On Being Rich
So there was this kid in middle school who I had a crush on. His family owned our city’s National League Hockey team. I didn’t like him because he owned a hockey team—I liked him because he had a blonde mushroom cut—but he possessed an appealing devil-may-care-ness that was probably due to the fact that he lived in a world in which people owned hockey teams.
That was his reality. My family owned a Subaru; his owned a hockey team.
In the world of young boys with entire hockey teams at their disposal, I was hilariously, bewilderingly, on the “poor” end of the economic spectrum. Both my parents worked full-time: my dad as a lawyer, my mom as a civil servant. We didn’t have things. My parents prioritized education and family: private schools and rental cottages on the ocean where my relatives could stay. It took me a long time to put together that those things cost money, and that we were ineffably lucky to have them. Not until I got to college—a New England liberal arts college, at that—did I realize my family was rich.
I am afraid to tell people this. I am afraid to tell you this. I regularly break a sweat digging a wide ditch between myself and what I perceive as the “other,” the trust fund, the country club, those who take advantage of their (literal) fortunes. It is hard for me to talk about money. It is hard for most people to talk about money. I think, often, it is the people who have money who are the most reticent to talk about it. I think it is a commonly held belief that people of privilege—and I am, if nothing else, privileged—could not possibly contribute to the discussion. I think acknowledging the ease with which you have passed through life is to wear a sign that says, Please do not take me seriously. And also, I might be a Republican.
Still, I think a lot about money. Example: how have I become the sort of pathological tightwad who measures her almond milk every morning to make sure her roommates aren’t using it? (I don’t actually do this. Except I sort of do.) Can a healthy relationship to money be taught? Are rich people really mean? Are “rich” and “poor” even useful designations? Or are they simply the last socially acceptable words we can use to segregate humans into different boxes?
By the numbers: I work for a literary non-profit in New York City. I make $30,000/year before taxes. I struggle together $970/month for my share of a 3-bedroom apartment, where I live with two adorably, painfully young roommates. Some friends nicknamed me “Chickpea” because once, in an attempt to save money, I ate almost exclusively canned chickpeas for a month. I have a B.A., an M.F.A., and no student loans. There’s an emergencies-only family credit card in my wallet. Its approved uses are “health and safety,” which I have interpreted to mean dental work and the odd, drunk, 3 a.m. cab ride home from Manhattan. I have been a barista, a meat-slicer in a deli, a college post-office assistant. I once bought a $275 questionably low-cut black dress because I was working for free and subsisting on shitty day-old pastries and falling in love with a guy who wasn’t my boyfriend. I left the store shaking so violently that I had to squat down in a puddle of slush and force my head between my knees. The dress picked up a slick sheen of green mold two years later in a dank, fetid, and overpriced basement apartment in D.C., and I washed it in our bathroom sink because I couldn’t afford dry-cleaning and couldn’t bear to throw it out. I don’t have a trust fund, but I do have a house in France that my parents, in a moment of jaw-dropping foolishness, bought when I was in high school. I’ve only visited a few times, because airfare is too expensive, although if I asked my parents to send me, they probably would. There is no way to say “my house in France” without sounding exactly that obnoxious, so I often lie about it, or mumble, even though truthfully it is the most beautiful place in the world, with real vineyards and evening light that could break your heart, and I want to share it with everyone. I abuse my expired student ID for theatre tickets, and buy too many books. I have referred to myself as “poor” or “broke” since I started this piece at least 17 times.
I didn’t earn this, is a thought I have often. There are certain things for which I have worked very hard, but, by and large, I have been dealt the coolest of winning hands. It is the social pariah-ness of wealth I struggle with, the almost frantic need to demonstrate that I have labored (I haven’t). I’m not the only one who feels this. I’ve forced my roots down into the community that criticizes Girls for its only-vaguely apologetic depiction of entitlement, which we’re allowed to do because we ride charming dime-store bicycles and shop at thrift stores. Some of our choices are fueled by necessity: as artists and activists, we can’t afford much more. But we’re all going out of our way to demonstrate just how little we have: If someone compliments our shoes, the reply vacillates between some version of, “Oh, they were a gift,” and “Oh, I got them on super sale, you don’t even know,” a coded way of saying life is hard for me, too. Our lives, at least aesthetically, are predicated upon the idea that we are struggling in some way. At best, we have created a culture that values experiences over goods, relationships over real estate. At worst, we are fetishizing being “poor” without understanding what that truly means.
This is all, of course, just an abstraction to me. I am an interloper in the reality I’ve falsified, one in which I can sometimes convince myself that I’m working without a safety net. It’s not that my financial background makes my life difficult. I don’t mean to say it makes my life difficult. But maybe sometimes it feels difficult, and in those moments, I resent being labeled “rich,” my life being labeled easy. And then I resent myself for resenting.
“Rich,” “poor”—I have used the words so many times that they have now sound like slurs: ugly and inescapably subjective. There are value judgments associated with each: if you’re rich, you’re devoid of compassion, un-self-aware, evil. If you’re poor, you’re uneducated, lacking ambition, a freeloader. While we can’t ignore the fact that they constitute a troubling and growing disparity, what do these words mean, exactly, when some people own whole countries and others can’t afford water? In those terms, how can we even bear to utter them?
As for the afore-mentioned almond milk dilemma: If my relationship to money is unhealthy—and let’s say that it is—how did I end up this way? I was raised to understand that money is tenuous, and that it follows hard work (well, hard work and the luck of being able to pursue a job to which society has assigned financial value). Money came into your life only after you left the house in the morning, before your children were awake, and you had to stay out all day and sometimes all night, and it was there in the weight of their bodies in your arms as you carried your children up the dark stairs, from where they fell asleep while waiting for you—that weight meant work was being done, and you would be rewarded in kind. This narrative has become a sort of social security blanket: My parents worked for what they have. No one can fault them for that.
I have levied shame at my dad over the years for what I perceived as his excess—the tiny, stupid car he bought himself on his 50th, for example. But my dad once took the night shift at a halfway house for teens in downtown Toronto, lived in apartments with shoddy electrics that he haphazardly wired himself, worked his way through law school. My fiercest and purest memories of him are of sitting on my parents’ bed as he unloaded his suitcase after a long business trip, gifting to my brother and me the shampoo bottles from hotel bathrooms with labels in strange languages, or the eye masks from transatlantic flights. Neither of my parents had the luxury, as I do, of following a passion—they chose the careers they did because they offered security, the financial equivalent of wall-to-wall carpeting: boring but sturdy. There was an element of sacrifice in most all of my parents’ decisions, and that sacrifice was made to give me the luxuries I now bemoan. In that context, dismissing my parents’ desire to provide me with comfort—a higher level of comfort than I have earned on my own—seems like a slap in the face.
These issues swirl around me as, at 28, I begin my slow march towards financial independence, which for me primarily means choosing what I will and will not accept: yes to flights home for Christmas, no to rent subsidies. When I imagine my very imaginary children, and try to imagine what I might teach them about what it means to have imaginary money (which might always remain imaginary, considering my “career”) or even what it means to be born into a country in which they are, by simply being, privileged, I wonder if I will rely on the narrative that makes it possible for me to accept the incredible and inessential gifts I have been given: Someone worked hard to give you these things, and they are rare, and fleeting. Now feel guilty. Now get up, and go do something good.