It’s like this

A few days ago I read
Davka’s post on class anger, and it got me thinking about my own experience growing up, and how it differs from that of most of my friends, and how it makes me different- if only in that I have memories they don’t, I have a perspective they don’t have. And then I was hanging out with my friend Starling McMorning the other day, who also grew up poor, and we were looking at photos of some strangers she is stalking via their flickr account (which is apparently a totally acceptable thing to do in this age of infinite electronic photo albums). These strangers are traveling in europe, and we looked at photos of them in Italy, photos of them in Greece. The photographer was a young man, tall and tan and ironically mustached, and his girlfriend- a white-legged redhead with a clear, blank face and white linen garments, was the subject of most of the photos. In each photo of her the sun seems to set on her shoulders, and blades of yellow grass bend at her bare ankles. She looks past the camera with practiced blindness, her young hands resting on a slab of warm stone. Starling and I clicked through the photos, fascinated.

They’re WASPs, she said, fascinated. They’re old-monied new englanders.

And then the next day I was having a conversation with another friend, about fancy rich art school, and young snooty hipsters, and far-away lands- and I realized- my experience really is different from that of most of my friends. Like really, really, really different.

And then I started thinking about the moments that had marked my growing-up, the smells and sounds and flavors that had filled my days.

And so I wrote this very emotional piece, sort of stream-of-consciousness, filled with some of the things that I carry. It’s growing up poor, but it’s also MY experience growing up poor, which I know is in itself unique, as all of our childhoods are.

It’s fucked up. But it’s the way it is.

Growing up poor is like this

It’s the smell of ramen cooking from a dozen open windows with the screens missing
It’s frozen orange or blue ice in plastic tubes that cut the corners of your mouth, and the way they feel in your fist when you pull them from the qwikstop freezer, and the way they feel thawed, loose and sliding in your hand, when your friend’s parents buy a whole box at costco
It’s windows with the blinds closed, always, but two slats broken or bent where someone peeks out
It’s checking the change slots of payphones and candy machines for a forgotten quarter, and finding one
It’s dumpstering powder-white yellow donuts at the bakery thriftstore way, way before dumpstering was cool
It’s taking incredible care of your toys and always knowing where they are because you only have three and you’re not getting any more
It’s being one of the paper ornaments on the big Christmas tree at the mall
It’s the pair of tapered jeans and the diskman you get from being one of the paper ornaments at the big Christmas tree at the mall
The diskman you keep for five years
It’s a free turkey at thanksgiving and a can of cranberry sauce
It’s your single mother, driven crazy from stress, and her leather belt, which you know and fear
It’s everyone’s stressed out parents, fear-driven and sick, and their cruel and loveless parenting methods
It’s not having any money for soap
It’s not having any money for the city bus to school
It’s wanting to go to school more than anything, for the warmth, and the regularity, and the free lunch
It’s social services, it’s social services calling on the phone, don’t answer the phone, it’s social services and they want to take you away
It’s wishing they would take you away
It’s women’s shelters and their clean fleece blankets
It’s women’s shelters and their humming ceiling fans
It’s women’s shelters and their oppressive, condescending environments
It’s scratched Teflon pans and hydrogenated margarine
It’s having three shirts and two pairs of pants
It’s not having anyone who cares if you go to school
It’s not having anyone to help you with your homework
It’s having the cops show up at your door because your brother’s been caught breaking and entering at fifteen
It’s a weakness for commercials
It’s a tendency to value over-packaged products
It’s an inclination towards waste, in spite of everything
It’s never having clean clothes
It’s thirty below and you only have a cheap walmart coat
It’s not having shoes that fit
It’s sleeping on the floor
It’s people who smoke inside
It’s knowing exactly how much the “fruit pies” in the waxy-looking wrappers cost and noticing when the price goes up
It’s not having anyone to come running when you cry
It’s screaming because that’s the only way you’ll be heard
It’s being abused and then forgetting it
It’s salty yellow popcorn from the corner store
It’s gas station nachos
It’s trying to live off of these things, trying to grow off of these things
It’s wiping your ass with newsprint
It’s a bath towel that smells like mildew
It’s a coffee can full of cigarette ashes
It’s potatoes for dinner
It’s an overflowing trashcan
It’s never going to the doctor, even when you’re sick
It’s not having braces and luckily, not needing them
It’s having far-away family members who you only see every five years and who tell you you’re lying when you tell them about the neglect
It’s having nine cavities before your baby teeth fall out
It’s having leg cramps from malnourishment that wake you up at night
It’s wearing four dollar canvas shoes
It’s the sound of the TV on all the time
It’s running away from home
It’s low-income housing and their rules
It’s moving every year
It’s your mother writing bad checks for cigarettes
It’s your brother disappearing for days like a stray cat
It’s your loved ones selling drugs
It’s your loved ones joining the military
It’s feeling grateful that you somehow didn’t have to
It’s having teachers tell you you’re “gifted” and still being too hungry to concentrate
It’s befriending your teachers, and having their kind words and words of wisdom stick in your head like priceless jewels, the only parenting you’ll ever get

