One of the ways rich people make poor people feel better about being poor is to bombard us with songs and movies reminding us that, at the end of the day, money isn't what's really important.
These stories seem to feature people who have homes and cars and food, for whom all that extra overtime at work is all about getting a second summer home in the Hamptons. "Dammit, honey, your children are more important than those material things!"
OK, how many of you reading this have that problem? The, "I have so much cash in my life that my biggest problem is spending it on the wrong things" issue? Well, all of you can stop reading.
For the rest of us, I'm calling bullshit on the messages like ...
Ah, the simple life. If you're greedy and shortsighted enough to worry about "bills" and your "career", you'll have inspirational email forwards like this one letting you know you're letting life pass you by.
That one details a conversation between a hard-driven investment banker and a poor subsistence-level Mexican fisherman. The banker is made to look like an idiot, because he's worrying himself to an early grave while the "poor" Mexican fisher man is really rich, because he knows what really matters is kicking back and watching the tide roll in.
"Ahhhh ... the simple life of poor people. Relaxing in the grass outside of my 2 million dollar home."
The lesson of the story is clear: All this hustle and bustle of the rat race is completely optional; the wise man turns all that shit off and knows that all the worry isn't worth it. In the end it can't buy you the peace of mind that those simple poor people have.
But I've Been Poor, and ...
Hey, email forward writer -- did the Mexican fisherman guy have fucking teeth? When they broke or got cavities, did he have to go to a dentist? Did the dentist make him pay? How about his kids, did they have teeth? Because kicking back and watching the sun set is a little harder when you have a stabbing, constant pain in your jaw -- or when you have a toddler at home screaming about the same. Of course when I say "at home" I'm assuming that they have a home and are required to pay fucking rent.
"Hell no! This baby's paid for in full."
See, I've lived that goddamned "simple life" and guess what: Every day of every month is mental torture because your mind is constantly fixed on A) how you're going to pay the bills and B) what you'll do about the ones that are going to be unavoidably late.
That life is a constant battle of stacking your basic services like electricity, phone, gas, rent and water on a scale, and trying to figure out which one will allow you leeway on your payments without cutting you off. It's keeping track of which bills were late last month and switching off to a different one this month to avoid building up too much of a hole with any one creditor.
You spend every pay period figuring out what you can physically survive without. Cable, telephone, Internet, pool boy. You learn to manipulate your checking account, using the overdraft system to pay off immediate debts and buy groceries, racking up $25 fees for every check you bounce ... which puts you further in debt on your next pay period.
That $50 worth of groceries just cost you $75.
And you spend every second knowing you're on a tightrope with no net -- you hold your breath every time you turn the key on your shitty used vehicle, knowing you can't afford to fix it if it decides not to start. If you get sick or chip a tooth or need new glasses, you're just shit outta luck because down here in the poverty hole, you don't get fancy things like insurance, and just the tests to see what's wrong with your bad back and the follow-up visits cost every last penny you make for the next three months. The prescriptions they give you to actually treat it would wipe out half of every paycheck.
So, you just ride out the pain and hope it gets better on its own. Or wait for a dipshit tourist investment banker to come along, then you can stab his ass and sell his organs on the black market.
But Add in Some Money ...
A few months after getting my first non-terrible job, I splurged and paid my electric bill early. When she said what I owed, I told the woman on the phone they had made a mistake. "Wait, the number you're giving me is less than what my bill says. WHAT SCAM ARE YOU RUNNING, BITCH?" After a moment she realized that I was looking at the "late payment" section of the bill, where they warn you about how much you'll have to pay if you don't get it in on time. Because that's what I always paid before. I was so used to my shit being late that I grew to just automatically look at that number, completely ignoring the normal part of the bill.
"You're kind of fucking stupid, aren't you?"
The fact that I suddenly wasn't "in trouble" with the power company and that they no longer had a guy with his finger hovering over the cutoff switch to my house, was like a knot untying in my gut. It was peace of mind.
When you've spent your entire adult life worrying about whose couch you can sleep on if you get evicted, or how to explain to your kids that they can't come over this weekend because there's no water or power ... you're goddamn right money buys peace of mind. Anxiety is the whip society uses to keep you paying your bills -- they'll send you threatening letters, they'll call you, they'll sue you, they'll threaten to turn off your heat in the middle of winter. You know what made that go away? Fucking cash.
Sometimes, I just sleep on it. Sometimes, I fuck the Abe Lincoln right off of it.
The saying used to be, "The Best Things in Life Are Free!" but modern bumper stickers have modified it to the more clever, "The Best Things in Life Aren't Things."
You'll get hammered with that message around the holidays. You'll see A Christmas Carol about the rich, bitter old cocksucker who works all through Christmas instead of enjoying the simple pleasure of his friends and family. Or look at Fight Club's Tyler Durden, portrayed as the coolest dude on planet earth because instead of taking some tedious job in a cubicle, he dropped out of society to live in an abandoned house (the narrator boasting about how after a month he didn't miss television). Shit, even the hero in Avatar is leaving a futuristic earth behind to live the simple, tribal lifestyle of the CGI aliens he's befriended.
It's a timeless message: Money and frivolous modern comforts are nothing compared to the simple pleasures of life.
Like a game of baby football.
But I've Been Poor, and ...
What simple pleasures are we talking about? A good night's sleep after an honest day's work? An evening spent with family and friends?
OK. Here's what they were sleeping on in Fight Club:
You know, because they're manly men who don't need any fancy "beds." And really, a worn old mattress recovered from a dumpster is all you really need. Sleep is free, and all those extras are bullshit wastes of money.
