When I checked this morning, there was $587 in my checking account. About $380 of that will go towards rent, while $140 will be shelled out for various bills. That leaves me a grand total of $57 to do with as I please for the next week, including eat.

Being poor sucks. I’m an employed single person with no children, so it sucks less than it could, but at the end of the month, I’m living paycheck to paycheck. This is nothing new: I’ve been poor for most of my life, though rural poverty — which was my experience, growing up in Vermont — seems vastly different than the urban poverty I see in Chicago: the mothers with their kids on the bus, the bums riding the trains to be warm for a few hours. For my sister and I, it meant holey winter coats from the Salvation Army, healthcare provided by the state (thanks, Vermont!), and a picture of me telling a mall Santa that I needed new shoes, pointing out the holes in my worn Keds. It also meant a diet that made do with food stamps, free school lunches and government-issued canned food from the food shelter.

My parents owned a pizzeria until I was about eight years old, at which time it went bankrupt. It was a sadly typical story of how a middle-class family descended into poverty; my dad became disabled and unable to work, his medical bills plus the business’ debts became my mother’s, and it all fell apart like a house of cards, tumbling to pieces in a sudden breeze. I remember the years when the pizzeria was still open, when my sister and I would run around in the kitchen, sneaking slices of pepperoni and bread sticks, as feeling really rich, especially in comparison to what came later.

“Remember mayonnaise sandwiches?” my sister asked me, not so long ago. I hadn’t until she mentioned, but I’ve since had to explain my lingering distaste of it to condiment enthusiasts: “I used to spread mayonnaise between two slices of government-issued white bread because, hey, it was that or eat air for the next few hours.”

I don’t like white bread either, or spaghetti, or hot dogs. I had a knee-jerk reaction to most lunch meats, until someone got me to try real salami from an actual deli with chunks of fat and anise seeds in each slice. It was far from my experience of food-shelter salami, as far as the Butcher & Larder is from the depressed little factory town inVermontwhere I grew up. My town was an example of Reagan-nomics at work; even whileIBMwas growing as a company, more and more of my friends’ parents were getting laid off.

I spent most of college years being broke as well, but being poor in hippie college towns likeBoulder,CO, orOlympia,WA, meant dumpster-dived chocolate, marked-down organic fruit and eating out of the bulk bins at Whole Foods. At its worst, I’d bring tea bags to school with me, getting hot water and milk from the student cafe, just to have something in my stomach during the days. I’d eat dinner at friends’ houses at night, since nearly everyone I knew shared food communally, even to random friends who showed up in their doorsteps. Those years tasted like milky tea, rice and beans, homemade sauerkraut, stolen granola.

Since moving to Chicago, I’ve learned to spend money on food. How coud I not in a city like this? It was nearly a spiritual experience, parting with a month’s worth of grocery money on one meal, but it’s still something I let myself indulge in. I’ve come to appreciate fancy cheese, wine bars, tapas, gastropubs, sipping bourbon, and the two hour wait at Kuma’s in the summer. Otherwise, my spending habits are the same as they have been since the days when I considered orange juice and tortilla chips an unaffordable luxury. I remember the mantra of my proud-to-impoverished college friends: fix it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.

I’m obviously going to be doing without for the next couple weeks. Luckily, my pantry is stocked up: I’ve got flour to make bread, quinoa from the last time I went to a health-food store, Sriracha sauce, a bag of dried black beans, pickled carrots and parsnips. The kale in the veggie drawer is wilted but still edible. I’m not too sure about the mushrooms, but sauteed in some butter and garlic, they’ll taste fine.

Wait, we’re out of butter. I can either make do with some lard, leftover from when one of my roommates made tamales, or shell out $3. Lard it is. It’s still a million times better than mayonnaise sandwiches.

 

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