From an upcoming untitled essay collection
There are certain undeniable truths you learn as a child. Of course, these don’t really hold much mettle as you get older, but the impact remains the same. For example, I was pretty sure that running away to the circus was a thing.
It was mentioned so much in different mediums, from cartoons to books to being used as a turn of phrase. Was there some special program for soon-to-be runaway children that all circuses had? Some sort of universal code like the direction you turn a screw to tighten it. I imagined that there had to be a back-office for the circus. The ringmaster would have his tall hat perched on the end of the desk; his glossy booted feet kicked up on top. Twirling his circus mustache, he would say, “Sure, kid. It’s hard work but you got moxy.”
Or something like that.
I believed this with the fiery intensity that childhood often lent such hopes. Unquestioningly real as the quickness that $20 departs from my account. This blind trust was like a magnet for trouble. People who can get their way with the alliance of family ties and a few, smart words were like an enigma to me. My brother was a great ringmaster of manipulation.
Like many families without much income, money was a sore subject. How to get more of it, how to keep it, how to hide it. Somewhere around the time that we were all old enough to have jobs of our own, he also began to become obsessed with the idea of appearing to have more. Better clothes, better cars, the whole shebang. While we were never exactly, “well off”, it never bothered me that much. Children can be cruel, and this became evident in school. The right shoes freshly cut hair and quality sew-ins were a lifejacket that very few could afford.
The best thing about being a poor as fuck Black kid was that there were many others just like you. You could sit together in your thrift store uniform pants and creased up shoes and it was ok. I was ok so long as I was accepted. My brother was not ok with just “enough”, and I think that’s where his obsession with keeping up the appearance of money began.
I have obsessions, fixations on things that I would go to great lengths to obtain. The aloof coolness of the tattooed women on TV, the taste of fresh sashimi caught that morning, peace of mind. I can admire the doggedness of his pursual. There were lots of bribing back then in form of a ride to the mall. I thought this was a normal part of early 2000’s club culture: You buy an amazing outfit, usually a new shirt, wear it with the tag attached and hidden, then return it the next day. Bag secured. It seemed genius, really. Why spend $79.99 on a new shirt from the overly scented Boston Store men’s department to wear out and spill watered-down Hennessey on if you could just return it the next day, money carefully returned in the form of its original tender? I remember helping to iron the shirts for their imminent return. Genius.
But this wasn’t enough though. His obsession with image started to shift its form. Change is a gradual thing. It is starker as you get older. Weird acne to weird wrinkles to weird voicemails about car insurance I’ll never need. (I’m a permanent — non-driver.). It was the small things that were actually really big things but disguised with very quick talking and pleading.
One thing they don’t teach you in financial literacy class, that single one where they show you how to fill out a check, and a man in a navy-blue polo shirt whose name was probably Chet or some shit hands out worksheets you barely do, is about family.
Banks have rules. “Don’t rob us” is probably at the top of the list. While balancing a checkbook may be very useful to the girl who eventually bought a condo with the guy she’s been seeing for less than a year, I could have really used a lesson on wayward family members trying to cash-in on pristine bank accounts and newborn credit scores.
My first checking account was opened at a bank whose color scheme was so drab that I immediately knew I had made it to the big leagues. I was proud of my little debit card that usually only had a readily available balance of $35 dollars on it. At least it was a positive balance. People who have problems with money always seem to know a lot about other people’s money situations. A positive balance was all that my brother needed, and he explained it as such.
“I just need any bank account number to give this car place. Really, that’s it so I can get them off of my back.”
It made sense to me. I was old enough then to know that there were some limitations to not having a bank account. I was privileged in that small way, to have a bank and bank card and to not have to visit any of the check-cashing places with their litter-strewn floors. I gave it to him, and the routing number too. He was visibly relieved. Not that soon after, my account was overdrawn for an amount that was much more than $35. A car payment amount. Or two. Or however many he was behind on at the time.
I was so surprised and sure that there had to be some mistake. I told him and he feigned surprise and indignation for good measure. Cautiously, I asked him if knew they were going to take the money out and his response was anger and hurt that I would think a family member would do anything so vile. I felt ashamed to question him.
This was long ago, and I don’t remember all of the details of what happened after that. If I received any money from him as repayment after that, it probably wasn’t enough to put my account to rights. I can understand spending beyond your means. I’m always surprised to make it to the next payday with a positive balance. I buy shit I don’t need to feel something. But, I couldn’t and still don’t understand making living outside of your means someone else’s problem. I eventually learned my lesson after many an overdraft, but I don’t think that he ever did.
I dislike going to check-cashing stores a lot. Especially alone. Men will cat-call you any place and this was one of them. Check-cashing stores became another fixture in my life. I felt like I had failed somehow. Before I worked out my internalized respectability politics, I thought those places were for people who failed. Why didn’t they have their own bank? Were they all victims of their own naivety or something more nefarious? At any rate, the people were efficient and cold, and I dreaded going. I promised myself I wouldn’t go back there once everything eventually got sorted out.
Financial literacy classes don’t take into account that some of the students they are teaching may be struggling with more than picking out credit cards. Family and money don’t mix very well together. Especially when there is always a large rug to tidily sweep everything under. All of those things that you insist were “so long ago” fit nicely under a thick enough rug.
Do you know how expensive a nice rug is?
In all my years of living outside of my parent’s home, making my way slowly onto the first rung of financial literacy and safety, I never knew how much a good rug cost. You know the ones that hang up in the window display, bent gracefully at their middle as they hang suspended over their individual rods. I learned about payment services that wouldn’t damage my credit, (I had heard enough about the buy now, pay later places to be thoroughly afraid of them), and got myself a nice ass rug that I paid off over a month.
Expensive rugs are the undeniable truth of my adulthood, and that money is complicated. I still wish I could drop it all and find those circuses that have healthcare, protein-dense meals, and muscular, lady-lion tamers who fall in love with me the first time they see me drop my juggling pin.
I looked up the lyrics for the song, “The Daring Young Man on The Flying Trapeze” because a line for the chorus always stuck with me:
“He’d fly through the air with the greatest of ease
A daring young man on the flying Trapeze”
Wouldn’t you know that this dude was also a con artist? He steals some poor schmucks’ girlfriend and lets her do the work while he collects the money. It would seem that even the circus has its problems.