Why Don't the Poor Understand (As Soon As They Stop Being Poor)?

When Shawn and I were on our walk today, we talked about money. How we are beholden to it and wish to be free of it all at once. How we hate being under the thumb of capitalism, but how it also offers us access to certain realities we’ve been conditioned to crave and to which we aspire, despite our best intentions.

Biggie Smalls once mused, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” I don’t know if this is true, but the sea change in my own life became apparent when I moved up the socioeconomic rung at some point, after years of nibbling on dull, rubbery slices of leftover Domino’s pizza and clumps of watery ramen. Years of bouncing checks and incurring overdraft fees. Years of never knowing if or when I would arrive in that mythical destination known as responsible adult life.

Today, I recalled that as soon as I began to make more money, I spent more money. My tastes changed. I drank expensive wine rather than the cheap $7 bottles with hand-drawn labels you could get at Trader Joe’s, along with your $5 calla lilies. I stopped making brunch, and instead, went out to fancy restaurants with exposed beams and brick walls trying so hard to be rustic but only managing to convey hipster pretentiousness.

There, I sat with people whom I suppose in retrospect were my friends, although I no longer remember their names and it’s been years since I’ve seen them. Everyone forgets who you are as soon as you make the two great escapes: from city life and social media. Together, my nameless faceless friends and I drank bottomless mimosas and ate overpriced avocado toast as we chatted about literature, politics, and other highbrow topics, interspersed with the occasional tidbit of salacious gossip.

I went home and slept off the drink and feverish conversation, everyone straining to be heard above the restaurant’s white noise. Morning faded into afternoon, and I woke up to epic hangovers and a craving for greasy diner hashed browns. I conveniently forgot the exquisite frittatas that I had once so lovingly and painstakingly made in my tiny San Francisco studio apartment. I would serve them in giant wedges on my mother’s kitschy 1970s-style floral plates. In lieu of a fancy beverage, I filled old tequila bottles with ice-cold water that my dearest associates and lovers and I drank from tiny mason jars. You know, before they became trendy and all the wine bars on Valencia Street began to use them.

I laugh when I reflect on that gradual transition from being poor to being something else. Perhaps not quite wealthy, but at the very least, brushing elbows with the privileged and entitled, some of whom made their way into my circle of intimates.

Now, tucked away in our beautiful house in the woods, I have to remind myself that Shawn and I have nothing to complain about anymore. Frugality seems to be in vogue in our consumer-driven age. We no longer live in a city or spend ample amounts of time with people we hate, yet whom we still attempt to impress for reasons unbeknownst to us. What we have is sufficient, perhaps even abundant. Many of our loved ones have commented on how much they envy us our bucolic environment, the quiet predictability of our rural lives.

These days, it feels quaint and satisfyingly rustic to make a cassoulet from scratch, and regressive and gauche to drop a small fortune on an outing with friends. It reconnects me with the ingenuity of my former life as a penniless artist, when I learned to make so much out of so little. When beauty is not something you can thoughtlessly purchase, everything is infused with magic. Like the fairy tales in which the guileless but poverty-stricken young explorer shares what little she has with the local witch, who rewards the girl’s kindness with unexpected abundance.

And then, there was my childhood obsession with rationing small parcels of food for my dolls and imaginary friends, who seemed much more real to me than the people who lived in my house and complained about never having enough. I had other matters to attend to, but in my make-believe games, I never inhabited the role of princess or schoolteacher. Rather, I was the leader of the resistance, smuggling stale crusts of bread to the persecuted and injured during wartime.

Even when I was poor, I never knew hunger, but I could imagine it. And because I had my imagination, I always knew there was something better, brighter, and more significant than being rich.

I’m Nirmala Nataraj, a New York–based writer, editor, book midwife, theater artist, and mythmaker.

As someone who has woven in and out of a number of different word realms—nonprofit communications, advertising, theatre, publishing, and community arts, to name a few—I know that liberation is possible through the stories we choose to tell. As a first-generation South Asian American, I myself exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, art forms, and languages—and it is this multiplicity of narratives that informs my personal and professional approach.

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