The Shame Of Being Systemically Poor
In the era of wealthy appearances
When I was a twenty-something wannabe writer/wannabe actress and everything else in-between — New York City was the playground of choice, and just being a resident of an overwhelmingly charming landscape felt like a full time job.
You have to understand the requirements of daring to convince The Big Apple to pick you as “The One” amongst a sea of contenders, who are just as determined to see their names imprinted on the crevices of landmark buildings.
As a Gen Xer, I spent the nineties and early aughts, slaving away at jobs that didn’t fulfill the spiritual nature of my dreams. Perhaps the issue is that I never narrowed in on what I wanted to do at the moment when it mattered. College was a train wreck, because I started out at the wrong venue for a Black girl, who was one of two that resembled her at an all-White girls’ college — in an all-White town. And then when I made my way to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, I was convinced that I wanted to be a theater major, and dabbled into that option until it was clear that the all-White faculty didn’t forecast how diversity would be a thing — twenty years later, and so I was purposely left out of production castings.
I remember walking up to one of the faculty heads, and passionately making the case for why he should take a chance on me, and feeling the coldness of his stance as it became clear that he was probably going to joke about the encounter with his equally racists colleagues.
After the summer of 1995, that was spent bagging groceries instead of interning at a publishing house, I decided to switch my major to English, since the drama department wanted to keep things consistently “White.”
Thankfully that revision proved to be a winner.
I was able to flex my wings in ways that provided the validity that I had been seeking. And the classes were anchored by the best in the business, and under their guidance I found my voice and the reassurance that I wasn’t going to be a fuckup because I was actually good at something.
No offense to my sweet mama who is a writer herself and enjoyed an illustrious career during her time at NTA (Nigerian Television Authority), but it would’ve been nice if she had encouraged me to pursue a writing career back when my published poems at the age of nine in the local paper — turned heads.
But the Nigerian mentality has and always will be secured in the traditionalized methods of pushing children to seek loftier heights, which is usually embedded in avenues that promise lucrative forecasts like medicine, law, architecture, accounting, etc.
It’s possible that my mother concluded that despite the fact that I had inherited her talent as a wordsmith, she thought it best to allow me to explore other more “honorable” pursuits.
After graduation in 1996 — I headed to New York with a quickness, in order to initiate the dreams of conquering the literary market with my specific brand of prowess. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had bitten way more than I could chew, as I clung to every job under the sun, while studying how to enter an industry that was pretty much closed off to anyone who wasn’t an Ivy Leaguer or socialite.
When you’re young and purposeful with oodles of energy, you really believe the unfathomable can happen if you just try hard enough.
I was too naive to comprehend that successfully teaching myself Microsoft Office Suite after realizing that I had exited college without the fundamentals for a corporate environment, wasn’t enough to garner that editorial assistant gig. And the face-to-face meeting with the editor of Honey Magazine at my hair salon in Soho, wasn’t going to yield any returns because that wasn’t the era of looking out for the Black Girls with Magic.
I was derailed more times than I would like to recall, and as the years piled up, panic set in as I envisioned living out my mature years in the exact manner that I’m doing now.
In late 2004, I left the retail job that I had held for almost seven years, and decided that at the age of thirty-one, it was a do or die affair. I had tried but failed to make New York love me enough to give me the career I desired, so Los Angeles seemed like a fitting alternative.
My reception was perfect, almost too perfect for comfort, and it made me resent New York for not being as gracious. I was able to rack up time spent at production companies, interviews at E! when it was entertainment television, and not the home of The Kardashians — and short-term assignments at CAA and other notable talent agencies where stars are made.
I did all that in under a year, but instead of continuing the promising trajectory, I ended up returning to the scene of my discontent.
This time I was older and ready to either become the literary star of my vision board, or the New Yorker who works hard for the money at any company that was willing to pay enough for dependable labor.
Once the blogging era arrived, I was knee deep in client paperwork at a top financial institution that paid me decent money to help facilitate the account opening process for the wealthy and wealthier. I was also managing the load of manning my own website, while freelancing steadily for a couple of popular portals.
The payoff was the delight of being able to realize the dream of carving out enough time from a hectic schedule, to tend to the only thing that boosted my harassed ego.
But looking back, it’s clear that the miscalculation has resulted in the shame of being systematically poor at a time in my life, when such a thing is inexcusable.
