Edited by Michelle Tea
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Indie icon Michelle Tea — whose memoir The Chelsea Whistle details her own working-class roots in gritty Chelsea, Massachusetts — shares these fierce, honest, tender essays written by women who can’t go home to the suburbs when ends don’t meet. When jobs are scarce and the money has dwindled, these writers have nowhere to go but below the poverty line. The writers offer their different stories not for sympathy or sadness, but an unvarnished portrait of how it was, is, and will be for generations of women growing up working class in America. These wide-ranging essays cover everything from selling blood for grocery money to the culture shock of “jumping” class. Contributors include Dorothy Allison, Bee Lavender, Eileen Myles, and Daisy HernÃ¡ez.
I DIDN’T GROW UP POOR, IMPOVERISHED, DEPRIVED. WE GOT BY. WE HAD enough. And it’s true—I had MTV and Catholic school. No college, though, but who went to college? Kennedys! My mom had money for Depeche Mode tickets when I begged her for them. Other times, no money for a candy bar. Don’t you think that if I had it I would give it to you? Really, no money for a candy bar? Really.
We weren’t broke, though. We were like everyone else in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and certainly better than many, the immigrant families crammed ten to an apartment, on welfare, or the families with a really bad alcoholic drinking all the money away. Our alcoholic dad split, no child support but that’s O.K., my mom doesn’t want to take nothing from nobody, no handouts, no charity. See? If we were really poor we’d need more. We’d be on food stamps, and we were only on them that one time when Ma had a hysterectomy and couldn’t work. Ma had to take off her jewelry, the thin, gold chain she wore, laden with little golden charms, a Tweety bird, Nefertiti, #1 Mom. If the case worker saw the gold they might think she was rich. A single mother, a nurse, raising two children in a slummy town, a deadbeat father run out the door, she doesn’t think we’re poor, fears we could actually be mistaken for rich by the workers who grant us our food stamps. Such is the head fuck of class in America.
This book, Without a Net, is important because it actually acknowledges that class exists in America. It investigates the particular intersection of class and gender, and calls into the story additional intersectionalities that complicate and illuminate. In a country where a racist white electorate voted in a fascist billionaire as an answer to their economic woes, a book like this is a lightning bolt of sanity. In a country where everyone, rich and poor, claims to be middle class, denying the reality of class stratification even as it intensifies and the government wages a very clear class war, attacking the voting right, health care, and educational opportunities, this book is radical. It was a necessary book, truth-telling and fearless, when it was first published, and the addition of new voices in this fresh edition makes it even more relevant. The class problem, the problem of poverty and the strange way it is regarded in this country, is not going away, and we need writers from low-income backgrounds breaking through the actual middle-class, often rich viewpoints and experiences that dominate the media. We need to hear about the poor kid who grows up to pass as privileged among her peers. The poor kid who grows up, jumps a class or two, and sags with survivor’s guilt every day. The anxious persistence of scarcity issues, the PTSD of a low-income childhood. The intersections of fat and poor, of brown or black and poor, of immigrant and poor. Radical, truth-telling magic. It might not be enough to rouse the country from its stupor of denial, ignorance, and hate, but at the very least it can be a lifeline thrown from one broke girl to another, and what a revelation it is to see your experience radiated back at you in a culture that denies you even exist.
The class problem, the problem of poverty and the strange way it is regarded in this country, is not going away.
I’m so grateful for the readers and teachers who have kept this book in print all these years. I’m grateful to share political community with the writers in this book, to be part of a sisterhood of broke girls. No matter if we grow up and manage to do alright for ourselves, the way history haunts our psyches, the way family can be left behind, it weighs on our hearts.
May this book make its way to a new generation of readers who need it, who learn from it and take solace in it, who use it to counter the lies our culture tells us and inspire their own stories.
ANOTHER YEAR OLDER AND DEEPER IN DEBT
RACHEL ANN BRICKNER
SAY I TELL YOU A STORY ABOUT A GIRL WHO’S AFRAID OF MONEY. FROM A young age, she learned that there didn’t seem to be much of it and that hard work didn’t mean one would ever have much of it. She knew this from her dad’s dark tan in the summer that came from working twelve-hour days in the sun, laying mulch and planting flowers in the big, bright lawns of those with houses the size of her entire apartment complex. She knew this from her mom waking up early to go to an office job, and then going to work at an Italian restaurant rather than coming home, so that “after work” only meant the time it took her to get from the first job to the second one.
