I Need to Do Everything in My Power Not to Be Poor
by Rebecca Pederson
I’m in the computer lab of my hometown library, the Ventura County library, facing the restroom doors. My stepdad threatened to kill my family two days ago and is currently locked away in a hospital. Before he was carted away, he dumped water on the family computer and smashed everyone’s phones.
I came to the library almost reflexively, even though I haven’t been back here since the day of my eighth grade graduation, the year my family was homeless. We spent that time learning what public spaces had free restrooms no one would question you bathing in. The library’s was the closest to my middle school, and so it’s where my mom took me to freshen up that afternoon, laughing as water splashed down the front of my pants as if we were on some fun adventure.
To be fair, we technically had a house then. My mom and stepdad bought a property with three units in a poor neighborhood. The idea was for my stepdad, a contractor, to fix up the units and then rent them for more money than probably anyone would be willing to pay in that part of town. This was their “get rich quick” scheme of the week. (Prior to that, their dream life involved living like gypsies on the beach, but my two younger siblings and I were not too keen on sleeping in the dirt while my stepdad passed out drunk on a mattress in the bed of his pickup truck. And prior to that, they hoped I would become a famous child actor, only to become very disappointed in and disgusted by me when a casting agent told my mom I didn’t smile enough and wasn’t thin anyway.)
My stepdad gutted the inside of the front unit until it was just a shell. My parents moved their truck bed mattress inside while my siblings and I still slept on the floor. We had no running water, no electricity, and no walls. When we had to use the toilet, my siblings and I went to the meat market down the street while my stepdad urinated all over the fence and pooped in a bucket he would later toss in a neighbor’s trash bin. When a quick splash in a sink wasn’t enough to clean up, we went to the YMCA. When my siblings and I had to do homework or otherwise get some space, we sat at rickety desks we found in the units’ backyard, a literal landfill.
My family claimed bankruptcy that year and the property was taken by the bank; my stepdad was too drunk and abusing too many painkillers to fix up anything.
My parents then bought a yacht through some sort of complicated loan application lie, I presume. We moved into another house that would also eventually get taken by the bank after I left for college (and after my stepdad had torn up the walls and floors during meth-induced rages). My mom bought a Lexus and a Mercedes during those times, both of which were also repo’d.
I’m sure there are countless profound life lessons I could take away from my upbringing. However, this is the only one that sticks: I need to do everything in my power to not be poor.
Yes, my family is one big mentally ill ball of dysfunction, and yes, I should probably be more focused on how I can help my (now three) younger siblings survive the financial and emotional mess my mom and stepdad have created through their sociopathic disregard for other human beings.
But all I can think is: How do I make sure I don’t wind up in debt like my mom–ever? The answer is seemingly simple: Don’t finance someone’s addictions, don’t ignore your problems by buying into a lifestyle you can’t afford, and don’t think you can outrun your debts.
If I’m being honest though, I don’t just want to scrape by; I want to live comfortably always and I don’t ever want to feel bad about that desire. I believe I deserve a nice life. I don’t want to think about how that sounds like something my mom might say.
I live in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the country. I don’t want to move away from it, which is fine because right now, I can afford it. But when I consider possible scenarios in which my seven-year-old sister might wind up living in my apartment, my first concern is how that will ruin my life.
How will I be able to keep up with after-work happy hours and simultaneously pay for her to join a gymnastics team so she doesn’t feel totally uprooted from her current, “normal” life? I’m also unsure as to how often you have to buy growing children new clothing, and if that is my responsibility or something another financially independent sibling should offer to cover? Do I have to buy special food for her, or can I force her to eat whatever’s in my fridge like I often do myself? Perhaps most pressingly, what am I to do about all my therapy bills and the electric shock treatment I sometimes secretly fantasize about having so I can just forget everything altogether instead of accidentally sobbing uncontrollably in library parking lots?
I don’t know the cost of any of this, and I don’t think that I’m the person who should have to figure it out. I’m already the one who has to call the mental hospital where my stepdad is currently 5150’d to, against my mom’s wishes, beg them to keep him forever because I’m afraid he’s going to finally murder us all. I think if I have to make that phone call, someone else should do the math on the rest of it.
Rebecca Pederson is an editor at Yelp. Her Aunt Leslie loves her blog.