What it’s like being an adult who grew up poor

It’s never going to college
It’s teaching yourself how to eat, how to cook
It’s crossing the line from one kind of poverty to another, and knowing that you will never, ever go back
It’s realizing that most of the world grows up the way you did, but only one or two of your friends did
It’s growing into your privilege
It’s being bad with money
It’s realizing that you’re not the only one who’s ever experienced violence
It’s swearing to yourself that you’ll never have children
It’s a brother who’s your only close family, and feeling as though the two of you have lived through a war
It’s never being able to talk about it
It’s being called a “downer” when you do
It’s secretly resenting your friends’ expensive college educations, and then getting over it when they graduate and have just as hard a time as you
It’s seeing a baby at the co-op in an expensive stroller wearing clean, well-made clothes and feeling horrified and disgusted, in the very pit of your stomach, and not knowing why
It’s being triggered by hunger and the smell of cigarette smoke
It’s having four visible cavities and more that can’t be seen
It’s not remembering anything under the age of nine, and finally understanding why
It’s extended family members who will finally admit the truth that was your childhood
It’s hearing one friend mention to another that they read in a book that children who are neglected and abused always grow up to be violent, psychotic people, and saying to them- “I was neglected and abused, and I’m not violent and psychotic,” and watching them not know what to say.
It’s realizing that abuse and war and genocide are all one and the same, and is a seed that we carry inside of us, each and every one of us, things that we are all capable of
It’s feeling like you’re lived ten lifetimes in one
It’s realizing that there are no monsters
It’s finally forgiving your mother

It’s not apologizing for being happy, or for the peace that you find
It’s knowing that nothing will ever, ever be as bad as your childhood
It’s knowing that it’s all a piece of cake from here on out
Life is a piece of cake
It’s feeling so proud of yourself you almost can’t stand it
It’s remembering your childhood teachers, and wishing they knew you now
It’s thanking your friends instead, who have found meaningful work as counselors and teachers
It’s being thankful for the ways you were spared:
you never had a father
you were never raped
And you haven’t gone crazy like your mother, yet.

28 thoughts on “It’s like this

  1. I’m so thankful for women like you and Davka, for having someone to relate to. Thank you thank you thank you for sharing and helping me feel a little less alone.

  2. Nice post.

    The checking payphones for change really brings back memories. My brother and I used to race and beat the shit out of eachother trying to check every phone we saw. One time we went to O’Hare airport and ran around for hours sticking our fingers into hundreds of pay phone slots. We found like $8 between the two of us, and we were ecstatic.

    It’s a lot of fun. The hunt, the anticipation, the 99 to 1 ratio of failure to success. But when you find a quarter, it’s soooo fuckin sweet.

    But kids now and forever are deprived of that fun, with everyone having cell phones. Too bad for them.

    If it makes you feel any better, dentists and orthodontists are overrated at best. More like scam artists. I “needed” braces, and they didn’t do a damn thing to my teeth. All they did was make me look dorky for 3 years.

    I think it’s more likely your bad teeth were caused by no one telling you to brush them often enough, than never having gone to a dentist. And if you really want to feel better about your teeth, just take a trip to the UK and watch people smile. Ha!

