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A couple of years ago I had an intense crisis of conscious moment while waiting for the bus in North Hollywood. Returning from a beer festival, I’d opted to be a responsible citizen and take public transportation rather than drive. I don’t know what the stats are, but few people in Los Angeles take public transportation. You can see the economic divide between those that take the bus or ride the trains and those who zip around in one of the many BMWs, Mercedes or Porsches that flood the city. I watched as a Latina woman fished around in her purse for change to afford the ride for herself and her three children. I resisted the urge to hand her the extra dollar she was looking for. I didn’t want to assume she needed it and risk insulting her. Near her stood two black female teenagers in worn clothing and holey shoes in dire need of replacement, listening to music and joking with each other. They flirted confidently with an ethnically-mixed group of male teenagers a few feet away from them. They reminded me of my “little sister” with the Big Sisters Big Brothers program. I thought back to the times when I’d pick her up from the small two bedroom apartment in Panorama City where she lived with her mom, stepdad and four siblings. Her stepdad would be drinking from a 40 and smoking indoors and all I could think about was the secondhand smoke the kids were being exposed to. There was always trash strewn about on the sidewalks on her street. Broken glass here and there. Bars on the windows of the convenience store where the cashier always seemed jumpy. As though he were nervous that shit would go down any minute.
When I got home, I let myself in and almost tripped over an unopened box of shoes I’d ordered. Nearby sat another unopened package – something else I’d ordered online – I didn’t even remember what it was. The packages had arrived weeks earlier. Yet, there they sat, unopened. It hit me: I don’t need these things. If I needed them, I would have opened them as soon as they arrived. If I didn’t need them why was I buying them? At some point over the previous few years my socioeconomic status had changed and those unopened packages symbolized that evolution. I could afford to buy things I didn’t need and not only that, but leave them casually about for weeks to sit and gather dust. I thought about the woman struggling to find a dollar in her purse and the young girls in the tattered clothing and I felt guilty. I wasn’t even excited about these packages.
I called my sister, N, and told her about my unopened box of shoes. Not one to mince words she replied, “Girl, you have shoes in a box that you haven’t opened for weeks?! WTF?! Give ‘em to me. I’ll open them for you! What the hell! Open them!” I told her I was having an identity crisis brought on by some damn shoes. Talking to her helps me put my life in perspective when I need it.
My parents are a great example of an inspiring American success story. We moved to Atlanta from New York when I was in third grade. Our new apartment was in a working class neighborhood where all but a few residents were black. My two sisters and I (the youngest wasn’t born yet) shared a bedroom and a queen-sized bed. I was nine and my sisters were ten and three. It was cramped quarters, but we were happy. I quickly made friends (and a few enemies there). My best friend was a couple of years younger than me. Even though she lived in the same complex, I could tell that she didn’t have as much. She was often dirty and hungry. Her mom yelled at her a lot. Other kids in the neighborhood would pick on her and tease her for being poor. I was fiercely protective of her (and still am very loyal to my friends to this day) and got into my first fight defending her.
We didn’t live there for long. My parents worked hard and saved money and moved us to the suburbs where they bought their first house. My sisters and I each got our own room and new attitudes to go along with it: “I said get outta my room!”
From there on, it was up, up, up. We moved to Texas a couple of years later. My dad had gotten a fancy new job and my parents bought another house. Though with four bedrooms, two parents, four kids and eventually my mom’s father, I had to share a room with my sister, N. We were firmly in the middle class now, with a yard to tend to, a dog in the backyard, a bitchy cat in the house and for me: envy of the Jones’.
While we were middle class, some of my classmates were upper middle class or as far I knew, rich as hell. Suddenly our house, that I was once so happy and proud to live in, didn’t seem as impressive when we rode by the mansions in other subdivisions. Why didn’t we have an island in our kitchen? Why did we have to get our school clothes from Sears? Why do I and my sister M have to mow the lawn when other people pay kids to do that for them?
In junior high, I would beg and beg my dad to let me get clothes from The Gap like everyone else. One year he relented and I dragged him to The Gap where he took one look at the price tag on a pair of jeans I wanted and scoffed. “Keish, I am not spending $50 on a pair of dungarees!” I was crestfallen. I just wanted to be like everyone else. I didn’t want to look like a loser in Sear’s clothing. I found a slightly cheaper pair of jeans and convinced him that my life would be perfect with them. He gave in. Those jeans meant the world to me. It meant I fit in. I still have those jeans all these years later.
