I debate for months before deciding to subscribe to a magazine. Last year I didn’t have health insurance. Then a friend of mine got sick. Now she owes the hospital more than $10,000. I’m paying for health insurance this year.
I drive an ’83 Chevette that doesn’t have air conditioning. It’s black. I live in Phoenix. The sun has disintegrated most of the interior.
My apartment has brown carpeting and cinder block walls. The tile floors and kitchen appliances are old; dirt shows itself in this place. Things get stolen, too. I lost the gooseneck from my bicycle handlebars. My roommate lost a bike tire, then the whole bike. One day a big guy got out of his car and yelled at me as I sat in my car. He kicked a dent in the side panel. I was glad he didn’t have a gun. Every night the same car alarm goes off in our neighborhood. The police come and look at it until it shuts itself off.
I have a master’s degree, and I teach at a big university and at a community college. This sounds great, but it’s not. I don’t get benefits. For one class, I have to drive in 110-degree heat to a high school where the janitor refuses to leave my classroom door unlocked. In all, I have to drive to three different cities to teach.
I’d be happier if I had more money. I’d buy a computer. I’d buy three pairs of leather shoes. I’d get more sleep. I’d get a pale air-conditioned car. I’d have my teeth cleaned. I’d be living the kind of life my parents wanted me to live.
Laura Lee Washburn
After my father tried to kill himself, his gambling addiction, embezzlement, and staggering debts came to light. For the first time, I began to understand some of the things that had puzzled me all my life — like why we had box seats at the opera but dressed in shabby hand-me-downs, or our sudden move from a pleasant bungalow to a run-down, rat-infested apartment. But I didn’t begin to understand my father until many years later, when my husband and I spent a few days vacationing in Las Vegas.
Entering the casino, a change came over me — a sensual, tingling, lightheadedness. The clatter of coins, the triumphant squeals, were intoxicating. I settled at a video-poker machine with a supply of nickels.
Gambling relaxed me. It was mindless and peaceful. Suddenly, four sixes spread across the screen and nickels poured into the trough. I scooped up the money and went to share my triumph with my husband, who had wandered off to watch a football game on TV.
The next morning, I went to the casino before Bob was awake. I increased my bet to two nickels on every third game. I was winning, so I upped the ante again, and then again. I got a full house on a bet of five nickels.
At seven the next morning, in the nearly empty casino, I played for quarters. Before long, I was betting five quarters a throw. All my worries about our young adult children, about my job, about the sorry state of the world faded away. My world was the screen in front of me.
It was time to go. Eight unused quarters were burning a hole in my pocket. To my delight, there were poker machines at the airport.
I was annoyed when Bob tapped me on the shoulder. “Boarding time,” he said.
“I’m on a winning streak,” I snapped.
“We take off in ten minutes.” He took my arm.
For weeks, my dreams were full of poker hands. When awake, I imagined myself back at the casino.
One night the ten o’clock news showed a raid on an illegal gambling operation in a nearby suburb. The sight of the video-poker machines, as police removed them from a bar, sent a rush of excitement through me. The ghost of my father brushed across my arm.
When I was on welfare, I moved with my two-year-old son into a house with some college students several years younger than me. They told me they were true socialists and had learned to live with only the bare necessities. I told them it was different choosing to live on so little when you had a bank account to fall back on. They told me I was bourgeois.
About the time I applied for and got government grants to attend the university, they dropped out of their last year of college, not wanting to support the system it represented. They dipped into their bank accounts, bought a new truck, and left for New Mexico to attend an expensive school of wholistic health where they learned to heal with crystals.
That was ten years ago. I finished school, married, had another child, and moved out of the poverty cycle. At times things are tight but I no longer feel that clutching anxiety in my chest when rent is due. I can feed my kids a healthy diet instead of white rice and government-surplus cheese.
Damn straight, I like money. It feels good to buy my kids shoes when they need them or take them to the dentist when they have cavities. Poverty is romantic only to those who have never known it.
As a bookkeeper, I am consulted quite often by those in “financial trouble.” They tell me they need more money. I tell them that their want of money is but a symptom — more money won’t cure them. More often than not, they set out to prove me wrong. They sell something, they get a second job, or the wife goes to work. A year later they are even deeper in debt.
I once paid back $20,000. I doubted I could ever pay it all back, but I wanted to make the effort. I had been in the habit of buying a fast-food sandwich for lunch every workday — two to three dollars per day. I decided to use that money to make payments. In two years the debt was paid.
The lunch money wasn’t enough to pay off $20,000, but I became aware that every dollar counts. I taught myself that there must be a real balance between the amount of money I earn and the way I spend. I have a friend who earns more than twice as much as I do. Though he is always in debt, writing hot checks, missing house payments, he buys compact discs regularly.
A real turning point in my understanding of money came when I had no money. Friends were feeding me. I had no car. Despair set in. Many told me I needed to take a trip, see a movie, buy myself a nice gift. I said, “I’m broke.” They said, “Yes, but you’ll feel better if you take a trip or see a movie.” I didn’t understand.
Then one day a friend explained that I was using the wrong word. I should be saying I was poor, not broke. Broke meant I couldn’t afford everything I wanted; poor meant I had no money for food and shelter.
Now, when I read the news about the national debt and the bankruptcies and the loan scandals and the homeless, I wonder if the government just thinks this country is broke instead of poor.
Twenty years ago, an artist friend of mine named Michael decided to open a free art store. He thought the connection between art and money was all wrong — that money was a crude tool and art a caged hostage. Though all of us young struggling artists needed the money, art for the people proved a popular concept; paintings and drawings began to pour in.
