People are quick to tell me that I’m successful because I have a lot of jobs and a couple of college degrees. And they can’t help that they define success narrowly, and I can’t help that our ideas about success are so different, or that I spend a lot of time thinking about the life I was supposed to live, or that the persistent awareness of that parallel timeline makes me feel like an imposter in this one.
The women in my family die of things like hypertension and cancer and living too many years with men who abuse them and not going to the doctor because who can afford it? If they make it to old age, their bones still wear the crooked, crunched poses of the work they did their whole lives. People write articles about poverty being more stressful for crack babies than any exposure to the drug, and I believe them.
My mom was on welfare when I was born, and since the welfare program comes preloaded with cultural fallacies and widespread assumptions, you wouldn’t have been surprised if I had been a criminal or a thug. It wouldn’t have shocked if I told you I had a few kids, or a devastating drug problem, or a general inability to take care of myself, because that’s Level 1 of the program we all buy into as citizens of country that perpetuates the idea of meritocracy. So it doesn’t matter that my mom was underpaid and undervalued by her employers so much that her paycheck each week barely covered her bus fare, let alone food for two kids. No one cared that she left my brother and I alone so she could work a second job at night. It was normal for me to have to come up with a plan of action for the nights I got scared after I got in trouble for going to the neighbor’s apartment that one time. She was cool, my mom said, but someone else might have called the cops on me. So if I woke up, and if I was scared, I sat in the middle of my bed with my eyes closed and my legs pulled to my chest under my nightgown and tried to remember each page of the library book I took out that week. Sometimes it worked and I fell asleep. Sometimes I tried to wake up my brother, who never got scared and made fun of me when I did, so I didn’t use that option too much. Other times I tiptoed to the kitchen, turned on the radio, folded my arms under my head at the kitchen table, and listened to a monotone voice give me news I didn’t understand just so I felt like I had some company until I fell asleep. But that’s not the welfare narrative you want to hear. We’d rather focus on the non-existent but extravagant welfare woman who has children for money, who lives off of the government! And uses your hard-earned money to buy fur coats. No one is interested in overworked mothers and exhausted children.
I’ve always known work. I commanded a hefty allowance when I was 10-years old—10 dollars a week for vacuuming once or twice and washing dishes every weeknight. I was babysitting every weekend by the time I was 12—I was tall enough to look responsible, and no one ever asked how old I was anyway. My grandmother didn’t hesitate to sign off on my working papers when I was 14, since I was “old enough to make my own money” and excited for the chance to do it. I worked afterschool, at toy stores and restaurants. I had mean bosses, and nice ones, and I was equally scared of them. I pushed food carts around a convent for retired nuns and priests. I kept babysitting. I left school at 2:45pm everyday, took the bus home, changed into my uniform, and walked to work, sometimes going the long way past Memorial Park to hear other kids warming up for baseball games I would no longer have time to play or see who was making out under the bleachers this week. I ate dinner on the job—sitting on boxes of rigid Playmobil figurines in a storage closet next to the toilet eating a peanut butter sandwich I had just that morning cut into triangles, or on a folding metal chair eating broccoli and turkey off of a hot plate I would have to run through the steamy dishwasher later, after the sisters finished eating, looking out the window to the garage the maintenance guys used to hang and drain blood from the deer they shot all winter.
I worked until 9pm, when The Law said I had to go home. When I got home, I wrote my social studies paper for Mr. Amdurer, or tried to figure out some boring bit of earth science Mr. Sattler needed me to know for a test. I never went to bed before 2am. I always struggled to wake up at 6am. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, I woke up at 5am, put on the only pair of jeans I had without holes in them and a polo shirt with a local restaurant logo over the part of the chest where you pledge allegiance to the flag. I paid for that shirt, and two more shirts just like it, and the cost was deducted from my first paycheck. Then I measured pine nuts by the pound for wealthy, excited New Yorkers who thought Warwick was cute and quaint instead of racist and classist, and balanced all of my weight on the edge of a long, double-handled knife to cut Gruyere cheese for them to chew on the ride home. I couldn’t afford to eat the food I served.
I opened a bank account and my grandmother signed off on that, too, telling me, “This is how you get by—hard work no matter what.” The woman at the bank told me which column I should use to add my paychecks, which one to subtract the money I took out “for movies and candy, you know, stuff you teenagers like.” I must have looked at her like she was sprouting wings from her forehead. That money already had a place to go, didn’t she know that? It had to pay for gas and insurance and maintenance on the rusty Chevette I bought for $100, or college applications, or any clothes I wanted to buy or CDs I wanted to own, or the telephone line my grandparents put in my bedroom so I could talk to my friends without disturbing them and stretching the long, beige cord into the kitchen pantry, where I could feign privacy. I worked, then I worked, then I went to school and did school work.
I have had a minimum of two jobs for almost 22 years, since I started working legally at age 14. My friends practiced sports or watched TV or did their homework really fast so they had time to lock themselves in their rooms for the rest of the night, where they would practice smoking pot or watch R-rated movies or spend hours talking on the phone to each other while they put on nail polish. Privacy was expected. Leisure time was a standard part of their lives.
I never learned how to use makeup. Who had the time?
My friends would say to me, You should come out. You should call in sick and come with us to a concert. Why do you work so much? You should be outside today, it’s so beautiful. Why do you work so much? I always thought, Why don’t you work at all? Doesn’t your life depend on it? This is how you get by.
My family crest is the solitary image of a rigid top lip, and our legacy is subservience.
I know what poverty has done to my family and I made different choices. And that’s really the only difference between where I am at 36 and where my mom or grandmother or great-grandmother was at 36, and why I sit in a classroom full of other Ph.D. students and feel like an imposter. I chose not to have children, which is either selfish or self-aware depending on who you are talking to. I chose a great partner. I decided that my quality of life was more important than the amount of money in my bank account. I probably would not have been able to make these choices without the lessons I learned growing up, or having been exposed not to poverty but the cultural reaction to poverty. I paid attention, and I chose. And now it’s easy for you to deem me successful, because it means you can keep ignoring the poverty that shaped me.
So yeah, I have a full-time job and yeah, I’m starting a full-time Ph.D. and yeah, I’ll also still keep my part-time job. You will call me successful, and want to know “how I do it” as if I ever had a choice, and I will continue to hate being such a great example of the meritocratic system I do not believe in.