If You Ever Find Yourself
Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks (and sometimes more), I am publishing work from an emerging writer. This week, an essay from Erika J. Simpson. Erika holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Kentucky and is the recipient of the 2021 MFA Award in Nonfiction. Having completed her first writers’ room at HBO, she is working on a memoir. Erika is a southern girl currently living in Denver, Colorado with her partner and cat. This essay was edited by Meg Pillow.
If you ever find yourself piss poor and struggling to survive in a world obsessed with money, I’ll teach you what I’ve had to know from birth. If you are young and your mother has no boundaries and no friends she trusts, like mine, she’ll tell you upfront everything that’s going wrong. Which is either the best choice or the worst, but you can decide that stuff in retrospect.
1. The only things that matter, and the order of their importance, are food and rent. Don’t pay no bill before you’ve eaten. Because how you look sitting around with all the lights on but nothing to eat? You can ignore any gas, electric, or water bills that come in a white envelope. Those are nudges. Once you get a red letter or a final notice, call Customer Service.
My mama said the best phone representatives were women who had Southern accents thicker than ours. Those are the ones you tell your story to when you need an extension on the bills. As a single mother, she sure didn’t have money, but she always had her story. I’d sit sheepish beside her while the voice on the house phone rattled off three-digit numbers we owed. Mama’s face would frown up like she could be seen, and she’d tell them how her mother died a couple months ago, and how her husband left her with two babies, and how she couldn’t get a steady job. The operator would let her put twenty dollars down and we’d live to heat the house another day.
It’s interesting because the real first rule of being broke is not to let anyone know you’re broke. But a good sob story has value in it if you gain favor instead of sympathy from telling it. A favor being a waived bill or a free meal, because remember: you’ve got to eat sooner than you’ve got to pay the rent.
2. There are a few embarrassing ways to get food when you don’t have any money. If your mother is a devoted Christian—which you will not be, as you can see that God isn’t real if devout Christians suffer as much as your family does—you can ask the church for a food donation box. You’ll learn quickly though that the bounty isn’t plentiful enough to endure the heavenly sisters swarming around your raggedy apartment.
Whenever we asked for help from the church, Mama would clean the tables and sweep the floors and tell me to look hungry but not starved. Appreciative but not desperate. The church ladies loved to gossip. Everyone knew that from the extra hour they spent whispering in the parking lot after the sermon. The sisters insisted on dropping the box of food off inside. They’d lightly touch the counters with a prayer hand and strut around the kitchen like the Make-a-Wish Foundation for bringing canned peas, ramen noodles, and powdered milk. Mama knew a description of our place would pass through the congregation afterward. But you do what you gotta do to eat. They never even brought snacks. Just non-perishables and prayer.
The worst part is that afterwards, you have to come to church at least two more Sundays in a row looking thankful. Extra points if you give a testimony and pass out while you’re clapping and screaming Thank you, Jesus! Thank you holy saints for blessing us! While the congregation get to shouting Amen! Amen!
You’ll still be broke on Monday morning.
Another way to eat is with reverse Robin Hooding, in which you challenge the poor to give to the poor if they’re working for the rich. This trick works best at places with cafeteria-style serving. You’ll be used to sharing your mother’s shame, but this one feels particularly embarrassing. This is the one where you’ve got to look like a child starving in Africa on command, and you pray no one’s behind you in line.
I stood like a sad prop as my Mama asked the cashier at JJ’s to slide a hot plate of fish and greens to us for free. She had him pile the to-go plate up nice and big with fried okra, creamy mac and cheese, and an extra catfish filet before admitting we had no money to pay for it. My babies haven't eaten all day, she pleaded. I didn't look at my older sister and she didn’t look at me. We were both pretending we didn’t know each other and that we didn’t exist. The cashier didn’t look at Mama as he slid her the plate. And we lived to eat another meal.
