Tuesday, April 30, 2013

On Being Broke

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 fifty-two? Because I’m broke, that’s why.

I don’t mean broke the way a friend does when her checking account drops below $10,000, or how another pal confided that he and his husband had to cut down the cleaning lady to twice a week. No, I mean broke in the sense that on those rare occasions I treat myself to a grilled cheese at the diner I forego the iced tea. Or, rather than spend ninety-nine cents on iTunes I look elsewhere for a pirate file.

Sadly, I’m used to this penurious existence. Since I left home at seventeen I’ve scrimped and scrounged. Every month I’d cross my fingers that I’d have the $150 rent (yes, you read that correctly) for my first apartment on East Twelfth Street. My wardrobe and furnishings were from The Salvation Army and I almost never ate out. 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 Break. Writing music would do it! I accrued a number of interesting credits in my twenties, none of which led to anything. I’ll go on the stage! I gathered a lot of experience downtown: the place where performing is done for love, not money.

The Big Break never showed up and there’s no reason to think that it ever will. 

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

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

What I do find frustrating is that the notion if one works hard reward will follow, simply doesn’t hold 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 is a social challenge as well; it’s embarrassing year after year claiming “I don’t believe in gift giving” to let myself off the hook. And romance? Forget it. I’m not interested in responding to every suggestion a 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, I garner a certain amount of attention whenever I embark on a new project. But lurking 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 show I had to stick close to home to make sure I’d have enough gas in the car to get to the city and back. That suit? I found it at the Goodwill for nineteen bucks. And in my bag was a tuna sandwich for the drive home as I had about two dollars and change to my name.

Three times a year or so things come to 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, a music gig out of the blue. Most humiliating of all, I’ll ask my folks for help. Still, I lie there and wonder what, really, is the point? Of even going on. 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. A success 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 and 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 back on the cleaning lady to just twice a week.


  1. I know how you feel. I am turning 56 and am in a similar situation. I don't know what the answer is except to keep on living and try to enjoy the beauty in every day.

    BTW, I'd pay you cash for a big hug and a kiss (and I can't really afford it, LOL! You're awesome.

  2. I've been there too. I had to live on $200/mo on welfare, food stamps and had to live with my elderly Father. I hated asking for help from relatives. I'm 62 now and never worked anywhere long enough to get a pension like so many other people I know that are my age. Thankfully now I live on a disability check and live in a housing authority apartment with my two cats of which I am thankful for otherwise I'd be living in my car after my Dad died. I'd gladly send you a few bucks if you need it because I too think you are a gifted, talented person with a big heart who would do the same.
    Big Hugs,

  3. You may be broke, but you sure are interesting.

    Take care,

  4. I enjoyed your candor and have a few thoughts I’d like to share.

    1. I, too, am always troubled when I hear/read interviews with successful people like Oprah or Martha Stewart who say that we can all “be successful if we work hard and follow our passion.” That’s bullshit. There are thousands and thousands of people who have worked hard and have nothing to show for it. A lot of what happens to people is pure luck.

    2. Having waited tables for years myself, I’ve always wondered why Americans think that waiting tables isn’t a respectful career choice. In Europe the professional waiter is considered an honorable and acceptable career.

    3. I now view someone as successful as one who treats others, our planet, and animals with kindness and respect. Intelligence and humor are always an added plus. In reading your posts, I think you should consider yourself very successful!

    All the best,

    PS And to answer your question: what middle-aged man wants to date someone whose idea of financial planning is a monthly visit to the Coinstar machine? If I were single and living in your neck of the woods, count me as one who would. And I’m sure there are others.

    1. That was well written Greg


  5. I'm so impressed with this article, I featured it on my blog. I've followed your career from Starrbooty to Varla & The Mermaid. You are very gifted and proven to be resilient.

    I added a free DONATION tab to my blog via PayPal. It helped generate some additional income.

  6. I've always enjoyed your writing and I can relate to what you write, although my life hasn't been as interesting as yours.

    There is nothing wrong with being a waiter. You can be proud of any honest work.

    Please keep writing. It helps keep many people like your self inspired and brightens our days.

    Randy Left Brooklyn