POLITICS FEBRUARY 8, 2012
Before 2013 begins, catch up on the best of 2012. From now until the New Year, we will be re-posting some of The New Republic’s most thought-provoking pieces of the year. Enjoy.
Emily was 23 years old and had a $2 million trust fund. She also had a warm smile, spoke kindly to everyone she met, and was tall and blonde and beautiful with the erect posture of the skier and gymnast she’d once been. We lived together in Manhattan in a tiny first-floor apartment. Six shifts a week, I tended bar at a chophouse down in the garment district.
Emily (not her real name) didn’t have to work, but, while she was looking for an internship at a TV studio, she found a job in a bookstore. She said she was grateful for her inherited wealth but did not earn it so would not use it. Sometimes, though, she’d dip into it to buy me things she thought I needed: a new leather jacket, hand-stitched cowboy boots, a wool sweater from Ireland. I was grateful for these things but felt undeserving. I’d never been around anyone with money before—someone who could just buy whatever she wanted whenever she wanted it.
This was in the 1980s, a decade when there were 5,000 homeless families in New York City, and what seemed like a millionaire on every block. The homeless would be huddled in the concrete corner of a subway station, or curled up under dirty blankets on a grate outside a hotel or apartment building, the smaller children tucked between a mother or father and the granite wall. I found myself giving a lot of my tips to them, more than I could afford, though in some shadowed sliver of my psyche I knew I had Emily and what was given to her: a soft, deep place to fall, something my family had never known.
IT WAS THE summer of 1970, I was eleven years old, and in our small, rented house there was no escape. They got under your clothes, under your shirt and pants and underwear, an itch you could never quite reach—between your shoulder blades, up your neck, behind your knees, and in your hair. If you took a shower and stood wet and naked in front of a window fan it helped, but only until you were dry again. Then they seemed to rise up out of your own skin: fleas, gnats, bedbugs, lice—whatever they were exactly we didn’t know, only that we were besieged by them, and no matter how many times our mother called the landlord, he never sent anyone to fix the problem.
We were living in northern Massachusetts then, in an old ship-building town on the Merrimack River three miles from the Atlantic. Its downtown was an abandoned cluster of mill buildings with no glass in their windows; the sidewalks buckled and were littered with trash. Dry weeds sprouted in cracks down the center of the asphalt streets, and the only working businesses were a diner, a newsstand, and a barroom, its dim interior filled with the shadows of men and women drinking.
But it was a place of cheap rents, and it was the first town to which our young mother moved her four kids after the divorce from our father. Twenty-eight years old, she got jobs as a nurse’s aide and a waitress, then earned her way through school till she was out and working in social services, helping poor families like us.
We moved often, one year three times, always for a cheaper rent. We kids spent too much time watching television, roaming the streets, getting high on stoops waiting for the school bus. Children got pregnant at 14, boys went off to reform school and later prison, my best friend to an early grave, his own knife stuck into his liver by the girlfriend he’d tormented far too long.
As predictably as leaves dropping from their branches in the fall, the landlord would be at our door asking for the rent check our mother just did not have, and we’d be moving again, loading up a U-Haul truck with what little we owned, our clothes tossed into plastic trash bags, my mother’s boyfriend driving the truck while the rest of us piled into whatever Mom drove at the time—usually Japanese cars that still lived after 200,000 miles and once a ’67 Cadillac that ran on only three of its eight cylinders. Our mother called it “the pig.”
Some summers, we escaped all this by heading 2,000 miles south to Louisiana, where our maternal grandparents lived. We never owned a car that could make that trip so the five of us would take a bus into Boston, to a squat concrete building behind chain-link and barbed wire, its oil-spotted yard crowded with new-looking cars. Our mother would sign some papers, then we’d be climbing into a VW van, or a four-door Buick, or once a black Trans-Am with leather seats, air-conditioning, and an 8-track player with quadraphonic sound. These were repo cars, and our mother would be paid to drive them to New Orleans. It gave her enough money for gas and two rooms at a motel with a pool, then five Greyhound tickets from New Orleans to Fishville, Louisiana.
Swimming in a Holiday Inn pool somewhere south of Knoxville, I could see the last of the sun glinting off our black Trans Am in the parking lot, and I knew that after we’d all cooled off there’d be enough money for burgers and Cokes, and later we’d all be lying on our hotel beds watching a color television in air-conditioned rooms. This is what it’s like to be rich, I remember thinking. This must be it.
