There were two people in front of me in line at the Starbucks by my house: one, a stocky, stump-of-a man, the other, a plush, I-bedazzled-my-iPhone Latina. I looked at the patterned taupe and gunmetal tile, and traced the edges with my eyes until the barista called out.
“I can help whoever’s next.” Which was me. I walked to the counter.
“Do you guys have for-here mugs?” I asked, slinging my messenger bag to the front of my chest, and pulling out my brown, leather wallet, the one my students told me only balding men should own.
“Yeah, what did you want?”
“Perfect,” I said. I was going to stay for a couple hours and start on a story I’d been flirting with since the week before. “Can I get a grande black coffee?”
“Yeah, it’ll be $1.85.” While she went to fill the cup, I opened my tri-fold Geoffrey Beene and pulled out my blue, Chase debit card. She set the steaming coffee on the counter between us.
“Did you want a receipt?” she asked, as she confidently swiped the plastic.
“No, it’s fine, thanks.”
She bit her bottom lip first, then lifted her gaze to my unassuming face. When she started looking at me softly, like I was some sort of oft-beaten puppy, I knew what was coming.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, “but your card’s been declined.” I offered a solution.
“Huh. Want to try it again?” Unsurprisingly, nothing changed, save her face, which only contorted more.
“Weird,” I said. The steam tauntingly danced on my cheeks. “Let me go check with my bank and figure it out.” I walked to a table, leaving the coffee, and pulled out my computer. After entering my username and password, my statement appeared on the screen.
“Available Balance: -$10.41,” it read.
Post-grad poverty is a haughty, heavy-handed, love-hating asshole, because it reminds you of a few things: your years studying Dostoevsky and Brueggemann, while enjoyable, have left you surprisingly unmarketable; often, you can’t afford coffee, let alone anything but the sale cereal; you’ve got to stop guessing how much money you have left in your account.
Luckily, I had positive fifteen dollars in savings, which I immediately transferred.
“Available Balance: $4.59.” I smiled: nice try, Chase bank. I walked back to the counter.
“Funniest thing,” I told her. “It should work this time.” I returned to my table, coffee in hand.
A month ago, I was talking to one of my students at lunch. He was freeing a pre-packaged, rectangular piece of pizza from its decidedly hazardous plastic wrap. He gave me his apple, which he did every day. “Every good teacher needs an apple,” he explained the first time he handed me one.
“How was your night?” I asked, taking his trash so he could start eating.
“Good,” he said. “The power went, so it was dark.”
“Oh, no way! I didn’t hear about that on the news. Was it out all over National?” He chewed the cheese, pseudo-sausage, and bread-ish crust of his lunch.
“Huh-uh. We couldn’t pay the bill, so it just shut off,” he said, nonchalantly, and kept chewing.
“Oh,” I said. “Does that happen a lot?” He replied without hesitation.
“Yeah, like once a month.” The bell rang, and we fist-bumped before he walked away.
“See you after school, bud.”
For my middle-class friends — the ones who have snuggled into comfortably paying, socially respected careers—the post-grad years of scraping by, of wrangling coins for groceries and beer — become cutely nostalgic. “Remember when we’d eat Ramen all the time, and could only go out during happy hour, and got clothes at Target?” Now sipping $60 bottles of wine and donning designer jeans, these years become testament to their ability to do it—the whole poverty thing—as if it’s some sort of game, some trial-by-fire, a stepping stone to real, adult life.
My problem is that, for many, it’s not seasonal: the lights go off every month for years, the cards are always declined, pulling on those mythical bootstraps isn’t really an option. Aside from the whole I-want-to-get-married-someday thing, this is probably why I’m a democrat, because I work in the communities that are supposed to benefit from trickle-down economics. Here’s a little secret, though: they don’t. They’re stuck, and not because they lack motivation, but because they haven’t been afforded the same opportunities for success. Poverty preys on their prayers.
I was on a first-and-last date a while ago, and when I told him where I work, his reaction was telling.
“Oh, that’s, like, really ghetto, right?”
No, I explained: It’s National City, and it’s beautiful.
Todd Clayton is an AmeriCorps service member, working in National City, Calif., as a mentor for violent, underserved, minority youth. Read more of Todd's writing on his blog HERE.