Poverty causes you to think and respond differently than you might under more benign conditions. This gradually sets you apart, isolates you, and hostility toward the smug well-off swells to fill all voids. They’re no better, yet they have everything and you have nothing. Money handed to them, incomes finagled out of the masses or earned through mercantile matrimony. They think they deserve it. You’d like to wipe that self-satisfied expression right off their faces. During the first several weeks of my residency at 3629 Tilden—after making a good and bright showing at my interview—during the time I was only sporadically temping—money, money, money, money was uppermost in my mind. It was all I could think about since I no longer had any. I lived in a state of anxiety, savings gone, scrabbling about just to cover rent, in exactly the type of territory I had tagged along with Michael to avoid.
I hid the real level of my destitution like an embarrassing habit, too ashamed to admit I was so incompetent I couldn’t provide better for myself, evidently lacking something essential. I spent most of my time when not working in my barely furnished bedroom, depressed, unsociable, using my winter coat for my blanket as the season turned, watching the small black and white television set I’d nicked off the curb down the street before the refuse truck came by. It only picked up two channels. The clothes I had kept from better days hung in the closet in conspicuous incongruity—pure cotton, pure silk.
That room was a crucible in those dark days from which I would occasionally emerge, blinking at the light of the regular world. I spent many hours there trying to work out in my mind what exactly it was about myself that had landed me in the position I was in. I walked to my occasional jobs, sometimes in the rain, ruining my good shoes. If something broke or wore out, that was it. I lived on rice, apples, peanut butter, store-brand bread, and sardines; skipping dinner once or twice a week, going to sleep early. What else was there to do? Everything cost money. I began to surreptitiously snitch little bites of food from the others in the house, breaking into their caches in the refrigerator or cupboard. Either I was good at this, a natural thief, or they had the tact not to say anything, though I thought not; I thought they thought I was weird and were sorry I’d moved in. Well, screw them. Always hungry, the driving force rapidly became volume over taste. You’ll eat anything if hungry enough, not the particular self-discovery I was looking to make. But I would’ve starved before I retreated back home, with no hope of revival, or asked any of my old acquaintances for help.
After many miserable weeks and several false starts, I finally landed a job at Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, with the Latin American Collection, entering the catalog into a new data base, punching in the bibliographic information. Pretty simple. Pretty boring. And the salary was much lower than I had anticipated for, after all, a college graduate—not enough to get me out on my own, but it was steady and I got benefits.
I steadied myself and began to develop a routine. I raised my gaze to eye level. I voluntarily initiated conversations with people at work and in the house. I bought a new lipstick, a flattering shade, and applied it repeatedly in the privacy of my bedroom, looking at myself in the mirror, turning my head back and forth. I bought myself a fat box of tissues, a luxury for one grown used to pilfering toilet paper out of public lavatories, placing the flower-printed box just so on the dresser. I began to watch the nightly news with the others downstairs, eating supper, my plate perched on my lap. I was able to pay off my past; I slowly built a life. Not much, not ground zero, but all my own. As I lifted my head off the ground, I gradually came to know the other women in that starter house, each with her own need for revival, each with her own heavy baggage that needed to be put down first.
Here were four women stuck together under trying circumstances who never would’ve come together as friends on the basis of personalities or common interests. Each one of us was very different, and what made us different, one from the other, was exactly what at least one of us couldn’t bear. I thought Karen was a slut, she thought I was a mouse. Meredith thought Morgan devoid of culture, Morgan thought Meredith a poseur; we all thought she was dirt lazy. Morgan’s political thinking was anathema to me, to her mind I was a socialist—if I had an FBI file, I knew who had made the call. Meredith never stooped to clean; we knew Morgan was a closet drinker, that Karen on occasion went out without her brains or protection, and anything that aroused suspicion turned all heads and pointed all fingers directly at me.
The house was owned by an unsighted couple—the Heits—who had moved down to Virginia after retirement about two years before to be near their son. They had let the daughters of two acquaintances of theirs rent the house for the time being—not certain they wanted to sell—a strictly informal and certainly not permanent arrangement. But these women shortly afterwards and on the sly advertised in The Register for others to take their place without telling the Heits, one moving to her own apartment, the other traveling around England. A rotation of down-and-outers in and out followed, the ranks swelling to four to decrease each party’s percentage of rent, all ties to the original connections long gone. There was no lease; at any point the Heits could pull the plug—the son most likely itching to unload as the market boomed. And we would be out on the street. With trepidation each month we sent them our little package of rent checks, an assemblage of ever-changing names, hoping they wouldn’t notice, hoping the spell wouldn’t break. The type of situation only the desperate would accede to. But of course none of us planned on being here for very long, only a couple more months at the most, only a couple months more. We held no long-term interest. It was only an unlucky trick of fate that landed us here. We watched for our knights, in the form of money or men, to come and rescue us.
Karen had the large bedroom and had been here the longest, a little over a year. She had secured an entry position with a public accountancy firm right out of school, on her way to management heights, then was rudely laid off. She lived semi-comfortably on unemployment, nursing a strong sense of injury, turning down several jobs that did not meet her criteria, using the economic slap in the face as an excuse for bad temperament. Mainly she dated men, lots of them, and it was not nice to realize that she brought strangers to sleep with into our house with the regularity of a cat bringing half-eaten mice to the back door. She had brown eyes that were sharp and cold, and a low sexy voice. There was no nuance or shading to her looks, just big blocks of color like a brightly painted wooden toy: clear expanses of carefully tanned skin, a solid swipe of blond hair. She reminded me of a black-eyed Susan—the girl-next-door, but with a mean streak.
Meredith was here because she was separated from her husband. They were undergoing marriage counseling and she needed her own space. She was short, with a chubby face, and constantly gathering her long dark curls on top of her head then letting them fall back down in dramatic fashion. Her husband was short and skinny, his hair stylishly shorn into the shape of a wedge. They were from Lewiston, Maine. Meredith was here doing graduate work in psychology. Adam drove a van for a courier company. As a couple they were in constant crisis, Adam coming by to show his suffering, give her money, go out, break up, drive them to their sessions (he had the car). He didn’t have much use for the rest of us. Meredith’s confidence in her all-knowingness on all subjects did little to change my impression that those drawn to psychology were crazy on a particularly irremediable level.
But my especial aversion was to Morgan and her genuflection to the all-mighty buck. Morgan knew Karen’s younger sister and came here after graduating from the University of Connecticut, but only until she could pick up a job in New York, probably with a bank or an oil company or something of a similarly money-making nature. Until then, well, I’m sure she thought, ‘This is so weird,’ but she was saving her money. She would go directly condo from here.
I didn’t understand why she chose to cool her heels here, but eventually discovered she had no social skills and no friends. To the unkind eye fairly horse-faced, she had to settle for a well-groomed look: pale skin and a shoulder-length bob of straight black hair, pulled back with barrettes. Morgan and I fell out after she discovered how I’d voluntarily impoverished myself; a financial ravaging she would have as soon undertaken as I would have slashed a knife through a Rembrandt canvas. I realized then she had nothing except that which she bought. She never went out on the town with us, preferring to sit home in the comfortable chair working the daily crossword puzzle, drinking her glass of wine, filling in the blanks on paper and inside until it all became consolingly complete. You’d never see her pour that second, third or fourth glass, it appeared she nursed her drink, but her room held the evidence that she would take with her when she went out the next morning, throwing the tell-tale bottles in municipal trash cans.