10 Things I Learned From 3 Years of Being Sort of Poor

Image: JD Hancock/Flickr
Image: JD Hancock/Flickr

Over 45 million Americans lived in poverty as of 2013, according to the Census Bureau, and I have never been one of them. There’s a big difference between poverty and what I’ll call, for want of a better term, sort of poor, which is essentially temporary financial embarrassment. The former means that you live with food insecurity, exploitation, chronic fear and danger; the latter means short-term anxiety and, hopefully, long-term empathy. I’m trying my hardest never to forget what it was like to not be absolutely sure that the rent money would be there when I needed it. In the meantime, I’m writing down a few things a learned while I was less well off than I am now.

First, a little background. For three years, my husband and I were sort of poor. How did that happen? Well, I got laid off, like many of us did over the past few years, and then I decided to go freelance. It took a while to build things up to the point where I made as much money as I did working full-time for an employer. Just prior to that, Adam went back to school. I’ll always be grateful that he didn’t look at me like I was nuts when, a few short months after he embarked on the education phase of a new career, I told him I wanted to start my own business.

Without getting into numbers, being sort of poor meant that we were living, in New York, on what amounted to one salary — and that salary was a normal salary, not a normal-for-the-city salary. (I make that distinction, because The New York Times often runs pieces featuring “middle class” folks who moan about not being able to pay private school tuition on a quarter of a million dollars a year. Those were not our circumstances. We survived on what would have been a nice middle-class salary for, say, Pittsburgh, not Brooklyn.)

In practical terms, it meant that we could pay the rent and the grocery bill and our health insurance and our other expenses, as long as nothing ever went wrong. We couldn’t go on vacations or out to dinner or buy a lot of stuff, which didn’t bother us much — neither of us is what you’d call spendy under the best of financial circumstances. The problem, of course, was that something always went wrong.

Which is the first lesson I learned, while we were sort of poor:

1. Something always goes wrong.

For example, about two years ago, my back went out. After several specialists and X-rays, it was determined that physical therapy was the best course of treatment. Fortunately, I was still on COBRA at the time, so I had physical therapy appointments included in my coverage. Unfortunately, I need two of those per week, to the tune of $30 in copays each time, and my PT office was an hour away and took an hour to complete. That meant that each session cost me around $150-$200, between the copay and the lost wages. Good times.

2. Being poor is expensive.

I did not bounce a check during our temporary poorness, a fact of which I’m inordinately proud, but I did go into cash reserve a few times, and I had to charge some things, like the aforementioned PT and occasionally, groceries. I could add up what all that cost me, but it’s too depressing and I don’t wanna. Let’s just say this: I spent a lot more than a rich person would have on the same services, and not through lack of planning or the inability to save. There was just no way to avoid it, at times. We’re lucky that we lived in a place where we didn’t have to have a car, or we might have found ourselves in an even worse situation.

3. No one wants to hear about it.

Listening to people complain about money is like listening to them talk about their weight or the dream they had last night. It’s just not very interesting to anyone but the person who’s speaking. Not to mention, in the last couple of years, everyone’s had their own problems. Still, it’s hard not to talk about it. When you don’t have money, it’s hard to think about anything else. Every thought, every brain cell, is focused on how to scrounge up what you need to survive and avoid running up bills you can’t pay.

4. Being poor is bad for your health.

During the past three years, I’ve had insomnia, weight fluctuations, heart palpitations, panic attacks, depression, and anxiety. I also wore the enamel off my teeth by grinding them while I was sleeping, and at various times, I probably drank too much. I put away massive pots of coffee, trying to stay awake after nights of not sleeping. I quit my gym membership, and tried exercising at home, with limited success. Not to mention, when you’re on a budget, you’re not eating the finest organic produce and sprouted grain bread. And, of course, being poor is stressful; stress is bad for your health.

5. It’s hard to get by without luxuries … or vices.

How many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t want to give that homeless guy money. He’ll just drink it away.”? After three years of fake poverty, I can tell you that I will never say that again. I would prefer that the homeless have access to services that will enable them and every person on earth to have a warm, clean home, a healthy lifestyle, and whatever therapy they might need so as to avoid behaviors that harm them. In the meantime, if that guy wants to drink up my dollar, he can go ahead. Look that one up under “Business, Nunya.”

