A Year and Change

When I finished my undergrad in December, 2015, I had just over $40,000 in student loans. At the time I was also working, making slightly above minimum wage at the warehouse of a fashion retail chain. Four days a week I took a forty-five-minute bus ride to Montreal’s north-end industrial district to organize dusty boxes of shoes, each pair worth more than my biweekly paycheque, and after each shift I would ride the bus back downtown to go to class. After I handed in my final paper, I got drunk and emailed my boss to tell him that I wouldn’t be coming into work the next day or any other day after that. It was the first time in my life that I would be completely responsible, without the aid of student loans, for my rent, bills, and all other expenses. A snowstorm left Montreal with 40 centimetres two days before the New Year. I had $500, no savings.

The iconic 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning opens with a warning:

You have three strikes against you in this world… You’re Black and you’re male and you’re gay. You’re going to have a hard fucking time. If you’re going to do this, you’re going to have to be stronger than you’ve ever imagined.

I would add a fourth strike to this list: being poor. It’s unnamed but implied, as if poverty is constituent to our ideas of black gay maleness, or else too slippery to discuss. I carry each of the three strikes plus the unnamed fourth.

I’ve been poor forever, having grown up on social assistance in Toronto, where I lived with my parents and sister in community housing. My parents did the best with what they had but money was always tight. At eighteen I moved to Montreal for university with 300 bucks and a laptop I found “used” on Craigslist. Since then I’ve worked countless shitty jobs in both Toronto and Montreal. One of the most frustrating things about being poor is that you don’t get better at it over time.

I should be “good” at being poor by now but I’m not because that’s not how poverty works. I mismanage my finances all the time. I don’t stick to a consistent budget, I often spend too much on frivolous shit. I don’t know the exact amount of my credit card debt but I’d ballpark it’s in the thousands. I don’t pay my bills on time, and every time I start building a savings account it gets depleted by the end of the month to cover rent.

Over the years I’ve picked up skills: how to make a jar of peanut butter stretch over three meals in one day; how to buy suits at Salvation Army and style them to look high-end for job interviews; how to lie about what your parents do or why you can’t go out for drinks; how to find the cheapest apartment; where to find free meals, food banks, and soup kitchens. It never gets any easier. Each strategy to navigate poverty comes with its own particular shame. The unnamed strike always looms.

A few weeks into January, the rent cheque cashed without much money left over for other expenses, I got a job in a call centre as a customer service representative for a company that sold blenders through cable TV infomercials. When people’s blenders broke down they’d call us and we’d try to troubleshoot their problems over the phone. If we couldn’t solve their issue we’d send them a new blender, free of charge. Not my ideal first job out of university but when rent is due you’ll take anything.

I was assigned to work the middle shifts, eleven to eight or twelve to nine. The call centre had lockers, a cafeteria-style lunch room, grey carpeting, fluorescent lights that flickered. I felt embarrassed and indignant going into work each morning, like my university degree should have guaranteed me something more, but also shameful for having an attitude about it, for thinking I was better than any of my coworkers or bosses, most of whom were kind, affable people. To curb the contradictory feelings I focused on the money. I changed my alarm to Kanye’s Feedback (“WAKE UP NIGGA WAKE UP/ WE BOUT TO GET THIS PAPER”). Calls came in back-to-back, sometimes so frequently that there wasn’t any time to take a break. They paid us eleven dollars an hour.

We also had to deal with customers whose accounts had been sent to collections agencies. These blenders were pricey so customers often paid for them in credit instalments. When they fell behind on payments, their accounts would get sent to collections agencies that would hound them until they resolved their debt. I talked to a lot of customers who had defaulted on their credit card because they’d missed a few payments for a blender they’d seen advertised on TV that promised to grind ice into snow. Part of me thought how could anyone be so stupid? Another part of me knew that it could easily happen to me. I thought about my own credit debt, how it started with a lunch here, a tuition payment there. I understood the frustration I heard on the other end of the line, the sense of futility, the deep sighs.

One morning I slept through my alarm (“Make me do something?/ Nah, can’t make me/ Even if the money low/ can’t pay me”). My boss called. I ignored it. I didn’t go into work that day. I went to see a movie instead. My whole time at the call centre I was calculating, weighing pros against cons: Was the paycheque at the end of the week worth the hour commute there and back, the lack of breaks, the boredom and fatigue, the feeling of expendability? I didn’t go in the day after that either. I ignored the calls. They left messages. I didn’t listen to them. After about a week they stopped calling. Did I quit or was I fired?

