As I write this, I stare at less than $200 in my checking account. I do not announce this as some sort of Kickstarter-ploy-for-pity, rather as a reminder to myself of what it is to have or have not.
Growing up in suburban New Jersey, there were never empty shelves. Before each school year began, my mom would take my sister and I to Kmart or its equivalent and get us folders and notebooks. If shoes started breaking, we’d get a new pair. Holes in the knees of jeans? We’d head to the local mall for their replacement. We had.
As I got older, I fell in love with other people’s things. I spent my weekends, going to garage sales. My dad and I would hoard our treasures, hiding them from my mom who disapproved of the dusty discards. My body would be wrapped inside various shades of polyester, purchased from the local flea market, sometimes for less than $1. I loved wearing other people’s stories against my skin.
I never thought much about money. As a kid, we always had it.
Once I was old enough, I worked, so I had loose change to purchase non-necessities like cassette tapes, books and (later on) drugs. When I started working, I began saving for larger objects like a CD/record player, TV and then upon moving out after high school, rent.
There were years I fed my nose before I fed my mouth. But I always had. Even as a drug addict, I paid my bills on time. Rent. Credit card. Utilities. All of it. Sometimes there were even some months where I actually had some money left after paying these bills.
My eyes don’t get excited over expensive objects because as an adult, I always knew I could never afford them. I own no jewelry, nor do I care about the designer’s brands. My labels are usually faded by the time I purchase them, so I barely even know what size I am these days.
As I write this, with less than $200 in my checking account, I recognize how far $1 can go these days. (Should I build some suspense? Close your eyes. Hold your breath.) Not. Far.
$1 cannot afford my trip on the subway to work. In the 1940’s, a dollar could buy four movie tickets. Now, it doesn’t even cover the cost of a bottle of water from concession.
This is not to say that with less than $200 in my checking account, I do not have.
With less than $200 in my checking account, I wake in a bed every morning in a bedroom I call mine with heat that comes on fairly regularly at no extra cost. This bedroom is inside an apartment that also houses two other wonderful humans who fill it with art, music and laughter. This apartment includes a kitchen with a cupboard full of ingredients. Each morning, I toast rye bread in borrowed toaster and slide peanut butter against its yeast with less than $200 in my checking account. I have the ability to boil water (also free) and drink coffee from beloved French press every morning. In this apartment, there is furniture to sit on. In this apartment, though there are occasional cockroaches (the uninvited pests of living in the city); luckily, there has been no infiltration of mice. With less than $200 in my checking account, I can take a bath any time I want and the water never forgets to flow.
Ten years ago, I was eating nineteen-cent packages of freeze-dried ramen with enough salt in their flavoring packet to cover my allotted sodium intake for close to a week. This was all I could afford. Now, I purchase ramen (price more than doubled) not because I have to but because I want to.
What does it really mean to have? Is it always attached to money, or is there something else to it.
As I write this, I think about the weight of love and how when I have it, I feel like it replaces every haunting presidential face attached to currency that could ever climb into my wallet. I feel like the most affluent human just for having my metaphorical heart wrapped up in a metaphorical heated 1,000-thread count blanket.
I think about the weight of words and how when I have them, I feel like I can purchase meals with my poems. I feel like I could pay my rent with my words. I feel like I could purchase a plane ticket for around the world with a well-crafted independent clause.
With less than $200 in my checking account, I have enough books to build a well-enclosed fort to protect me from the ones I hide from.
I have things. I am reminded of this with each move from new state or street. In my head, I am a well-intentioned minimalist. In real life, I am a massive collector of the discarded.
With less than $200 in my checking account, I have enough clothes to last me through two weeks without having to visit the Laundromat (or at least enough underwear). I have boots to protect me from rain or snow and sneakers to slide my feet into for the warmer/dryer months.
I go to work at a community college, teaching students about writing, reading and creative ways to think with less than $200 in my checking account.
With less than $200 in my checking account, I swipe metro card with enough money stored on it to get me to aforementioned workplace and back home with possible stops in between. I notice that as I travel with other strangers underground, this is the one place where all economic classes blur together. It does not matter if you have $20 in your wallet or no wallet at all. There is no exclusive seating on the subway. A hedge fund or 401K account will not guarantee you a seat during rush hour. Everyone is the same.
What is it to have with less than $200 in my checking account? How can one claim to be rich when by society’s standards, they are poor? Is mood measured by bank balance? Would I be happier if I could afford everything on my Amazon wishlist?
As I write this, with less than $200 in my checking account, I feel no less sad as the days of the week where my balance is far more corpulent. My disposition has nothing to do with my wallet. In fact, as I settle into this low-income identity, I recognize that what I desire the most are things unattached to price tags: words, love, peace of mind, poetry.