When you can’t take sporadic food any longer, or the feeling that everyone at church knows your business, or the look in a teenage cashier's eyes when they realize you have absolutely nothing, you can take the bus down to the family aid office and apply for food stamps. Food stamps are the most stable and humiliating option. Nowadays they give out plastic debit cards with a picture of your state on the front so you remember who’s footing the bill. But back in the day, the case workers would hand you what looked like monopoly money: bright Easter-colored food vouchers representing ones, fives, tens, and twenties. Oranges and pinks loud enough to be heard. Bright enough to tell everybody in line behind you that you on government aid and your daddy left your mama for a white woman and now your mama can’t even support herself or the babies she laid down to have. If you need money for more than food and don’t wanna carry around play-play money, you could do like Mama and flip it.
Mama could sell 50 dollar’s worth of food stamps for 25 dollar’s worth of real cash to teachers she subbed with, her post office lady friends, or sisters from church. It was a beautiful hustle. We got to have money to spend on bus fare and replacement clothes, and they got to have food stamps without having food stamps. Nobody wanted to be the black family on welfare.
3. Conceal what’s real. Parade your poverty only for people that can help, never for those who will judge you like the church ladies. If you’re ever broke during grade school, you’ll learn that your mama’s worried about rent while your peers are worried about designer clothes.
Kids at my school flashed Sean Jean and Baby Phat paired with fresh Timberland boots. The seventh-grade boys would clutch their belt buckles like they worked somewhere. Like they didn’t just beg their mamas in the mall over summer. Name brands show your peers that your mama isn’t worried about the rent. My mama told me the truth, we ain’t got it like that. So I got regular clothes from TJ Maxx and Walmart.
4. Statement pieces are for the rich. Buy staples you can wear a few times without being noticed. A good pair of jeans and a nice pair of khakis. A black shirt, a white shirt, and one with a collar. Mama said to always keep your jacket and your shoes nice, since that's what catches people’s eyes first, though we rarely had money to replace my sneakers before the soles started talking. Lay low. If you don’t have anything, don’t flaunt anything. I’d seen baby negroes tear a girl apart because the stitching on her FUBU dress looked off. They’d surrounded another boy like a pack of hyenas over his shoes. They howled up at the tile ceilings, cackling with their tongues hanging out until he crumpled within himself. Boy I thought them were Air Force Ones! He rockin Skechers!! If you can’t afford the real thing don’t even bother with something resembling. That’s all you’ll look like, something resembling. Stick to plain black sneakers from Walmart.
You can talk your way out of paying bills and con your way into some food stamps. You can hide that you’re poor in public as long as you can shower, but you can’t hide an eviction.
If it’s the first of the month, and you can’t afford the rent, you can call the landlord and let them know you need more time. Asking is better than silence, unless you’ve been late on the rent before. Don’t panic yet. 5. The money isn’t due, due until the fifth of the month. If you really don’t have it—and this will get a little awkward with daily notices and letters—but if you really don’t have them people’s money, you have at least two full months to try to raise it. 6. They can’t legally evict a non-paying tenant by force until the third month.
Mama did well teaching public school until she challenged the principal’s morals. He told her to bump grades for a few failing white kids whose parents had donated money. He threatened to fire her if she didn’t comply. She told that white man mother fuck you. He iced her out of the school system like a mafia lord. The last check withered away into nothing after food, partial rent, clothes, car payments, partial bills, and credit card debt. Despite Mama’s best efforts on the phone with the property owner, even praying in tongues real loud every time he mentioned how much she owed, we had to pack our faded furniture and go in month three.
We moved from the apartments with the shiny new appliances and front-facing balconies and into ones with the fake entrance gates that always hung pathetically open. Where the units themselves masked endless roaches, scattering across the counters and from under the trashcan no matter how much we cleaned. Substitute teaching jobs came fewer and farther between for Mama and soon her credit score couldn’t even get us the dirty brick flat level apartments on the cloudy part of town.
Once my aunts and uncles got tired of Mama calling for Western Union money wires and the child support checks from the father I never met dried up, evictions came one after the other.