In “The End of New England,” Eileen Myles writes that “one moves through life continually leaving things behind and that’s one definition of class, the degree of one’s loss is also the degree of one’s vitality, one’s ability to sustain constant small amounts of loss.” I would miss some of my coworkers but otherwise felt relieved to be out of there. In the last week of March I had $700 in my bank account. It was easy for me to leave things behind without looking back.

In April, I received some money I’d been waiting on from the Canada Pension Plan. My father had passed away two years prior. There was no inheritance or life insurance policy when he died, no property or assets to liquidate or sell. I knew as much—we were poor. When he passed away, my sister and I closed his bank account and split the money fifty-fifty, a couple hundred each. I was waiting for backdated payments from the Child Survivor’s Benefit Plan, a government assistance program that provided a stipend of a few hundred dollars per month to full-time students under the age of twenty-five who had lost a parent. There was a problem with the paperwork so I hadn’t received the benefits while in school. They said there wasn’t sufficient documentation to prove I was my father’s son. Put a photo of us side-by-side and the resemblance is unmistakable, but the government wasn’t interested in the slope of our noses, our long boney fingers, or his voice, pitched the same as mine, two tones down.

It was a cruel joke of the fourth strike … I had to perform my grief for the government because I was poor.

I’d spent the past two years talking to different administrators over the phone, downloading and filling out forms, collecting certified copies of death certificates, long-form birth certificates, tax return statements, notarized affidavits from family members, fifteen-year-old custody papers, and proof of enrolment letters. To their credit, everyone I spoke to from the Canada Pension Plan was sympathetic to my situation and as helpful as the bureaucratic limitations of their positions allowed them to be, but having to go through this convoluted process to prove the paternity of my late father for barely more than a thousand dollars felt like adding insult to injury. I wasn’t a scammer or a cheat looking to pull the wool over the government’s eyes. If I didn’t need the money I wouldn’t have even bothered to fill out all the forms.

It was a cruel joke of the fourth strike—there was no will, no assets, no estate lawyer to sort these things out on my behalf. Instead, through written statements, over the phone, and in person, I had to perform my grief for the government because I was poor. I wanted to explain to the Canada Pension Plan that cash was no consolation to grief, that no amount of money could bring back his mischievous grin, the sound of his flute, the smell of grits and eggs on Sunday mornings.

$1,858.21 was deposited into my bank account from the Canada Pension Plan on April 13, 2016, just over two years after my dad had passed away. Not a fortune but enough to relax for a little while. I sent a chunk of it to my sister, who was over twenty-five and therefore ineligible for the benefit. The snow in Montreal had mostly all evaporated by this point, murky puddles left in their place. Grass was starting to grow but if you looked hard enough you could see little slush piles tucked in the corners of the street: souvenirs of the winter that had passed, reminders it would come back again.

My graduation ceremony was held in June. At this point I had been out of school for six months, so the pageantry felt irrelevant, but because my mother wanted to see me walk across the stage (my sister, also a first-generation university graduate, had skipped out on the ceremony), I rented the gown and hood lined with pink silk. The university notified me that I had won an award for outstanding academic achievement for earning the highest cumulative GPA in the graduating class of my department. This is a humblebrag but I’m going to take the opportunity. I felt I had earned it, studying for hours in between shifts at minimum wage jobs and dealing with the death of my father halfway through my degree. If you’re going to do this, you’re going to have to be stronger than you’ve ever imagined. The award came with a cash prize but they didn’t say how much.

My mother was visiting from Toronto. I didn’t have anything presentable to wear to the ceremony, only big winter boots and beat-up sneakers, so we bought a fancy pair of black leather dress shoes neither of us could afford (my mother put them on credit). On the day of the ceremony my mother and I took a cab down to the amphitheatre ($15, paid in cash). It had been raining for the past few days but that afternoon the sky was blue, the sun hot enough to forgo a jacket entirely. I wore my rented gown and walked across the stage when they called my name. When I shook the dean’s hand he asked me what my plans were for the future. I told him I had no idea and proceeded to walk to the end of the stage to collect my prize.

