Poor, poor, (unpitiful) me

There’s a hurricane a’comin’ and people are in a tizzy. Here’s why I can’t afford to worry and why being poor makes life beautifully simple.

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The other day, a lovely woman, whom I’ve known for years, offhandedly mentioned that that she thinks it’s cool that I can talk about my financial situation without shame.

“Shame?” I laughed, “Why would I be ashamed? I work hard for the money I don’t have!”

I’m poor. It’s all relative, of course, but, statistically, my two children and I live on less than the average family of three. Quite a bit less.

I’ve been called “brave,” “tenacious,” “dauntless,” and “independent.” I’ve been admired, respected, and commended for pulling myself up by my bootstraps. I’ve inspired hope in some and pity in others all because of what I don’t have.

But being broke is not an act of bravery, and making my way in spite of impoverished conditions is not admirable–these things are simply facts of life. Frequently, in my life, it comes down to sink or swim, and I choose to swim.

Whether it’s coloring my knee with a Sharpie so you can’t see the hole in my black tights, giving songs I’ve written or simple items I’ve knitted as gifts, or any number of the less expensive ramen hacks, I am the Martha Stewart of poverty.

I come by my pauper’s powers honestly. My dad is handicapped, and I grew up in a family that depended, for many years, solely on Social Security disability payments to survive. It wasn’t much, but my mom, who also grew up poor, made the most of it, and I learned to do the same. I’m passing those skills down to my children, as well.

Being poor makes keeping it simple a breeze. I love my friends, but when I see them fretting on social media about the newest iPhone or a vacation gone awry, I have to laugh. I have the luxury of not worrying about such things. I’m more concerned about the fact that I’ve received a shut-off notice from the gas company or that there is nothing but condiments in my refrigerator, and it’s still four days until payday.

Like I said, it’s all relative. I’ve had a bit of disposable income in my life and know that those problems, which seem so small to me, can feel just as immediate as a lost utility or hungry teen. That doesn’t keep me from laughing, though, as I turn my underwear inside out for another wearing because I don’t have any money to visit the laundry room.

— ∮∮∮ —

As you may or may not have heard, there’s a hurricane/tropical storm/weather event headed our way.

Working retail, particularly grocery, can be trying in times when tensions run high. Whether it’s an earthquake, hurricane, or snowpocalypse, we here in Richmond love to panic. So, when the possibility of Hurricane Sandy started looking more and more like an inevitability, I knew that I was going to have a few interesting days at work.

And I was right. From the coworkers who would nervously ask every customer “What do you think about this storm business?”, to the people who came through my line with conversational capabilities limited to “You’re out of water. Do you know you’re out of water? Costco is out of water, Kroger is out of water, Walmart is out of water, now you’re out of water.”, I realized that my job was going to be to keep people calm in the face of the unknown–at least for the time I had contact with them. I put on my best, low volume (because the louder you get, the louder they get), soothing mom-voice and told person after person “The predictions for this storm keep changing, I think we should just prepare ourselves and hope for the best. Worrying won’t change its course.”

And so I told the man who was buying eighteen hundred dollars worth of meat, who said he had a generator and was often the house that everyone without power ended up at, and the woman who bought two cases of wine, just in case. Hey, if these people are going down, they are going down in style and with a pep talk from me.

I did this all while knowing that I had $4.52 in the bank and couldn’t even manage peanut butter and bread for my own family.

Again, I look at this as an advantage. After all, I’m not having to run out to anywhere in a panic, and I’ve no idea which stores are sold out of bottled water. In this house, we’ve got some Velveeta Shells and Cheese, a few non-condensed soups, and a gas stove. We don’t need batteries, because we don’t have flashlights. And, if the water goes, well, I guess the Shells and Cheese are out–but we’ll figure it out.

So, let Sandy come. Let the wind blow and the rain rain. No amount of fancy meats, bottles of wine, or jugs of water is going to change what is to be. With any luck, on Wednesday, we’ll clean up the mess and move on. And I’ll be one day closer to payday. Because, as much as I love simplicity and bootstrap-pulling, I also enjoy eating and hot showers. Plus, my underwear has only got two sides.

Take care, everybody. See you on the other side of the storm.

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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

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