Earlier this evening (well, I guess technically yesterday evening, now), I did something most people with common sense probably would not: I gave a ride home to a total stranger from the gas station near my house where I stopped to fill up. Ostensibly, it was just going to be a one-mile drop-off, but she didn’t have much further to go to get to her destination, so I drove the extra mile or so, which means we had time to get to know each other superficially.
My unplanned passenger was in her mid-30s, self-identified as homeless (she was staying with a friend), and was apparently stuck in Las Vegas the way most people get stuck here: bad luck gambling. Throughout the course of the drive, I learned she did eight months in a maximum security prison for a crime that didn’t seem to warrant such a sentence, that she started selling crack at age 13 just to get by, and that a child she recently had was put in foster care because she had no means of supporting it.
She learned from me that I’d left my “corporate” job to focus full-time on my own business, that I went to college for journalism, that I come from a relatively middle-class background, and that I was going to a concert tonight (Nine Inch Nails, and yes, it was excellent, thanks for asking).
She asked me if working in the “corporate” world was like it is in the movies (specifically “Office Space”). If working for publications was like the newsrooms she’s seen in media. She assumed I “had it good” growing up. I downplayed such a notion, but compared to her experience of growing up on the streets and not being able to attend secondary school because, well, she had to do other stuff just to get through the day, I realized she was right: I did “have it good.” I still do.
I try not to take for granted my lifestyle or place in the world, and guys, I know I complain about constantly working when I should be grateful to have work (I am, I really am!), but it’s easy to forget that what I have not everyone does nor can. Not because they don’t want to, not because they aren’t capable, but because their environment doesn’t foster the sort of opportunities that mine did and still does.
Growing up, I lived in nice, suburban neighborhoods (although most of them now, 30 years later, aren’t so suburban nor are they nice). I never wanted for anything (then again, I didn’t ask for much … well, except for Star Wars toys). I went to good schools. I played sports. I participated in extracurricular activities. I collected comics and baseball cards. The only fights I ever got into were really dumb and only involved shoving. Sure, my bio-dad was kind of a pothead and had fits of rage, and my parents divorced when I was young because of it, but I quickly leveled-up with a better father and never missed a beat in school or life.
Sure, I’ve worked for everything I have, and worked hard at it, and likely will until I can’t any longer, but it’s the kind of hard work that has involved me being inside an office, behind a computer, or traveling around the country. I didn’t have to sell illegal drugs. I didn’t do time because I was caught receiving stolen goods. I don’t have to ask for money or rides outside a gas station. Things are tight right now compared to where they were six months ago and the roof over our head is not as big or nice as it used to be, but it’s a roof … and one under which we have comfortable furniture and computers and pets and closets full of clothes. And we can afford the $37 dinner at Grimaldi’s we enjoyed the previous night.
The woman to whom I gave a ride admitted she’s been conditioned by her circumstances. She’s essentially institutionalized by the constraints of her life, too afraid to try to make things better. But she seemed amazingly level-headed, well aware of her need to distance herself from the crew she’d been hanging with and resolved to get her life on some sort of forward-moving track. She even asked if my business was hiring. (And for my conservative friends out there: No, she’s not on welfare. She actually said she’s not a fan of it. And I could tell, she was a bit prideful about that, as well.) It made me feel doubly bad: Guilty that I took for granted the opportunities afforded me my entire middle-class life, and sorry that I couldn’t do more for her than just drive her a few miles down Maryland Parkway.
In the back of my mind, there’s the constant fear that the ground could give out at any moment. My freelance work will dry up. I won’t be able to get another job in this highly competitive market. I’ll default on my student loans. My new business will fail, and we’ll be left holding the bag for the loans we’ve taken and leases we’re locked into. (And you can just double all of that for Sara as well, although she does enough worrying of her own in this realm.)
I know most of this is unrealistic, both based on historical data and the fact that neither Sara nor our families would let sh*t hit the fan to such an extent. But it’s what keeps me driven, kids. I’ve been on the precipice of poverty before. I’ve existed without a dime to my name, debt collectors calling, nothing but ramen and peanut butter in the cupboard, borrowing a dollar just to catch the bus to my job that doesn’t pay enough to get by. I don’t want to revisit that again. Hell, I don’t even want to revisit a credit score under 800.
Sorry, it’s very late and I’ve digressed a bit, but the point I’m trying to make is that it’s easy to think your life isn’t that great compared to your peers. That your Honda isn’t as great as your boss’ BMW. That your apartment isn’t as nice as your co-worker’s house. That your neighborhood isn’t as desirable as your friend’s gated community. But the fact is: You have a car, a place to live, a job. And a lot of people? They’ve never had any of those, and possibly never will. And it’s easy to forget that although we share the same planet, we don’t all come from, nor live in, the same world–a fact I was sharply reminded of tonight.