7. If you’re more than three months behind on rent in an apartment building, make sure someone is always home. Because as soon as the office manager peeps you heading to the grocery store, they’ll violently throw your things into the street. They’ll throw your clothes out still on the hangers, the whole dresser with panties leaking out the drawers, books, pots and photo albums right onto the sidewalk, right in front of where you park your car everyday so everybody knows the stuff is yours. The worst part of this eviction isn't the neighbors knowing how broke your family is but that the very same neighbors will take your furniture if you aren’t back fast enough. TV sets and coffee tables disappear the quickest. You’ll never see who takes your stuff cuz you’re banished from the complex now. You’ll probably have to change schools again too, depending on how far away the next apartment complex is. Another perk of laying low at school is that you don’t have to miss anybody or explain why your family has to up and leave.
Whenever we got evicted, we’d rent a U-Haul if Mama could afford it or just stuff our sentimentals and clothes into the backseat and try to find somewhere to stay before the eviction hit Mama’s credit report. I’d sit quietly in the backseat with boxes piled up around me, and on my lap. I’d try not to let Mama see me crying over lost Goosebumps books or Barbie dolls. That’s just how it goes. We stayed in rotating apartments in three-month intervals and then seedy rent-by-the-week motels after Mama’s credit report started hissing with venom.
The roadside motels were slimy-looking haunts with stiff comforters on the beds and lamp lighting that gave everything a yellow teeth stain kinda vibe. A good tip for living in a motel because your mama hasn’t found a good job yet is to leave twenty minutes earlier on school mornings and walk over to the bus stop in the fancy apartments down the street. Mama said if people thought we weren’t doing so well, The State could take me away from her. So remember not to tell anybody our business. Keep up appearances. Conceal.
There were other families staying in those motels, but somehow we never knew faces or names. Nobody looked anybody in the face at 6:30 in the morning. Mamas waved goodbye to kids. We ran across the parking lot like roaches scattering out, heading toward a bus stop that doesn’t make a comment on our lives.
8. Avoid motels if you can. Motels are the easiest to get evicted from. You have to secure the 35-dollar daily fee to keep the door clicking open, which sounds cheap, but totals more than a house after a month.
This kind of eviction, the motel eviction, is way worse because they lock your stuff inside when you don’t pay. Or at least your key card stops unlocking the door, and they won’t let you back in unless you pay within 24 hours. Mama says the manager let the maids divvy up your stuff amongst themselves.
One Sunday, when we got back from begging the Lord for money at church, our motel door wouldn’t open. We knew we were out. I wailed for my favorite teddy bear, the last good item I had left after several evictions. Mama rushed me into the front office for the clerk to see. You’d let a baby cry over a few dollars? She convinced him to let us in for just a moment, and I stood moaning and yanking on my pigtails beside the manager while Mama filled up three big garbage bags with our things. She handed me the brown plush teddy in front of him so he could focus on her baby smiling and not how we were getting our stuff without paying. I didn’t feel like a baby anymore. But I definitely felt helpless all the time.
If you ever find yourself with a credit score too low to say out loud, and with a mountain of debt too high, be careful. 9. The poorer you get, the bigger you dream. Mostly because the more debt you collect, the more it will take a miracle to climb out of it.
My Mama dreamed big. Mama started using the money substituting to try and open her own business. She wanted to use her PhD to help people, offer therapy and life coaching as if we hadn’t just moved into a motel indefinitely. I felt stuck in my mother’s struggle story. I started strategizing on how I could break the cycle of poverty with the lessons she taught me.
One benefit of living in hotels was that you have access to cable television. While Mama was running after education like it would save her life, I was paying attention to pop culture. The only black folk I saw making money were on TV! I watched Raven Symone flashing her little dimples on Hangin With Mr. Cooper. On TBS they played The Lost World: Jurassic Park all the time. Mama said TBS stood for throwaway bullshit but I loved that one because Jeff Goldblum had a black daughter and they didn’t even have to explain it too much.
If all them degrees weren't making her any money, then Hollywood could. I became obsessed with the idea that I would be famous. I knew we didn’t have any move to L.A. risk-it-all money cuz we were already risking it all for Mama’s business dreams. PBS had a show called Zoom and they had a lil black girl up there singing and dancing and doing arts and crafts with the other kids. They said it featured kids like me so I knew they probably weren’t talking about no little girl who stays in a hotel room and sleeps on the floor inside a Rugrats sleeping bag. What I did know was the kids on Zoom looked local, and so I searched flyers hanging on telephone poles and the bulletin boards for folks looking for talent.