Only I've slept on mattresses like that. Because they're cheap, the padding is thin and wears out fast. And when it wears out, you have sharp metal springs digging into your back. You toss and turn, you wake up feeling like shit. Yes, when you're a teenager you can fall asleep anywhere. Wait until you're approaching your 40s, with chronic back problems. An expensive mattress and a cheap mattress is the difference between extreme pain and no pain.
OK, how about an evening with good friends, just hanging out and talking? That's fine if you're not planning on feeding everyone and, more importantly, if your friends happen to live within walking distance.
Like if you live in the field beside their house or something.
If your best friend moved two hours away because that's where his job took him, that's $40 in gas for the round trip to experience this "best things in life are free" simple pleasure. And when you're living check to check, that means the $40 is coming out of another of life's little pleasures -- groceries, or another bill that will generate harassment from bill collectors, etc. And this is assuming both of you can get time off on the same evening. The ghost of Christmas Fucking Past can lecture me all he wants, but if my job offered me holiday overtime to work on Christmas, I took it so I could keep the heat on.
But Add in Some Money ...
The sleep thing is a great example, because in all of these parables about money not mattering, the people are strong and healthy and, if left alone, would be comfortable. But me? I'm an insomniac, so getting to sleep is hard enough on its own, let alone factoring in a hand-me-down mattress with a human-shaped hole in the padding. I'm also six feet three inches tall -- not quite as tall as Michael Swaim, but about twice as tall as Dan O'Brien. That means the wrong mattress leaves my feet hanging off the end. You can bet that one of my first real paychecks went to a goddamned king-sized mattress. And some sleeping pills.
And an elderly couple.
And hey, what do you know: The simple, "free" pleasure of sleeping after a hard day was suddenly available to me. For the cost of hundreds and hundreds of dollars.
Oh, and suddenly, budgeting in the extra gas to see my best friend who lives two and a half hours away isn't an impossibility. Hell, once I'm there we can even eat dinner and rent multiple copies of The Minis without the stress of mentally doing the math to figure out which utility company was going to put a hit out on me. And having a good job means that I can afford to take a day or two off without being fired or setting off a financial crisis that takes three months to fix.
"The best things in life aren't things?" No, but they all require things, you fucking hippie.
"The best things in life are free. Except this guitar, that's an exception. And these beaded necklaces. And these sunglasses ..."
Find me an '80s family movie that isn't about the career-driven Dad who is too obsessed with success to attend his kid's Christmas play. There's a whole TVTropes page listing the films and TV shows and songs (like "Cat's in the Cradle") about what fools we are to toil away at work when no paycheck can compare to the joyous smiles of our children.
But I've Been Poor, and ...
This is either the work of childless songwriters, or wealthy screenwriters who think that being broke means you have to go to Disney World instead of Paris for vacation this year. Yes, your children are more important than that choice, you shallow douchebag.
Well, everyone except her. Fuck that kid.
But in neither case are they really grasping that poverty isn't a number on your bank statement. It's a state of living that your kids are subjected to every day -- not only are you living in a shitty home, but you're living in a neighborhood with other shitty homes, populated by other poor people. People who are living with the same constant stress as you. Everyone handles that stress differently -- some do it with meth, some get drunk and smack their wives around until the screams echo for blocks.
In my experience living in these neighborhoods, police sirens are as common a sound as birds chirping, or a woman screaming in orgasm outside of my house as I change my shirt near an open window. You just don't let your kids play outside in these types of neighborhoods without being right there with them. They don't need to be exposed to the sound of some drunken bastard screaming the word "cunt" at his wife while beating her senseless. You don't give the drug pushers an opportunity to approach them, you don't give them alone time with the 12-year-olds who have spent multiple sentences in juvenile detention for burglary.
No, they go out and play when you have time and energy to watch over them. And that's when your own depression isn't kicking your ass so hard that all you want to do is lay around and pray for it to go away, getting frustrated and barking at them every time they spill the milk.
"I will fucking PUNCH YOUR DICK OFF!"
But Add in Some Money ...
Does this all sound obvious to you? Well, that probably means you've been poor at least once in your life. Because that's the thing -- everybody else, all of the middle class people who want to lecture me about the meaningless nature of material goods, is assuming a shitload of things that still cost money -- free time, safe neighborhood, peaceful evenings, an absence of chronic pain or anxiety.
So yes, all those rappers who rap about how awesome life was in the 'hood, as soon as they got their record deals they got the fuck out of that hell. So did I, and as you drive off with your last load of furniture, you raise your arm out the window, extend your middle finger and never look back.
I'm not saying that everyone in the nice neighborhood is farting rainbows and singing Disney songs to gathering forest animals. But that constant stress just isn't there, and you can feel it. When I step out to check the mail, my neighbors greet me with a smile and a wave. The only police car I've seen on the block is the one parked in front of an actual cop's house. If the 80-year-old couple across the street is cooking meth, they're doing it respectfully under the radar.
"Ahhhh ... time for my morning X."
My kids now have a freedom that took them a while to get used to. They can go outside without me being right up their asses. They can play with the neighborhood kids without any of us worrying that they'll end up coming home with knowledge on how to construct pipe bombs. When they break out the Nerf guns and start shooting each other in the living room, I have to remind them that we have a yard big enough to build three basketball courts on, and it would be much more fun to do it in that big open space, far away from my collection of priceless Faberge Eggs.