Outside of the auditorium, after the ceremony, I drank complimentary wine with my mother, my friend Allysha, and her mother. Once we took the requisite photos, I ripped open the envelope containing my prize. Inside was a cheque for $100. When Myles describes class as “one’s ability to sustain constant small amounts of loss,” she refers to loss in both the material and the affective senses. Myles suggests that one’s class can be understood not only as the ability to cope with the losing of things, but also the ability to sustain constant small amounts of the feeling of loss and its associated parts: disappointment, grief. I cashed the cheque and took my mother out for lunch.

The money from the Canadian Pension Plan was running low by the end of June so I took a job as a content writer for a digital marketing company (where I still work). It was a freelance gig writing blog articles for small online businesses to increase their web traffic. They paid me $15 per article (I’ve since upped my rates), so if I wrote six or so articles per day at 350 words a piece, my pay evened out to that of a minimum wage job. Not exactly ideal but it was a start. It gave me a chance to write, even if I had to write about topics that weren’t of particular interest to me, like plumbing, roofing, or real estate. I could work from home if I wanted but usually I opted to go into the office because it had air conditioning, unlike my apartment, which was loud and unrelenting in the heat. In the office I mostly kept to myself. I avoided small talk and ate lunch alone, prepared to leave it all behind at a moment’s notice if I needed to.

In July, the National Student Loan Centre demanded I start paying back what I owed, my six-month grace period having officially ended. Actually, they didn’t demand anything from me—they just took the first instalment of my loan repayment directly out of my bank account. I found out when my card got declined trying to buy a foot-long sandwich at Subway for lunch one day at work. I didn’t panic. I stayed calm; I called the agency, explained my situation, and got my loan repayments deferred for another six months. Debt felt so simple, manageable, easy.

The numbers on the screen kept changing, going higher and higher until they made it difficult to conceptualize a future without debt.

Dealing with poverty has always been easier for me in the summer: the park is free, beer is cheap, friends are happy to wander aimlessly through the streets, window shop, or sunbathe on the deck of a public pool all afternoon. It’s also easy to let things slip in the summer, each day leading into the next without end, everyone eager to hang. Just stay for one more beer!

I stopped making regular payments on my credit card the summer after my dad died. The few responsibilities I had, I ignored. I drank a lot. I got a tattoo of Bart Simpson on my shoulder, just for kicks. I maxed out my credit. Months passed.

Then the collections agencies started calling. The calls would start during the second or third week of the each month, and then every day from that point on, sometimes twice a day, until the month was over. Then there might be a week of silence at the beginning of the new month before the cycle would begin again. I put my phone on silent or turned it off completely. Friends and family likely thought I was being a flake but it wasn’t them I was trying to avoid. They were just collateral damage. When I’m worried about money, I isolate myself. I’ll leave my phone face-down on my bedside table so when it rings I won’t know who’s calling.

Why didn’t I just pay it off when I got the really good tax return, or when my final instalment of student loans arrived? It was all imaginary, just numbers on a screen. The numbers on the screen kept changing, going higher and higher until they made it difficult to conceptualize a future without debt.

Taking refuge from the heat in the artificial crisp of the marketing office, I researched plans to finally resolve my debt. I discovered that there’s a statute of limitations on outstanding debt that varies from province to province, after which point debt collectors aren’t legally allowed to pursue payments from you. But this law doesn’t eradicate your debt; it just sits there, drawing interest, but nobody is allowed to bother you about it anymore.

The only province where debt may be completely erased after its expiration date is Newfoundland. I looked up the demographics of Newfoundland and Labrador on Wikipedia and learned that black people make up just 0.2 percent of the population according to the 2006 census. And what was the job market like in Newfoundland? Did I know anyone out there? I thought about bankruptcy. Bankruptcy is wiped from your record after six years. I didn’t have any assets so what did it matter anyway? That summer was one of Montreal’s hottest on record. My roommates and I pressed ice cubes to our necks and lounged in the living room in our underwear.

In August I called in sick to work to take an impromptu road trip to Halifax with a few of my friends. We ate bacon and eggs at cheap roadside diners, and I got a six-dollar skirt from the Value Village in Fredericton. My friends paid for the motels along the way with credit cards, found people for us to stay with in Halifax, and waved me away when I tried to offer gas money. For all of it I was grateful. The trip was four days long: one night in New Brunswick, two nights in Halifax, and then one last night in New Brunswick again on the way back. Most of the trip was spent inside of the truck my friend had rented for the drive. I felt guilty about bailing on my job so I worked while we were on the road, writing blogs on my computer in the passenger’s seat and then sending what I’d accomplished to my boss when we stopped for wifi. It was the longest getaway I’d had in over a year. I was happy to see the ocean.