  3. Carrot,

    Thank you for writing. You are so privileged to have the gift to do it and to remember and to be able to write it here and keep the rancor out of it.

    One of your great posts… and you have had some others that rival this one…Casa Grande Arizona comes to mind.

    Keep need to tell us these things, we need to know…

  4. Oh my God, I feel you!!

    I drank with my grandmother tonight at the VFW hall, she kept hugging my neck and saying, “It’s all going to get better” I told her I felt old and alone here, and she looked at me repeating, “It’s going to all get better, while yelling, “This is my girl, we are going to be roommates when Papa dies!” My eyes filled with tears, she’s the love that liberates my poor ass.

    My grandmother was my best friend growing up; she had it rough as a kid, picking cotton, skipping school until the season was over. She always hated school, so did I. School is like an open wound when you are poor and sensitive. I was poor on a different level, that kind of silent poor that hits you when you get older, my mom hid it very well. It’s a poor that leaves you invisible, leaves you wide open.

    My childhood is scattered sweaty summers and best friends forever. My friend wrote me a letter, reminding me that love is not syrup. My childhood was like thick emotive syrup filled with faces and imagination…I never went hungry, but I’m hungry now for substance, for that education, for that childlike energy. All I can do is love the girl child inside of me, love the woman that’s angry, and call it like it is…like you said….

    I don’t share the same history as you but I share the bones, I eat the stew, and I know that I’m going to make it beautiful one day. WE WILL!

  5. I can’t say I remember memories like yours because I don’t – although my partner could probably relate to everything you wrote – he remembers the shoes, the shoes with cardboard in them, the nights of terror and the walls he woke up to with blood all over them and mum was in hospital again, he remembers taking turns to have a meal and the contempt suffered at the hands of more privileged kids.

    We never had much money but we had great parents and always had enough to eat and not many clothes but the ones we had were decent. I was that white skinned red head in europe but mum and dad’s money (which they didn’t have) did NOT send me there, I earned that money from the time I was 11 and opened an account and working odd jobs, and babysitting and cutting lawns … and saving, and talking myself into a store job at 14 and never looking back – but what I did have that you didn’t was the knowledge i coudl and would do it, and encouragement and matter of factness that I woudl do it just like the two degrees i worked myself through – and that is my heritage, that which I was given and am grateful for – the belief that it can and will be done.

    bravo to you for your fine mind and your words which inspire.

  6. wow.


    i have experienced so many things on that list. it is crazy that i am still realizing just how many experiences were class based.

    i have also not experienced some things on that list

    and that is privilege.

    this is so amazing!

    “It’s being one of the paper ornaments on the big Christmas tree at the mall”

    wow. amazing the things you identified and included. i’m linking you hotsteppa!

  7. Thanks, Carrot.

    I had so many of the same things. I remember the gas station nachos, back when they weren’t pre-packaged and you scooped them out and could have as many as you could fit in one of their plastic containers? We would pile the chips in the container and in its lid, and we would rip up paper cups to make the sides taller and fill the whole thing with layers. My dad always thought we were really smart, getting away with something, laughing at the gas station ladies. But then the gas station lady would follow me outside and give me fruit “hide it in your pocket and share it with your sister.”

    I used to ration food. Sesame seeds. Ten each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Chew them slow and they’ll mean more. And my sister’s third grade teacher sent clothes home with her for me. I still ration food without realising I’m doing it until I get all stressed out when something changes it.

    But I got scholarships every summer to the fine arts camp. And my dad made me fix cars and chop wood and haul water and run dogs and hustle my ass until I knew I could do anything. So I’m kind of grateful for that.

    And then I know people who’s parents paid for their expensive european exchange tickets and their rent while they were in college who consider themselves the poorest of the poor – and it just makes me wonder – what is real? Do words mean anything? Does any of it matter?

  8. Hi Carrot – followed the link from Davka’s blog. I appreciated your comments there, and love the poem. I’m torn between wanting to comment as a writer and say your imagery is vivid, your details are dead-on and the ending is perfect like a knifepoint, and wanting to comment as a reader and say oh fucking wow. I don’t find myself anywhere in here, find some of my friends, ex lovers, seeing bravery (yay for writing about fucked up shit!) seeing vulnerability, damn. Damn.