Michael’s rule was that the art would be available only starting at noon on the appointed day; until then people could only view the show. Michael had donated a number of large, nicely-framed pieces. The night before the opening, he painted the glass over all his work black. He said the society ladies were more interested in the frames than in the art — and anyway, when snatching up a bargain you never know just what you really have until you get it home.
In the morning a large crowd milled outside the gallery. I was next to the door, and people were pushing and jockeying for better positions. The crowd — an incredible mix of impeccably dressed women in high heels and hippies with shaggy hair — was frenzied. At noon we rushed in, heading straight for our hearts’ desires. Within ten minutes, not one thing was left. As Michael predicted, the high-heeled women carried off the blackened paintings, but everyone hurried away with at least one piece of art, leaving the gallery empty and quiet.
I grabbed a drawing of a nude in light-green pencil by a junior-college student. Over the years, the paper has spotted and turned yellow, but I hate to part with it. It reminds me of the day when for ten minutes art had nothing to do with money and everything to do with greed.
At my last accounting job, I shared a cubicle with a sharply dressed bookkeeper. “I love money,” she told me.
She often complained about her payroll tax deductions. A senior in college, she already owned two cars, a substantial collection of gold jewelry, an abundance of fine clothes, and a $10,000 diamond. Still, she was consumed by the injustice of it all.
“Look at this!” she’d exclaim, glaring at her paycheck. “I can’t believe the government takes all this money. That’s my money.” She was especially troubled by the amount taken out for Social Security. Her bitterness stemmed from the very real possibility that she would never see any of that money again. Her hands shook with righteousness.
I finally suggested, “Consider how much you have compared to your grandparents. If they were anything like mine, they worked very hard and got little in return. After a lifetime of toil, many of their generation don’t have much to live on.” I continued, “Consider it a gift to a deserving group of citizens.”
“Oh, that’s right, just give it to the old people,” she replied. But she never did seem sure whether I was reproving her, trying to be funny, or just plain crazy.
Herkimer, New York
I am writing at this computer, which my husband bought for me. I have made love to him many times in gratitude.
When we were married, I owed $18,000 in student loans. My husband owned a house and a car, and had no debts. His family had paid for his education and given him the money for the house. He was worth maybe $100,000, and I was worth less than nothing. So he made me promise that if we ever divorced, he got the first $100,000.
I have had two children in the three years we have been married. My ability to make money is less than it would be if I were not bearing children and nursing. I made $30,000 last year — a piddly sum in Los Angeles. My husband made most of the money. I know he gets angry if I spend too much, so I hardly ever buy clothes.
And you think that I am repressed, a woman without a backbone. I have shoulders, I have bones, I have hips that have squeezed out babies. I have hands that write published poems. But these are not worthy. Worth is measured by money.
Someday I’ll sell a screenplay. I’ll make that $100,000, and we’ll be even. With money, you cannot buy happiness — and maybe I could not buy equality — but driving on the freeway, my briefcase beside me, my young, slim body pliant in the seat of my car, I think about money. I think about having it and looking into his handsome face and saying, “What did you say to me? Did you tell me I can’t have that? I tell you I can.”
I used to believe that saving money guaranteed you would have more. Saving it is good — the interest is nice — but giving it away makes room for more. Please don’t ask me exactly how this works, but I’ve been doing it for quite a while, and I keep receiving more than I set free. Money joyfully multiplies like a wild thing released from captivity. What you send out is what you get back — probably because the world is round.
I always pick up coins, including pennies, from the sidewalk and say thank you to God for the gift. I have a friend who thinks that’s silly. She says, “What can you do with a penny?” But God apparently likes my acknowledgment because three times in the last eighteen months I have found crumpled ten-dollar bills.
Apparently the Treasury Department agrees; all United States currency bears the motto, In God We Trust. Me too.
My parents had a large, sweet-smelling cedar chest in their bedroom. They used it for storing items of great sentimental value and domestic practicality. As a child, I’d lie on my parents’ bed as my father pulled out the family strongbox filled with cash and insurance papers, or as he proudly leafed through his coin collection, each coin sealed in one of those see-through envelopes and stored in sheets in a three-ring binder.
Dimes and quarters in Canada used to be made from real silver. My father religiously checked every coin that jingled in his pocket; if it had the right date and possessed the telltale glow of silver, it went into a special container in the cedar chest.
Considering the terror my father seemed to enjoy inspiring in his four sons, I don’t know how I first got the idea, but one morning before school, when my parents had already left for work, I slipped into their bedroom. I opened the chest and raided his silver collection. I made off with two or three bucks of that precious silver — a fortune when you consider that my allowance was twenty-five cents. At lunch time I went to the corner store, stocked up on junk food, and became the most popular kid at school as I handed out licorice, jawbreakers, and candy cigarettes to everyone I knew.
Once, of course, is never enough. I must have pilfered handfuls from that silver collection at least half a dozen times before my father caught on. Once he revealed his suspicions, I dropped my new habit faster than a coal from the fireplace.
I couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven at the time, but I think I knew even then why I was stealing the money. I was finally bucking the system, starting to resist the iron grip of control my father held over me and my brothers. I was also getting revenge. A sweet, immature revenge for all the shouting matches, criticism, sulking, and hard smacks across the backs of our young heads that we didn’t deserve.
The money opened my eyes. I could see my father perhaps for the first time as he really was — just a person, less than all-knowing, and deceivable. Deception became the oil that helped me slide relatively unscathed through adolescence. Now that I’m an adult, I try to avoid it. But it’s still there, and in a difficult situation, it shines like silver.