Your child is born. Her father left months ago, part of a generation of itinerant men, unable to find work and incapable of adjusting to a landscape of permanently poor employment prospects. You told him you didn’t care that you paid the rent, but he couldn’t handle that. He lost his job at a landscaping company for cursing out his boss. The last you heard he had started selling Oxycontin. You chose not to get an abortion. You never went to college. You made $9.68 an hour at a big-box store as a cashier, but you left the job. Your boss never came out and said that he was cutting your hours and messing with your schedule because you got pregnant, but you were, and he did. Your friend tells you that you can pursue legal action. You're scared so you don’t.
Your child is one. You get free diapers from a nonprofit and free groceries from a church. Your car broke down so you sold your mother’s engagement ring. Recently you were declared poor enough for Medicaid and you cried in relief in their office. Your girl babbles and coos in her car seat while you make deliveries for Door Dash. Her father’s body was found under an onramp two towns over. As you do dishes you think of the lies you’ll one day tell her about him.
Your child is three. Since she was born you have applied for 163 jobs. You got 12 interviews, three call-backs, and one offer. The job was an hour away. Between day care and gas and maintenance on your car, the money doesn't add up, so you don't take the job. The people at the unemployment office mark you “unwilling to work.” You’re getting evicted but can’t get a new apartment because your credit is bad. You tearfully ask the unemployment office how you can fix your credit if you can't get a job. They don't reply. Your town was a factory town. Your generation was raised by union parents. Many didn't have high school diplomas; almost none had college degrees. They owned homes and raised children in better conditions than they were raised in. The factory installed new machines and stopped hiring. The factory owners took tax breaks to stay. To pay for the tax breaks the state cut food stamps and Head Start. Eighteen months later the factory closed anyway. The union was broken. You’ve been going to the local UCC church on Sundays because there’s free child care and you can sit alone and hum along with the hymns. When you ask someone at church about why the factory closed they called you a nativist. You look it up on dictionary.com.
Your child is six. She’s in public school now and you feel the relief of not having to pay for daycare anymore. You are now entirely dependent on the fickle hand of pity charity liberalism. You cobble together an existence from food stamps and winter heating programs and subsidized housing. Your parents do their best to support you and your child. You got a job in the laundry at the local hotel. You make $11.35 an hour. Your boss recently cut your hours from 22 to 16. You cried and he told you he wasn’t running a charity. Your landlord tells you that he’ll knock a couple hundred off the rent if you sleep with him.
Your child is nine. She watches YouTube after school every day. You wish she wouldn’t but she’s a kid and that’s what she does. Every day she watches celebrity news and vloggers and viral animation. She sees affluence and wealth that she can't imagine. She knows she’s poor; the kids at school tells her so. On the internet she sees summer homes as big as any four on your block put together. She sees a thirteen year old rapper brag about a pile of $125 shoes that he will grow out of before he can wear. She sees a pop singer say that the bill for champagne and alcohol at her birthday party was more than you made in the last three years. She sees a yacht with a helicopter landing pad. She is taught every day that to make it in America you must be a singer, an actress, a model, a CEO, an athlete. She comes to understand how her culture defines her worth.
Your child is twelve. She’s being raised by your mother and strangers and television. You're back at the big-box store. You have applied to every bank teller and assistant manager position in a 60 mile radius, but you have no degree. You know you need to go to school. Your local public university, which provided affordable education for decades, has had its funding cut again and again. Like many public universities its state funding now covers less than 15% of its budget. The tuition has just risen again and you know you can’t go. You resolve to go to beauty school. You pay with your father's life insurance money. He worked for the state department of transportation. He didn’t make much but he got health care, a pension. This month the governor moved to break the state employees union.
Your child is fifteen. You have nightmares where she walks down the highway alone. You feel guilty but you search her room for drugs anyway. The man you have been seeing hit you again and you are afraid. His cousin runs the restaurant where you pick up shifts and you’re afraid to leave him. You have an eye on a chair at the local hairdresser’s but it’s $300 a month. While you wait to pick your girl up from high school you sit in your car and use the school’s WiFi to watch YouTube videos of places you will never go. You are prediabetic and your daughter scolds you when she catches you eating candy again. When you look in the mirror you are shocked that you could look so old.
Your child is eighteen. You still work at someone else's salon. You dream of opening your own someday. Like most hair dressers in your state you make less than $30,000 a year. You and your girl make it alright, but car trouble and toothaches and holidays are earthquakes. You have earned out of some programs but not by enough to replace them easily with your own money. You have been saving for a car for her but every few months you have to dip into it to pay the rent again. Your girl is smart but distracted. She does okay in school but not well enough. You tell her she needs to get an MBA someday. She tells you she loves theater. This month the new child allowance bill goes up to Congress. You daydream about what you might have done with it.
It’s your child’s high school graduation day. You are proud and afraid. She got a little money from the local public U. The rest she’ll pay for with student loans. You pray that the loans don't hurt her life too much. You've given up on selling her on that MBA and have started gently suggesting teaching. You tried to talk her into commuting, but college has her as excited as you've ever seen her and you didn’t have the heart to push too hard. When she met her freshman roommate for the first time she asked to be dropped off at Starbucks; she was embarrassed for her roommate to see your home. Her cap, gown, card, and flowers cost you $155. You take lots of pictures. You still think of ways that you might do better for yourself and for her. Perhaps you’ll write that novel, perhaps you’ll hit Powerball, perhaps someday a kind and rich man will walk into your life. You got vaccinated at CVS but if lockdowns come they’ll close your shop again and you’ll be finished.
Your daughter's name gets called and she beams. Her principal hands her a rolled up paper. She is surprised to find in her hand not a diploma, but a lottery ticket.
I wrote this to be open to interpretation, so interpret it how you naturally feel.
Jesus, way to fuck up my Friday morning. I’m trying to keep from crying in front of my coworkers at a low-wage construction job in the basement of an NYCHA building. I’d never hear the end of it.
Staying afloat isn’t easy right now, and it’s nice to see someone acknowledge the burden that coronavirus measures have placed on the poor across the country. The online metropolitans love to demonize those who opposed lockdowns, but often fail to realize that we can’t all work from home, many people aren’t qualified for unemployment, and some states don’t provide a livable rate without the federal government. So, were a lot of those protesters right-wing nut jobs? Probably, but they were right wing nut jobs rightly convinced that they were about to lose everything everything.
“Boo-hoo Karen can’t get her haircut!” became the mocking cry of the cultured know-it-all, and I imagine this character’s eventual occupation isn’t coincidental to that.