Take a poor kid shopping for perspective

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 12:43 PM


I have mentioned that my father is not poor, by any stretch of the term ($80-$102,000). He did not, however, want to train us to be dependent (because children aren't dependent), so he severely limited the funds available to clothe and feed us, and essentially rented out our labor. I ended up doing construction and landscaping in the summers: roofing houses at thirteen, also mowing, raking, trimming and hauling off the detritus for a dollar per person (to me), sometimes more. The clothing budget he gave my mother per child was about $120 for a year of clothes. Everything else we earned through work, and we were not to spend the weekend resting. Saturday, in particular, was spent doing 8-10 hours of cleaning, yard work and construction projects, to wrap around to Sunday after church unless I could prove I had to do so much homework that I couldn't be used that way.

As an aside, my sports coaches in high school wondered why I could play varsity basketball, assistant coach Pee-Wee football, take karate, play varsity volleyball and play varsity softball my freshman year. It was to avoid doing more work and get out of the house. My parents were not thrilled by buying the uniforms, but sports were an activity it is prestigious for kids to do.

I stole my father's clothes. Even in the late eighties and early nineties, $120 is not a lot of money for clothing. My mother compensated as best she could, spending more than he wanted her to, but he didn't want to waste his money on us often and objected strenuously and sometimes physically to anything over that budget.

Last week, I had the pleasure of talking to another poor kid, in the Sociology department with me. His story is different than mine, but left the same sort of mentality in its wake. A theme kept coming up in our conversation: inner narratives when we go shopping.

"Do you ever," I said, "do that thing where you're standing in an aisle staring at something which you just can't justify buying for yourself?"

"Oh yeah," he said. "Things like TV dinners, or, like, steaks and stuff. Man, I really want it, but I just can't justify getting it. I usually just get a can of soup or something."

For reference, this is a large man. A can of soup would not go far in feeding him.

"Heh, I usually buy a bag of potatoes because you can do more with it." I smiled ruefully at him. "Ever feel like you have to justify that shit to other people?"

"I don't talk about it," he said. "People don't understand that kind of thing."

Sometimes, when I talk about it, the person I'm talking to assumes I just want to be parsimonious or that there's something wrong with me and I express it by hating myself so much I won't buy nice things for myself.

We talked on, about what it's like to be horrified by the price tag on clothing and food because we have so little and must do so much with it. It's horrifying and shameful; money is so strongly associated with being a good person that not being able to afford anything, including food, becomes something you cannot admit to without being judged. Both of us have already been judged; his family has a single mother as head. I left home and have been a parent since I was eighteen.

You really don't ever forget that difference, or that you're in a professional setting essentially on the forbearance of the people who 'belong' there. We have to keep up with the department baseline for dress, and it's well above our means, he and I. He owns two pairs of jeans, from thrift stores, and is happy that he can still wear them a year later. I had to go buy professional clothes and frankly, the cost of them is still horrifying, not that they were particularly expensive.

Around us, people went about department business. They don't know, and I probably won't tell them, about the way poor kids size up everything. I look at the cost of the things around me, wondering how to look like that but not have to spend that much.

He said, "I'm not sure if I should be here."

I looked at him and smiled. "Hey, man, don't leave me alone with these people."

He blinked. "I don't know. The cost of all these loans are frightening."

"I know. But what are you going to do without that PhD?"

"Go home," he said. "To (small town near US/Mexico border). Try to get a job working with this policy group on immigration. Help my mother take care of my brothers."

"Do what you need to, but you aren't alone." I stood up to leave, because it was just going to get messier from there. He let me give him a hug. I hope he doesn't leave. It's nice to have another poor kid in the department to talk to.

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