I turned 31 a few months ago, and a month later I moved out of Brooklyn and back into my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house in Oakland, Calif. At that point, my latest bout of unemployment had lasted about nine months, and the looming end of my Emergency Unemployment Benefits at the year’s end prompted the begrudging decision to, at least temporarily, give up my independent life.
I graduated from Vassar College 10 years ago with a BA in Film and dived into life in New York City full of optimism and excitement for my future. I imagined that I’d be “rich and successful” by the time I was 25. After failing to secure a job in my field immediately after college I turned to retail. It was fairly easy work to get, and once I ascended into the world of high-end luxury designer sales, it afforded me just enough money to live a fairly comfortable — if still a paycheck to paycheck — existence while I pursued my creative passions. A couple-year interlude working as a production assistant on films and television shows offered some brief hope that I may actually make it into the business, but life as a freelancer was hard and I spent months on and off unemployment waiting for new projects to materialize. The desire for something stable sent me back to retail, where I remained until I was laid off a few years later. In retrospect I probably could have been more aggressive in securing a career, but in a city like New York you either work or you starve, and jobs became harder and harder to come by as the years wore on and the economy crashed, so the motivation to take what you could get and not give it up was strong.
Being poor anywhere sucks, but there’s perhaps a particular kind of soul crushing that one experiences being poor in New York City. The cost of living is so high, and the constant inundation from all around you of experiences you could be having, things you could be buying, luxury apartments where you could be living, if only you had the finances, slowly break you down inside. Various people have asked about “savings” over the years; I think at one point I might have had two or three hundred dollars in a savings account, but honestly, I don’t know how anyone who lives in New York City could have savings unless they make six figures. My “affordable” rent in Park Slope, Brooklyn was never less than $900 a month, and it never stopped going up, unlike my income. On average, after rent and bills, I probably had less than three hundred dollars per month to put toward food, other expenses and social activities. As the years wore on, and my employment became less and less steady, I relocated to a cheaper building in a less glamorous neighborhood, but since I wasn’t making as much money, that did little to ease the stress of supporting myself. Sometimes after rent and bills I had nothing leftover, and the only reason my rent checks didn’t bounce was because of my credit line with my bank.
Sometimes I really didn’t have the money to eat three full meals a day. I would splurge on a 10 dollar lunch to keep me going through the work day, and then I’d eat nuts, cheese and fruit for dinner, or a can of tuna, or a bowl of plain rice, and drink a cheap beer because I knew it would fill up my stomach. It always seemed like every time I could almost catch a break something would go wrong to keep my head under water. My bank would randomly seize a couple hundred dollars from my account because I had stopped making credit payments when I needed to pay rent, or a bedbug infestation in my building required me to wash everything I owned and buy a new mattress, or even though I had received taxed unemployment benefits somehow I still ended up owing the government money when I filed my taxes and risked having my wages garnished if I didn’t come up with the money.