me: i used to think you got money and you ran away from it all
me: but that isn’t true
– me to my girlfriend on gchat last week
In the summer of 2012, I told you I was going to make it. But that metric isn’t reliable, and that summer lasted for twelve months. Somewhere around that time, I told Intern Grace that for the first time I was dumbfounded as to how I was going to survive, but I was still walking blindly into it. I opted to be broke as f*ck, mostly because the other option was moving in with my mom again and partly because I was too proud to admit defeat. I wasn’t raised to give up just because the money was running out, and I wasn’t raised to believe that there would ever be money back home.
“Something about this makes me feel so alive, every time,” I told her on gchat.
“Yeah. Knowing you’ve made it on your own. Knowing you did it,” she said back.
I stared at my screen and nodded my head. I was going to make it, and I was going to make it on my own.
In May of 2012, every day was a victory and a war. I skipped breakfast to stay on budget, drank leftover booze from parties to get drunk, and fell asleep writing cover letters. I look back on it with a hint of nostalgia because sometimes I miss drinking ’til Marina fell in the street or driving around in Danny’s car to get free, but I know in the back of my mind that that isn’t what it was like — it was a struggle. The only reason I don’t remember it is because up until this May, the struggle was all I had. And I don’t know that it ever really ends.
My mother taught me how to make it. When I was growing up my mom had nothing, not one little shred of good luck, not one extra dollar bill, nothing. But we made it. It wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t practical, it wasn’t supposed to be possible, but my mother gave me and my brother everything she could from nothing at all.
I grew up poor. I don’t have the patience or the energy right now to make that sound pleasant or courageous. My mom was a single mom; in 1995, that meant I was the only girl without a father and the only girl without a house. We lived in my grandmother’s house when we first got back from my father’s native Puerto Rico, and I was sleeping in a bunk bed in my mom’s childhood room. We moved out and rented, but after that we still moved constantly, and each time without movers; my mom couldn’t afford them, so we would pack up houses and apartments and load up the car, crossing our fingers each time that it wouldn’t break down. My mom always told us one day she was going to save up and buy a house in Lake George, where we drove each summer to go on vacation and stayed in no-name motels far from the center of town. “I’ve always wanted to own a hotel, or a bakery, or something,” she would say out loud on the road. I would promise we could do it together. “I’ll make the ads! I’ll make the beds!” I would tell her. When I was a kid, I didn’t want money so I could have more things. I wanted money so my mom could be happy.
My mom tried hard to give us a normal life, but the older we got the more the jig was up; by the time we reached middle school we knew well what a credit card was, what the value of a dollar was, and why we needed to go to college. “I didn’t get to go,” my mom would say, referencing her father’s death in polite conversation. “But you will.”
My vision of college was a ticket out. “You’ll have normal lives,” she promised me, harkening back to the American Dream that was still gasping for breath when she was growing up. “And you can do whatever you put your mind to.” The concept that nothing was impossible never fazed me. For a poor girl, I had big dreams — and I wasn’t willing to compromise on any of them. I always thought once I had reached a point in my life I’d be “there,” and I would sit at sleepovers telling my best friends how much I had planned for that point in my life. “I’m gonna own a car and a house,” I told them, pointing to their comfortable living rooms and dining rooms and big-screen televisions. “One day, I’m gonna have a normal life.”
When I landed my dream job in May of 2013, I thought I’d finally gotten out. I imagined that eventually I’d shed my old skin and become someone else, and that eventually nobody would be able to look at me and see where I came from anymore. But that wasn’t true. Adulthood has, thus far, bewildered me. My first paycheck was big, and I stared at it because I didn’t understand it, and when I put it in my bank account it nearly went it into cardiac arrest. I had never touched something worth that much money in my life.
I realized recently that my salary now is close to what my mother earned when I was growing up and it scared me. I’m scared because I know I will eventually earn more, and have more, and I don’t know how to be that person. Still sometimes I stop in the grocery store and look at children and start to cry at the thought of feeding them, or of clothing them, or of making them feel safe. The older I get, the more I am unable to comprehend where my childhood came from, or how any of this is possible, and with each paycheck I’ve become more consumed with guilt: guilt that I don’t spend enough, guilt that I don’t save enough. The fear comes, too, whenever I go to spend it: am I becoming someone else? Every dollar is a betrayal to who I’ve been for over two decades, to the working-class mother who refused help and sacrificed everything she had to make me into someone luckier than she was, to the words I’ve written about not needing anything to survive.
