Sunday, 21 August 2011

On Poverty

Seeing as I have told everyone my age & my kids' ages, I assume those of you who didn't already know are now aware that Isaiah was born when I was 19.

Actually- he was born in August, 3 months after I turned 19 (during my year off to figure out what I wanted to do with my life- I'm still on that particular break), and Jason turned 19 about 6 weeks after he was born. Needless to say, Isaiah was a 'blessed surprise' (which sounds better than 'holy crap, where'd THAT come from????').

There are lots of fun things about having a baby when you're a teenager, before you even decide you're in a committed relationship. Poverty was not one of them. I recently took a look at our back tax returns (I keep all that stuff forever), and realized that I pay more in taxes each year than my & Jason's combined income the year Isaiah was born (1994). That was apparently how I stayed so skinny. And probably when I became so twitchy.

Friends told us a few years ago that they loved coming over to our place after work (did I mention that at the time we were all gainfully employed at a restaurant that serves fries with that???) They both still lived at home with their respective parents, and they thought it was so cool that we had our own place, and could do whatever we wanted and could come and go whenever we pleased. (With the 12 or so dollars remaining after we paid our $350 rent, and assuming I could waddle far enough to do it). We never saw it that way. To us, it was a dim little basement suite with one bedroom, and no furniture. It was kinda nice to hear their point of view- I only wish we had realized at the time that we were that cool. I would have charged admission.

The place was furnished in McDonald's chic. When the McDonald's we worked at closed for renovations, we took everything they were throwing out. We took milk crates, napkin dispensers, toilet paper holders, plastic buckets & containers, old spray bottles, the whole 9 yards. You remember when you used to be able to smoke in McDonald's? Those plastic ashtrays were AWESOME. You could put glass beads in them & make it look like you had the place professionally decorated; you could serve soup in them (they were clean, trust me- we have already discussed my germ thing); you could fill 20 of them with store brand Cheetos and call it a buffet; you could store pocket change in them (or so I've heard- we never had pocket change); or, if you were feeling unimaginative, you could put out cigarettes in them. (Did I mention that one of the big draws to our place was you could smoke in there?)(If you could afford to.)

We had a card table my mom had picked up at a garage sale for the kitchen/dining/laundry room, and there was just enough space where if you pulled up a couple of milk crates and sat up real straight, you could have dinner at the table, just like normal people. We also had a couch that old neighbors of mine had while I was growing up, and we kept that for YEARS. It was so old that the foam had disintegrated, and every time you sat down (always gently), you got a little puff of something that smelled like sawdust. It was like being part of a magic act, if you pretended really, REALLY hard (TA-DAH! And she appeared in a puff of smoke!). It finally got sacrificed during a move, when we (and who knows HOW, because we obviously got the damn thing IN there when we moved in) could not, for the love of anything holy, get the thing out the door when we left. We had to cut it in half with a borrowed saw, and the resulting cloud of desiccated foam drove everyone out into the parking lot for half an hour (now you see us, now you go blind with scratches on your corneas- more magic show fun!)

Our favorite game was the mattress game (not NEARLY as fun as it sounds). Until we devised a system, every night we would argue about who got to sleep next to the wall on our twin mattress (if you slept next to the wall, you were virtually guaranteed not to roll out onto the floor around 3 a.m.). It got to the point where the mattress game was on the verge of becoming the thing that split us up. Not being pregnant, and scared, and broke, and tired of eating free fast food from work. The mattress. Eventually, we decided that Jason got the mattress Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and I got it Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays (I got the extra day cause I played the 'I'm Pregnant' card). By the time baby Isaiah came along, we had been given a double bed, which was a good thing, cause otherwise he would have been rotated into the system as soon as we brought him home. And he wouldn't have appreciated it NEARLY as much as he should have.

I learned to love ER. We had three channels (everyone remember those? 2&7, 4&5, and 6&9). ER was one of the very few good shows that played on any of those channels (although I still have a fondness for Buckshot's '16 Chickens and a Tambourine'), and it premiered the year we moved in. Since we were in the basement, the reception usually sucked, but we found out if you opened the window above the couch, stretched out the cord with the rabbit ears on it, and kind of propped it there with a roll of tin foil and 2 of those wicked ashtrays, you could watch the whole show (if you weren't too worried about Juliana Marguiles' skin color being an odd shade of green). I watched that show for years, and every time I did, it gave me a warm, cuddly, nostalgic feeling. (But not till a LONG time later).

Laundry days were the best. Although there was a laundry room in the building, it was $1 to wash and 75 cents to dry, and when you only own 5 outfits that fit and 2 of them are constantly stained with grease, this is not a fiscally responsible option. I bought a giant bucket of laundry soap at Liquidation World, and we would throw all the clothes in the tub, dump in some laundry soap, and stomp our worries (or at least the grease) away. Then we would take all the clothes, hang them on a rack in the kitchen/dining/laundry room, open all the windows, the front & back doors to the apartment, and the front and back doors to the apartment building, and try to get the stuff to dry before anyone yelled at us for bringing the indoor temperature down to -30. I wish it had been as fun then as it sounds now- I am laughing my tush off at the mental image of Jason, pants rolled up to his knees, stomping his arse off in a pink bathtub, suds flying everywhere. If I had been able to laugh a little more then, it might not have seemed quite so bad.

We used to love Liquidation World (I kinda still love places like that). We got a giant case (not a carton of 8, but a CASE of 8 cartons of 8) of Beef Stroganoff Hamburger Helper for like $5 cause the box was damaged and all the noodles were kind of smashed. I was so excited! There's nothing like 11 hour old McDonald's to make you appreciate fine cuisine. We rationed it out and realized that even if we ate it for lunch AND dinner every day, we STILL had enough for a whole month! We would eat like KINGS! We didn't have any money for actual ground beef, but that was totally ok- after the first box or 2, we realized all you had to do was cut down a little bit of the water you were supposed to add, and the consistency would be just fine. The first week was awesome- it was probably the most flavorful thing we'd eaten in weeks. We even splurged a few times and had it for breakfast, too. The second week wasn't QUITE as exciting, but still, it was way better than limp lettuce on a flat Big Mac that had been stored in the fridge since your last shift at work. By week 3, we had decided that maybe we didn't have to eat lunch every day- we weren't really that hungry, anyway- we could wait for dinner. And by week 4, the smell of fake sour cream had permeated the walls of our little apartment so much so that even the cigarette smoke and the breeziness of laundry day couldn't get it out. We have since been to dinner parties and banquets where REAL Beef Stroganoff has been served, and even though we KNOW it's been 17 years, and we KNOW it's probably real sour cream, we can't even try it. 2 years ago Liz, who has never had it, decided that she wanted to do that for dinner for Squid's birthday party, and even then, Jason still couldn't bring himself to eat it. He went out and got a McChicken afterwards. Just like old times. Yum. 

Eventually, we managed to get enough raises between the two of us to move to the 2 bedroom upstairs apartment, and after Liz was born, even bought a condo, and eventually made our way to where we are today (this is it, by the way- I hate moving. I will die here), and the icky memories faded, to be replaced with hysterical laughter when we talk about it with friends (or the occasional reflexive gag when we walk down the Hamburger Helper aisle in the grocery store), and I kind of miss it. NOT in a 'gee- I wish life was still like that' way, but in an 'I walked uphill both ways barefoot in the snow to school and lived to tell about it' kind of way.

We're still together, after 18 years, we have 4 kids we adore, and we're still (usually) in love. It didn't kill us, so I guess it did make us stronger.

Huh. Who'd a thunk it???

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