I know from poor. Not poverty–I’ve never known poverty–but I know what it is to be poor.
As a music major at SF State, I earned money playing orchestra and quartet gigs, worked minimum wage jobs, but still didn’t have much by way of money. To supplement my meager budget, I used to go around the back of United Market in San Rafael and pick fruit and veg out of the dumpsters. The produce manager was kind enough to turn a blind eye to my forays, occasionally even handing me old orange crates to pack up my booty. Beans and rice were the mainstays of my diet (I was a vegetarian, then), and any extra money I was able to cadge went to new strings for my viola and gas money for friends taking me to symphony gigs in Stockton or Santa Rosa.
When I won a scholarship at an overseas music academy, my parents–pissed off at my chutzpah for moving halfway across the globe–begrudgingly sent the occasional $50 as a stipend, but for the most part I had to work cleaning apartments and subbing in the Jerusalem Symphony for money. I shopped in the shuk, haunting the end-of-day sales for the best deals (nothing lasts long in the heat of the Israeli desert), and bought Structured Vegetable Protein (SVP) by the bagful. I was still a vegetarian, but only by necessity. The day I discovered that calf’s liver was very cheap and, cooked properly, even edible, was a day of rejoicing.
Returning to the States, I continued my underfunded life, this time on a bank teller’s wage. When I met the woman who would be my wife, the first thing we did as a couple was open a joint account. We put $10 in it. It was the best we could do, but it was a start. For years, we often had more month than money. In those days, when you wrote a check at the grocery store, it took a while for it to get to the bank and hit your account. Using my inside knowledge as a bank teller, I knew that Alpha Beta, our economy grocer, posted check receipts twice a week. Add in the transit time and we had 3-4 days of “float” before we had to deposit funds to cover the check we’d written. We kited a lot of checks near month’s end.
We drove crappy cars. We darned socks and patched jacket elbows. We got our TV signal free from the airwaves. A splurge was a dinner at McDonald’s. We lived down in The Canal, a shitty part of town. (One night I woke up to hear the cop outside our window instruct our upstairs neighbor to “Drop the weapon!”) For extra money, I still played gigs with orchestras and quartets, always wearing the same three-piece tuxedo I wore in high school, a frightful old thing of sculptured polyester and heeled, two-toned Oxfords (yes, it was that bad). We slept on a twin bed; she got the mattress, and I got the box spring.
I borrowed $97.50 from my parents for a ring. She bought her wedding dress at the Gunny Sax outlet store. We got married in a public park. We honeymooned in a friend’s cabin. We paid for the whole thing ourselves, so you’ll understand why, when I found my mother giving away our unopened (and thus returnable) champagne as parting gifts, I got a little steamed.
We worked hard to increase our income. When we relocated to Seattle, I got a job in banking again, but this time on the technical side, a happy accident that led to my landing a position as a programmer. Slowly, I advanced, teaching myself what I needed to know to advance.
I’ve been a programmer for over a quarter century, now, and I make a good living. We have a nice home, a new car, and enough money to afford travel, good food, and nice things. I’ve shown my wife the place in London where, when I was stuck there for a week with only $20 to my name, I stole milk from a Kensington stoop at dawn.
We both remember being poor.
And now we’re going to do it again.
[To be continued…]