I’m at NYU Dental waiting to get a cavity filled. I’m at NYU Dental because I’m poor, although if I were really poor — I am thinking — I wouldn’t be at a dentist at all. I happen to be reading Michelle Tea’s Without a Net, the first time I have ever read literature about the experience of growing up poor. People who are not poor, I imagine, have probably read a whole canon of books on other people’s poverty. Not only do not-poor people have more than poor people but they also know more — they know more than poor people about everything, even this.
I have a cavity. I’m sure of it. For weeks, I’ve been pretending to be unsure, ignoring the sensation that something is wrong. I can’t afford for something to be wrong. I don’t have the money to be at a dentist. I have a credit card I can put things on, but I don’t like to use it because I’m already deep in debt, mostly student loans.
I am thinking it is not fair to call myself poor, thinking how my poverty today is different than the poverty I grew up in.
My mom says we were never poor. She does not like it when I write about growing up without. She tells me it’s not true. You always had everything you ever wanted, she’s countered, and she’s right. I worked crap minimum wage jobs after school and on the weekends just long enough to afford whatever it was that I wanted. Concert tickets. The prom dress. The used convertible with the rip in the roof. I had what I wanted, but I didn’t have the things that we all need. Being poor is more than what you lack materially. It’s a state of mind. Being poor is the greedy fucked-up feeling we’d all get on grocery day when suddenly and for a limited time, we’d have food. It means spending what you got when you got it because what you got won’t last and there will never be enough.
For my family, not enough money meant not enough food. No health insurance meant we weren’t allowed to get sick. For my parents, not enough money meant debt. Binges on credit cards followed by piles of bills, my mother bent over a calculator at the kitchen table, in tears, the guilt and remorse. In spite of all the spending, the stuff we still didn’t have.
One time, my friend Syd — who lives in San Francisco — posted a picture on Facebook that she had taken of the food stamp office. There was a big pile of puke that they hadn’t bothered to clean up- they’d just stuck some newspaper on top of it and left it there. I guess that’s what I was expecting from NYU but it was actually clean and sort of nice. I must’ve been expecting the place to be like a free clinic, but it’s not a free clinic. It’s not like an emergency room of a hospital, which I have been to and which are pretty awful and by awful I mean full of poor people. NYU is not free — you still have to pay, it just costs less.
Syd has cysts in her ovaries. I know this because Syd is poor. She started a campaign online to pay for the costs of having her ovaries removed, so that she is not in constant pain. She cannot get the necessary medical procedure, which Medicaid deems unnecessary, done unless she pays for it, something like $6000. I donated $25, which was a lot of money to me that week. I don’t think she reached her goal. Syd went to the same college that I went to, where I always assumed everyone else was rich and I was the only one that couldn’t go to the movies or buy beer after beer at the bar. Everyone else, I always assumed, had parents who paid their tuition and sent them a little something every now and again so that they could have a little fun. Just assuming these kinds of things does some fucked up things to one’s head. When they got older, I always assumed, their parents paid their rent or helped them buy their first place. This was not the case for me and sometimes I am bitter and resentful. I am guessing that Syd couldn’t just call home for cash either because otherwise she would not let the world know that she has cysts in her overies, which seems like it should be a very private thing– not something you post online. Poor people don’t have the luxury of privacy, especially when they’re sick. Poor people’s bodies, I sometimes think, belong to everyone. Rather than be destitute, we will sell ourselves to you.
My brother, who is on disability, sells his blood and sometimes plasma. If ever you are in Findlay, Ohio, and you get into a serious car accident, God forbid, you just may get my brother’s white trash blood pumped into you. It just might save your life.
I sold my body, too. Before I started stripping there was nothing I wouldn’t have done for cash. I worked in fast food. I worked in retail. I was a check out girl at the grocery store. I stuffed envelopes after school. One summer, I even sold singing telegrams. I worked long hours for unreasonable bosses, all for very little pay. Of all various odds jobs I’d had in my lifetime, stripping was — by far and in many ways — the best. It had the best uniform. I could make my own hours. I felt genuinely good at it. And then there was the money. Thanks to stripping, I could work and go to school. I could earn my degree and travel and participate in the unpaid internships that are taken for granted as part of the undergraduate experience. I could have it all, I thought, just like my well-off peers. Then, when I graduated, I thought I would have another, even better job — a job that I liked just as much, that paid even more. I would never work for minimum wage again.
Years later, when the “better” job didn’t magically appear I sold sex. When I write about having been a sex worker, I’m not writing about sex: I’m writing about work. Here’s what not-poor people don’t always understand: everyone decides what they are willing to do and not willing to do for money. Everyone makes a choice- though poor people, oftentimes, have less of a choice.
