on the back steps smoking too many cigarettes, the cigarettes of a truly depressed man, watching the snowflakes, the big wet snowflakes that only the Finger Lakes can bring, as they slowly drifted down the sky to mix with my smoky breath and ash and our crazy cat, the one we had to put down after I drank too much wine one night and tried to be playful with her but she scratched my eye anyway, the eye that still aches sometimes when it’s about to rain, and nearly blinded me, was clawing at the door.
We found out later from the vet that our poor cat wasn’t really crazy. She just had a brain tumor.
I should stop now.
I was feeling sentimental a few nights ago, so I went to iTunes and bought a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska. I have it on vinyl, but I don’t have a turntable anymore. I’ve been listening to it on my late-night walks. Even though this album is more than twenty years old, it’s still pertinent today, perhaps even more than ever in George Bush’s America in 2008. As a nation, our people are getting poorer. The desperation of the people in these songs is the desperation of the times we live in. I feel that desperation, that pull of poverty, the burden of having debts that “no honest man can pay.” I’m a well-educated, fairly literate, professional-looking, forty-year-old married father of two. I’ve been pretty lucky. My parents both worked hard to keep a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs. I got a college education, the thing that was supposed to make the world my oyster. This is a country of merit where those who work the hardest get ahead, right? As Americans, we’ve been told that each successive generation is supposed to be able to make a life for themselves better than what their parents had. But I never expected it to be so hard. I know these are the musings of a westerner who is wealthy by most of the world’s standards. I want my children to have a better life than mine, more financial security. But how will they get there? The college where I work costs $50,000 a year. When my kids are old enough to go to college, it will probably cost $75,000. I’ll never save enough money to pay their tuition unless I win the lottery. Oil prices are so high, I can barely afford to heat my house, or put enough gas in my car to get back and forth to work every day. I’ve been returning bottles just so I can buy a gallon of milk. I’m tired of struggling, but maybe a Republican will tell me that I’m just not working hard enough. 100 hours of work a week between my wife and I isn’t enough anymore…work harder! they would say. But I feel like the characters in the song Mansion on the Hill, who stare up at the brightly lit windows from the cornfields down below, listening to the laughter, music, and clinking cocktail glasses, and who know they’ll never see the inside of a place like that. Much of America seems like that mansion right now, and there are so many more of us on the outside, hiding in those tall grasses, wondering if we’ll ever find a way to get inside.