What my mother wanted for us more than anything was mobility, maybe because she herself felt so stuck. We remained, my entire childhood, in flux but never more than 15 minutes from my grandmother’s house; she remains in the same job with the same financial circumstances. Her gift to us was our ticket out, and maybe because she, too, grew up working-class (though much more stable and better-off than we did), she believed that was possible. When I got my job I looked around at all I’d hoarded and stolen and bought at thrift stores and I waved goodbye to hunger pangs and wanton desire for five-dollar appetizers and constant, seizing panic, and checking my bank account every morning, but I never landed anywhere else. I no longer belong to the circumstances that raised me, but I’m also an alien to the universe I occupy as an adult.
I went to work on my first day in my favorite black dress. When I was putting it on, I noticed it had a small snag in the shoulder where Eli had scratched it, but I wore it anyway, because I had nothing else. I wore heels, too, and I was quickly told I didn’t have to. “I mean, unless you want to,” my coworker told me. They took me around the office to introduce me to everyone and I felt very small, and suddenly I was worried everyone could see the hole. I became paralyzed with fear that none of my clothes were appropriate for work.
I felt the conundrum of buying something for work shouldn’t be super difficult, but I had no idea how to do it. The interns came in in dresses, or sleek office pants, or in adorable blouses and tunics. Oftentimes, I felt underdressed next to them, and that embarrassed me. Sometimes, I’d look down at my clothing and realize I’d owned it for four, or eight years, and all I could do next was shake my head. I am my mother’s child. My boss would look me up and down when she greeted me, and when I told her I was going to have a discussion with interns (as the new intern coordinator) in the Fall about “professionalism” and “the dress code,” she did the very same thing, looked away, and put her glasses on without responding.
“You cannot wear that to work,” Libby told me when I went to her house. “Are you fucking serious?” I looked at her, completely dumbfounded. “Libby, this is one of the fanciest dresses I own.”
She sighed. “It’s like you’re so good at your weird, low-cost lifestyle, but you know nothing about the real world.”
When I wrote my lifestyle guide for underfunded queers two summers ago, I didn’t feel like I was getting naked. But the immediate reactions made me feel exposed and embarrassed. People wondered how I physically sustained myself on $10 a week for food, people wondered how I was going to nourish my body and stave off illness and bad health in adulthood if this was my pattern for living. Those thoughts never crossed my mind because they involved planning the future, or considering “cost” in a way beyond “money” that included emotional and physical realms that don’t matter when you’re bringing in a couple hundred dollars a month and teetering on the brink of actual desperation.
My mom couldn’t afford organic, and she was one of the first people in the US to see right through the entire gimmick. “They tell me I have to buy this for my family, but I can’t. And that’s bullshit.” We didn’t buy a lot of expensive items and most stuff was store-brand, on sale, or non-perishable. We ate the cheapest fruits and vegetables, we all knew how to operate a can opener, and we never owned excess. That was how I grew up, and it’s how I live even now. We ate Pop-Tarts and Toaster Strudel because it was quick, fast, and cheap – all three dimensions being all-important for a single mom who worked late, worked nights, couldn’t afford childcare, and had two clueluess young mouths to feed every morning. We bought food at school because she qualified for discount lunch ($.40 a day) and sometimes we paid in actual dimes. My mother kept a change bank and brought it in to turn it into dollars every once in a while, and I still do, too.
Since I started my job, I have found that I almost never look at my bank balance. My mother was always meticulously counting her balance through her checkbook or visits to the bank, and in growing up I adopted the habit on my smartphone because when you’re close to zero, the fees hurt more than the five cents you have to your name. “Have to my name” was my mother’s favorite phrase; “I’ve only got ___ to my name,” “I don’t have ___ to my name.” My mom’s days were overcast by a number, a measly measurement of how much she’d managed to put aside for herself after taking such good care of us. It was never a lot, and we knew that. Poor families talk money all the time, and think in money, and track money in the back of their minds. My mother’s finances were our problem, not her problem. My brother and I both knew how much she had, both knew better than to ask for money to go shopping or money to indulge. And even when the time came to celebrate, to really take care of ourselves, we made efforts to do it at the lowest cost possible. We bought in bulk, we survived thanks to Wal Mart, and we knew that we could wake up tomorrow with an emergency and lose everything. Everything was temporary. Everything was a pending transaction.