Say she asks for a pretend checkbook for her eighth birthday and makes her mom teach her how to balance it. She loves to practice her signature, the feeling of the thin paper on the side of her pinky as she writes. She loves to imagine buying things of her own someday—a bicycle, an old VW Bug, a small blue house—someday when she has more money than her parents.
By the time she’s a teenager, she hasn’t learned much more than this: Never let the balance go below zero. She spends the money from her baby-sitting jobs on thrift-store clothes, fast food, CDs. Later, she spends it on gas for her dad’s truck when she borrows it to get to and from her after-school job. She works at a pizza shop now, with almost all older boys and men twice her age.
SAY THIS GIRL STARTS OUT MAKING ONLY $5.25 AN HOUR, AND by the time she applies to college, her dad has left. She has only a couple hundred dollars to her name and relies on the men at work who like her to give her rides home. For a few dollars here and there, she burns CDs full of music for these men—metal and old rock, the kind of stuff that bores her—which she steals from the internet.
One of these men takes an interest in her. He’s broad-shouldered with bright red hair and a kind smile. He’s the one who will drive her home most often, late at night, when her mom has already gone to bed. Sometimes this girl goes on pizza deliveries with this man in his truck and they talk, joke, laugh. She feels seen by him more than by anyone else, and she thinks he might feel the same way. Sometimes, in the dark, in front of her parents’ house, he looks at her for too long, then asks if he can give her a hug before she leaves him. She hesitates, then says yes. When he holds her, she feels comforted but also scared. She can feel he’s getting something from this moment that she can’t quite understand, and she’s never completely sure if she’s safe.
Eventually she pulls away from him, goes inside, takes a shower, and sleeps for less than a handful of hours before going to school.
She tells herself, Everything is fine. She tells herself, I am safe.
SAY SHE FINISHES HIGH SCHOOL WITH HONORS. SHE GETS TO wear a blue sash and silver cords around her neck at graduation, but her gown is wrinkled. She didn’t realize she would have to iron it until it was too late and there was no one around to remind her. But on graduation day, both of her parents will come to the ceremony and watch their daughter receive her diploma, walking across the stage in bright teal flats, a huge smile across her face. After, they’ll all go out to lunch, eating cheesecake silently in celebration, pretending to be the kind of family she wishes they could always be.
There will be no one to take her on visits to the colleges where her high school advisers told her to apply. So, she’ll pick the school that’s closest to home, only thirty minutes away. It’s in the city, so she can get there on her own without a car. Besides, with small scholarships and grants, it’s the cheapest option. The dorms, the campus, the classrooms are her escape plan.
Say some days this girl feels nothing but a bell jar of guilt around her head as she walks across the campus, although she’s uncertain why. She thinks that maybe she doesn’t belong here, in college, in these classes, with so many kids who seem unlike her with money to spend—on books, on beer, on tuition.
In every classroom, she sits close to the wall and stays quiet. She looks up all the words she doesn’t know, when no one is paying attention: ostensible, extrapolate, pernicious, renege. How does one “unpack” a thought? she wonders. No one else seems to care.
When she realizes how much debt she’s in, she stares at her ledger for days in disbelief. How could a sum go so far below zero?
Later, when she realizes how much debt she’s in, she stares at her ledger for days in disbelief, wondering if she should drop out. How could a sum go so far below zero? So much debt in only two years, she can never pay it back with pizza shop money or old man CD money. She tells herself that there must be a job that will pay enough for her to live when she graduates in two more years. This is what everyone has told her, so she stays, her mom co-signing more loans each semester tuition rises, not knowing that later her daughter will have months where she’s unable to afford groceries and rent, even with a “good” job, one that requires a college degree.
She thinks of the cold pizza dough in her hands. Of the long, secret hugs in that man’s truck. And she learns to pretend to know and to have more than she does.
Tell me what you expect for her. Tell me how you think her story ends.
THE BURDEN OF ENOUGH
THERE IS $10,000 IN MY BANK ACCOUNT RIGHT NOW. TO SOME PEOPLE, that is not very much money. To me, it’s an amount just large enough to give me heartburn. I check my balance every few days, with as much anxiety as I used to check when the balance was $20… or -$20. I take a deep breath, log on, close my eyes for a second, and then look. Yep. It’s still there.