ONE NIGHT, crossing Third Avenue for the bar on the corner, Emily and I were talking about an old friend of mine, a woman who’d gotten pregnant in high school, dropped out, then had two more kids with the same man—someone who beat her up regularly, who had knocked out some of her teeth and put her in the hospital. After years of this, she left him, went back to school, and became a registered nurse. Emily had met her once. She liked and admired her. As we crossed Third Avenue she said, “You know the first thing I’d do if I were her?”
“I’d get my teeth fixed.”
Weeks before this, she and I had spent the night at her family’s home. It was one of five they owned; her parents were away that weekend at their ranch in the Southwest. I’d never been in a house like this. It had rooms off of rooms, and in each of them were deep sofas and chairs, woven carpet over polished hard-wood floors, tasteful paintings on the walls. She asked if I was hungry, and she opened the fridge and it was stuffed with food—cold cuts and cheeses, fresh vegetables and fruit and imported condiments, milk and orange juice and European beer. Emily was the youngest of five, all of them grown and out of the house. How was it possible for a refrigerator to hold so much? Especially in a home of only two?
She was surprised at my surprise. I tried to tell her how little my mother had been able to give us, how one night a friend came over with a case of beer and I just opened the fridge, and he put it on one of three empty shelves beside a jar of mustard. She looked at me as if I were exaggerating. How could I tell her how differently we’d been raised? In the circular driveway in front of her house were five Porsches her father had shipped over from England to sell here for a profit, something she told me was called the “gray market.” In my family, the market was where we went for food, if there was enough money to buy some.
I did not feel sorry for myself; I felt the superior pain of the inferior, the pride of the sufferer, the shame of the poor. I could also see that my dark mood was pulling her down and that she was beginning to feel guilty for something that had little to do with her. I kept quiet and felt far away from this kind young woman who seemed to love me just the way I was, this woman I judged when she was doing no such thing to me.
But now, stepping onto the sidewalk on the other side of Third Avenue, I heard myself yelling: “You don’t think she’d like to have new teeth? Of course she would, Emily, but she doesn’t have that kind of money, and, if she did, it would mean no oil in the burner that month, no food in the fridge. It would mean being late with the fucking rent. But you can’t even think those things because you’re from the Land of Yes when the rest of us are from the Land of No. We don’t even think we can have these things you take for granted, like new fucking teeth.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d done this to her, and it wouldn’t be the last. She stood there staring at me. In her eyes was hurt and a resigned sadness, then the hard light of resentment as she turned and walked down Third Avenue, lengthening her stride, getting as far away from me as fast as she could.
TWO WEEKS LATER, business at the chophouse having been slow for months, I got laid off. I spent the next month walking from one restaurant to another looking for work, but there was none. Rent was past due, and I had no money in the bank.
Maybe because of our fights over her privileged life, Emily told me she would not even consider dipping into her trust fund, though she did not make enough at the bookstore to support us both. I could see she was beginning to worry.
In the fourth week, I stopped looking for bartending work and got a job cleaning apartments and offices, but I earned half what I’d made serving drinks. Any day now, the landlord would stand at our door the way he’d always stood at my mother’s, his hand out for the check that would not be coming. Emily and I would have to move, but where? I saw us huddled together on a grate, or curled under blankets beneath hedges in Central Park, and I remembered one night when those bugs had gotten so bad my mother and I had slept in the pig parked out in the street. It was a humid July night, my sisters and brother miraculously asleep inside. My mother took the front, and I lay in the back. The bars had closed hours ago so we weren’t worried about the drunks; we opened our windows all the way. For a long while, I stared at the ripped fabric of the ceiling. I could hear the fan in my sister’s window, then the even breaths of my sleeping mother. She worked so hard and always fell asleep so fast.
NOW IT WAS DUSK in Manhattan, and I was walking uptown from my new cleaning job, preparing myself to tell Emily it was time for us to start packing. But, when I walked into our tiny place, she was pulling roasted chicken from the oven, her hair pulled up and back, and she kissed me and handed me a cold European beer.
“I paid our rent.”
“How do you think?” She smiled recklessly, like she was flirting with a stranger and knew she probably shouldn’t but would anyway. She seemed a little drunk.
“I thought you weren’t going to do that.”
“We’re paid up for six months.” She grabbed her glass of wine and moved past me and sat on the couch. She snatched up the remote and flicked on our color television.
I couldn’t deny the relief I felt. Like standing naked and wet in front of that window fan, all the itching gone. And it was clear she did not want to discuss it. I sat next to her on the couch. I sipped the beer she’d paid for. I watched whatever it was she was watching. Her hand rested in her lap, and I wanted to reach over and hold it. It was only inches away, but it may as well have been in another country, another land, one we both knew we would never be living in together.
Andre Dubus III’s latest book is Townie: A Memoir. This article appeared in the March 1, 2012 issue of the magazine.