We stayed put throughout my high school years. Between high school and college I learned to value individuality, eschew conformity and avoid getting caught up in the battle of the Jones’. What the Jones’ got to do with me? But, still in the back of my mind, I hated feeling like I didn’t have enough money. Like I couldn’t afford what everyone else could. When I got to college I was on my own financially and it was rough. I was surrounded by people who had parents practically throwing money at them for whatever they needed. Meanwhile, I was often struggling to pay my rent and bills because I didn’t know how to properly manage my money and $6/hour doesn’t go far. I went from having a safety net to having to purchase my own net with a part-time job. One summer I survived on cheap ramen and frozen spinach until one day the ramen and frozen spinach ran out and I realized I had no food and no money to buy more. I would later tell a college friend about this and she admonished me, “Why didn’t you tell me you didn’t have any food?! I would have lent you some money!” I was ashamed. I felt like I was always borrowing money from friends to make up for my mistakes. I spent money I shouldn’t have, trying to keep up with my friends. I felt like the “poor one.” It was a miserable and I remember vowing that one day I would make a lot of money so I would never feel this helpless again.
After college and a brief stint in San Jose, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting dreams. I arrived in a used car I’d purchased on Craigslist for $1200 and with a few hundred dollars in my bank account. It seemed romantic like all the stories successful super-rich actors tell about their first lean years in L.A. It took me about a month and half to find a job and by then my money had run out. I was staying in hostels and weekly rentals with other down and out people. I didn’t have enough money to afford the deposit on an apartment. One of my co-workers noticed the backseat of my car was packed with all my belongings and asked another co-worker if I was homeless. I felt humiliated. Again, I vowed I would make a lot of money one day so I would never have that awful feeling again. I had poverty anxiety.
Los Angeles is a rough place to be if you have poverty anxiety or income-envy. It is a city of flash and excess. It is a city of haves and have-nots. Even people who don’t make all that much present the illusion of being well off. In certain parts of town, a valet will look down on you if your car is below their standards. If you’re a man, a particular kind of woman won’t date you if you don’t shower her with Louis Vuittons, Balenciegas and Manolos. I would sit in judgment of the label whores and the clear (to me) esteem issues that led them to seek meaning and an identity in conspicuous consumption with designer items and expensive German cars. I learned in junior high that labels do not define me.
Nine years later I sat in my apartment in a well-maintained, safe, upper middle class neighborhood staring at unopened packages feeling guilty. I made it. My new car rested safely in the carport. My closet contained more than five items from The Gap and other stores you’ll find in a mall. I made it. There was food in my fridge. I made it. I let myself get peer pressured into replacing my CRT TV with a sleek new flat screen. I made it. And yet I felt empty. I had all this stuff and it wasn’t making me happy. While I sat high on my horse, patting myself on the back for rejecting the LA-standard BMW and Chanel bag, I wasn’t behaving any better. When did I stop appreciating the things I could afford myself? Was I trying to prove something? Impress someone? What I was doing was satisfying my need to prove to myself that I am not poor. It’s how I treat my poverty-anxiety. But, it doesn’t work.
We’ve all heard the cliché: “Money doesn’t buy you happiness.” I would always retort, “Let me have some money and I’ll show you just how happy it’ll make me!” But, once your basic needs are met, you have a place to call home and your bills are paid, everything else is just gravy. And sometimes the gravy isn’t as tasty as you’d expect it to be. You don’t always need the gravy. Or you take the gravy for granted.
I was taking the gravy for granted. In the moment I had this epiphany, not only did I feel guilty, but I felt dirty. I was disgusted with myself. I wanted to toss out everything I didn’t need or that didn’t bring me some kind of happiness. I wanted to quit my job and go work for the Peace Corps. I needed to do something useful. I needed to reconnect with the real part of myself. I waited until I sobered up to make any big decisions. The next day I started researching volunteer opportunities. It seemed more important than ever for me to do something for other people. I signed up for as many volunteer events as I could. I would love to say it was an act of selflessness, but it’s not. Yes, I genuinely want to help other people and see others succeed. But, I get something out of it too. I get to feel cleansed. I get to feel like I’m giving thanks for all the good in my life.
I still want to quit my job in the corporate world. I don’t feel like I do anything to benefit others. The absolute seriousness with which people in the corporate world treat non-lifesaving work is laughable to me. I still wrestle with the guilt I feel from my new socioeconomic status. I have big dreams of working in sustainable development or creating social programs for those who need it. But, I still have poverty anxiety. Not so deep down is the part of me that above all else, fears being poor and helpless. I hate money and the excess that can come with it, but I’m addicted to making it.