  9. Davka- Thanks for the link! Glad you like it!

    Thomai- You are so welcome. Thanks for reading.

    Tara- holy shit I am totally fascinated by that small bit you just told me about your childhood! Will you write more about it? I’m so curious now!

    Dane- thank you so much! I appreciate the feedback both ways! It was pretty stream-of-consciousness when I wrote it, I’m so glad it came out as packed full of imagery as I wanted it to be.

  10. Carrot, sometimes you are good, but sometimes you border on genius. This is post is so good I’m almost frightened by your talent.

  11. I wish your blog had those buttons that I could click to easily add your posts to my Facebook and MySpace accounts. And Digg buttons would be good, and also StumbleUpon. Does Blogger allow you to add that stuff to your templates? If yes, I’d like to work with you on that. I just installed those buttons for The Second Road:

    But if Blogger doesn’t allow that stuff in the templates, then I think eventually you are going to outgrow Blogspot.

  12. Oh and Carrot! Thanks for the link! When can I be a guest blogger? 🙂

    You should publish the poem. It’s so important

  13. can you write a blog about all the friends who claim poverty and then have their financially secure college educated parents sign for their house and land purchases! Please. There are so many of them in our circles.

    I love the ended of this.

  14. Gonna chime in with everyone on this one. I’ve been kinda waiting for you to write about this stuff on here. Super brave!! xoxo

  15. fuck – hearing that there have been specific situations like this, that have been stifling your expression, tara – is really angering…i didn’t know your retreat from the personal was a result of being hassled…damn. anyway, i’d payz, if i had any of that money available (and, haha – i’ve got parents who just offered to set me up with some land too…maybe we’ve got a conspiracy of privilege, masked in off-grid self-sufficiency, going on here?) but yeah, i’d buy/trade whatever in the future to read more of your work.

    anyway, this is carrot’s blog, and my original intention here was to just say that, yeah – i’m trying not to be such a stranger, but i had a little spell of not being able to bring myself to read blogs for a while (probably just interesting, exciting ones like this that make you feel even worse if you’re stuck in an ugly place). so anyway, i’m trying to catch up now, and so far one thing is for sure: I WAS AT THAT SAME CALIFORNIA REST AREA NEXT TO THE RV PARK – within days of your post!

    heehee, see you around.

  16. Davka and Tara- it’s definitely, definitely not a competition. The ONLY friends of mine who’ve been able to buy land are the ones who got help from their parents somehow to do it. And I think that it is so completely awesome, that anyone I know is able to buy land at all. And when my wingnut hippie friends buy land, it benefits us all. Much more useful than having your parents pay to send you to college! And I’m also incredibly happy for the friends of mine who come from loving, stable families- and some of them even have money! And it’s because aside from not having that safety net, as an adult I’m no less privileged than they are- I could go to college now, if I wanted, I could work a job I hated seven days a week, if I wanted- but instead I choose to be broke and do the only thing that makes me happy- writing- which makes me, essentially, a “starving artist”. And what, in the end, is more privileged than that?

  17. Everybody’s poverty is different, but my childhood and yours had some similiarities. Man, I used to LOVE those little wrapped fruit pies. I tried one again recently and I was really bummed that they weren’t at all as good as I remembered them. Made me laugh to read it here.

    My brother and I talked recently about growing up poor. He said he always recognizes the people who grew up like us by their teeth. According to my brother (who has not yet forgiven our mother), “People who make decisions based on their kids’ best interests get them braces!”

    Thanks for sharing your truth here. I love that your truth sounds kind of like mine sometimes.

  18. Thank you carrot for your openness, and bravery, now and through your whole life; which is rich in so many ways.

  19. wow carrot. this is why you’re(and this blog) is so amazing. You give voice to the poor, a very invisible part of the population and a very invisible perspective. I mean yeah you hear about poverty in the U.S. and around the world, but from other people who are very far away from knowing poverty and having a living experience like you have. They’re always reporting on it and never in great detail. This is the raw truth and its so beautiful that you have a gift to be able to articulate what it’s really like. I respect you and thank you so much for revealing this to the world. People need to know this.


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