On Being Broke

Coins in Jar
Coins in Jar

Soon I'll be starting a waiter job, and it got me thinking, "Why, with all that I've accomplished in my life, am I waiting on tables at age 52?" I'm broke. That's why.

I don't mean "broke" the way a friend of mine means it when her checking account drops below $10,000, or how another pal meant it when he confided that he and his husband had had to cut down the cleaning lady's days to two a week. No, I mean "broke" in the sense that on those rare occasions when I treat myself to a grilled cheese at the diner, I forego the iced tea, and in the sense that, rather than spend 99 cents for a song on iTunes, I look elsewhere for a pirated file.

Sadly, I'm used to this penurious existence. Since I left home at 17, I've scrimped and scrounged. Every month I'd cross my fingers that I'd have the $150 I needed to pay rent (yes, you read that correctly) on my first apartment on East 12th Street in Manhattan. My wardrobe and furnishings were from the Salvation Army, and I almost never ate out. "It's all part of being young and starting out in life," I thought.

Over the years, as I went from this job to that, from one engagement to another, I waited for The Big Break. "Writing music will do it!" I thought. I accrued a number of interesting credits in my 20s, none of which led to anything. "I'll go on the stage!" I thought. I gathered a lot of experience downtown, where performing is done for love, not for money. The Big Break never showed up, and there's no reason to think that it ever will.

To be clear, I don't resent that. When I see other people's success, I don't grumble, "That should be me!" I'm well aware that that's not how the world works. Pure talent accounts for just a modicum of advancement in any field, especially show business.

Evan S. Connell, author of some of my favorite fiction, died in January. He was prolific and well-reviewed, but his New York Times obituary noted that, through his mid-60s, he made ends meet by reading meters for the power company. I could relate.

What I do find frustrating is that the common assertion that reward will come if one works hard simply isn't true. I could not put more effort into my undertakings, but money has eluded me. I am approaching my golden years below the poverty line.

Indigence challenges my social life, as well; it's embarrassing to have to claim every year that I don't believe in giving gifts, just to let myself off the hook. And romance? Forget it. I'm not interested in responding to every suggestion that a potential boyfriend might make with, "Sounds fun, but I really can't afford it." Conversely, what middle-aged man wants to date someone whose idea of financial planning is a monthly visit to the Coinstar machine?

Outwardly my life seems quite the thing: I travel a bit for work, I am known for any number of feats, and I garner a certain amount of attention whenever I embark on a new project. But beneath that glamorous façade is impecunious me. A perfect example: Several weeks ago I had a performance of my cabaret show at 54 Below in New York City. There I was, onstage in this swanky, chic club, wearing a gorgeous suit, blazing away at the Steinway before a discerning, elegant crowd. But the days preceding the booking, I'd had to stick close to home to make sure that I'd have enough gas in the car to get to the city and back. And the suit? I'd found it at Goodwill for $19. And in my bag was a tuna sandwich for the ride home, because I had no more than about $2 and change to my name.

Three times a year or so, things come to a head. I'll wake up and immediately start fretting about money. The funds in the bank just won't cover the bills on my desk. I'm tied to the rails, and the locomotive is barreling my way. Something always comes up, though: an unexpected royalty check, or a music gig out of the blue. Most humiliatingly of all, I'll ask my folks for help. Still, I lie there and wonder, "What is the point of even going on, really? With everything on my résumé, why am I in this situation?"

And here, friends, lies the conundrum. That résumé? It's insane. The variety of endeavors in which I've been recognized and, in some cases, celebrated, is staggering. Everything I've begun I've completed to my own standard. Who, I ask, has had a more interesting and diverse life than I? I'll answer for you: No one. The irony is that financial failure is itself the direct cause of my compelling curriculum vitae.

And that bed in which I toss and turn? It's in a uniquely lovely and sublime house that I built with my own two hands, a house situated in one of the most glorious areas of the Northeast. In warm weather my daily cardio alternates between hikes to any number of Catskill peaks and rowing in my scull on a clear, pristine lake. I'd be eating grilled chicken and steamed vegetables even if I could afford to go out. I watch old movies on YouTube, listen to new music on Spotify and read books of all kinds from the library. True, the first of every month, I hold my breath until my auto-pay bills clear, but as I've written before, I didn't expect to be alive to have such problems. And with cats as affectionate as mine, who needs a boyfriend?

My life has been a success, one that doesn't happen to have money attached to it, but (and here is my tragic flaw) there's no one with whom I'd trade places.

So as I take up my book of waiter checks, tie an apron around my waist and hope against hope that my food stamps last me through the month, I comfort myself with the knowledge that I'll never have to face the ignominy of cutting down the cleaning lady's days to just two a week.