How do you make sense of money?
Every time I come to New York, I think about money. Constantly. I feel like New York is the Magneto of metropolises, sucking every bit of loose change out of the lining of my coat, the innards of my pockets.
Even before I got to the city today – waiting in 30th street station in Philadelphia – it started.
She sat down at my table. At my goddamned little bistro table, in the food court of the station. Is nothing sacred? Can’t a woman pile her belongings on three chairs (yes, I’m only going away for one night, but I have a veritable pop-up store traveling with me), lay out her homemade breakfast in its tin foil and crumpled napkins, like a kid with too many allergies to eat cafeteria food who brings weird lunches from home, and type on her laptop in the food court in peace?
I kept typing. This had worked for the guy in the concert t-shirt at the table next to me; she had sat down, he had ignored her, and she had moved on. To me.
“Can you please spare money so I can buy a sandwich?”
Concert T-shirt snorted and typed. I wasn’t going to ignore her, but I didn’t want to give her money to buy a sandwich – mostly because I didn’t believe she really wanted one. So I figured I’d test her.
“What would you like?”
“I need money for a sandwich.”
“Do you need money, or would you like something to eat?”
“Nah, I mean I can buy one, if you give me money, over -”
” Either you want food, or not – I’m happy to buy you a sandwich but I won’’t give you money.”
” I just – I’m not gonna go in – you can give me money for the sandwich.”
” You said you were hungry, so I’m offering to buy you a sandwich. Either you can take the sandwich or nothing – I’m not just giving you money.”
“Well alright then.”
I felt like this was a game of hot potato where I had unwittingly screwed myself over by being unable to count to ten properly. Suddenly, in an angry huff, I was gathering my tangle of crap and stomping into the Cosi to self-righteously buy someone else an expensive breakfast.
We stood in line side by side. She bit her thumb cuticle like a little girl. There was something annoying about her. There was also something repugnant about me. And so here we were.
” I didn’t, I didn’t want to uh, come in here, ’cause I thought they might arrest me.”
” They might arrest you?”
” Yeah. Yeah – sometime the police in here, they arrest me for coming in.”
” They arrest you just for coming in?” I sounded like a teenage girl egging on her mother, just to prove she’s an idiot.
” Yeah, they arrest me for coming in to buy a sandwich.”
I turned to her. My nostrils flared like little incredulous dragons.
“They arrest you for buying a sandwich?”
” Yeah, for coming in here too much and asking for money. Panhandling.”
” So that why I didn’t wanna come in here.”
” Well if you want to wait outside, I can order for you. It’s fine.”
” No, we here together, so it’s OK. You’re here with me.”
Her voice sounded sweet, suddenly. And this just as suddenly made me very sad. I turned to look at her. Bright eyes, tired skin, chewed fingertips, an unstained parka. I couldn’t tell what her deal was. I wondered if it was even my business, just because I was feeding her. She was reading the menu above the register.
“Can I have a steak, egg, cheese? And an orange juice?”
“And can I have a cookie?”
I heard myself – sharp, not dropping a beat to consider the cookie – and realized this is what I will sound like as a mother when I’m numb to the requests of my children.
I wanted to tell her that the reason I wouldn’t buy her the cookie was because it was bad for her health, not because it cost extra. I’d be happy to buy her the banana or the yogurt; just no cookie. I wanted her to be healthy. But I refrained.
“Thank you, also.”
I paid while she picked out her fresh-squeezed orange juice. I gave her the ticket and receipt, and told her to take care. She was still eyeing the cookie, and mumbled “Yeah” as I walked back out to the seating area.
Walking out, it struck me – there was something in our exchange that was redolent of parent and child. Me and a total stranger. A total stranger at least ten years my senior. Look what money did to her and did to me; it made her into a child. It made me a know-it-all.
I went back to my seat, waddling like a capsizing caravan, and heaved myself into a chair.
” That was kind of you.”
I looked up – Concert T-shirt was still sitting at his bistro table, unperturbed. He was looking at me, waiting for a reply, without turning his head.
“Well, when you need food you need food.”
He turned back to his computer and scrolled up and down someone’s facebook wall. He seemed irritated.
“Need is a strong word, I guess” I offered, settling into my chair.
“It sure is” he replied hastily; he had been thinking that already.
We typed in silence, facing forward, parallel laptops. I suddenly said,
“Well – who am I to judge how hungry someone is.”
He looked over at me.
” True. That’s true.”
I felt wise and altruistic. I expected us to discuss my charity more. But we just typed.
When he got up to leave he didn’t say goodbye; I don’t know why I thought he would. When I looked up to watch him walk away, I saw the woman sitting down at another table, cheddar sandwich in hand, asking someone else for a coffee.
I got off the train and walked to the subway that would take me to the South Bronx. In those six blocks I managed to spend $20 – a salad, a Metrocard, a water bottle. I got out at Brook Avenue and walked up to the high school. I used to teach there; I met my husband there; now I’m a consultant, creating materials for them and coming in once a month to attend a meeting of coaches which I don’t think I deserve to be a part of. I went to the office upon reaching the fourth floor, sweating in my coat from the climb, and waited to speak to the assistant principal. The special ed teacher – an old colleague – came in with her lunch to eat in quiet solitude, away from the devout Muslim kids who linger in the hallway during 4th period, since they can’t eat the cafeteria food.
“Hey girl.” She sat down next to me, took out her Tupperware, and started to stab some noodles with a plastic take-out fork. She had dark circles under her eyes. Streaks of red and blue from Expo markers tattooed the sides of her hands and the whites of her forearms.