The number was larger for a brief period of time. The day that the second half of my book advance came in, I was checking my account to see if I had enough money to cover the coffee I was drinking. I saw the suddenly sizeable balance and thought I was going to have a panic attack in the coffee shop. I thought there had been a cruel joke. Perhaps someone had put money into my account on accident and it was going to be ripped out only to leave me overdrawn. I was a good three minutes into worst case scenarios before it occurred to me that it might be the money for the manuscript I’d just turned in. When my agent confirmed that yes, this little tidy sum was indeed my book money, I sat there in the coffee shop and said to myself, “Well, now what.”
Growing up, there was never a question of what to do with extra money, because there was never any extra money. My mom worked the swing shift at an adult care facility. Backbreaking work that paid little above minimum wage. On that, she raised three kids. Money, or lack thereof, kept my mom up nights. It kept her sitting in the rocking chair on our apartment balcony crying at 3 a.m. while she tried writing numbers in different orders in the hopes that there would be a combination that would keep us fed and the lights on. Money was the reason why we couldn’t go to birthday parties and couldn’t go on field trips. Money was why we had no phone, why we ate ramen for weeks, why we had to use the hot water next door to shower. Money was why we only went to the ER, why we never went to the dentist, why we took out our own stitches. Money was what we searched couch cushions for, why we never opened our mail.
Money was never a future or a past. Money was never an opportunity. Money was always an emergency. So now, I have an amount of money that must signal a great emergency ahead and I’m just waiting for it to come.
In a fit of anxiety over the number, waiting there to be taken by disaster, I started giving it away. First to family, then friends. Then, when that was done and the number still scared me, I started giving money to strangers. I gave it away with a refusal to look at what I was doing, avoiding the math in my head. Eventually, even without looking at my balance, I knew I’d given more away than even someone trying to avoid money could excuse, so I had to stop. I paid bills and fixed my car and then I ran out of places to put the money. So now the money is just sitting there. Waiting.
The first half of the advance was much easier. I was behind on my mortgage and knew that even if I weren’t behind, I wasn’t bringing in enough writing work to actually cover my bills. It was a stress, but a stress I’ve always known. When my advance came in I immediately sunk it into the mountain of debts I’d accumulated in the year since I’d moved to full-time freelance writing. I paid four months ahead on my mortgage, knowing that things would still be tight, but I’d be able to breathe for a while.
But now things are different. Right now there is no emergency to come and lift this burden off of me. My income from writing and speaking has been growing steadily and has consistently been enough to cover my bills (late, because I am still afraid of bills, but still paid). My mortgage is current. I even paid taxes. I know that I’m supposed to put this money into savings or something, right? But how? How can you just leave money there? If I leave it there, something will happen to take it all away. If I leave it there I will lose my job, or my car will break down or my kids will get sick. I know how to handle all of those things without money—I have handled all of those things without money many times. But I don’t know how to lose money. I’ve never had money to lose before.
It turns out that even when the bills are paid and it’s been years since a call I answered was met with a voice saying “this is an attempt to collect a debt,” the panic attack still comes whenever the screen on my phone says “unknown.”
“Spend it! Spend it now on whatever you want because you will never get an opportunity to buy whatever you want ever again.” That was the voice inside my head for a few weeks. But it turns out that even if you do buy whatever you want, when you’ve never had money, the list of “whatever” doesn’t come to much. I bought some dresses and some makeup, and I got my kids some toys and sports stuff, and then I kind of ran out of ideas. In my lifetime of poverty I never really dreamed of things. I just dreamed of being able to answer a call from an unlisted number without having a panic attack. But it turns out that even when the bills are paid and it’s been years since a call I answered was met with a voice saying “this is an attempt to collect a debt,” the panic attack still comes whenever the screen on my phone says “unknown.”
I am an intelligent, hardworking woman. I worked my ass off to put myself through college and build up my writing career. But I look at this bank balance, this $10,000 that would seem like nothing to so many, and I feel dumb. I feel like a giant child. I feel like a caricature of overblown irresponsibility on a daytime talk show. I don’t know what to do. One of my first jobs ever was as a teller at a bank and I used to see these kids younger than my eighteen-year-old self come in and put $10,000 checks into their money-market accounts like it was no big deal, and now I’m thirty-six and I have this money and the thought of putting it in savings, or investing it, or putting it in a college fund for my kids—it breaks me out in hives. I know that there are important, grown-up things I could be putting this money to right now to help secure my family’s future, but I don’t know how to start. I feel broken and foolish, and still, the money just sits there.
