Some Advice for the Rich from the Poor

Have you had the money dream yet? You know, you're standing in the cramped manager's office of a pet shop. Next to you is your girlfriend. In front of you is a big owl. There's a turtle, a salamander, some mice and a bowl of fish. Your girlfriend reaches out and hands the pet shop manager a wad of cash. You say to her: "Sheila, if you got that money out of the ATM, we're not going to be able to pay the rent." She is startled. You repeat: "If you got that money out of the ATM, we're not going to be able to pay rent." And then you look at the owl. That bird is going to eat five dollars a day worth of mice. And you look at the turtle. It's sick. There will be vet bills. And you look at the manager and she is glowing with greed, and she already has the money. But you could demand the money back and she knows it. You look at the wad and hope it's mostly ones. But then the manager turns conciliatory and leafs two bills and gives them back to your girlfriend. A five and a fifty. Maybe if all the rest are ones...But you get home and check your bank balance online and realize you just spent three hundred dollars on animals you didn't really want. The rent? No, you're not paying it.

Have you had this dream? I think a lot of people are having this dream right now. I've been having this dream for like fifteen years. What's really odd about being dirt poor for so long is that you hear all this news about the economy going up and going down, and you see all these people worried and panicked, and you just shake your head. Because your life never changes. Every week you go to your little part-time job for a couple of days and do your manual labor and collect your pittance and then go back to your flat and live on rice and carrots and write your stories and it just never changes.

"This is the worst crisis in ten years," they said in '94. "This is the worst crisis in fifteen years," they said in '99. "This is black Monday. That was black Wednesday." The economic commentators are saying things like: "I feel your pain" and "We all took a blow today." And you just shake your head. Nothing in your life has changed. You are at the bottom of the capitalist food chain, way down at the bottom, and you look up at the storms above you and they just don't affect you. "Unemployment is at an all-time high," they say. "One out of every nine Americans is out of work," they say. But then, there you are. You've just moved to a new city in the middle of this crisis and how long does it take you to find a job? About three hours. You're on the phone talking to some telemarketing manager and he hires you on the spot. In three hours you got a job in the midst of the "Worst financial crisis since the Great Depression." And so you shake your head.

You wonder: Why doesn't everyone else live like me? Why do all those people at the top put themselves through all that? Look at 'em. They're freakin' out. And yet there are jobs everywhere. The paper today says Bank of America is laying off 30,000 workers, but I'm riding my bike home from my temporary warehouse job and there are help wanted signs up at the chicken place, and at McDonald's. All they gotta do is eat rice and carrots and live in a crummy neighborhood and go everywhere on a bicycle and suddenly their problems would be solved. Don't they see this? They gotta see this. They're not stupid. Maybe they just don't consider it an option. Maybe they like being the hostages of mortgages and market corrections and office politics and competition. Maybe they just like it.

It's so simple. If people counted up how much money they spend on their car payments, and their insurance, and gasoline, and maintenance, just that; and then calculated how many hours a week they spend working just to cover those costs, they would see that they could work a lot less hours per week by simply selling their car. If people calculated how much more money they spend on their townhomes, and their property taxes, and their house insurance, and their neighborhood association fees, they would see they could cut away a lot more hours by just living in a small apartment in the ghetto. If people then calculated how many hours they spend eating in restaurants, and consuming booze and sugar and movie theater popcorn, they would see they could cut even more hours off their work schedule. In fact, if they lived in a crummy apartment, and went everywhere on a bicycle, and lived a life of plain food and public library entertainment, they would see that they could live on about $750 dollars a month--$600 with a roommate. That's all. $750 a month. I know this to be an undeniable fact because I've been doing it for fifteen years. I've been living on that amount for fifteen years. Even in San Diego and in Massachusetts and in Honolulu. I just looked at my old tax returns and the most I've ever made in my life in one year was $13,000 dollars. My average income over the last ten years? $8,500. And this is by choice.

Because for less than a lot of people's car payment I can live for a month. For less than the price of their car I can live for literally years. I don't have to answer to anybody, not even my boss. Because if I get mad at my boss I can always just quit. Because there's always work at the bottom. Always. I don't have to deal with office politics. Because even when it's there the stakes are so low it doesn't matter. I don't have to feel cheated by the insurance company or the gas corporation. I don't have to answer to the city or state for my excise or property taxes. I don't have to do anything besides what I want to do. If you live at the bottom, I'm saying; if you live in the ghetto; if you live simply--your life is yours.

You know how many working hours it takes a month to make $750 dollars? Right now I make eight dollars an hour as a part-time baker in a deli. That's less than a hundred hours a month. That's less than 25 hours a week. 25 hours a week! You know that guy whose working 70 hours a week in a high-paying job he doesn't like to cover all those expenses I just described? What would he do with that extra 45 hours a week? You think he might go for a bike ride in the sun on Tuesday afternoon about three when all the bagels are cooked and he's off for the next two days? You think he might have some rice and carrots with his wife and then make love to her with the breeze blowing through the window on Thursday morning and then enjoy a luscious after-breakfast nap? You think he might read about the history of World War II, maybe. Or a book about astronomy? What do you think he would do?

I think right now he's probably pausing. He probably just sat back in his swivel chair and started to wonder what he would do. And maybe he'll look at the clock now and realize it's pretty late, like 11 p.m., and think he feels pretty tired and that he's got to get home to get some sleep so he can get up at five tomorrow so he can be in the office by six-thirty to be ready for the 7 a.m. meeting. And then suddenly he finds himself at home, slipping into bed beside his zonked wife there in her teddy. And he wants to love her but he's tired and she hates being awakened by erections. So, exhaustedly, he slumps into his pillow, remembers for a moment what it might be like if he had all those hours all those weeks to just write that novel he knows he's got in him, and then those last thoughts fade into sleep, he sleeps, and...yes...he has the money dream.

Yeah, the money dream is always there. At the bottom and the top. There's always the owl and the mice and the mercenary manager. But at least at the bottom you can have some fun, too, and face it on your own terms.

Read 43 reactions to this essay here >>>

John Dishwasher

Some Advice for the Rich from the Poor