When I was a kid growing up in King of Prussia, PA in what my sister referred to our “upper white trash” apartment complex in the 1970s and 80s, it sucked being poor. On the outskirts of the affluent “Main Line” suburbs of Philadelphia, I was surrounded by kids who had as many pairs of the new glitzy designer Gloria Vanderbilt and Jordache jeans as they wanted; I didn’t own even one. We were the “less fortunate” family the church sent the gifts to from “under the Christmas tree” at Church; I’ll always remember the “Girl, 12” gift tag on the front porch. The oldest of six, on Christmas morning when the doorbell rang, my siblings thought Santa had arrived with late gifts; I was the only one who recognized the origin of those donations and didn’t want to wear that pair of slippers.
I don’t have any bitterness or regret about growing up broke. It helped prepare me for being a broke adult. I see people around me preoccupied about money. Wars are fought, divorces are signed, companies rise and fall. I’ve never really been interested in money because I’ve never had any. My finances are separate from my husband, who understandably lives in a different zip code from the solitary island where I work and mainly live. I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck my whole life; never had a savings account. I was the first person in my family to go to college and worked three jobs during those four years to get through; I still haven’t paid off the student loans. When you don’t have anything to lose, I think it makes you appreciate things in a different way.
As a kid, I started working at the youngest age possible to be able to buy things I wanted that a family of eight couldn’t afford. I went to parish-subsidized Catholic school, so we wore uniforms, but if there was a school dance, I remember being stressed about what I’d wear. The King of Prussia mall, where the rich kids bought their fancy clothes, wasn’t somewhere I went to shop. It was where I worked, as soon as I was 15, at Gimbel’s department store. I walked about two miles each way to get there if my mom wasn’t free to give me a ride or if I didn’t have enough change to take the Septa bus. I remember cutting through the cemetery and over the train tracks, and how cold it was in winter; we sometimes ice skated at the frozen pond in the cemetery.
We spent a lot of time at the apartment complex swimming pool—as seen on Gen X social media these days, we wear the badge of honor of having raised ourselves. You went outside in the morning, and came back inside at dinnertime. That pool in summer was the setting of many of my best memories. It’s why I know all the “yacht rock” by heart, from the radio station they played. Fuck “adult swim.” We had to pack a lunch because we didn’t have money for the delicious-smelling cheeseburgers, fries and other snack shop treats, though I remember my grandmother treating us on occasion. Finding enough coins for a Fun Dip candy or Fudgsicle ice cream was a banner day, and walking to the nearby “Village Mart” convenience store or Vito’s Pizza offered even more options.
I was never officially a newspaper delivery kid for the Philadelphia Inquirer, but maintained good relationships with the older kids in the apartment complex who were, so that if they needed a day off I could run their routes and make some extra cash. I babysat, catsat (no dogs allowed in the neighborhood), watered plants, and all kinds of other chores my brother and I listed on a flyer we dropped off in the lobbies of the neighboring buildings. When you don’t have money getting handed to you by your parents, you become a hustler. Nothing wrong with that.