I know that this is an opportunity to learn. To learn how to put money aside and watch it grow. To begin to get used to a feeling of financial safety. But I’m not ready yet. I cannot set down this burden of financial struggle because if I get used to moving without it, I won’t be strong enough to carry it when it comes back, and it has never not come back. The burden of financial responsibility will just have to wait until I’m absolutely convinced that it’s here to stay. I’m sure that doesn’t make sense. I’m sure that someone who was raised to “set a little aside” each month is shaking their head at me in disgust. But when I was growing up, every time someone told my family to “set a little aside” each month it was an insult.
There are worse problems to have than trying to figure out how to not feel desperately poor when your bank account challenges the only reality you’ve ever known. My children are free from the bulk of that burden. Even in the tough times these last few years, they weren’t the type of tough that had my kids showering next door or eating in soup kitchens. They go to birthday parties and go on field trips, and when they grow up they will probably not flinch at a call from an unlisted number and will open their mail the day it arrives. I worry that I haven’t taught my children how to save money—I don’t know how. But I figure that at least not being terrified of money is a head start that I never had.
I will figure out how to be responsible with this money somehow. Or I won’t. No matter what, I’ll be O.K., because I’ve always had to find a way to be O.K. But right now, I don’t have to try to find a way to be O.K., because things just are O.K. I just have to try to find a way to appreciate that while it lasts.
MY HANDS SHAKE WHEN I AM HUNGRY, AND I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN HUNGRY. Not for food—I have always had enough biscuit fat to last me. In college I got breakfast, lunch, and dinner with my dormitory fees, but my restless hunger didn’t abate. It was having only four dollars till the end of the month and not enough coming in then. I sat at a lunch table with the girls who planned to go to the movies for the afternoon, and counting three dollars in worn bills the rest in coins over and over in my pocket. I couldn’t go see any movies.
I went, instead, downtown to steal. I became what had always been expected of me—a thief. Dangerous, but careful. Wanting everything, I tamed my anger, smiling wide and innocently. With the help of that smile I stole toilet paper from the Burger King rest room, magazines from the lower shelves at 7-Eleven, and sardines from the deli—sliding those little cans down my jeans to where I had drawn the cuffs tight with rubber bands. I lined my pockets with plastic bags for a trip to the local Winn Dixie, where I could collect smoked oysters from the gourmet section and fresh grapes from the open bins of produce. From the hobby shop in the same shopping center I pocketed metal snaps to replace the rubber bands on my pantleg cuffs and metal guitar picks I could use to pry loose and switch price tags on items too big to carry away. Anything small enough to fit a palm walked out with me, anything round enough to fit an armpit, anything thin enough to carry between my belly and belt. The smallest, sharpest, most expensive items rested behind my teeth, behind that smile that remained my ultimate shield.
On the day that I was turned away from registration because my scholarship check was late, I dressed myself in my Sunday best and went downtown to the Hilton Hotel. There was a Methodist Outreach Convention with meetings in all the ballrooms, and a hospitality suite. I walked from room to room filling a JCPenney shopping bag with cut-glass ashtrays showing the Hilton logo and faceted wineglasses marked only with the dregs of grape juice. I dragged the bag out to St. Pete beach and sailed those ashtrays off the pier like frisbees. Then I waited for sunset to toss the wineglasses high enough to see the red and purple reflections as they flipped end over end. Each piece shattered ecstatically on the tar-black rocks under the pier, throwing up glass fragments into the spray. Sight and sound, it was better than a movie.
THE PRESIDENT OF THE COLLEGE INVITED ALL OF THE SCHOLARSHIP students over for tea or wine. He served cheese that had to be cut from a great block with delicate little knives. I sipped wine, toothed cheese, talked politely, and used my smile. The president’s wife nodded at me and put her pink fleshy hand on my shoulder. I put my own hand on hers and gave one short squeeze. She started but didn’t back away, and I found myself giggling at her attempts to tell us all a funny story. She flushed and told us how happy she was to have us in her home. I smiled and told her how happy I was to have come, my jacket draped loosely over the wineglasses I had hooked in my belt. Walking back to the dorm, I slipped one hand into my pocket, carefully fingering two delicate little knives.
