Night Cook, Essayist, Activist
There's no way to structure this coherently. They are random
observations that might help explain the mental processes. But often, I
think that we look at the academic problems of poverty and have no idea
of the why.
We know the what and the how, and we can see
systemic problems, but it's rare to have a poor person actually explain
it on their own behalf. So this is me doing that, sort of.
Rest is a luxury for the rich. I get up at 6AM, go to school (I have a
full course load, but I only have to go to two in-person classes) then
work, then I get the kids, then I pick up my husband, then I have half
an hour to change and go to Job 2. I get home from that at around
12:30AM, then I have the rest of my classes and work to tend to. I'm in
bed by 3. This isn't every day, I have two days off a week from each of
my obligations. I use that time to clean the house and soothe Mr.
Martini and see the kids for longer than an hour and catch up on
schoolwork. Those nights I'm in bed by midnight, but if I go to bed too
early I won't be able to stay up the other nights because I'll fuck my
pattern up, and I drive an hour home from Job 2 so I can't afford to be
sleepy. I never get a day off from work unless I am fairly sick. It
doesn't leave you much room to think about what you are doing, only to
attend to the next thing and the next. Planning isn't in the mix.
When I got pregnant the first time, I was living in a weekly motel. I
had a minifridge with no freezer and a microwave. I was on WIC. I ate
peanut butter from the jar and frozen burritos because they were 12/$2.
Had I had a stove, I couldn't have made beef burritos that cheaply. And I
needed the meat, I was pregnant. I might not have had any prenatal
care, but I am intelligent enough to eat protein and iron whilst knocked
I know how to cook. I had to take Home Ec to graduate high school.
Most people on my level didn't. Broccoli is intimidating. You have to
have a working stove, and pots, and spices, and you'll have to do the
dishes no matter how tired you are or they'll attract bugs. It is a huge
new skill for a lot of people. That's not great, but it's true. And if
you fuck it up, you could make your family sick. We have learned not to
try too hard to be middle-class. It never works out well and always
makes you feel worse for having tried and failed yet again. Better not
to try. It makes more sense to get food that you know will be palatable
and cheap and that keeps well. Junk food is a pleasure that we are
allowed to have; why would we give that up? We have very few of them.
The closest Planned Parenthood to me is three hours. That's a lot of
money in gas. Lots of women can't afford that, and even if you live near
one you probably don't want to be seen coming in and out in a lot of
areas. We're aware that we are not "having kids," we're "breeding." We
have kids for much the same reasons that I imagine rich people do. Urge
to propagate and all. Nobody likes poor people procreating, but they
judge abortion even harder.
Convenience food is just that. And we are not allowed many
conveniences. Especially since the Patriot Act passed, it's hard to get a
bank account. But without one, you spend a lot of time figuring out
where to cash a check and get money orders to pay bills. Most motels now
have a no-credit-card-no-room policy. I wandered around SF for five
hours in the rain once with nearly a thousand dollars on me and could
not rent a room even if I gave them a $500 cash deposit and surrendered
my cell phone to the desk to hold as surety.
Nobody gives enough thought to depression. You have to understand
that we know that we will never not feel tired. We will never feel
hopeful. We will never get a vacation. Ever. We know that the very act
of being poor guarantees that we will never not be poor. It doesn't give
us much reason to improve ourselves. We don't apply for jobs because we
know we can't afford to look nice enough to hold them. I would make a
super legal secretary, but I've been turned down more than once because I
"don't fit the image of the firm," which is a nice way of saying "gtfo,
pov." I am good enough to cook the food, hidden away in the kitchen,
but my boss won't make me a server because I don't "fit the corporate
image." I am not beautiful. I have missing teeth and skin that looks
like it will when you live on B12 and coffee and nicotine and no sleep.
Beauty is a thing you get when you can afford it, and that's how you get
the job that you need in order to be beautiful. There isn't much point
Cooking attracts roaches. Nobody realizes that. I've spent a lot of
hours impaling roach bodies and leaving them out on toothpick pikes to
discourage others from entering. It doesn't work, but is amusing.
"Free" only exists for rich people. It's great that there's a bowl of
condoms at my school, but most poor people will never set foot on a
college campus. We don't belong there. There's a clinic? Great! There's
still a copay. We're not going. Besides, all they'll tell you at the
clinic is that you need to see a specialist, which seriously? Might as
well be located on Mars for how accessible it is. "Low-cost" and
"sliding scale" sounds like "money you have to spend" to me, and they
can't actually help you anyway.
I smoke. It's expensive. It's also the best option. You see, I am
always, always exhausted. It's a stimulant. When I am too tired to walk
one more step, I can smoke and go for another hour. When I am enraged
and beaten down and incapable of accomplishing one more thing, I can
smoke and I feel a little better, just for a minute. It is the only
relaxation I am allowed. It is not a good decision, but it is the only
one that I have access to. It is the only thing I have found that keeps
me from collapsing or exploding.
I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the
long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don't
pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It's not
like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing
holding me back isn't that I blow five bucks at Wendy's. It's that now
that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever
will be. It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small
pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will
never have large pleasures to hold on to. There's a certain pull to live
what bits of life you can while there's money in your pocket, because
no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days
anyway. When you never have enough money it ceases to have meaning. I
imagine having a lot of it is the same thing.
Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It's why you see
people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of
connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the
pull to feel worthwhile is. It's more basic than food. You go to these
people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that's
all you get. You're probably not compatible with them for anything
long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and
valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever
happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as
whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don't plan
long-term because if we do we'll just get our hearts broken. It's best
not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.
I am not asking for sympathy. I am just trying to explain, on a human
level, how it is that people make what look from the outside like awful
decisions. This is what our lives are like, and here are our defense
mechanisms, and here is why we think differently. It's certainly
self-defeating, but it's safer. That's all. I hope it helps make sense
Update: The response to this piece is overwhelming. I have had a
lot of people ask to use my work. Please do. Share it with the world if
you found value in it. Please link back if you can. If you are teaching,
I am happy to discuss this with or clarify for you, and you can freely
use this piece in your classes. Please do let me know where you teach.
You can reach me on Twitter, @killermartinis.
Many people have told me to write a book. I would, but I'm kind
of poor and busy working. So I've set up a GoFundMe. If enough people
are willing to chip in, I'll be able to focus on writing for a few
months and quit with the double shifts. And I will write a thing I can
be proud of. Find it here. And I've also set up a blog, which I hope you will find here.
Thank you for reading. I am glad people find value in it.
This post first appeared on killermartinis.kinja.com
Follow Linda Tirado on Twitter: