Submitted by megan on Wed, 10/15/2008 - 10:36
Unlike Zoom's son, I thought my family was poor when we weren't.
This may, in fact, be a hallmark of those of us lucky enough to be the first solidly middle class generation in a family. My dad grew up poor, my mom not much more than that. But they made decent money, enough that we never lacked food, or clothing; enough that we could take a vacation every few years. Nothing fancy, driving out east to visit family, or south for the Daytona 500, five or six of us, depending on whether gran came or not, packed into a car and off down the road.
At the time, jealous of the at the sun-spot winter vacations my friends were flying to, their fancy clothes, the new toys, the stuff they could just have; listening to my parent's sparring matches about money and how mom spent too much; at the time, I thought we were poor.
Though that's an exaggeration.
I thought we were always on the brink of being poor. It felt like we had our nails dug in and were fighting to stay afloat. I was constantly worried about when we were going to be poor.
It's still not clear to me how close to home that perception struck. What I can tell you is that the only times I went hungry were the times I turned up my nose at mom's cooking.
Then. During the first four years of university, I was poor.
This was not imagined poverty, not the nipping jealousy-of-Benetton-rugger-shirts poor. It was the kind of poor where you count your change and start rationing the giant $4 jar of no name jam, jam that was a treat in the first place, allowing yourself only a half teaspoon per slice of cracked wheat toast at breakfast, only a teaspoon for your margarine and jam sandwich at lunch. No snacks. Snacks are expensive.
It could have been worse. My parents gave me a thousand dollars for tuition each year, which in 1993 covered half. In 1997, it covered a quarter. I had a small scholarship for the first year. Two inheritances from great-aunts, also straight to tuition. I'd been saving for university from the time I was 12, so the rest of tuition and some of my books were covered that way. I worked to cover the rest of my books, my food, rent and entertainment. I made do.
The summer I'm thinking of particularly, though, the one that wrecked my knees, was grinding and exhausting. Jobs were hard to come by. I ended up as a personal care worker, going from home to home, a few hours at a time, helping people, mostly seniors, cope with their lives. I generally made lunches, did some cleaning, helped people bathe, got them on and off the toilet. A few clients were more labour intensive.
The pay was crap. $9/hr, if I was lucky, for work that wasn't uncommonly disgusting, for people who often treated me like detritus. When I had a full roster of clients, it wasn't too hard to make rent and keep myself fed, as long as I was very careful. But it often took a month or two to build up the roster.
That summer, the one that wrecked my knees, my mom bought me a pair of sandals. $10 Birkenstock knock-offs from the Stouffville Sales Barn. I had a little flexibility with the timing of my clients, so I would try to line them up with at least a 45 minute gap between and so that they weren't too too far apart.
I would walk: to, from, between clients, and then claim the bus fare anyway. I could make maybe an extra $10 or $15 bucks a week doing that. That buys 1 jar of raspberry jam, and 6 to 11 loaves of cracked wheat bread.
It was absolutely worth it.
Near the end of the summer, getting home at the end of a regular day, with swollen, bruised feet and creaking knees, I totted up my kilometers. About 10 clicks, all told. I'll do the math for you: that's about 50 kilometers of walking a week just for work.
In $10 knock-off Birkenstocks. Sandals that, by the end of the summer, were flat only when my feet were pressing them down. As soon as I took them off they cupped themselves into painful looking U's of fake cork.
The physical damage has been long lasting. My leg problems started a year or so later. I've had a host of them since then. My knees were completely fucked for a while, still aren't that great, even now that I am able to afford yoga and massages. Most of it I can trace back to that walking in those shoes, when an extra $15 meant a full belly - or something entirely outrageous, like a $5 used book and three hours reading it on the patio of Future Bakery with a bottomless cup of coffee.
It was a terrible summer: grinding, demoralizing, hungry, aching.
But it could have been much worse. I was in the middle of university. I had prospects. I knew that if things ever got really bad, my parents had the wherewithal, mental and economic, to take me in and take good care of me.
The emotional damage, from being treated frequently as second class, subservient, even stupid, was ephemeral. I knew I was poor, but I knew it was temporary. I also knew I was lucky.