Less than one percent break out of the class they were born into. Most people, like my parents, spend their lives dreaming the American dream. Am I part of that one percent? Did I make it out? I’m not poor, I sometimes tell myself. I have multiple degrees. I’m a freelance writer. I’m not looking for a “real” job. A real job wouldn’t hire me anyway. I am a former hooker who writes about being a former hooker. When I am written about, it is overwhelmingly decided that I have no class. Because of my online footprint, I get to do what I love and what I never would have allowed myself to do had I any other options. These days, I teach writing three days a week, making less that I’d make if I chose, instead, to collect the unemployment I’m entitled to. I have a job, so I must not be poor. And yet, I play that familiar game each month: which bill to pay? This month, the rent is late. And the cable. And Con Ed. Poor people don’t have cable. I have HBO. I put groceries on a credit card. I have a credit card. I go to Whole Foods and buy olive oil and fancy cheese. My partner and I have a not-inexpensive share in our local CSA. I must not be poor.
I want to say that poor people cannot afford to be proud but my parents were very proud and, if anything, that is what I’ve inherited from them. I’ve inherited their pride, which is to say their shame. I inherited their reluctance to admit their reality, a reality over which — I realize today — they had little control. In the evenings in front of the TV, my mother poured over architectural magazines, planning construction of a house that would never be built. As a child, on the couch alongside my mom, I pictured myself in the homes pictured in the magazines. We lived in the basement of my grandma’s house. When my grandmother died, my mother inherited the house. She later sold it and moved in with her boyfriend and lived off the money she made from selling the house, unable to find work in her new town. Before this, my mother was a secretary at a racetrack. She worked there for twenty years and when she finally left there may have been a cake. I think she left that job thinking she’d get a better one but no one wanted to hire a fifty-something year old woman who had only worked one job in her life — as a secretary at, of all places, a racetrack. My mother was a hard worker, as many poor people are. Poor people work hard — a lot harder than I work, doing work I would never even consider doing — and they will never be anything other than poor. These days, my mother works somewhere else as a secretary, making less money than I do. When my mother dies, I sometimes wonder how my brother and I will find the money to bury her.
NYU Dental is a teaching school. The students who are doing my exam ask me if I, too, am a student. Why else would someone who looks like me be here? I am white. Well dressed. Clean. Under education I have listed my two Masters. I must not be poor. I tell them no, I’m an adult. An adult who cannot properly care for herself, I think to myself. Who cannot afford to go to a “real” dentist. When the real dentist comes in he explains to me that he will be speaking to the students, for teaching purposes, and that I should pay him no mind. I will hear big, technical words that he assumes I will not understand. He has not seen my chart, does not know of my multiple degrees. He does not look at me close enough to know anything about me. Except for looking into my mouth, he does not look at me at all. He gives me the script he gives all the other poor people. When I hear words like “anomalous.” Words in Latin. I strain to understand, if only to prove a point. Here is the point I am constantly straining to prove, if only to myself. I am not a poor person because I am not stupid. I am not a poor person because I am here at the dentist. I am not a poor person because I can pay my bills, even if they’re late.
Nothing in my mouth is anomalous. I have no cavity. I’m pissed. I had thought I had a cavity because I had thought I felt pain, but it was only in my head. Now, I’m pissed at myself for thinking something was wrong. Otherwise I should not be here. Ninety dollars is a trip to the grocery store. It’s my T-Mobile bill. It’s eighteen rides on the train. Poor people do not have ninety dollars for preventative care. If I were going to spend ninety dollars on a non-emergency I would have gotten that toothpick-sized splinter removed from my thigh. I’m pissed at myself for making this mistake. For being so stupid. I was wrong. Not-poor people don’t know everything. Poor people know something very important and that is how to survive with nothing. Poor people know what needs to be handled and what to ignore.
I don’t have a cavity. All I need, he tells me, is a teeth cleaning. He tells me I have plaque. Gingivitis. He begins to sound like a Lysterine commercial only, home care, he tells me, is not enough. I need a thorough cleaning, he tells me.
“How much is that?”
He looks at the student.
“It’s seventy dollars,” she says to me.
I tell her I don’t have seventy dollars for a teeth cleaning.
He shakes his head. He tells me again that home cleaning is not enough. The teeth cleaning is important, he says. He tells me that that I should start saving because it is very important and it is not a lot of money and so “it shouldn’t take long for you to save up seventy dollars.”
After he says that, I stop listening. He tells me a couple of times in a couple different ways how it’s important that I get my teeth cleaned and I nod passively. I have a couple opportunities to calmly or not-so-calmly explain to him why seventy dollars is, for some people, a lot of money, but I don’t. It is not my job to educate him — certainly not for free. Instead, I listen and nod, passing as someone else, thinking all the while how I will never come back and have my teeth cleaned. Even when I have the money. Even if I sell an article to a major magazine, even if I win the lottery, I will never come back and have my teeth cleaned. I will not come back and have my teeth cleaned out of spite. And there she is, the little poor girl inside of me, not doing things that are good for her — and sometimes doing things that are expressly bad for her — simply out of spite.
On the inside I will always be the poor little girl who can’t go to the dentist. Who can’t go to the gynecologist when she has a yeast infection. Who will, instead, sit in the bathtub and cry. The poor little girl inside of me who rations nice things like soap. Who goes without until it hurts. Who buys the fancy cheese that is five dollars more not because it’s better but just because she can. Who looks for herself and her experience in literature, sometimes in her own literature, afraid of what she may see.
Photographs by Hank Zalen.