When I quit my dead-end retail job to pursue the goal of becoming a teacher, I knew it would be hard. That’s why I didn’t leap at the dream the first time around. This year, I was offered a job that would put my foot in the door to achieving my dream. And as predicted, it came with a cost: I make severely less than minimum wage and cannot take a second job (third job, actually) because I work considerably more hours per week than what is considered “full time.”
Don’t cry for me, Argentina, I knew what I was getting when I bit into this sandwich. Shakespeare said “the course of true love ne’er did run smooth,” and the Bard’s words are true even when it comes to loving what you do. Feeling needed, feeling helpful, and knowing that I’m doing something important with my time is the trade-off for the long hours and the laughable pay. It’s a long road ahead of me, but I’m excited about my future in a way that I haven’t been in a very, very long time.
I am poor.
I have accepted this. My friends accept this. My mom (hi mom!) worries about me making ends met and I want to reassure my mom here that I do make ends meet, but not without some degree of difficulty.
For instance, I had a rare three hours free one Wednesday afternoon in February between post-school meetings and Multicultural Night (and I finally got the watercolor stain off my fingers, thankyouverymuch). These hours I used to go to my bank to fix a problem that had arisen on my account: I could not buy groceries the night before because my card was declined. I walked to the bank in person to address the problem. Uphill both ways in the snow, literally, because I don’t know my way around the neighborhood yet. At the bank, I was told that I could not handle my business at the branch – I had to call the customer service number, but why don’t I see if I can use my card at their ATM?
I put in my card and my pin and asked for a balance inquiry – the screen went all awkward and spat out a receipt showing a balance of ZERO DOLLARS AND ZERO CENTS. Just yesterday I had money in my account, and here I was trying to withdraw rent, and my account was empty. What was going on?!
In a panic, I called my bank’s customer service number. They assured me that my money was still in my account – gosh, nice to know! – and transferred me to the fraud department because their was an “alert” on my card. Someone may have stolen my card information!
On the line with the fraud department, now. The humorless fraud detective walks me backwards through my purchases of the past weekend to confirm that I did, indeed, buy groceries at the usual store (Trader Joe’s!) and shaving cream and dish soap at the drugstore next door that same day (yeppers!). Then my problematic purchase:
“On Saturday, a restaurant called S-M-A-C…” the operator spelled out awkwardly.
I remembered exactly. That day my friend came to visit and my boyfriend paid for my brunch, Gluhwein at the park, comics at Midtown, macaroons at zabar’s, cocktails by the fireplace at the Dove. It was a fancy, indulgent day of awesome and I felt horrible. My $5-an-hour ass hadn’t paid for anything. We said goodbye to my friend and I nudged my sweet fella – “Let me take you to dinner,” I volunteered. So we staked out a corner table at S’Mac, tore into our comic purchase, and alternated between burning our moths on hot cheese and sipping Stewart’s sodas and I felt relieved. I was finally doing something nice. I may be poor, but I still had my dignity.
But as the saying goes, nothing nice comes without a price. The fraud department at HSBC saw a restaurant bill on my account and automatically assumed someone had stolen my card and was living high on the hog. Because I shouldn’t go to restaurants! Poor people don’t eat out, ever, don’t you know. They stay at home and live off a soup made of tears with noodles made of shredded past-due notices.
Let me be totally clear: I am not whining about being poor. I love my job, and it is absolutely a trade-off. Love what you do, barely make ends meet. I know this. I am tired of the trappings of being poor: everyone thinks they can judge you and your purchases, you feel like you have to justify yourself, you have to beg for benefits like health care and food stamps only to feel guilty that you can’t take care of yourself as an adult, working 55 hours a week. I’m tired of the way we treat the working poor and the things I have to put up with just to be a human being in this world.