Being poor and a lifetime legacy

The past few days I have been hanging at a fellow blogger’s site where the issue of Black woman and money came up. Its one of those times where a blog reading really hit a place in me and made me sit back and think, rather than trying to continue that dialogue at the other bloggers spot, I figured I would let that conversation serve as a launching pad here at my house, casa Black Girl.

In many of my postings I have made clear reference to the fact that I grew up as I like to say poor on a bad day, working class on a good day. My little brother can attest to the fact that ours was a house that getting real Oreos and real Frosted Flakes was cause for celebration, in hard times we once had to resort to using newspaper because we had no toilet paper and mustard in tuna because that’s all we had to eat and to this day I hate English muffins because they remind me of food we got once from a food pantry. Yet in the midst of hard times my folks worked to keep me and later my brother motivated to make decisions in our life that would chart a different course for us and considering that they turned out 2 decent adults, they did an ok job. However there were some life skills they didn’t have and therefore didn’t pass on to either of us and both of us still are paying the price for their lack of financial skills.

See, my folks rarely had 2 nickels to rub together, pretty much in 33 years together they lived paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes affording tony areas like Chicago’s Lincoln Park, though when we lived there, we had no furniture and slept on the floor. However living in a good area does make doors open since as a young child I had access to great parks, the zoo and museums and more importantly good schools. Unlike by the time my folks moved to the south-side of Chicago in the late 80’s when gang warfare made the area park a place that you avoided at all costs. An area that lacked a full service grocery store and the library was inadequate, a place with nothing for kids to do since going out and playing wasn’t all that safe.

Anyway living paycheck to paycheck mostly off my Dad’s earnings since my Mama was a stay at home Mom for many years meant, there was just enough money, never extra and sometimes not even enough. We never took a family vacation, closest we ever came was the family reunion on years that my folks could scare up the gas money and staying at a hotel… well I never stayed at a hotel until I was an adult staying on my own dime.  The way my folks lived meant they didn’t use banks, they either cashed checks on the bank the checks were drawn or they used the check cashing joints which in Chicago are known as currency exchanges. I don’t ever recall seeing my parents sit down and write out checks, I only recall one time they had a checking account and it was a short lived affair. No, they got money orders to pay bills at the currency exchange, I recall the times when they didn’t have enough to make ends meet and seeing Mama on the phone with the utility company trying to keep a utility from being shut off.

Watching the way they lived meant in my early adult years I modeled the behavior that was shown to me, for years I didn’t have a bank account. I lived in a cash economy, when the spousal unit and I started dating I remember he was stunned that I didn’t have a checking account. At the time, I was making good money as a sales rep, living in a nice area of Chicago yet I still handled my finances the same way I had seen my parents. It had never even dawned on me to open up a bank account, though it was not long after we started dating that I decided to change course and use a bank rather than a mattress for saving money. On a slightly different note though, if the economy keeps going the way it is, more of us may be going back to that mattress.

In my early adulthood I often chose to buy at places that advertised low monthly payments rather than paying attention to the long term, again it was because it was the behavior modeled to me and it wasn’t until I was exposed to anything else that I realized there were other options.

I share this because over the years especially in my lines of work  when I did direct service human services work, I would encounter folks who didn’t get why po folks made the choices they did, why go to rent a center and be overcharged when  in a few months you could save and own a TV outright? Well as someone who has been in various places economically, I understand all too well the focus on short term fulfillment over waiting. Being poor sucks plain and simple. Life is hard when you are poor and sometimes the need for some sort of frivolity is what keeps you sane even when its not in your best interest. I suspect this is one of the reasons for addiction issues being high in areas of scarcity, folks wanting an escape and often cheap booze, drugs or cigarettes provides that momentary relief. Or some choose to have tv’s and gaming systems to keep them sane.

Yet what about folks who are no longer poor yet still engage in poor folk behavior? Honestly and I say this as a parent, I think the way we are raised impactsus more than most of us would like to say. For me having kids over the years has brought back a lot of the memories of scarcity. One of the worst memories I have is of being 10 and taking ballet lessons which by some miracle we got for free, yet at recital time my folks didn’t have the money for the outfit so Moms rigged something up courtesy of the thrift shop, as you can guess I was laughed at. Its those memories that for many years drove me to overspend in regards to my son’s needs and making sure he would never be the laughingstock. Its those memories that for years drove my desire for designer purses. It was my way of saying I am just as good as so and so.

Thankfully I have dealt with those demons for the most part but they still rear their ugly heads from time to time though just last month, they resurfaced when mini me was interviewed for a swanky Montessori preschool. So I know they still exist its just that I am in a place where I have learned to identify them and work on them.

