By Erica S. Brath
The kitchen floor is sinking. It’s not a shock―it’s been failing for quite some time. I step to the sink and feel it give under me. Even worse, when I’m washing dishes and the hubby steps next to me to get something from the cabinet, I’ve suddenly lost an inch.
At first we decided we had to fix it. After all, it’s directly under the sink, meaning we have a leak.
“We have to take care of it, or we’re going to be breathing in black mold, which is unbelievably unhealthy for us and the dogs, who are stuck in here all day, and eventually the floor’s going to drop out,” my sky-is-falling husband initially barked. Back when we discovered the problem. Back when we gave a damn.
Since then, larger, more pressing problems have presented themselves, and like we did with the floor, we’ve pretty much just let them go too.
It’s not laziness; it’s survival.
Three and a half years after we moved into this ancient metal sheet-clad camper that was never, ever meant to be used for more than a few weekends a year, I’m still stepping gingerly atop the spot as I wash a pan from dinner. A chore unto itself.
The hot water heater, located at the back of the camper and yet another problem unto itself, began leaking months ago―the plastic piece that connects the water line gave way, and the new one is back ordered. So, I boil pots of water on the stove, adding a couple of electric kettles’ worth for good measure, to one side of the ceramic sink. I soak the dirty dishes in hot, soapy water, then rinse in cold. It never really gets anything fully clean.
I’ve done all the small stuff, and now I can clean the frying pan. I empty the soapy water, scrub it off, rinse it in cold and place it, gleaming, into the itty bitty drying rack, the words All Clad stamped into its sturdy handle.
The pan is one of a few holdouts from the previous iteration of my existence. Back when I could afford an entire set of All Clad. Back before the proverbial floor dropped out.
“The more you make the more you spend,” a friend admonished recently when I explained that I need a better paying job. I have to admit that was the old version of me: I lived that life, making more and, consequently, spending more. I’d spend entire Saturdays shopping, not content until I came home, arms bulging from my latest retail conquest.
My friend Nora and I used to have a game in high school―we’d try to see who could score the most cool stuff for the least amount of money. It’s a game I continued to play well into adulthood. But unlike in high school, when the cheapest, gaudiest earrings or most sole crushing pleather shoes could rate high on the awesome scale, I later refined my retail love to pretty much only the best, for less.
Which is how I wound up with an apartment full of designer duds, high-end small appliances, and damn near useless bakeware. Not to mention the bright red Volkswagen in the drive. I was expected to live the part of employed professional with a master’s degree. You showed your worth by what you owned.
The problem is, you have to continue to maintain that trajectory, constantly making more. Your belongings denote your status in the hierarchy of common culture, no matter what subset of the culture you belong to. I remember, as an undergraduate working full-time while taking a full load of classes, marveling on my way to work at the black-clad punks begging on Haight Street. Their leather jackets, tattoos, piercings, and Doc Martens cost more than my tuition. They were faux po’, playing the part. They’d scurry back to the ‘burbs during the week, probably troll the mall for more black duds with their weekend beggings. Whereas I was plain ol’ po’, heading to the graveyard shift at the local diner.
I grew up fairly poor, until my father started making a decent salary as an airline pilot when I was in high school. I went from hand-me-downs to a fancy hand-built German sports car in the blink of an eye. But I still paid for my own education, working though my twenties to cover living expenses while earning my BFA. I was the proverbial starving artist, but in those days it was impossible to tell who truly was and who was the trustafarian.
Without a family fortune in my back pocket, I had no choice but to work. That included the usual twenty-something jobs ―barista, waitress, data-entry temp―along with bike messenger, tourist t-shirt designer, and phone warrior for the environment.
I never made much at any of these gigs, but they fulfilled two important aspects to my working life, in addition to paying the rent: a job where I could continue to be creative outside the daily grind and work where I wouldn’t lose my soul.
The problem came after grad school when I bought into the hype of my own superiority, my unassailable right as a member of the educated creative class to make more money than I actually needed to survive. I was told, and believed, that I deserved everything money could buy and more, by virtue of having attended school. Never mind the fact that I financed my degrees to the nines. Never mind the fact that all that learning made me no better than anyone else. I had a piece of paper, but I was still me. I just didn’t realize it at the time.
But that was then and this is now, and my current now is actually not so far from where I was back before my ego got the better of me.
The difference is that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t maintain the ruse. Probably part of the reason the soft kitchen floor doesn’t seem like the problem it really is: there are only so many fires that can be put out before you just don’t care if the motherfucker burns.
