By Kristine Levine
I am about to make a huge financial mistake—probably the biggest one of my entire life.
Just like other chronically poor people, I have always made huge financial mistakes. I have overdrawn my bank accounts and not had bank accounts (Western Union isn't a bank?). I've never had a credit card or any credit at all. I've dealt with constant teasing from friends and family: "How do you not even have a credit card?" I know they're joking and don't really expect an answer, but I'm always trying to explain myself in earnest. "Oh, you see I was married for a long time and my husband just handled everything so I didn't know…"
It always trails off to "I didn't know."
Struggle is intimately familiar to me and those who are woo-woo-minded would say it's my comfort zone. They would say it's where I keep myself because I secretly like it. I don't know if that's true, but I would agree it's definitely familiar territory. I'm good at being poor. I'm good at surviving. I wasn't raised poor but I instinctively knew to switch the electricity check with the water check, to say I paid it but oh look at me fiddle-dee-dee I'm so silly sorry for the mix up… I wasn't paying the bills as much as I was buying time until payday.
I figured out how to make my own dog food before it was on chi-chi websites because you can't buy dog food with food stamps. A man once told me, "Get rid of your dog. If you can't afford dog food, you shouldn't have a dog."
First: fuck that guy.
Second: brown rice, chicken and mixed veggies all blended together for a few weeks every now and then is pretty good for a dog. Ruby lived to be 17 years old.
I learned how to make soups out of all the leftovers so my kids wouldn't know we didn't have food. I knew how to sell or trade drugs I didn't want for the things we needed. I knew how to steal my neighbors internet just until mine was turned back on. I knew how fix bus passes so we could reuse them. I knew how to get by.
No one told me that with each new baby would come a new Social Security number and I could reset my utilities in their name when I needed to. I was impressed I thought of that all by myself, and shocked when I heard some black comedians talking about how their mommas did that shit to make ends meet. And then I felt like I was part of a very smart, resourceful club. We aren't poor—we're rebels.
I had a few times in the past years where I've borrowed money from friends, and I'm still struggling to pay them back. Borrowing money from anyone is not an option for me again. I love my friends and I know they love me, so I refuse to accept any money now, even if they offer. I despise the tension and anxiety it's given me. I have dreams of paying them, of showering them with gifts to show how much I appreciate what they did for me, but that doesn't put that money back in their pockets, or relieve me of the shame I feel when I can only send little bits at a time or nothing at all. They think I forget, but I never fucking forget. I really didn't think my ship would sink. I really did believe I had a way out. And I still do—like Cinderella, I am ever sure my Prince is waiting. This isn't who I really am and someday I'll be in a fine gown at the ball.
Until recently, I didn't even see myself as poor. My friend sent me an article, "Your Brain on Poverty: Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad Decisions."
My first reaction was, "OH THIS IS INTERESTING," and then a whisper came to me while I read, saying, "She sent this to you… she knows you're poor. She sees you like that." That whisper grew into a crushing wave, a bulky black blanket, a thick and sticky hammer. She didn't send this to her friend for a good read. It's not as if she sent me a National Geographic article on what happened to the people in Jamestown. She sent me an article on why people are poor and what their brains do.
She meant me—what my brain does.
I felt exposed, like she stripped me naked and saw I was covered in caked shit under my clothes. Until then, I thought I was clever. In a way, even a little proud of my instincts for survival and my "poverty brain." And now I've never been more embarrassed about it in my life.
I wish I knew how not to be poor. Frankly, I wish I wasn't so good at it. People who aren't good at being poor, just are not poor. They set a standard for themselves and nothing less than that is an option. For me, my standard of bare minimum is always shifting, bobbing along on waves of circumstances. I can say, "I'll always have electricity, that's my bare minimum," but then one day, the bill is due and there are no more babies, and no more Hail Mary's. My new standards of 'minimum' are coming to light as everything goes dark.
I am just a couple hours away from signing away my beloved car for a car title loan. My parents gave me this car. It was my grandfather's. I love them so much, I'm so filled with shame and guilt that I have failed again. I'll cry when I sign the papers but I need the relief of knowing my rent is paid. I'm watching myself fill out these papers and go through the motions.
I'm seriously doing this? What is wrong with me?
This is the last thing I swore I would never do. I always told myself I would suck all the dicks in the world before I would get a title loan! I don't know anything about money, but I do know we, the Army of Poor to whom these awful things are marketed to, we aren't supposed to do this! All the signs say stop! All the Yelp reviews say, "DANGER AHEAD." And yet, I keep moving forward with it. As if that small loan I need is a drain and I'm being pulled down and in, down and in, deeper we go until there's nothing left to pawn.
Being poor with the illusion of survival, believing you're resourceful and smart while you're making ridiculous decisions is so seductive. When the thought of the title loan as a way out occurred to me, I felt a quiet peace about doing it on my own, empowered for not calling my parents and begging them for help. I guess it makes sense; I don't know anything about money except how to not have it and give it to people who do.
If you're poor and you're reading this, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry you're in this same hole-filled dinghy with me. Here's a bucket, start bailing, you know the drill. But while you're doing that, try to teach your children better. When the lights get shut off, don't make it fun and tell them "We're camping!" Tell them what really happened. Tell them you're a fuck-up and let them feel it. If you have any friends or family who can give them another perspective on money, expose them to those people.
I'm convinced poverty is a disease we can cure with education. It's not too late for me and it's not too late for you. We can learn about money. There are non-profits out there with classes about money. PCC offers a non credit course on personal finance for $55. There are even videos on Youtube if you don't want people to know that you're trying to change how you handle what little money you have. And most importantly, we can change how we feel about money. If you don't have it, it's very likely because you feel like it's tainted, or it's not noble.
Living in Portland, there is this foggy culture of cool poverty and lack that even I got sucked into. I saw people with money as the bad guys, the developers and trust fund babies who are taking Old Portland away from those of us artists who made Portland so fun to live in to begin with. We artsy-fartsy types don't fight back; we don't feel powerful enough to. Instead, we just keep living with more and more people, diving in more dumpsters, planting more gardens for food. And while that's great, we are so creative and resourceful that we can survive in a changing landscape, we aren't fixing the root problem.
If you're a part-time barista, go get more work and save. If you're an artist, charge more for your art, your sculpture or your show. Your rent is going up, and none of your seven roommates are going to read this article.
GO: Kristine Levine is a professional stand-up comedian. She's performing at Bossanova Ballroom Lounge with Mishka Shubaly on Sunday Oct 16. $10 in advanced, $15 at the door.