We have a savings account. A fucking savings account. Splitting the expenses makes everything easier. The fridge is always full. When we feel like it, we order in or go out to a restaurant. Occasionally, I’ll use my personal account to pick up a check.
Last Tuesday night, my bike was stolen. I had parked it in front of a yoga studio, where I'd gone for a dharma talk, and when I came out two hours later, it was gone.
A part of me knew that this was going to happen. My lock was shit so I rarely left it on the street. Even when I’d parked it, I had thought, "There's a good chance this bike is going to get stolen." I asked myself, “If your bike gets stolen, would that be OK?”
I decided it was.
The reason it was OK is because I’d wanted a new bike— and I got one. Just this morning, I bought a new bike. A brand new one. It cost around $600. Even now, that is a lot of money to me, but at one point, the thought of spending such an amount of money on a bike would have felt impossible. There was a time, not so long ago, when my bike getting stolen — even a hundred-dollar used bike I had gotten on Craigslist — would have been devastating.
I had started riding a bike in the first place because I couldn't afford to get to and from work. A Metrocard in New York City is $2.50 a ride. That's five dollars a day. Five dollars I would have rather spent on food. Five dollars I sometimes didn't have, and so I'd walk.
When I first lost my job as a teacher, I worked part-time for n+1, which is a literary magazine in Brooklyn Heights. I'd journey both ways by foot — over an hour and a half each way. Like that Tracy K Smith poem on the poster on the subway, I was "like a woman journeying for water." At a certain point, I was able to supplement what I made at the magazine with unemployment, but before that came through, I’d lived on credit cards. Nothing quite like the feeling of hemorrhaging debt. When unemployment ran out, until recently, I lived check to check. I had grown up poor and sometimes, these past couple of years, I felt reminded of that. Even though I am a grown woman, I felt again like a child. I couldn’t find a “real” job. I couldn’t pay my bills and so I got late charges. I couldn’t pay the late charges. Even though it wasn’t my fault, I felt ashamed.
But now, things have changed. Here's how I know.
I turn down work
When you’re broke, you’ll do anything for money. Anything. Anything. At n+1, I did data entry. I was paid $10 an hour while the Barnard interns sat around doing nothing. They would have done my work for free, but the magazine was doing me a favor. It was humiliating, but I’m no stranger to humiliating work.
Whenever I see “Works at Writer” on Facebook, I am always suspicious. Writing, especially in the beginning, pays very little. People who can’t afford to write for free usually don’t.
I “Works at Writer” because I also “Works at Teacher.” In the beginning, I’d take anyone’s money. No small irony that for a while I’d even advertised my services as an editor and writing instructor on Craigslist— just as I’d done when I sold sex. Some years ago, I worked as a ghostwriter for a man I’d met on Craigslist. I was helping him write what he considered a “guide to dating for women.” Being his ghostwriter entailed listening to him tell me stories of obviously nonconsensual sexual encounters, and what he thought these women did wrong. I considered telling him that I could no longer keep accepting his money, but I didn’t. (Eventually, he lost interest in writing).
I’m taking this semester off from teaching so that I can concentrate on writing and on finishing my book.
I can pick up the check
Flashback to three years ago, sitting in a DA meeting. Raising my hand. Getting to share. Talking about how badly I wanted to be self-reliant. Not feeling independent. Feeling insecure. Being single. Going on dates. Some nights, needing that meal. Knowing the fridge at home was bare. “I don’t want to rely on men and their money,” I had said. “This has been a thing for me. Part of my past.”
When Arran and I first started dating, money was a thing. On one of our earlier dates, we argued about the politics of my expectation that he pick up the check. Feminist or not, I couldn’t afford to take us both out for dinner. Eventually, he caught on. He didn’t mind sharing . . . still, I didn’t like how it felt. At times, I resented him. I was embarrassed. The day he gave me $20 to do my laundry. The night I flew to meet him in London, where I’d meet his parents for the first time, he’d bought the plane ticket, all I had to do was get myself there. On the drive to the airport, I accidentally overdrew my account. I beat myself up for taking a cab instead of taking the subway. I wasn’t thinking. Fuck, when you’re broke, you’ve got to always be thinking. Like the time I went to the dentist because I thought I had a cavity but then it turned out I didn’t, I got very hard on myself for “wasting” money. Fuck, I thought, How could you be so dumb?
For the past year, my financial situation has been steadily improving. Now that my boyfriend and I live together, money’s not really an issue at all. We have a joint checking account for shared expenses and private accounts for our personal stuff, like $600 bikes. We have a savings account. A fucking savings account. Splitting the expenses makes everything easier. The fridge is always full. When we feel like it, we order in or go out to a restaurant. Occasionally, I’ll use my personal account to pick up a check.
I can go on a vacation
The other day, my friend on Facebook had made a remark about how there are people who have multiple income streams and travel abroad constantly and drive cars and eat at restaurants every week and then talk about class privilege like they don't have it, and in my mind I was like, Oh. Yeah. She’s right. In the past six months or so, my life has dramatically changed.
The day I read that status, I had just gotten back from a four day weekend in Montauk — we’re talking the Hamptons. The fucking Hamptons. I was like Yeah, I see your point.
There was a time, not so long ago, when I couldn’t pay my rent. When, month to month, I decided which bills to pay and which ones could be late (because something would always have to be late). When I was precious about how much soap I used. Friends would come over and I’d be anxious they’d use too many paper towels. When I rationed things like lettuce and carrots so I’d have at least one vegetable every meal. When a freelance check came in, there was an incredible amount of thinking over what to do with it. There was so much thinking, all the time.
In Montauk, Arran and I ate at fantastic restaurants. We ordered fancy drinks with dinner and appetizers and sides and dessert. We enjoyed fancy coffees in the middle of the afternoon. We took cabs. “We’re on vacation,” was the attitude. And here is my point: when you have class privilege, even just a little, it’s like you’re always on vacation. Being poor requires an incredible amount of thinking. Constantly figuring out how to stretch your last however many bucks is exhausting and crazy-making. When you have money, you don’t have to worry. These days, I can go to Whole Foods, fill up a cart with groceries, and not keep a running tally in my head. I can go into any store and pick out what I want and hand them a bank card and not even think.