I grew up poor and white on the Gold Coast of Connecticut in Fairfield County. Yes, I grew up surrounded by beautiful mansions of the very rich. My family? We were really poor. One bathroom, share-a-bedroom poor. No heat those first few winters-poor. Clothes that weren’t hand-me-downs were bought at Barkers, the local discount department store. Way before saving money and Targét became cool. Barkers was decidedly not cool.
We never complained. Not that we didn’t want to, but it did no good. Once, my sister Judy complained:
“None of my friends have to buy their Easter dresses at Barkers,” she began to whine. She stopped when she saw that Dad had overheard her. She knew what was coming. So did I.
“Well,” said Dad, “you’ve never gone to bed hungry, have you?”
Judy and I exchanged looks. It was coming. The hot dog story. That was the reason we never moaned aloud about our penury. We knew we’d have to hear the hot dog story. Again. And we’d have to figure out what “penury” meant.
“When I was your age,” Dad continued, (Judy and I tried not to look bored) “When I was your age,” he repeated, “the Depression was on. My Dad, your grandfather, who built some of the houses around here, couldn’t find work. No one was building. No one was hiring. No one was paying for anything. No matter how hard anyone was willing to work, there was no work. No way to feed the family.”
“There were seven of us. And I remember being hungry. Going to bed with an empty stomach because I made sure that my mother would have half of my share. Whatever we had. One night I remember I had to go to the store to get two hot dogs. That night, there were two hot dogs and some beans for dinner. And that was a feast. For seven of us.”
The story never had the impact on us that Dad intended. It made us roll our eyes. It made us certain that he was exaggerating. It made us feel embarrassed that he was even more poor then than we were now.
Of course we didn’t go to bed hungry. We lived in America. Duh! Kids don’t go to bed hungry here! Jezum Crow!
But you know, our friends were oblivious to the idea that there were things that folks like us couldn’t afford. They didn’t understand why we weren’t jetting off to the Caribbean or to Europe or to Disney the way they did. They didn’t understand that we couldn’t be in the school play because we couldn’t afford the special (very expensive) skirts that became the von Trapp children’s outfits that were supposed to come from Maria’s drapes. That we couldn’t even bear to ask our parents for it.
Lack of money was something that our friends simply had never experienced. They weren’t intentionally callous, they just didn’t get it. It was like trying to explain music to a someone who had never been able to hear. Possible, but challenging. And it took a lot of work.
Now I tell you this story so you know that I have been surrounded by rich people. So I’m familiar with just how completely oblivious folks can be if they have never had to live on nothing more than two hot dogs and some beans.
Today, I would give anything to have Dad deliver his hot dog lecture. And I know just who needs to hear it.
You see, today I read an interesting article about Ann and Mitt Romney, and how poor they once were. Yes, it’s true. Mitt and Ann were once poor. Ann said so in an interview in 1994!
I was astonished. Aghast. I wished I had a couple of hot dogs to offer them. (Sadly, they now have a “no dogs” policy.)
Ann tells the gut-wrenching story about how they once lived in a basement apartment with no carpeting. They had to eat tuna and pasta. They didn’t entertain. They struggled. They had to sell stock to pay the bills!
Yes, the poor Romneys. [Hanky, please!] All they had to live off was the stock that Mitt’s Dad had given him for his birthdays. Stock that had started at $6 per share but ended up at over $90. And, hard swallow here, Mitt and Ann were chipping away at the principle! Eating their seed corn! Whatever would become of them?
Imagine that. Just imagine having to sacrifice so much.
So I totally get how big-hearted they must be. How they understand the plight of the working poor, how they understand the sacrifices needed to achieve success.
Because all you really need to do to succeed in today’s world is to get stock from your parents. Duh.
* * *
As a kid, I really did feel like I was poor. But I wasn’t. As an adult, I learned that there really were poor people, people who went to bed hungry and whose children went to bed hungry.
I also learned that “The Poor” does not include folks who live by selling bits and pieces of their stock portfolio. There is a big difference, and it’s not just in perception. It’s in reality.