“Hey!” I closed my laptop, and flicked my eyes towards the clock.
“What are you doing here?” She looked up as she chewed, waiting.
” I’m here for a meeting. How are you, how are things?”
“Great, good good you know, moving along.”
” Classes are good?”
” Yeah, you know this time of year is crazy, but things are going well.”
” Which apartment did you end up moving into? When I last saw you, you were deciding – ”
” I went for the expensive one.”
“Nice! It makes a difference to be in a place you love, doesn’t it?”
” Oh my God. I’m loving it.”
” It makes such a difference.”
” Yeah. I’m working at the Clock Bar now though, to afford the rent, so I don’t get to be at home so much, but it’s all good, I’m so glad I made that decision.”
This was shocking to me. Working at a bar? And teaching full-time in a NYC public school?
” When are you working there?”
” Friday, Saturday, Sunday.”
“Seven day week – what what!” She tried to laugh, the way you try to cough to clear an itch in the throat.
“Jesus – how is it working there on top of teaching? Do you like the people there?”
“I mean, it is what it is – it’s crazy. But they’re my friends. They’re like, my kind of people, so it makes it OK, you know?”
“Yeah, of course. That makes such a difference.”
Hell if I know about working as a teacher five days a week and then as a cocktail waitress the rest of the time. I could barely lift the phone to order take-out after a week of teaching. I’ve worked hard, at hard jobs, but never like that. I was very good at going to bars – often and con gusto – as a teacher, but the thought of serving screaming children all day long, only to serve drunk adults all night, is crazy.
I used to be a public school teacher in the worst neighborhoods in New York City. To say that I miss it would be a misnomer in two ways – I would never wish to do it again, and I long for it the way you long to be a child once you realize you’re mostly done with adolescence and might have already started adulthood without ever giving consent. Being a teacher was a big part of my identity – and working in scary neighborhoods, in filthy buildings, with needy children made me feel good. It makes me uncomfortable to admit how much I got out of/off on this arrangement, but I think it’s important to admit, because it was the first step in my civicization.
I have the luxury now of not teaching. I started my own business, which was way too easy. Somehow I have been able to legalize the biggest changes in my life with a few clicks on the ol’ world wide web – we got my brother-in-law ordained to marry us through the Universal Temple of Divine Internet Theological Telepresent Gobbledigook, and I established my own business online with the help of Legal Zoom and a few Wikipedia articles on LLC’s. Now I’m a married business owner, thanks to wifi and a credit card.
I’m still getting used to it. Every time I re-enter the high school, I ask myself the same question – why do I get to do this? I make 300% the hourly rate I did when I worked my bones to dust at this school, and there isn’t a single child in that building who knows me by name at this point. Why am I making more than a teacher?
How do you make sense of money?
Part of why I want to become a more “engaged citizen” is because I just can’t get my head around money – why some of us have it and some don’t; what the responsibility is of the former; what the options are for the latter. I have always wanted my work to involve helping those who live in poverty. I see this as the responsibility I have to others – as a human being, and I suppose as a citizen. I can’t make sense of poverty in America – of living a comfortable life next to it, of worrying about alternate side parking when there are children going without dinner a few blocks away. I can’t get my head around how many Americans live in poverty. According to this article in today’s issue of the Daily Mail, 49.7 million Americans – over 16% of the population – live in poverty.
And almost 20% of children in the nation. 20%. That is disgusting. How can this be so?
And as much as I think about poverty, I feel like it’s hard to talk about. Like when I start to talk or write about this topic, it sounds maudlin. Or like sappy white guilt. Or a Save the Children campaign.
Forget talking – just thinking about it is difficult. One of the hardest tasks I think we have as human beings is to hold the small and the immense in our minds at once, and still bumble our way through the day. It’s what happens when you are processing the news that somebody close to you has just died, and you also have to pee. When you read an article about genocide in Libya while eating breakfast, and become distracted because your granola’s a bit dry, and annoyingly there’s only a little droplet left in the almond milk carton. It’s making the commitment to take on a mortgage for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but deciding that a $80 blouse at Banana Republic is too much.
We can use this for good, or for passing judgment. When we want to diminish our own pain, we say we “have perspective” and our own problems are “not that bad in the grand scheme of things.” When someone just looks at the big picture, they’re “idealistic” or “unrealistic”; when they just look at the immediacy of small things, they’re “selfish” or “close-minded.”
It’s interesting who focuses on the small, and who focuses on the immense.
Some people in my life – especially members of my parents’ generation, who have worked for pensions and discuss things like how many good schools their grown children attended, consider “entertaining” a pastime and use “vacation” as a verb – think that worrying about money is silly if you don’t have to. This is largely because they’ve had to. They’ve had to worry about making enough to pay bills, feed kids, keep up with the neighbors, maintain a lifestyle.
Other people in my life – largely my peers, who went to good colleges, aren’t spoiled but have never had to truly go without, and are starting to use the word “career” more than “job,” now that we’re nearing 30– think constantly about money. They want it and they don’t want it. They need it and they hate it. They have it and they feel guilty about it. They don’t have it and they yearn for it. They’re scared of it and they enjoy it.
But the thing I’ve noticed is that we don’t really talk about it. I rarely have discussions about money. And almost never about what our (middle/upper-middle class) responsibility and relationship is towards poverty. In fact, I’ve been told on numerous occasions over the past few weeks, when I’ve tried to bring it up, that money and politics are things that folks don’t like to talk about.
Well, my political blog seems to be the perfect place to bring up money, then.
So – how do you make sense of money?
What kind of conversation do you have with yourself about money?
And what do you see as the connection between money and civic responsibility/obligation?