BY KATHERINE ROBARDS
Taken from "Ain’t That Rich," a one-act play premiering next week at the Capital Fringe Festival. For more information or to purchase your tickets, visit Capital Fringe.
Being poor. It’s like when my mom would collect all the change in the house for gas and groceries, and she would bring this tin coffee can of coins to the bank—to turn the pennies, nickels and dimes into bills—only to have the teller count it all out.
"There’s $24.33, but the bank has a policy that we can’t give you cash from the coin counter when you’re OD. Overdrawn. And you’re overdrawn. With this $24.33 you’d still owe us 72 cents. I will have to contact an officer for you to receive special permission."
My mom would look at the teller and tell her no because it’s a small town and she knew the bank officer. Then she would remind me, "We’re not poor, we’re broke. I got a paycheck coming soon."
Next thing, we’re at the grocery store counting pennies, nickels and dimes out of the tin coffee can. My mom apologized: "Hey, all money is money."
It’s like when my mom asked my relatives for money for dance classes, but she didn’t have money for the special clothes, and I had to shop in the Lost and Found.
It’s like when I was in 2nd grade, and I yelled at my mom, "You forgot the Little Debbie snack in my lunchbox," and my mom swore she put it in, and we realized it was stolen by a girl who was even poorer than me. My mom came to the conclusion that the poorer-than-me girl must really want it, so we hid one in the lunchbox, and hid another one for me in my backpack.
It’s like when I was in this acting class that I begged my mom to pay for, and we were wearing hoop skirts and I didn’t want to take off my jeans because my underwear was raggedy and had little holes, and I didn’t want anyone to see.
Being poor is working at a restaurant for one of your five jobs in college…desperate for a tip share, and plastering on the biggest smile despite the fact that you haven’t slept and your car broke down and you need to make all the money possible to pay for it, and you see the first customer of the day and you say, "Hi, welcome to Carrabba’s Italian Grill. We’re so happy to have you here."
And the woman you’re greeting says, "You can’t really be that happy to work here." And inside you scream, NO, OF COURSE NOT. I HATE THIS FUCKING JOB, AND I HATE FUCKING RUDE-ASS PEOPLE LIKE YOU.
There is a manual that tells me exactly what to say, but instead I smile and say, "Can I get you anything to drink?"
And when you go back to the kitchen the skeezeball manager who gives preferential treatment to the girls who flirt with him and drink with him makes a pass at you, but you dodge him, then make it through the shift, and call your mom who can’t help you out with extra money, but will listen to you bitch about your day: "If only I’d go out and flirt or fuck my manager like the other girls, my life would be so easy."
"Baby, baby," my mom would say to me. "Don’t talk like that. I raised you better than that. If you’re going to sleep your way to the top, don’t sleep your way to the top of Carrabba’s Italian Grill in Beaumont, Texas. Think big picture. Ted Turner. Bill Gates. Never Donald Trump. You’ll never be that desperate."
"Thanks for the perspective, Mom."
I worked in restaurants and I judged people on how they dressed, and I assumed if they had more money, they’d tip better.
It’s why I once spent a thousand dollars on a handbag. An obscene amount of money on some canvas and leather allegedly sewn together in Italy.
When you are dancing around while serving others supper so you can afford your own eats later, sometimes you judge on how many bones they’ll throw you. This handbag cost more than my rent, car payment, cell phone bill, and monthly grocery bills combined.
I bought it online and it was delivered to my mom’s house. It was a Louis Vuitton. A symbol of money that people with actual money don’t need to display.
I posed with the bag in the mirror. I put it on cross-body style. I slung it over my shoulder. My mother watched me looking at myself all satisfied with my outward display of wealth.
"Put that down. You are stupid. Take off your shoes and socks and come with me to the backyard. Put that down."
She doesn’t get it, I thought. The backyard was littered with planting pots. It’s a garden that has no rhyme or reason and plants grow wild. The grass wasn’t trimmed. All I saw when I looked at my mom’s lawn was an unruly mess. She guided me into the green.
"Lay down," she said.
I didn’t want to. The grass was damp. The soil was damp. I was wearing Citizen for Humanity designer jeans that I got on sale, but I lay down anyway because I could tell my mom needs me to do this and because at the end of the day, I wanted to make my mom happy.
I remember how I lay next to my mom in the grass that day. We just lay there in silence, and the sounds of the earth start whispering to us. The wind through the trees makes a swoosh, swoosh sound and the green leaves on the old, live oak dance back and forth against a background of sky. White, fluffy clouds floated past, and I wanted to make out the images I saw in them. The bugs buzzed. A Roseate Spoonbill flew across the sky and the pink of its large wings popped against the blue. The world was moving and alive. I was breathing next to my mom and I felt alive. An acorn poked me through my clothes. I leaned over and kissed my mom.
"Ugh. My jeans are ruined. I have to go change."
Before I walked inside, my mom stopped me.
"Does your handbag make you feel like this?" she said.
I don’t remember answering her, but I do remember the question.
And, well, the way that handbag made me feel wasn’t the same. But the handbag was a kind of protection. It was my emblem to show the world. To say, this is my worth. It was my sign to say, "Treat me like a person with some value."
And that was all I wanted.
Katherine Robards is a writer and performer. Her first solo play Mandarin Orange premiered in Washington, D.C. where it was a named a "Fringe Festival highlight," by The Washington Post and "Pick of the week" by The Washington Times. In Maui, Kate was awarded the Hoku Award for favorite performer. She performed a benefit of the play for Orange Community Players and raised thousands of dollars for the non-profit theatre. Her one-act-play, Madame Pearl, ran at CCA’s Orange Box Play Space in San Francisco. Her second solo play, Ain’t That Rich, will debut at Capital Fringe Fest in July 2016. It is developed with assistance from Solo Sundays at Stage Werx in San Francisco.