By the same token, people love to pick on anyone who says they’re broke, but is wearing lipstick or clothing without huge cartoon hobo patches. I went a long time without buying anything when we were skint, and then every so often I’d have a sort of consumerist breakdown and drop $50 at Sephora and feel like the worst person on earth. I’m sure there are folks who are perpetually responsible in our position, but I don’t think they’d be much fun at parties.

6. Appreciate your friends and family.

One of the things that separates the temporarily financially embarrassed from the truly poor is a personal social safety net. Adam and I were lucky, in that we had family members who would send us larger-than-normal birthday checks or float us loans when we needed them, and we were also fortunate enough to have friends who did things like give us furniture and recommend us for apartments when we found out that we were getting kicked out of our place. (Not for anything we did, I hasten to add. See earlier re: something always goes wrong.)

Without our people, I don’t know how we could have made things work. Certainly, the whole experience was humbling and awe-inspiring in equal measure. Adam and I are not people who enjoy asking for help, and we were continually amazed at how many folks came forward to offer help before we could even ask.

7. Ask for help.

This was perhaps the best personal lesson. It was hard for us. It’s hard for almost everyone. But there are no people on the earth who can do everything by themselves 100 percent of the time.

8. Remember that everyone needs help.

Along the lines of the empathy I mentioned earlier, I’ll never look down on anyone who needs assistance, financial or otherwise, whether it comes from family or the government. Whenever a politician starts talking about the takers and the givers, remember that most of us are both at one point or another in our lives — if we’re lucky.

9. Dream big, but don’t get bummed out if you can’t do your dream job right now.

The whole Do What You Love dealie is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it’s pretty much geared solely toward privileged middle-class people with access to education and leisure time. If you’re not Doing What You Love right now, don’t let it drag you down. It took 10 years of work for me to get to a point where I could freelance, which is what I always wanted to do, and then maybe two years of that to figure out what I was good at and what I wanted to spend the bulk of my time working on. And then I had to figure out how to earn enough money at it. DWYL is a fine goal, but it ignores not only whole groups of less-privileged people, but also a fundamental fact about work: namely, that sometimes, it’s going to suck, even if you love nearly everything about your job. There will always be paperwork to do and meetings to endure, no matter how successful you become.

10. It’s important to care.

There were days when I was adding up numbers and trying to make my finances come out right and everywhere I turned, there was another article about how the U.S. is now an oligarchy and pensions are being cut and there’s no hope of having what our parents had at our age. The instinct was often to give up, lie down, roll over, and take a nap.

Instead, we have to keep fighting and voting and writing and working and trying. And while we do that, we have to remember that we’re all on this bus together, and that it’s a terminal route. Empathy, compassion, refusal to judge one another — those are the best weapons against a world that tries to make us believe that the people who have things, deserve them, and the people who don’t, don’t. I’ll try to remember. Will you?


A Whole Bunch of Reasons Why We’re Pretty Much OK, Even Though We Have Bedbugs

On Sunday, the exterminators came, and with them, spring and hope and sunshine and the vigor of youth and the wisdom of extreme old age.

I’ve been very proud of myself during this whole ordeal for not crying once. (Now that I’ve said that, expect buckets of tears.) Various friends have pointed out that I seem almost cheerful, which is odd, given our situation right now. I have a few theories as to why I’m relatively OK:

1. I’ve been getting a lot of exercise. Yesterday, I looked at my desk-bike thingie and thought, Oh, the plague is here. I don’t have to exercise. Then I remembered that I actually like exercise and that it helps my mood and makes me feel better about things that are beyond my control, like bedbugs and the existence of the Koch Bros. (Family corporate motto: “Koch Bros.: We actually do own your soul. No, really; look it up. We bought it on Tuesday, and it was cheeeeap.”)

2. Chocolate chip cookies still exist. We don’t have any right now, because of all the laundry-doing, but I did buy fixins, and I’m going to make a gigantic batch this week, at some point. This is in keeping with my theory that I can eat whatever I want, as long as I make it from a lot of ingredients using many bowls and spoons and measuring cups.

3. It could be way, way, way worse.

If you’ll forgive another list in an article that’s basically already a list, here’s a bunch of things that could be worse:

1. We could be really sick. I’m part Eastern European and part Ulster Scot, so I’m forbidden from mentioning possible disorders, lest we catch them by displeasing the fairy folk or the gods or what-have-you, but bedbugs are not the most horrible thing that can happen to a person’s body. Let’s just leave it at that.

2. Cockroaches are way worse, from a public health perspective. They don’t bite you, but they carry disease and lovingly lave it all over your food and underpants with their horrid little tongues and sticky feet. (I don’t know about the tongues, but the exterminator told me all about roaches’ feet. They are sticky. Sticky. Isn’t that awful? Sticky feet. Ugh.)

3. There could suddenly be no such thing as music, for some reason.
I don’t know why. Maybe unhappy fairy folk, from above? Anyway, I’ve listened to “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams, about 100 times since all this began. AND I AM NOT SORRY.

4. We could be homeless. There was a bad moment during our last search when I realized that it is totally possible for a nice person from a nice family and a nice background to wind up living under a bridge in our society. Which of course made me think about how odd it is that “nice” (read: middle class, not necessarily through any actions or inherent good qualities of our own) would matter in that calculation, even for a minute, even in my own head. Some people have nothing, is the bottom line. We’re not among them, and for that I’m everlastingly grateful. We have friends and family and see evidence of human kindness every day. We are among the luckiest people in the world, and I try to remember that.

5. We love each other. The exterminator told us that he’s seen couples get divorced over bedbugs. People scream at each other, in front of the strangers who’ve come to help. I would literally eat my own head from the inside-out, like one of those flip cartoons on a loop, before I would embarrass Adam in front of another person, if I could prevent it at all, and I know he feels the same.

It would look a lot like this.
It would look a lot like this.

So while Chris Rock was right — “If you’ve never contemplated murder, you ain’t been in love” — it’s also true that if you can’t be respectful to your person in public and private, you’re not ready to have a functional relationship. I don’t take any credit for this, by the way. Again, it’s luck: we met each other once we’d been through enough stuff to know the value of our connection, and to band together in times of stress instead of tearing each other down.

Anyway. That’s a lot to be to be grateful for. Eventually, we’ll be done washing things and freaking out every time we see a piece of lint, and that will be an embarrassment of riches, to be sure.

Also, I haven't woken up to see a plague doctor looming over me. So that's good news.
Also, I haven’t woken up to see a plague doctor looming over me. So that’s good news.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

How Quickly Can You Invent a Reason for Horrible Bites All Over Your Body?

I ask because I came up with about 20 explanations in an hour or so, when I woke up early Saturday morning to the sensation of a million tiny teeth nibbling on my arms. Among them:

1. Heroin withdrawal. Slight problem: I have never used heroin.

2. Allergy to medication. That’s a good one! I thought to myself. I’m on millions of meds for my disorders, both real and imagined. I spent additional time self-implanting memories of swollen lips that appeared after taking my thyroid meds.

3. A new STD. I would be very forgiving of Adam, I decided, or of myself, if it turned out that I’d developing sleepwalking, sleep-picking-up-randos, and sleep-sex as a side effect to the medication allergy I was definitely experiencing.

4. Shingles.

5. Hysteria.

It turned out to be bedbugs, of course. It’s always bedbugs.

Here’s a picture of a puppy in an Easter basket, because bedbug pictures are too horrible to behold:


Image: Jeremy Duff/Flickr

So, We’re Moving

Less than two weeks ago, our landlords told us they were selling the building, and to kindly GTFO ASAP, and many other acronyms as well.

We’re waiting to hear about an apartment, and hopefully it will work out, because Adam and I have very different ideas about what constitutes a dream home.

Adam’s dream home:


Basically, Mr. Burns’ house from “The Simpsons.” Bonus points if it comes with dogs and/or a vengeful spirit. He likes this place because:

1. It’s big enough so that we can be alone whenever we want, even if there are people over.

2. Lots of space for video games and/or vintage apparel.

3. Additional bonus points if the neighborhood resembles a demilitarized zone.

My dream home:


Basically, the Plaza, circa Eloise. I like this because:

1. Doormen and other attendants mean that I never have to either do anything for myself, or ever forget how special I am.

2. Gym in the building means that there’s a 32 percent chance that I might actually work out.

3. Often a bar nearby.

You see the problem. Please, everyone, send your good energy into this place that we’re waiting on right now. Otherwise, we’re going to have to move into the Addam’s Family House. It’s the only place that boasts genuine opportunity for terror and doormen.

10 Things That Changed in the First 10 Years of Jennie Smash

So, last month was my 10-year anniversary of having this here blog, and in my now-typical fashion, I failed to commemorate it, because I was busy writing things for money and/or sleeping.

In the past year or two, I’ve sometimes thought about rolling up the old blog for good, or refocusing it on something more, er, focused. For the past 10 years, I’ve kept this blog largely in the manner of Victorian daybooks, or a 12-year-old’s diary: in other words, for fun, and without any real unifying theme.

That makes it kind of fun to go over my old posts, and remember how I was at the time. My first post, for example, was about how pissed off I was. About what, we do not know — it is lost to sands of time and the internet, or something.

In short, even though some of the old writing is embarrassing, I like having the time capsule. So I’ll probably keep on blogging sporadically, until I go on a diet, and then I’ll blog every day for month.

Here’s where I’d put a transition, if I were writing this for money. And now, in no particular order, here’s what’s changed in my life over the past ten years! (Trumpets blare.)

1. I write stuff for money. OK, technically, my job ten years ago involved some writing, but bylines were few and far between, and I mostly moved content from one place to another and summarized it.

2. I’m married. In 2003, my longest post-college relationship was about three weeks long. My friend and traveling companion Adam has put up with my ever-migrating pile of shoes and sweaters and tendency to talk to myself for five years.

3. I live in New York. In 2005, I ran away from home at the age of 29. I think everyone is pretty surprised I survived here. I still wish we could get the high-speed rail dealie going so that I could visit my folks in Massachusetts without losing half a day and all my marbles getting there, but I still love New York 10 months out of the year. (The bad months, as any New Yorker will tell you, are August and February.)

4. I’m an old.
There’s a whole new generation of workers now, and they have every bit as bad a reputation as we hoary old Gen Xers did when we first arrived. Seriously, young folks, do not despair: when I was your age, we were all going to ruin the world with our high ideals and poor work ethic. You’ll change the world, and the world will change you. Ten years from now, you’ll be rolling your eyes at the whippersnappers in the intern pool, and everyone will have forgotten how you almost ruined everything with your Twitters and crowdfunding and sexting.

5. Parts of my body just stopping working.
This is probably part and parcel of No. 3, but did you know that your body can just, like, crap out on you? My thyroid went first. Thank God we live in the future and they can give you medicine for that, or I’d look like a cartoon witch, brittle hair and misshapen body included. (My hairpins still fly out all the time, even when my thyroid medication is optimized, so we won’t count that.)

6. I’m an aunt. My sister has two kids now, Oz and Luci. It’s sort of hard to remember what life was like without them.

7. My folks retired and moved to the Cape. This means that I have a summer house, which is very convenient, as my income stream is variable and unpersuasive to mortgage brokers.

8. I’ve been a redhead so long now that I really don’t know what color my natural hair is anymore.
I seem to remember that it was vaguely gingery-browny-ash-blond — a.k.a. boring grownup white person color.

9. I no longer wear heels unless someone is getting married or has died. Even then, I carry flats in my purse.

10. I’m addicted to my Kindle, even though I never thought I’d get on board with book-replacement technology. In fact, I spend so much time looking at screens every day, I’m pretty sure I’m going to have cataracts by the time I’m 40.

I’m still, as you might have guessed, a hypochondriac.


Remembering the Good Guys

Last summer, I accidentally told my 4-year-old nephew about 9/11.

In my defense, he’s smarter than I am. Anything I come up with to distract him so that I can get something done is always going to backfire. On some level, I think he knows that adults are trying to fob him off on a distraction so that they can not pay attention to him, and he is not having any, thanks very much.

We were packing up to leave the Cape after a two-week vacation, me and Adam, my sister, and her children, and Mom and Dad. Dad was bleaching the whole house or something and Mom was probably washing Christmas decorations that she’d found in the basement. Meg, I assume, was looking for someone’s favorite toy. Adam schlepped boxes in and out from the house, and I camped out in the mini-van, trying to keep Oz from throwing himself in the lake or jumping off the roof or starting smoking — whatever dangerous thing he had planned in his preschooler mind.

We were sitting in the front seat of the van, and I was showing him Google images of New York on my phone. Although he’s only been once, for my wedding when he was two years old, Oz is obsessed with New York. (Sample conversation: “Oh, boy! You know what, Mommy? I gonna go to Uncle Jennie’s house, and we gonna go to the Statue of Livery. I gonna have a pretzel, and a lemonade.” Kid knows how to party.)

So we were looking for pictures of the Statue of Livery, and of course, the very first one was the statue in the foreground, the burning towers in the background. I tried clicking past it.

“What’s that?” Oz asked.

“The Statue of Liberty,” I said. “Look at this one! It’s an old picture, from the ’40s!”

“What was that one?”

I sighed.

“Uncle Jennie, what was wrong with those buildings?”

I shut my phone off and said, “Those buildings were the World Trade Center, buddy. They don’t exist anymore.”

Big eyes wide. “Why?”

“Some bad guys knocked them down. That picture was just before.”

“Let me see.”

I turned my phone back on and cued up the picture and passed it over. He looked at it, being very careful not to touch the screen so the picture wouldn’t go away. He’s significantly better with touchscreens than I am.

“Why did they do that?”

“Well, it’s complicated. Not even most adults really understand everything about why a person would do something like that. ”

Oz thought a minute. “Can I see them?”

“Who, Ozbot?”

“The bad guys.”

I had a brief mental picture of showing my nephew a photo of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, looking like an evil muppet who had just been woken out of a thousand-year slumber, and dismissed it.

“You know, when bad guys do stuff like this, we don’t like to concentrate on them,” I said.


“Because that’s what they want. We don’t understand everything about why they do what they do, but we know they want our attention. So instead, we look at the good guys, the guys who help.” I flicked my phone and did a quick search. “See these guys?”

“They’re firemen!”

“That’s right. They’re some of the people who helped, after. And these guys…”

“Policemen! Like my daddy.”

“Like your daddy. It’s better to think about the helpers, the people who make things better after something bad happens.”

“OK. You know what, though?”


“I have a whole bag of candy, and I can eat it, because it’s vacation.” He looked at me innocently.

“It’s 10 a.m., man.”

“Yeah, but maybe we should go get my bag of candy now.”

Just then, Meg came out of the house, holding a basket of beloved, absolutely essential toys that had been left to moulder under couches for a week, and Oz sprang out of the car like he hadn’t seen her in a year, and started making his case about the candy.

“No, it’s 10 a.m. You can have juice. Go ask Gaga.”

When he ran into the house, I said, “Good news! I accidentally told your son about 9/11.” And I told her the story.

“Oh, that’s a relief,” she said. “Maybe we’ll send him to you for all the difficult discussions.”

“It takes a village,” I agreed.


Image: U.S. National Park Service, via Amistad Digital Resource

Terms Considered Difficult or Impossible to Translate Into English

Every so often, my brain shorts out toward the end of my work day, and I fall into an internet hole and find poetry at the bottom. This Wikipedia entry on terms that don’t translate is possibly the ultimate example of one of those holes.

A few examples:

cafuné: Brazilian Portuguese. The act of fondling someone’s hair.

pinchar: Spanish. To call a mobile phone once and hang up, either so that the other person can call you back and save money, or so that they can store your phone number. Could also mean to sting, flirt (or be flirted at), puncture, pierce, prick, or fuck. (I can see how the progression worked from puncture, but I’m wondering who was the first person to suggest that someone, uh, pierce their phone by calling it once, if you see what I mean.)

Sitzriese: German. A person who appears tall when sitting.

saudade: Galician or Portuguese. The feeling of missing something or someone.

Language is amazing and beautiful and enough of a miracle for anyone, really.


Image: Basilievich/Flickr