There are as many roads to penury as there are paupers to follow them. As a writer, I always tried to see my own journey as material for nostalgic anecdotes to be delivered during acceptance speeches at some national awards galas. I like to imagine my struggles as leisurely, rather loopy jaunts.
Today, in real life, this jaunt is looking really rough. I’m on my way to sign over the pink slip on “Moby Dick,” my white 2000 Buick Century, as security on a loan, so that I can pay my rent, two weeks late and counting. My destination is a storefront in a bleak San Jose strip mall between a liquor mart and a shoe repair shop. A fuscia neon sign beckons: “Fast Cash! Paycheck Advance! Auto Title Loans!” There, my signed pink slip will net me $1000 in cold cash, which I promise to repay over two years at an interest rate of about 98 percent.
I back out of my carport, find a jazz station playing rueful sax, and hit the road. The rain that threatened all morning arrives now in earnest, and the mist on my windshield quickly turns to tears, as if to make up for the ones I’m holding back. Somehow, my whole life seems prologue to this humiliating ordeal. It could be worse, I console myself, which only reminds me that it may, indeed, grow worse. The wipers begin beating time to the bitter scold in my head: why didn’t you, why did you, why didn’t you, why did you?
. . . .
“It’ll be okay, mom,” says my daughter, guessing the reason for my silence. She sits beside me now, as she always has, and in a way nothing has changed-although her once downy head has grown into an avalanche of blonde-streaked waves, and the rattles and sippy cups have given way to a plastic box of eye shadow that she dabs on in the passenger mirror.
She has just graduated from college and is herself seeking a “real” job. In the meantime, she has moved back with me-compounding the financial pressures but giving me a comrade in the trenches. I understand, without taking it personally, that to not follow in my footsteps is for her almost a career goal in itself. Who can blame her? Financial turmoil has shaped her life since her father left us when she was three years old.
I merge onto Highway 280 South. The road is nearly empty on this Saturday morning. I picture commuters still enjoying their leisurely breakfasts before heading out to spend their spendable incomes.
As the miles unreel ahead, I cannot resist backtracking mentally over my own highway of choices that delivered me to this pass. How many wrong turns? How many dead ends, detours, directions unheeded? Or is the problem deeper still? The map is wrong. The destination does not exist.
Perhaps-now that science is revealing the biology of personality-I am just genetically wired to be broke. My inborn character quirks always seemed to have veto power over good intentions and resolutions. By age seven, I was already displaying the traits that have cleft my life like a fault line: dismissive impatience with saving, impulsive overgenerosity, dislike for routine and generalized temperamental unmanageability. Reading Aesop’s fable of the grasshopper and the ants, I quickly identified with my gangly orthopteral soul mate, shivering out in the cold with his inedible fiddle.