So, we just move forward, leaving all that was behind in physical and emotional form. Or at least try.
My husband needed work pants, so we headed to the Goodwill. Browsing others’ cast-offs, I froze in the housewares section. An empty picture frame sat on the shelf, innocuous, seemingly nothing, except for the fact that, in my mind, I could see the photo that belonged in it.
“Oh my god, this was mine,” I gasped.
“Are you sure? Look at the back—was it messed up like this?” he said, turning over the faux stained-glass frame with flowers pressed between glass. It was very poorly constructed, with the lead messily bulging out where some shoddy worker, likely ill paid or, worse, forced labor, hadn’t given a damn.
“I… I’m not sure,” I stammered. I honestly didn’t know. I’d owned the thing for years, but couldn’t remember the back. And why would I? When I put the photo in it, I’m certain I wasn’t paying attention, and I know I wasn’t the day I took it out, shortly before nearly everything I owned in our tiny one-bedroom was left sitting in its place, like Miss Havisham finally gave up and walked away. Or, like us, was forced out for lack of cash.
I think of all the things we left behind, all the things we bought when times were flush, and wonder why. Why the hell did I need all that crap when, eventually, it would all just wind up in a Goodwill somewhere for me to find and not only not need, but not be willing to purchase again?
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’m against stuff. On the contrary. Sure, I lost just about everything in the financial meltdown and what I do have pretty much sucks. My car doesn’t have heat. Or a working radio. I live in a goddamned RV. I live in a hallway, really. But I have to admit that walking away from everything caused me to rethink, well, everything.
Would it have changed the situation if I hadn’t purchased any of it? In the long run, not at all, because we had a significant amount of money in savings as well, which we ran through in practically no time. I was out of work for two years―an amount of time that requires trust fund money, not the piddly bit we’d squirreled away.
Yet my fiscal downfall hasn’t turned me into the miser of my grandparents’ ways. They survived the Great Depression and never really recovered, at least in their own minds. I remember their front door. I remember my grandfather stuffing newspaper in the cracks between it and the jamb each night, placing a bean-filled snake along its base, to keep the draft out.
After they died, my aunt went through the place. She found several thousand dollars in rolled-up small bills, stuffed in corners, under towels, a fifty folded neatly under the statue of a coal miner atop the china cabinet. They could’ve bought that front door dozens of times over with the money tucked away inside that house. But they suffered in fear of losing everything yet again.
Trust me when I say I never, ever want to not be able to buy the little things. I will never willingly don a hair shirt and wander the earth a pauper. I love Sephora far too much. I’m not willing to give everything up. I’m not the Buddha. Being able to afford a cup of coffee when I want one is one of the few pleasures I will never take for granted. I remember taking the bus to work after the car quit right before the economic fall. I sat down, tried to take my bag off my shoulder, and dropped my coffee all over the floor. As I watched it roll around under peoples’ feet, spreading in opposite directions with each turn and jolt of the bus, I quietly cried, because I knew I didn’t have money to buy a new cup. And I had eight hours of non-caffeinated work ahead of me. That was hell.
I still don’t make enough to tuck even pennies away right now, but my determination is that as things get better, I will find balance. My car may be old, but it’s a sturdy Volkswagen. I won’t be trading it on something shiny, cheap and new. No matter what kinds of eye rolls I get when I pull out my old non-smart phone, I won’t give in to new gadget pressure. And I’ll be happy about the fact that the things I did purchase before the fall—the ones we managed to save that are tucked away in a tiny storage space in Philadelphia—were quality enough to last a good long time. The memory foam topped mattress we strapped to the top of the Golf because it was on sale, the Kitchen Aid mixer―the only actual item we got when we got hitched―that will probably outlast me, the espresso maker, my grandmother’s sewing machine.
I won’t live in this disgusting, falling-apart Tin Can forever, but I might get a bigger one. Or not. But no matter what, I’ll remember what matters―having a job, sure, that pays me what I’m worth. And doesn’t suck the life force out of me in return. I am not my job, and I am not my possessions. As much as I swoon over the Vitamix and the perfect smoothies it makes when I go to the grocery store, I can live without it. For now. Maybe one day I’ll find it at a great price and it will end up with the rest of the keepers.
ERICA S. BRATH is a journalist and writer currently living in Ithaca, New York. She has written for publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, Certification Magazine, and Men’s Health. She is currently working on a memoir about her experience living in a travel trailer full-time. Her website is esbrath.com.