Tired of living paycheque to paycheque, I took a second job at a high-end retail store downtown in the fall. I worked in the stockroom, towards the back of the store and then up a flight of stairs. The hours were minimal; just a few extra shifts on evenings and weekends. The sales associates were a bunch of white gay men who all seemed to be named Nicholas (Nicholas P., Nicholas D., Nicholas F., etc). They didn’t pay me much attention as I hauled boxes of new merchandize from UPS into the back. The stock room was small and dusty with low ceilings. I folded jeans and steamed silk blouses, dreaming of saving up for a vacation.

Sometimes I had to work on the sales floor to print tags or restock merchandize. I couldn’t afford anything we sold—$700 leather jackets, pants from upwards of $250 a pair. Nicholas P., D., F., et al. were encouraged to be congenial but not overbearing; to make each customer feel at home. It was impressive to watch, the ways these men could coo and yas queen to make their sales and then immediately shift their demeanour, going flat and cold once the customer left the store. These men were serious. This was their job and they worked on commission.

Our manager kept bottles of champagne in the back to serve to customers on days with low foot traffic. I once saw a daughter ask her mother if she’d reached the limit on her weekly spending allowance as a cashier rung up the sale on their $500 purchase. The mother said, “Not yet.” Every shift I wore the shoes my mother had bought me for my graduation ceremony. They were the only nice pair I owned.

I lasted about a month at the store before quitting. As with the call centre job, I weighed the pros and cons: I spent $6 on transportation and an average of $10 on lunch for a four-hour shift where I was earning $10.75 an hour. The extra job made little difference financially. The stock room was a complete mess, boxes and clothes strewn everywhere, broken coat hangers scattered across the floor. They had only hired me and one other part-time worker to receive daily shipments of inventory and to improve the organization of the stock room for the upcoming holiday rush. It just wasn’t worth it.

One day at work while printing extra tags on the store computer, I noticed an email drafted by Nicolas P., the floor supervisor, to our manager: Everything running smoothly today except the new stock associate Cason is slower than expected. I clocked out at the end of my shift, went home and emailed my letter of resignation. I said goodbye to Nicholas P., F., D., et al. without remorse. It was the third job I’d quit in less than a year. My updated resume was full of gaps, made me look undisciplined and unreliable. I resented my ability to leave things behind. By November the streets were dusted with frost again. To stay warm you had to keep moving.

I worked from home exclusively that winter (my boss wanted to convert my workspace at the office into a conference room). I didn’t mind. In the mornings I woke up around 8:30 a.m., showered, and then walked to a nearby cafe where I ordered a bagel and cream cheese and an americano ($8, including tip), and worked until noon. Then I went home, made myself lunch, and worked until 5 p.m. from my apartment. I was still just scraping by, rent and bills taking up most of my money, but at least the routine made things feel more solid.

An online literary magazine I worked for on the side, knowing full-well there was no money in publishing, gave me an annual stipend of a few hundred dollars. The managing editor even reduced her stipend to give me a little bit extra to thank me for my work. I felt grateful, rooted, and poor. This winter felt much milder than the one before but I didn’t know if that was actually the case.

On New Year’s Eve my friends organized a dinner. We bought veggies and lobsters from Jean Talon Market (everyone invited to the dinner pitched $20 for the meal). Before we ate, we went around the table and said what we wanted to take with us into the New Year. I said I wanted to get better at anticipating the needs of my friends, to be more conscious about providing care. I knew I had to keep moving forward but I didn’t want to keep dropping things without looking back, without stopping to pick up what was important. I thought about laughing and chatting with my coworkers at the call centre, some of whom came in from the suburbs just to make a buck. I thought about my friends, each trying, under different circumstances, to make ends meet, to make art and have a good time. I thought about my sister, my mother. Sometimes I felt so spoiled, leaving things behind.

Montreal received record-breaking snowfall a few days before the New Year, just like the year before. It was no mild winter after all. That night I ate lobster in a living room surrounded by friends. I wore second-hand leather pants, a white blazer I bought at a flea market, and a black flat cap that had belonged to my father. I had $383 in my bank account. At the stroke of midnight I drank champagne and felt rich.