Last year, a reader wrote in the comments section beneath an article of mine posted online, that I was ‘a smug and entitled farkety fark fark.’ Well, that’s not exactly what she wrote but journalism standards prevent a verbatim repetition. I’d been having a whinge about getting jailed by the Americans: “orange isn’t the new black, in fact orange doesn’t suit anyone, blah de blah blah” … when the truth was I had little to complain about, being middle class with a rich boyfriend and all my own teeth. The Americans let me out, after all.
Twelve months later, single and poor, I’ve realised that particular reader, while clearly dealing with an anger problem, had a point: I was being an arse-hat, maybe not in that article but definitely in life, where I had become a bit of a mean girl. And this is the problem with having money: it becomes easy to mock those who don’t have it, harder to be compassionate. I’m not saying the wealthy are dicks, maybe it’s just me.
Material comfort is like a blanket, good for hiding under. Have it for long enough, you’ll forget the years without two cents to rub together. You might even, in your arrogance of disregard, pick up an impoverished hitchhiker and make fun of him later at a dinner party for being whiffy.
I was reminded of this yesterday at the nice warm library (where the internet is free), after biking into town through a rain storm from the one-room cabin in the woods where I now live, when I realised there was little to distinguish me from the other homeless people. I too, was soaked through and ponged a tad, I too talked to myself occasionally. More of a thoughtful ‘hummm’ than out-and-out ranting, if you know what I mean − the point is nothing but luck separates us from the less fortunate, and this is a very good thing to be forced to remember. Over our lifetime, if we are blessed, we go up and down in status, have stuff and lose stuff, and what’s really important, rich or poor, is not the new-fangled-ness of the white ware you’ve accumulated, but that you are a good person.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been poor, but after 15 years of double income bliss, fair to say it’s come as an unwelcome surprise. I’m broke. I’m so broke I have negative money. That’s less than no money. The bank called me to complain that I had insufficient funds. “I couldn’t agree with you more,” I said. “My current level of fiscal insecurity is shocking.” They seemed to think I was doing it on purpose. That I was being broke just to annoy them.
To begin with there is a kind of nobility in poverty, a Mary Tyler Moore, ‘I’m going to make it after all’ will to survive, a Gloria Gaynor soundtrack. This wears thin the first time you realise it’s going to be a petrol-or-food situation this week. And everything is so expensive. Like an old person rocking on the porch, reminiscing, fondly do I recall the days when I went to the supermarket and bought whatever I wanted. Such disgusting prolificacy: $24 bottles of wine! $8 cheeses! It’s true what they say: two really do live cheaper than one. Especially if one of the two is a man with a large salary.
It is with a sob and a sigh and a gluttonous look in my eye that I farewell those years of plenty. Did I mention I’m a writer? The average New Zealand writer makes $12.50 a year. Before taxes. Because of which, some of the things I now cannot afford include: pedicures, pride, bikini waxes (things are dire down there) and the dentist. It seems I am destined to be a toothless crone with gnarly toes and pubes to her knees. Currently living in the country, after months of sawing wood, my right arm is absolutely massive, making me look lop-sided. On a positive note, I’ve almost completely stopped accidentally sawing my hand and leg in the process and will soon be strong enough to start the lawn mower. So at least one overgrown jungle will be getting a trim.
When the sheep noises get too much, I come into town, my enormous arm hanging out the car window, and marvel at the modern conveniences: bath tubs, flush toilets, washing machines and best of all: television. Tell you what, if you haven’t had a TV for a while, even sport is interesting. Sometimes, watching the news at a friend’s house, I swear that lovely Peter Williams is smiling right at me. I wonder if he has a girlfriend? Tell him I’m poor, but nice.