Growing up poor, you learn, first, that school trips are not a given. Trip slips being handed out, created a distinct sort of anxiety. Lord knows, you didn’t plan the trip, but that won’t stop the hooting and hollering when you hand it over to your Mom. “How much money does this school need?” she’ll ask you angrily. Knowing not to talk back for fear of a smack, you respond in your head. “Its for the freaking bus Mom, and the damned admission ticket.” These admonitions occurred for every slip sent home from the school: Slips asking for box tops for education (a brand name product never stepped foot in the house, say hello to Oat O’s, never met that Cheerio fella), as well as for school supplies for the classroom (never saw a roll of paper towels either), or any other tear-off slip with a $ on it. Birthday parties were addressed in the same manner. We can’t buy a gift, so therefore you can’t go. “How would that look? Showing up without a gift” your Mom would say.
Growing up poor, you also learn that not all homes are created equal. Our house was the one that kids weren’t allowed in, let alone near. A parents eye’s would glance at the apartment, then back at you, quietly shaking their head to their little one. At the time, I’d imagined them telling their kid that our house was icky and to play outside instead. All play was usually outside anyway, but now you’d have the particular burden of knowing no kids were allowed in your house, but somehow you were. You learned not to invite anyone over anymore. Playing outside was better.
Growing up poor, you learn to use humor. New friends always had questions, like “why are all the lights out at 5PM on a winter afternoon?” A quick reply of “we’re practicing being Amish” would make everyone laugh, and keep the group moving. Noting to myself not to bring anyone around the front of the building until ConEd gets paid and that the Amish joke always gets a laugh- use freely and often.
We experienced “isolated blackouts,” at least twice a year. Still, ConEd was always good about keeping the lights on for the holidays. The distinct whir of every electronic in the house coming to a sudden stop meant it was lights out, so bunker up kids, it’s gonna be a long one. We looked forward to scary-scary, a game we invented exclusively for lights out, and no, merely turning off the lights ourselves wouldn’t work. It had to be for realsies. Otherwise it wasn’t scary, I guess.
On the first night, as is your-lights-got-shut-off tradition, everything in the freezer is cooked and feasted upon. This meant a hodge-podge of chicken cutlets, hot dogs, frozen vegetables, hash browns, frozen pizzas, and anything else too precious to let perish. That first day was the best.
If your lights cut out in the winter, you were lucky. Outside temperatures would lend itself to the makeshift fridge set up outside for the daily perishables; your milk and eggs and such. No need to worry about explaining yourself to your neighbors, they mostly won’t want to get involved. If they cut out in the summer, you would start the sleepy-time process outside in the cool night air, avoiding the stifling and still heat of indoors for as long as possible. In the fall and winter, you’d do your homework by candlelight. Early nightfall meant you’d bring a candle everywhere. You never realize how much light you need until it’s gone. If you were one of the teenage girls in the house, a candle would accompany you to the shower, ala Ebenezer Scrooge, to shave your legs.
Once there was a real blackout. I ran outside to find the ConEdison man because sometimes, I was told, the ConEdison man could be reasoned with. You could buy your house some time. I ran as fast as I could to every meter in the development. I was determined to save the day. There was no one to be found. ConEdison men are usually scarce when you really need them, I supposed.