Most of them advertised babysitters and cheap lawyers for hire, but I found a good one hanging up in the Office Depot for a show called All That on Nickelodeon. Mama was trying to figure out how to print off copies of a trifold brochure for her business at the public printers. She’d probably use money that could go toward our rent, but for once I wasn’t calculating the funds. This show was comedy-based and looking for kids age seven to twelve with loads of personality, which was about all I had to my name. If Mama could use every resource we had to achieve her big dream, I was allowed to dream too. She agreed to take me for an audition.
The producer told us to meet him at the public library in the heart of Atlanta. Mama had me wear the khaki pants I wore to school and a hot pink shirt. She braided the top of my hair and then curled the back, and we both hoped I looked like an “everyday kid.” The man greeted us right out front, an older white man dressed in jeans and a khaki vest like we were going on safari or something. He had a big camera hung around his neck and a tripod flung over his shoulder. He shook Mama’s hand, and she smiled at him with her best red lipstick on. He told us he had reserved one of the quiet reading rooms in the library and that I was his last kid of the day. He told my mother to wait outside while we filmed. That made me nervous. In eight years of my life, I had never been alone with an adult man. Never hugged my father. Never prayed one-on-one with the Pastor. All men felt dangerous to me. I figured I had never been touched or gone missing, and it was probably because Mama never had a man around me.
Mama nodded reassuringly and left me to film in our quiet place. The man set the camera up and pointed it at me. He said there were no lines, just scenarios, and he wanted to film me talking to the camera about an assortment of things. He told me to say my name and after I said it loud and clear I added, are all my friends ready to play? He ate it up. I gave him a blockbuster kid performance, holding up books and talking about reading on rainy days, dramatically pouting before grinning big. I asked the camera lens if it knew what gravity was and started bouncing up and down on a “sugar rush.”
The producer loved everything I did. He popped his head out the room door for Mama to come in, telling her she had a little star on her hands. I’d done it. He told us he'd call us back with a wiggle of his eyebrows and left, hugging his camera to his chest. My hopes were up.
Here’s another lesson Mama taught me, a riskier one, which I try not to add to the list. 10. Check now, cash later. Every now and then we could write a check to get groceries. She told me that checks didn’t get cashed right away, so we had time to put money in the bank to cover the food. Especially if you write it on a Friday and let the weekend stretch the time. I knew good and well her bank account was so negative it couldn’t be saved, but I didn’t say anything when she when she asked to pay in check.
After my audition, Mama took me to the late-night movie to celebrate. I knew we were lingering around near a Western Union for my Uncle to wire over this week’s motel money when he got off work, but I enjoyed the show nonetheless. We saw Will Smith in Wild Wild West and afterwards sat on the curb outside the theater eating leftover popcorn and discussing it. Mama said it felt like a TBS kinda movie.
She never told me that she wrote a really bad check once. She had to drive us from North Carolina to Atlanta after my father left us. She wrote a check for the full amount of a brand-new Buick and drove us off in the middle of the night like thieves. Mama gave the car away five years later to a man and his wife for three thousand dollars cash.
A cop with puffy pink fists clutching his belt buckle walked up to us. He told my mother it was kind of late to be out with a child. She agreed with him entirely. He asked for her ID. We sat waiting in silence while he walked over to his parked vehicle to run it. Mama whispered father God in the name of Jesus under her breath. The cop came back and said it looked like she had written a bad check several years ago. Mama tried to tell him our story. How she was all alone out here with a young child to raise and choppy income. The cop said there was a warrant out for her arrest, and he’d have to take her in.
Our popcorn spilled on the ground when he handcuffed her. He made me ride downtown in a separate car, like she would kill me if we rode together. Mama went to jail for a full year.
