Growing up, I was lucky. Mom and Dad were medical professionals making a good wage. We could afford luxuries and amenities up the wazoo – and even when we couldn’t afford the chicer things in life, Mom and Dad put up pretenses to make us think it was still possible. They loaned money to take us on fancy vacations. They took us out on extravagant shopping sprees for toys and clothes. They never made us work for anything.
It’s a good thing, then, that I embraced a strong work ethic all on my own. I was determined, from a very young age, to be self-sufficient. I started working the second I turned 13 (the legal age for working papers in NYC), and I never looked back. Strange jobs, hard jobs, dirty jobs – it didn’t matter. I wanted to make it, and I didn’t want my success to be anyone’s doing but my own.
I’ll admit: I was spoiled. Or, at least, I had the potential to be spoiled. Rotten. My desires were never more than two weeks away from reality (the time between my mom’s paychecks). But I never took advantage of this. I came of age in the 90s, when grunge and hip hop were coming up and it was cool to be (or, at least, seem) raggedy and worn-out by life. I never flounced my affluence, and rather liked slumming it.
But I’ll admit, I had a lot of things to take advantage of: health insurance, a car the same week that I got my driver’s permit, a weekly allowance, a credit card by the time I was 14, etc.
I say all this to show the stark contrast in realities between the then-14-year old me and the now-24-year old me.
Today, for the first time, at the age of 24, I asked the government for assistance. I applied for Medicaid.
It was a huge deal, and very humbling, being a part of the masses and no longer just pretending to be less than affluent. I was huddled in the dirty masses, no different than the man who asks for quarters on the corner and the lady who sells fruit from a stand in front of the subway. There was no privilege, no elitism, no obvious strands of “better”. It was… freeing.
I was taught to have an elitist Liberal’s bleeding heart complex: “Let me help you, you poor soul. I’m way up here and able to assist.” Our neighborhood was middle class and, like many neighborhoods in NYC, only a stone’s throw away from the projects. Twenty minutes away were the pink houses, and it was important to remind yourself and your family that you were not them; you were better; you were making it.
I associated failure with being poor. Dreams of success were cushioned in lofty ideals of art and hope and unconventional means – but always with the given ideal of money tucked away somewhere. Not boatloads of money, mind you. Just enough to be comfortable, to get by without needing assistance. Assistance equaled weakness. Strong people were able to stand alone.
But standing there today, being treated as crappily as the next guy, I was able to look past the pretense and see the truth for what it is. I was able to see that most public service announcement cliches are true: All people are worthy of the same opportunities. We are all beautiful. Everyone does better when everyone does better. I was able to really breathe these parables and believe them. Wholeheartedly. Grasp them. In a way I’d never been able to before.
And if I sound pretentious, if I sound snobby, or snotty or snooty – I don’t know what to say. I don’t even know if I should argue with you, because you’re right: I am all of those things. A part of me knows how lucky I was to be able to have a vantage point at which to study all of this before actually experiencing it. Intellectualizing a concept is altogether different from emotionalizing it. And all I know is that the sequence by which I came to know these truths, the particular exposures and familiarity that I have with these struggles, have made me the best person I could’ve possibly been. And for that, I am very grateful.