Michael Arceneaux’s new book, “I Don’t Want to Die Poor,” was always going to be relevant ― even before the coronavirus became a pandemic that would forever change the way we look at this nation’s failing health care system, disproportionate poverty and crippling burden of student loan debt. But since the world completely turned on its head, forcing us into an indefinite lockdown and causing more than 16 million Americans so far to file for unemployment benefits, Arceneaux’s sharp introspection on that helluva drug called capitalism, the lengths we will go to attain (or pretend to be part of) the middle class, and the financial ruin that can leave behind feels eerily clairvoyant.
Yes, the book is a sobering account of what it means to be a Black queer man in America. Yes, it’s a much-needed wake-up call to see the inequality that exists in this country (thanks, racism). But just like his first New York Times best-seller, “I Can’t Date Jesus” (which will be adapted into a TV series), his new collection of essays is hilarious and filled with side-splitting chapters (e.g., “Quit Playing on My Phone) that reassure us Arceneaux’s “slick mouth” isn’t going anywhere.
HuffPost recently chatted with the author and journalist about “I Don’t Want to Die Poor,” surviving this crisis so his mom doesn’t get stuck with student loans and the importance of having compassion in the era of Trump.
So it just hit me that it’s been a month — to the day — since we last spoke on the phone. Man, it’s a completely different world. How are you doing?
Wow, I literally forgot that it’s been a month. If it wasn’t for promoting the book, I’m not sure I would even know what day it was today. But I have been doing well ― I mean, as well as one can be. It’s hard because the reality is I have to promote this book as it conflicts with the rest of the world burning. I’m talking about buying my book, while people are being buried in parks. It’s a lot.
Did you ever think this is where we would end up 30 days later?
I had been reading about coronavirus for a while and knew that this wasn’t going to end well. Donald Trump is selfish and this country is dirty, so no, I’m not surprised. I recently had the dumb luck of being in New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York — three cities with some of the highest rates of [COVID-19] in the U.S. — and it didn’t seem like people were taking it seriously initially. A girlfriend of mine was talking about going on a date and I was like, “Are you out of your damn mind? It’s called social distancing!” Now, three weeks later, she’s terrified. Meanwhile, I have a mask on to take out the trash.
A date? I wish. This isolation is so real right now, especially for single and childless folks like myself. What I wouldn’t do for a hug.
I miss touch, too, and there are people still trying to throw themselves at me right now, but you not gonna get me! Masturbation will get you through a lot of things. Like in the underappreciated 1996 T-Boz released single “Touch Myself,” “Ain’t nothing wrong with making it feel good, baby.” I will hug a dude after all of this is over, but I don’t want to die poor right now and I ain’t gonna die poor. [Laughs]
Are you having those “stay in the house” conversations with your parents right now? I don’t know why it’s so hard to talk to Black baby boomers about not going out so much, but every week my parents and I are having the same fight. [Laughs]
Look, you can’t tell Black people that age nothing. Like my mother [who is in her late 60s] knows exactly what to do, but what’s making me freak out is all of the people coming in and out of her house. I love my nieces and my brother, but I told my mother, they can’t be around you if they keep going out. I was the parent instead of her being the one to mother me. Those roles were reversed, but she gets it and she’s good. But I am thinking of these other old Black people who love talking about the rapture and love pandemics and want to be outside to see it. Please go wait for it in the house like the rest of us. Stay home. You can still go to heaven if you’re inside.
With this scary economy, high unemployment rates and the uncertainty of how these bills are getting paid, your book is especially timely. Do you think it will hit differently?
You know, the book was timely before and it’s definitely timely now. This crisis is so much harder on Americans and the one thing I hope people take away from the book and this situation is that we really do lack compassion. I want them to recognize our selfishness, the obsession with money and material things, and how we buy into this [false] notion of the American dream. Also, the idea of how you obtain social mobility. You can make all types of money right now and have still shitty insurance and die. I saw it before this crisis and I am seeing it now while we’re in. Can’t we do better?
But given our greed, narcissism — hoarding all that damn toilet paper and Lysol — and of course this president, can we do better? If so, how?
Yes, we can. I hope people look around right now and see how much different this is for everyone, how it’s hitting us and why. We don’t have a safety net and people are dying lonely deaths because of the policies and systems we have in place. We have to do better than this. But it’s also time for people who voted for Trump to look around. That man was an ego booster for them because his rhetoric essentially told them there is nothing better than being white. Now, he’s letting them die.
There’s not a moment when I go on Facebook and not see someone talking about someone they know dying of this virus. This is impacting so many lives ― we need to have an awakening. But people are also hardheaded, so we will just have to see.
It’s no secret that the chapter “Quit Playing on My Phone” is one of my favorites. Many of us can relate to dodging calls from Sallie Mae [which spun off its student loan servicing business as Navient in 2014], and despite the current freeze on our loans, they’re gonna keep calling, especially the private loan folks. What’s your advice on dealing with them?
I’ll say this: A lot of Black people, well everyone, are probably going to be harassed because they don’t care. A lot of these lenders are not that kind. So if you ain’t got it, don’t break your neck trying to get it. Obviously, if your loans [are going into default], you want to work something out with them, but don’t kill yourself.
I was always so obsessed with and obtained pristine credit to the point where it would impact my physical and emotional health. So sometimes you just gotta take a hit and deal with it later. Now isn’t the time to be obsessed with that stuff. The layoffs ― this economy is screwed. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. If they keep calling, that’s why you have the block feature on your phone.
You talk in the book about faking it till you make it and how people, like reality stars and influencers, give off this facade of wealth or middle class. In a way, coronavirus has stripped some of that away.
I still see some people flossing on Instagram, not wanting folks to know they are struggling, but if this crisis has shown us anything — again — is that there isn’t a middle class anymore. The reality is that most people don’t even have $400 in their bank account, so what is the middle class? I know people making $100K that are living check to check.
For me, if you did grow up poor or working class and even middle class, you probably graduated with a college degree and have sizable debt and there are still white people without degrees that will make more money than you. So no matter how far you go, the rug can be pulled out from under you in a second. That’s what we’re seeing right now.
The book is so well-done and hilarious, and yet you once told me that you hated writing it. First, I can’t tell, but what was going on that made this process so hard for you?
Yeah, I hated writing this book. [Laughs] I think the book is funny and thoughtful and honest, but I was dealing with issues that I thought I had worked through and realized that I hadn’t. That and I lost a lot of people in my life during that time, so sitting down to write was very difficult. Seeing death makes you question your own mortality as a Black man in America.
But I made it through. It was cathartic. While I hate it when people say there’s beauty in the struggle because that’s a lie, I do think there is something about finding hope in the struggle. This book offers hope. For all we got, I wanted for it to be inspirational because I have my sense of self-worth and believe that hard work will someday pay off. Hopefully. [Laughs]
Has all this self-reflection with your work, the daily oppression you face and what’s going on right now pushed you toward therapy? I talked to fellow author and your friend Samantha Irby recently about therapy, which she’s like, “wow, no thank you” for right now. [Laughs]
I’ve reached out to therapists, but not in recent years. I do think therapists are helpful and could help me work through certain things and I am open to finding one. But right now, when I think about what’s causing my anxiety, a therapist can’t fix everything. They can’t pay these bills or make money more accessible to me. So unless they’re paying me in cash, they can’t fix my problems. [Laughs]
I have private loans, so if I die tomorrow my mom has to pay them because she is the cosigner. They cannot be discharged in death or bankruptcy, so my main concern right now is I gotta live ― none of this “see you in the afterlife.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.