I spent the summer of 2010, 2011, and 2012 living on ten dollars a week and nothing more. I didn’t leave the house a lot, and I made up for it by living with people I loved. Everyone was always marveling over how I was able to handle it, able to cope with the stress of it, able to enjoy it. Nothing about it felt different than any other chapter in my life.
Going to college was my first foray into adulthood, and it was weird for someone who grew up on nothing. The buildings were big and the food was buffet-style, meaning I no longer had to pick it out based on price or limit it to make it last for two nights. I was able to attend my first-choice school, American University, because I was a Bill Gates Millennium Scholar, and therefore had a full scholarship that covered tuition, room, board, and fees. The scholarship is for people who qualify for Pell Grants, have high academic records (GPA / SAT) and are of Native American / Hispanic / African-American / Asian-Pacific Islander ethnicities. I wrote eight essays to get it, and submitted lengthy documentation. I applied to AU Early Decision, and I didn’t know when I was accepted if they were going to select me for the award. My mother and I signed my tuition bill on her bed, and she was furious. “What if you have to pay this? What if I can’t help you get a loan?” I signed it crying.
When I found out I got it, my friends in high school were jealous of me. “You’re getting everything for free,” my one friend told me. “I’m not poor, so I can’t. And that’s really hard.” We don’t speak anymore. I left her behind along with New Jersey.
I packed for college meticulously, making sure I was only bringing my favorite pieces of clothing. This was my first-ever shot to start clean, to start over, to be someone else. By the time I was 18, I knew everything there was to know about my mother’s financial situation, and it wasn’t pretty. Getting my scholarship had relieved me of a huge burden, and it was created for the purpose of giving poor kids like me a second shot at a real life. “With this money,” they told us at our orientation conference in Virginia, “you no longer have to worry.” The point was to give me four years where money wasn’t an obstacle to achievement, where none of my opportunities were limited. This money was supposed to make me normal, unrestrained like everyone else, lifted out of something nobody ever asks to fall into.
But I was already poisoned.
I spent my four years at AU in awe of the lives other people had back home. Most students pay close to full tuition, and most come from families where that’s possible. This world was incomprehensible to me, and it meant I spent a lot of time “learning how to be a person.” The people I fell in love with at AU shopped at high-end stores, talked casually about their various explorations of the entire continent of Europe, and vacationed in private homes they owned in other cities. In many ways, I spent those four years like Orphan Annie, running through the metaphorical department stores of other people’s lives with my mouth open. I’ve spent most of the rest of my life this way.
It isn’t just what you don’t understand, though, that reminds you where you came from – it’s what other people don’t understand. It’s crying when you lose a twenty dollar bill, or being the only person who thinks the food tastes completely fine in the cafeteria; it’s feeling compelled to eat as much free food as possible and hesitating to buy school supplies that cost even fifty cents or a dollar more than the cheapest kind. The entire way I lived, the humanity I had inside of me, was impossible to hide – even in the right clothes or with the right attitude. Often, those experiences made me feel naked and vulnerable.
I spent the first semester of college being friends with someone who bragged about his father’s salary and once “outed me” as a poor person, and I cried. I was 300 miles from home, but I was never going to run away from my truth. I could leave behind the people who knew the truth, but I was living proof that it was true. When I was little, my mother once told me that she’d heard on the news that rich people could tell poor people in a crowd based on the way they acted, spoke, and held themselves. Afterward, I spent a good few weeks observing other people in the world who seemed unhampered by our kind of debt or desires, but I couldn’t see the difference. Not well enough to live it. I never told my mother.
“Will it ever get easier,” I asked at work, “to spend money?”
My coworker, Beth, smiled at me. “Just ease into it. Trust me.”
My first stop was the grocery store. It hurt to spend more than $20 a week, so I accepted it as an improvement. I have not yet purchased an item that cost over four dollars at the grocery store.