Regardless of how hard you’ve slaved away, and the immense personal contribution to an ungrateful workforce — my current disposition as an out-of-work freelancer who had promising interludes that have vanished into thin air — will lump me in the category of “null and void.”
I’m too old to be broke as shit, with the excuse of youth and the hope that “it won’t always be like this,” and I’m too young to throw in the towel and prepare for the fate of exiting this world with tons of debt — and the embarrassment of never living out the success story we all strive for.
Instagram wasn’t a thing when I needed it the most, and now I have the pleasure of watching people my age pathetically compete with much younger users, who somehow look effortlessly cooler depicting how you can exert a lot less energy for endless rewards.
I’m also the Gen Xer who was told that you can’t expect something for nothing, which meant that in order to reap the benefit of an enviable lifestyle, I had to put in the work that could measure up to that privilege.
But it’s hard to reconcile those pearls of wisdom to the present climate that celebrates the touted accomplishments of newly-minted billionaires, who used their stash of millions to achieve the achievable without breaking a sweat.
And then you have the sentiment that supports the ideology that in order to be feted as the top of your class, you already have to be at the top.
You can’t expect to be a measly writer with an impressive portfolio, a dismal number of followers, and no book deals on the horizon, and imagine that you can enjoy the level of respect that’s afforded to writers who aren’t nearly as talented — but have the numbers and newly released novels to prove why they’re inexplicably worth more than you.
I’m in a poor state of mind, and that’s because I’m helplessly poor.
The job market is in worse shape than experts want to admit, and the ones who are impacted the most, are the Gen Xers who are caught in the cycle of the “middle child syndrome,” that leaves us vulnerable to the elements that are beyond our control — despite our above average capacity.
“We’re seeing the highest stress rates we’ve ever seen in the workplace right now because Gen X is really that middle generation.” “At home, we’re managing our parents and kids. At work, we’re managing older bosses and brand new, younger employees who have been moving up the ranks incredibly quickly. They’re incredibly brilliant, and there’s stress put on us at each end … That’s why it’s one of the reasons we’re seeing such high stress rates, and that’s what we call the ‘Marcia Moment.’”
I’ve experienced the road blocks and dead end streets at various stages of my uneven career, and the frustrating sensation of being caught in the middle because of the lack of a definitive role, thanks to the clear cut roles of the oldies and newbies.
They say it begins with how you enter the arena, because it foreshadows the rest of your journey.
I had the misfortune of too many misses and the lack of life-altering mentorships that could’ve enhanced my chances of “making it.” Of course I could’ve worked harder than I did because you can always be better, but I can’t honestly say that I fucked up too many times to expect a better outcome.
There are many who are around my age — saddled with debt, and the baggage of uncertainty that makes sleepless nights and crippling mornings the settled norm. And we wonder how all our best efforts amounted to a reality that doesn’t at all represent the sacrifices we made, or the work shifts that paid us with the understanding that we would be compensated with the evidence of our tenacity.
In the era of wealthy appearances, being poor is a major buzzkill that doesn’t even have a hashtag that demonstrates its true meaning.
Influencers are blissfully hassling upscale resorts to provide free lodgings in exchange for services that don’t add up to the dollar amount that they can’t afford — due to a snag in their presentation.
There’s a dominant theme in the marketplace that calls for a tendency towards packaged visuals as the elevation of media superstars who are mostly adorned Millennials who were born at the right time. They answer to the requests of Gen Xers who were lucky enough to escape the potholes that swallowed up their less fortunate counterparts.
I’m very poor.
I can’t even comfortably plan a trip back to my country of Nigeria without choking on the budget, and so I rely on the bedazzled scrapbooks on Instagram, that showcase the younger versions of someone who still resides in my heart, but never got the permission to blossom.
I’m poor because if I were to die in a couple of hours, the logistics that are left behind will speak on my behalf, and the summation won’t do a good job explaining how hard I tried, and how not everyone gets to enjoy what accompanies those actions.
When you’re poor, life is long, and you have the time to imagine how much longer you will be stuck in a place that isn’t flexible enough to give you the optimism of a jet-setting thirty-something.
My wealth resides in my words, and my currency is how I exchange them for the duty of relaying the shit that would make my Instagram page bleed for attention — because being poor and unemployed won’t get you followers or the invite to events that are reserved for those who are paid to teach us how to be just like them.
It’s a damn shame that being poor in America isn’t trending because it would be an absolute hit. And if that day ever comes, I would obligingly lend my expertise.
But not for free!