Junior year my scholarship was cut yet again, and I became nervous that working in the mailroom wouldn’t pay for all I needed. St. Vincent de Paul offered me a ransom, paying a dime apiece for plates and trays carted off from the cafeteria. Glasses were only good for three cents and hard to carry down on the bus without breaking, but sheets from the alumni guest-room provided the necessary padding. My roommate complained that I made her nervous, always carrying boxes in and out. She moved out shortly after Christmas, and I chewed my nails trying to figure out how to carry her mattress down to St. Vincent de Paul. I finally decided it was hopeless, and spent the rest of the holidays reading Jean Genet and walking through the art department hallways.
They had hardwood stools in the studios, and stacking file boxes no one had opened in years. I wore a cloth cap when I took them, and my no-nonsense expression. I was so calm that one of the professors helped me clear paper off the third one. He was distracted, discussing Jackson Pollock with a very pale woman whose hands were marked with tusche. “Glad they finally decided to get these out of here,” was all he said to me, never once looking up into my face. My anger came up from my stomach with an acid taste. I went back for his clipboard and papers, but his desk was locked and my file broke on the rim. In compensation I took the silk lining out of the pockets of the corduroy coat he’d left thrown over a stool. The silk made a lemongrass sachet I gave my mother for her birthday, and every time I saw him in that jacket I smiled.
MY SOCIOLOGY PROFESSOR HAD RED HAIR, FORTY SHELVES OF books, four children, and an entirely cordial relationship with her ex-husband. When she invited me to dinner, I did not understand what she wanted with me. I watched her closely and kept my hands in my pockets. She talked about her divorce and the politics in the department, how she had worked for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and demonstrated for civil rights in Little Rock in ’65. There were lots of books she could lend me, she insisted, but didn’t say exactly which ones. She poured me Harveys Bristol Cream, trailing her fingers across my wrist when I took the glass. Then she shook her head nervously and tried to persuade me to talk about myself, interrupting only to get me to switch topics as she moved restlessly from her rocking chair to her bolster to the couch beside me. She did not want to hear about my summers working in the mop factory, but she loved my lies about hitchhiking cross-country.
“Meet me for lunch on Monday,” she insisted, while her eyes behind her glasses kept glancing at me, turning away and turning back. My palms were sweaty, but I nodded yes. At the door she stopped me, and put her hand out to touch my face.
“Your family is very poor, aren’t they?”
My face froze and burned at the same time. “Not really,” I told her, “not anymore.” She nodded and smiled, and the heat in my face went down my body in waves.
I didn’t want to go on Monday but made myself. Her secretary was confused when I asked about lunch. “I don’t have anything written down about it,” she said, without looking up at her calendar.
AFTER CLASS THAT AFTERNOON THE SOCIOLOGY PROFESSOR EXPLAINED her absence with a story about one of her children who had been bitten by a dog, but not seriously. “Come on Thursday,” she insisted, but on Thursday neither she nor her secretary were there. I stood in the doorway to her office and tilted my head back to take in her shelves of books. I wanted to pocket them all, but at the same time I didn’t want anything of hers. Trembling, I reached and pulled out the fattest book on the closest shelf. It was a hardbound edition of Sadism at the Movies, with a third of the pages underlined in red. It fit easily in my backpack, and I stopped in the Student Union bookstore on the way back to the dorm to buy a Hershey bar and steal a bright blue pen.
On the next Monday, she apologized again, and again invited me to go to lunch the next day. I skipped lunch but slipped in that afternoon to return her book, now full of my bright blue comments. In its spot on the shelf there was now a collection of the essays of Georges Bataille, still unmarked. By the time I returned it on Friday, heavy blue ink stains showed on the binding itself.
Eventually we did have lunch. She talked to me about how hard it was to be a woman alone in a college town, about how all the male professors treated her like a fool, and yet how hard she worked. I nodded.
“You read so much,” I whispered.
“I keep up,” she agreed with me.
“So do I,” I smiled.
She looked nervous and changed the subject but let me walk her back to her office. On her desk, there was a new edition of Malinowski’s The Sexual Life of Savages. I laid my notebook down on top of it, and took them both when I left. Malinowski was a fast read. I had that one back a day later. She was going through her date book looking for a free evening we could have dinner. But exams were coming up so soon. I smiled and nodded and backed out the door. The secretary, used to seeing me come and go, didn’t even look up.
I TOOK NO OTHER MEALS WITH PROFESSORS, DIDN’T TRUST MYSELF
- "Encouraging and enlightening"—Philadelphia Tribune
- On Sale
- Feb 27, 2018
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Seal Press