If you ever find yourself sitting on a bench in the hallway of a police station, waiting for a verdict on what will be done with you after your mama is put in jail, you will remember that your mother said being taken into foster care is awful. She has told you how hard it can be for families to be reunited. She told you that you will be unloved and used for a check. You tried not to think about the child support that your mother receives and how it’s almost the same thing. Because you do feel loved. More than anything, you feel loved. When your mother is at her absolute poorest, you will realize that all you really own is love. But once she is behind bars, and your sister is tucked safely away at college, you start wondering what your options are. 11. The cops will call your aunt and uncles to see who wants to raise you before they throw you into the system.
My aunt drove from Greensboro, North Carolina to Decatur, Georgia to get me from the precinct. She did not pay my mother’s bail, but she did claim me. She whispered into the phone on the officer’s desk that at least she knew my mama had somewhere to sleep. We drove to North Carolina straight away. I fell asleep in the dark stretch of trees and highway and woke up in another reality.
What no one tells you, on all the nights that you’re praying to your mother’s God for a house or new clothes, or to feel normal, is that those things won’t feel normal straight away once you have them.
My Aunt set me up in the guest room, and I asked her quickly, smartly, who all sleep in here? I had never been to her house for more than a few hours of a Thanksgiving or family reunion. When we visited, we always slept at Grandma’s house, all three of us in one bed, Mama and her two little girls. Not that different from the hotel rooms we got accustomed to, where it was Mama to one bed and me and sister to the other.
My aunt told me that my cousin had his own room, and the oldest had moved out, so I could stay alone in this one. The bed was big and empty. My Aunt was not rich by any means. She lived cautiously, saved, married a military man. And by the time she had to claim me, she was dealing with my cousin’s mental disabilities and trying to free herself from an abusive marriage. Mama’s phone calls for money had been only a minor annoyance in her life before I arrived. Something to talk about amongst the other siblings, a weary wire transfer if only to make sure her nieces were fed. Now I was seated at her table. Nine years old and feral.
The year spent with my Aunt while my mother was in jail was the most pastel-colored of my childhood. For the first month there I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would be put out. The bright colors and stable living did nothing for my happiness. It felt like something I was observing. From my point of view, my aunt’s life was perfect. Every night she would open the fridge, pull out fresh meat and vegetables and cook something! The stuff was readily available in there. Tuesdays were spaghetti night and Wednesdays were piano lessons. Insane to me. Extra Curricular Activities. Just doing stuff after school to do it. My aunt took us to Hercules on Ice one weekend! We sat in the fifth row—with popcorn from the actual concession stand—watching Hercules and Megara skating right in front of us.
12. Middle class feels like the one percent when you’re stuck below the poverty line.
My aunt had a living room and she had a den, another thing I had never heard of before, with two big bookshelves full of colorful VHS tapes, and I loved to watch one every night. I connected with Orphan Annie. I wondered if she for real felt comfortable with Daddy Warbucks or if she missed the orphanage sometimes. Between Annie and the Little Princess, I felt like the wrong kind of orphan. How could I disappear into a comfortable suburban life when my mother still had nothing?
13. There will be reminders that you do not belong when you least expect it. You may be safe for a while with a family member, or on a dear friend’s couch, and for a moment you will feel like you’ve escaped the quicksand that is poverty. But you haven’t yet. You have found another Band-Aid, like the hotel rooms. There will be days where your Band-Aid will be ripped away. Like Easter Sunday.
My Aunt made me wear the yellowest dress I had seen in my life. She was adamant about Easter. We were going to JCPenney before church to have pictures taken. A family portrait. She was trying to make me feel more like a daughter than a niece since I’d overheard her conversations on the phone. Pictures were proof, and Auntie wanted some.
The whole way over I thought about my mother. Her last letter said that she’d be out in a month or two. She said she would send for me as soon as everything was ready. I wasn’t sure what everything was, or how she could get it ready, or if she knew I was taking family portraits with her sister. The photographer asked “the parents” to sit and we filled in around them. While he took photos, I thought of the audition I had at the library. I wondered if the man had tried to call my mother. If he had sent me a ticket to Hollywood, now collecting dust in her P.O. Box. I wondered if I could have rescued us or if he was just some man with my pictures on his camera.
The photographer told us to move in tighter, and I placed my hand on my Aunt’s shoulder. Family is family after all. Maybe it was time I leaned into themed outfits, portrait studios, amusement parks, and dinner at the table. Maybe I could be normal. I tried to smile as big as my aunt and really mean it.
