Middle Class Feels
This story only appears in English. / Este artículo solo aparece en Inglés.
By Onyx Ramírez
My relationship to money has always been fraught. I never had a good example of what a responsible, healthy, relationship to money looked like as a kid. There’s something akin to crack about wearing some new and known brand or going somewhere and spending way more money than you should. I’ve seen my grandmother constantly blow money she didn’t have just to go back to DR for a couple weeks and stunt on her family. Her philosophy is that if she’s gonna be broke either way, she might as well be broke in DR...which is like, okay, thousands of people, our family included, in DR are literally starving but OKAY.
Growing up in NY, my mom had an annual income of $10,000 a year. We were poor. (Tbh, all of my friends were poor too so I thought I was middle class.) The best thing about having to be poor in NYC is that you get to go to the same museums and have most of the same experiences as rich people. Good food in New York is cheap and the cool stuff usually is too. Grade school trips meant I’d go to the Museum of Natural History, the Statue of Liberty, the Bronx Zoo, the Botanical Gardens, even that museum where they have all the giant models of human organs you can walk around in (look it up). I still go to the Museum of Natural History a couple of times a year and provide a $1 donation, out of respect. I lay down underneath the blue whale exhibit and I’m surrounded by its blueness for a long time. It’s cool, honestly. I get to be a part of this big, beautiful thing, this place, that people move halfway across the world for. People pay beaucoup bucks to visit my city, and that means a lot cause I got it for free - especially cause that’s all we could afford.
I grew up with a single mother, no siblings, which actually means I had an absentee father, two older sisters that I didn’t live with. I knew my dad, he lived down the block, but he did next to nothing for me. My mom and I did everything together then. We’d go for long walks in New York at night. We’d stare at the weirdos in the village and walk and walk and walk, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, enjoying summer nights. I rarely wanted for much more. I had the food and clothes I needed, and I always had popcorn and hot dogs at the movies. We’d go to the cart down the street from the Loews and purchase some hot dogs, stuffing aluminum wrapped sausages into our jackets. Or my backpack, back then they never checked kids bags.
We had duped them. Tricked the system. Every time I buy movie theater fare now, I’m ashamed that I spent the money. If I’d just suck up my pride, planned a little more carefully, or did what my momma taught me, I could be saving money and eating well.
When I was a kid, going to the Dominican restaurant, El Conde, was a treat. Even though we ate Dominican food every day at home, there’s a shift in the niceness of the food when you go outside to get it. The rice and beans are considered fine dining when they’re served in an upside bowl. Getting the Churrasco was a luxury. $22.00 for two huge, sizzling pieces of meat, skirt steak, cooked so tender and served with a bright green herbaceous sauce.
The one or two times a year we could go there and share the dish was a big deal for us. $22.00 was a splurge. We were like, perpetually broke. Always in court for being late on the rent. I brought this up casually in front of some of my friends the other day and discovered that we all had to serve as legal interpreters for our parents. I’d spread out all of these papers on our living room floor and try to decipher them for hours, wondering if this was the time we were finally going to get evicted. I had horrible attendance in school then. I was absent as often as possible without getting a grade deduction or being left back. Most of those days were spent accompanying my mom to the Housing Court on Livingston Street, trying to take as much in as possible so that we could sit after our hearings and brainstorm what our next steps would be. My teachers were super cool about the whole thing. My mom was the secretary of the PTA and she had a good relationship with all the staff. She wasn’t an absentee parent, we were just poor.
This Easter, I went to the restaurant across the street from El Conde, called El Malecon. For as long as I can remember, these two restaurants have been in competition; but they’ve stood strong, across the street from one another, pillars of my community. As an adult, I’ve come to prefer the food at Malecon. That day, my friends and I shared three large dishes: A churrasco, chicharron de pollo, and pollo al horno. All with sides. If I could have caught a glimpse into my future as a 10 year old, I would have looked into this moment. I would have looked like royalty to my dumb ass.
Now, I am an independent adult with a salary job. That’s so crazy to me. Every day I feel as though I could lose it all in just one second. It’s not even as if I’m making so much money, I work for a non-profit. I have debt. I just make more money than anyone in my family could even dream to make before they die because they’re all so poor. I’m constantly terrified of my life falling into complete disarray. I see it as an imminent threat. I still, instinctively, call myself “poor,” even though I’m not, anymore. I must correct myself every time I say it or think it. Remember: I have a savings account. I can dream. I have hope.
My mother taught me how to survive in poverty but I have no idea how to thrive outside of it. Over the years, I’ve collected tidbits of financial advice from friends and mentors but I still feel like I’m free soloing. I wonder, what do rich people tell their kids about money? What don’t I know about it all that will screw me in the end?
I’m the only person on my mom’s side of the family to have ever opened a savings account. I pay my rent, my bills, my student loans, save, and I give my mom $80 a month for her needs. I take her out to dinner and buy my brother’s birthday gifts from both of us. I know I’m not alone. Some of my friends pay their parents rent too. I’m guilty most days for not being poor and having my family still be. I still have poor people problems because the folks I love are poor, and that sucks.
“There’s no shame to being poor, but it’s no great honor either.” And that’s from fiddler on the roof so, ya tu sabe, yo soy una niña fina.
Honorable or not, being poor sucks. For the basic reasons like not knowing where you’ll live in a couple months or what you’ll eat in a couple days, but also because as a kid there is going to be stuff you want sometimes. There just is. Being a poor kid means having to look at your poor parents in the face and tell them that you get it and you forgive them for not being able to provide. Toys, video games, snacks; not getting that stuff sucks for kids, on top of all the important stuff that sucks for everyone that doesn’t have it. Still, my mom fought. $10,000 a year and (momma) we made it! We used to have these ratchet little picnics in city parks with crackers, WIC Juice, and government cheese in tupperware. Simple stuff like that made me feel good and middle class. That feeling is what most poor people want, anyway. There’s something honorable about the middle class. You’re able to breathe for a second, to look at the sky and exist without thinking about getting evicted or being thrown out of the movie theater for sneaking in outside food.