Frankly I think financial education should be taught in high school, seriously how many folks don’t know how to properly balance a checkbook? I have friends who grew up with abundance who regularly bounce checks because they don’t keep track of things. The difference between them and a poor person is that my friends have access to resources and can transfer money from a savings account, wait till payday or get a loan from the parents. Options that folks on the edge don’t have.  In the ideal world, parents would teach their kids these things and I know I do, along with other fundamentals like cooking and taking care of oneself. I didn’t learn domestic skills at home since my folks wanted me to aspire to higher places yet when I found myself at 18 and married, it was a hard lesson to learn. I also suspect that if more folks actually knew how to cook from scratch at an elementary level we would all be better off health-wise. 

Poverty does not stop just because one stops residing there physically, the lessons that are often modeled for a child growing up poor still live within you even when you become a college educated professional. By the same token my observations of folks who grew up with privilege regardless of race, even if they hit hard times the lessons that were modeled to them still reside in them. Our upbringing impacts us more than we realize which is why for those of us raising kids, we must be mindful of the lessons we model for our kids.

Food and Class.. what you eat says a lot about you.

This weekend was one of those lazy do nothing sorts of weekends, since with the arrival of the little one three years ago, I rarely make plans for the weekends since kids have a habit of cramping your style. However it turned into a full weekend, which started with the little one and I hitting up a yard sale being put on by one of our neighbors.

I should start off by saying these particular neighbors are one of the two on the block that I don’t speak to other than to wave or just a passing hello if they are walking down the street. Yet they always struck me as solidly working class, I estimate them to be early 50’s maybe late 40’s. I often see the husband coming home from work in the morning with his lunch pail in hand when he gets out the car and walks to get his newspaper from the box. The wife appears to babysit the grand kids since every day I see their daughter dropping her kids off on route to work in a scrub suit, she looks to be early 20’s and the suit reminds me of the medical assisting students I would see at my former place of employment.

For the past month, I have noticed a vehicle with out of state plates and what appears to be another daughter with a couple of preschool aged kids… from my perch on the porch when I am out drinking coffee, the family reminds me of Dan and Roseanne Connor from the old 1990’s tv show, Roseanne. Hardscrable white folks, salt of the earth people.. not pretentious in any way.

So now that I have set the scene, back to the story of the yard sale. Mini-me and I roll up and they have tons of kids stuff they are selling off, which as a bargain hunter, I love that sort of thing so while the wee one and I are sorting through the goodies. The one adult daughter yells out to her kids “Go tell Auntie to make y’all some kool-aid”. I must admit, my jaw did a slight drop, see most of the folks I know these days would never in a million years give their kids, small ones no less kool-aid. In fact I felt bad recently when I told a friend that I bought a box of Lucky Charms for myself and my daughter ended up eating the box.

No, sugar sweetned cereal, kool-aid and other processed delights that I craved as a child are generally forbidden outside of the lower classes. See, food says a lot about where you came from. Fact is for years I used to eat fried bologna sandwiches with Miracle Whip but when I stopped buying white bread and started getting multi-grain bread years ago, the allure of fried bologna sandwiches went out the window. Even the spousal unit who also grew up working class has his own delights from childhood, spam and fried egg sandwiches, apparently when times was tight his Mom made these a lot.

My best friend and I joke about how we may be some of the last college educated Black folks that like swine, admittedly though most meat does not agree with me, but I love a fried pork chop sandwich, best served on white bread with hot sauce. ( I tried to give up the swine earlier this year but it started calling my name) Growing up we ate all manner of pork, though I personally drew the line at pig feet/pig ears/ pig tails and chitlins other than that I ate pork. (though chitlins was a delicacy in our family, my Mom used to cook 30 lbs of those of those wretched smelling things on Christmas and Thanksgiving)

 However as I started moving up the class ladder in the past decade, I have grown to realize that most of the brothas and sistas I meet especially if we are not from the same class, don’t share fond memories of neckbones and pinto beans. Whereas I would give a lot right now to have some fried catfish (they don’t sell this in Maine at least not fresh) and spaghetti right now, most of my sista-friends here in Maine, don’t know nothing about that.

In graduate school several years ago, I went to a Japanese restaurant for the first time with some colleagues from my department, mind you I was the only Black person in my department. Well everyone was getting hot and bothered over sushi, well at that time the kid could not wrap her brain around the idea of sushi (shit, where I come from we fry the shit) so I ordered tempura. How come everyone looked at my Black ass like I was an idiot, well I have since learned to eat sushi since after year one in grad school and learning that my adviser loved sushi, I figured networking might get better if I learned to learn the ways of the natives a bit, so I have made myself like sushi.

Yet truthfully when I hit an emotional low, I crave comfort food, and that’s when the working class side of me comes out, recently that was round steak and rice smothered in gravy with biscuits and fuck the veggies. I admit I have come along way since I would say 95% of the time I strive to eat healthy but all this to say that for most of us class even when we move up the ladder in many cases, what we eat reveals a lot about where we come from.

Now let me go get my pitcher ready for my once a year grape kool-aid and Little Debbie’s swiss rolls.