Next, I went to H&M to buy work clothes and landed some great deals, and then when I got home I still forced them into my ceremonious guilt cycle in which I leave products in a bag, tags on, with a receipt, until it is too late to take them back. I contemplated doing this every day, so I eventually tore the tags off to teach myself a lesson. I told Josh I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t spend, it wasn’t in my nature and I was never going to be human. “Carmen, remember – money comes and money goes,” he told me. “But most importantly, money comes.”
I had never thought that way. I vowed to try harder. I vowed to escape.
I started buying coffee in the morning (at 7-eleven) as a treat and bought lunch at restaurants every day for the first month. Sometimes, I bought bagels. I let Beth take me to her favorite sandwich shop and bought myself snacks to keep in my desk, which I felt very strongly I deserved. I bought myself a ten-pack of Stella Artois every week. I forced myself not to budget, not to count, not to save. For the first few weeks, I had to work to recondition myself to spend. This struck me as a wholly unique experience, and it made me feel alone. “It’s just been a rough year,” I explained in the office. “I’ve just become cheap, I guess.” The honest truth was that I’d never had a disposable income before, never had money that really belonged to me in my wallet to spend. My mother’s money belonged to MasterCard, and back when I had money it always belonged to Bill Gates.
I told myself when I got my job I would buy myself a big bottle of Dom Perignon (because the owners of Cristal are racist), but I haven’t gotten there yet.
Now that I’m 23, I’ve decided to adopt “self-made” as a label rather than “one successful product of the cycle of poverty.” I made this decision this week, mostly because I became overwhelmed at various points in the past seven days about who I am and what it means.
I do think I’ve made it. Even moreso, I find that my story is eerily similar to the dreams my mother had for me; I see growth potential in myself more than ever before, and I’m finally in a position to reach warp speed in my journey toward my dreams. But this shit isn’t easy, and it’s never going to be easy. I recently spoke in New York City with Merle Hoffman and she was talking about the movement and she said, “you have to love the struggle.” And in this completely different way, I do. It’s who I am. I believe endlessly in fate, and in myself, and in the magic that can happen when you promise yourself everything will work out. I love being gritty, and I love being unpolished.
I am my mother’s child, and that means more to me now than it ever has. My mother taught me how to make it. I watched her scrape by and it taught me that there was no shame in it, and even though I’m a little poisoned because I always think, “I don’t need this,” I fucking did it. You know? I’m here. I pay my rent, and my bills, and I feed Eli every day and I buy snacks at convenience stores when I’m hungry and I feel mobile. I feel free. I look up at the sky some mornings just to accept my own limitlessness, just to feel bigger, just to remember the whole of the world I’ve erupted from. Lots of other people in my position feel stuck, or feel stifled, or feel like everything they had growing up is out of reach; they struggle to cut down on their spending, they struggle to find outlets for retail therapy or their wanderlust or their love of high-brow culture. But I spend my days marveling at what I have, eager not necessarily to earn more, but to give more back – back to my mom, back to me. I’m making up for lost time on a starting salary. It only gets better from here. I’m free now because I was freed then, because I know how to eat one bag of rice for seven entire days or find solace in a DVD or feel luxe wearing a new pair of twenty-dollar boots. I’m free now because money never owned me, and money never made me happy.
I called my mom crying a few days ago and I said, “Thank you for raising us, mom, and you know what, sometimes I’m kind of happy we didn’t have anything, kind of happy we learned how to really make it, really happy we learned to work hard instead of expecting anything to ever come to us for no reason. I’m better off than the trust fund babies, I’m a harder worker than old money, I’m a real fucking person.”
“It was never about the money,” she said back. “I had everything I needed. I had you.”
When I was in middle school, I finally came to terms with my parents’ divorce and I said it out loud one night, “everything happens for a reason,” and I believed it, for the first time. And I have ever since then – even when I was unemployed, even when I was broke, even when I was undervalued and invisible, even when I was heartbroken, even now. I believe very much that my childhood happened for a reason, and that what it gave me was greater than what it stole. I believe that my success isn’t about “overcoming” who I was, or what raised me, but rather that it hinges on it; I believe that when you grow up with nothing you realize the goal is never money, the happiness is never money.
The money is, and always has been, a lie. And it’s never gonna change me.
Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” column exists for individual queer ladies to tell their own personal stories and share compelling experiences. These personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.