The photographer commented on how pretty Auntie’s daughters were. Her spitting image. She laughed, and hugged me close to her side, “Well this is my niece here. I ain’t had but two so far.”
I tried not to flinch at the clarification. And yet.
The photographer says cheerfully, casually, carelessly, “Then let’s get a couple pics of just the main family!”
Auntie gives me a tight smile. Uncle readjusts in his stool. My older cousin takes the softest step forward to where I am standing and I slither away. I watch in my hand-me-down dress from behind a clothing rack as they take pictures that look more normal. A husband, a wife, and two kids. I wondered which portrait she would hang up in the den.
After that, I made the definitive decision that I would never belong. It was time for me to get back to Atlanta, the big city where my mother was still looking for her possibilities. There was no way she could do as well without my cute cherub face beside her, right? It was a better image, a better story. We could hustle up a fairytale of our own. But when you are poor, and no matter how mature you seem for an underage person, 14. Other people will decide what is best for you.
Auntie decided it was best for me to stay with her. It was no secret that she lost a baby a year before I was born. She had wanted three. I’d be safer with her.
But Mama came to get me. We all sat and had a cordial dinner. I don’t remember the conversation or if they asked her about jail. But I remember it was spaghetti night. And something about that made my stomach hurt. I didn’t want her to see me like this. Like a domesticated cat. I wanted to be in allegiance with her. And yet.
I felt embarrassed by the clothes she wore. I could tell they were Kmart basics. I felt embarrassed by a couple of casual lies I could catch in her speech. She said she stayed with Sister Cherry when she got out, but I knew Sister Cherry didn’t mess with us like that no more after we ran her light and water bill up the full three months we stayed with her. There was no way she would take Mama in after being in jail for a bounced check.
My mama spoke like she was stable though, which made me feel queasy. I didn’t believe it and I doubted my aunt believed it either. Would she let me leave with Mama? Was it her place to say?
The sisters got into a fight that night. I had fallen asleep to my Mother praying at the foot of the guest bed. When my eyes opened again, there were blurry figures scuffling over the bed. My mother’s fists flew into my aunt's nightgown, and she shoved her back into the bed. They wrestled right atop my body, over what I assumed was who could claim me. My uncle burst into the room and ripped them apart. I lay wide eyed in the dark all night, my mother praying herself to sleep beside me.
We were on our way back to Atlanta the next day. Mama had two greyhound tickets for us tucked into her Bible. I felt sick the whole bus ride, and even more so on the city bus to our new home. Mama told my aunt she worked it all out, but she hadn’t told me anything yet. I wondered if my Hercules on Ice T-shirt made me look too much like a normal kid to tell the truth. She was speaking to me like a child for the first time ever, muttering that it was alright every few minutes.
We got off the bus in front of a hotel. Mama squeezed my hand tight as we walked up. After she had swiped her card into the room, we laid on the king-sized bed and split a bag of cheese puffs. She told me the manager here was an asshole but she had paid up for two weeks so we had time to figure something out.
Here was the truth. She said what she needed to say to get me back, but nothing had changed. The knot in my stomach loosened. Maybe because 15. home still feels like home, when you’re surviving together. I felt happier than I had in a year, just being in the know with Mama. Christmas had been a highlight. My aunt kept her tree up year-round, and I was excited to open gifts instead of grieve over toys Mama already warned me she couldn’t afford. But after all the goodies were opened, I longed for Christmas with Mama: hanging green construction paper shaped like a tree on the wall, decorating with pine cones and leaves from around the neighborhood. Finding whimsy in nature, in each other.
Mama would tell me another truth that day too: she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. She’d have to start chemo right away.
The final rule to remember, and the one that keeps you safest, is this: 16. There are no neat, happy endings. Just the next step in the journey. Remember not to tell your story to just anyone. They’ll listen to your unfathomable life with pity in their eyes before asking how it all worked out. Half the time it’s still working out. There’s been no cash settlements, no miracles. You are trying your best. You are learning from your experiences. You can survive for years once you understand the rules.