This article is an exclusive excerpt from Scratch, a new digital magazine about writing, money, and the economics of publishing. If you’re a writer who also needs to make a living, you should get Scratch.
ATMs couldn’t read yet.
Banking at night from the seat of a raggedy mountain bike, as a 16-year-old living on my own, I taught myself how to game the system. I leaned over my handlebars in the green light of the ATM screen, fed an empty envelope into the hole in the wall, pressed “cash back,” and waited. Every time, to my surprise, the machine ate the empty envelope and regurgitated a $20 bill back at me. With it, I’d buy a large bag of frozen bean-and-cheese burritos. The bank would call later; I’d apologize, say I forgot to put the check in the envelope. The hustle worked only if I did it every now and then, when I needed it, no more than once a month. I never thought to punch in a number higher than 20.
Cash, stolen or borrowed from machines, turned out to be easier to replace than the personal possessions I fed to the maw of fiscal insufficiency. Some of my things I left behind, always afraid to be weighed down with too much stuff. Some I lost along the way, in fractured relocations or relationships. But most were sold to second-hand stores or in the classifieds, or, that one time, at auction courtesy of the storage space company after they changed the lock on me for nonpayment. They kept everything inside. Collateral.
Daniel’s typewriter was lost in the storage-space incident, too.
Eviction notices came cyclically in my early twenties, fluttering like cherry blossoms in the dirty breeze of my small apartment building’s hallway as I left for work and brushed them aside, figuring it out, I’ll figure it out, I always did.
For example: In 1997, the first love of one of my first friends drew me a picture of a singer in pastels on a midsection of newspaper, the Style section. The newsprint beneath the pastel grease was always slightly damp, even years later, when I put it in the storage space. I imagine the newsprint now, in a box somewhere waiting to be resold for cash by a garage-sale huckster. I hope it brings in enough money for another fix of whatever is most important to the person who got up early enough to snag it. I can still picture the portrait, the way you can always bring to mind the image of a priceless painting: the throat of the depicted singer is green and strained, and the caption beneath him in the artist’s uneasy script still sings out: “Easy like Sunday moooorning.”
Guilt takes different forms for different people. Fear is not the same thing as a lie, I always thought, and I was always better at lying and stealing than I was at being afraid. In a decade of such precarity, I sought and acquired no skills that might help eliminate my stunning improvisational fiscal practices. I did, however, develop a bracing need to protect anyone who touched my dirty truths, my debits. At least, I reasoned, I always tried to keep clean any other person whose fault this wasn’t.
Half of my small, often-risked apartment was occupied by a friend—a painter—who also had no money but was better than I was at keeping it. She always gave me her half of the rent, so I always sent it in on the first of each month.
Inside the envelope to the landlord: her half.
Just half, though. Most times, I had the full amount due; other times, I didn’t. But I never spent her half.
Kids. We were kids when we started living like adults. My friends and I huddled like cubs in the nighttime apartments of our chosen cities, forming new packs, scavenging and selling, copying and copping. Someone older, once, had said to us, “Fake it till you make it,” so we did the first thing but not usually the second. Nobody trained us. We got jobs. Professions, even. We went to work. For money. Some girls trade things like conversation or flesh; some trade mixed drinks or college degrees. I preferred rarities—good music, old books, objects containing creative work (my own or others’). Stolen or bought, given or made. It was all the same to us. Inside we were still wild and unformed. At night we filled my room with smoke and watched each other like we used to watch our mothers at the dinner table after dinner when they balanced checkbooks on ten-key calculators and whispered, “uh oh” to no one in particular. It was never enough.
Loss can be so many different things; so many ways of taking and exchanging were involved in the transactions I performed to stay solvent that it felt almost like relief every time I had to unload, trim, cull the stacks of possessions in my room, and place them into boxes and sell them for another slight, imperfect chance at permanence. Along with any saleable items—my records and books and clothes with the tags still inside them, the portrait and the typewriter—other things were misplaced without profit. My printed snapshots from Paris, Sara’s bass guitar, the book of our stoned quotations Sherri had transcribed, that fucking favorite striped T-shirt I grasped like a pacifier until it, too, disappeared.
“Mine,” I learned never to say.
Necklaces form around the throats of young women so easily, without effort or awareness, the shadow impressions left by experience: here lies the bootprint of capital, here the chain of economy, here the encircled habits I’ll forget to take off in the shower every time.
Odd behaviors of privilege stick with you. Like a stubborn refusal to drink coffee without organic half-and-half, even when there’s none to be bought; even when my head rings like an empty envelope, beeping in the wall of a bank somewhere.
Priorities, psychology, patterns, pride. If attitudes about money are formed in childhood, then who here is pretending she’s not still a toddler, fiercely defending her tiny personal space, toy, or naughty impulse from those who would impose so-called proper values onto hers? Who are the grownups in the room if we are all under the spells of our own hustles? You do what you gotta do, sure, but at some point I must have decided it just didn’t matter. When the bank took away my account, probably.
Queries go unanswered, phones become sirens, it’s easy to lose track of what you owe.
Restitution for the huddled children, I thought, every time I stole something from a place that employed me in order to pay for something I needed in order to keep going to work. Tokens. Shoes. A night out.
Self-restitution, too. There was a deli I liked where you could order a fancy veggie sandwich and they’d just hand it to you, rely on you, assume you would ferry it across the entire length of the store yourself, past the salad bar and the unattended open exit door, all the way over to the registers so you could then pay for it. It was a special treat, eating that sandwich. That trust.
This is the story of Craigslist; of Manhattan and San Francisco, too.
Underneath the counters of most restaurant, café, and department-store bathrooms is usually where they keep the extra toilet paper. Several rolls easily fit in a standard messenger bag. Wave at the loss prevention specialist as you leave. Smile. Underneath the cash drawer is where you can slip a fifty without ringing it into the register. Making the change right is hard at first but everybody knows how to do it. It’s part of the benefits package, we justified together, a chorus of exchanges and unearned dividends. A little bit of revenge for the unscheduled shifts, the unclocked hours, the underhanded pats on the ass.
Vendors on the street still seem so familiar to me, their blankets strewn with stuff stolen from cars or homes, every item worth more in experience, in striving, than it would be in cash after a good haggle.
What I owe and what’s owed to me.
Xeroxed flyers on telephone poles with paper tabs picked off as though by pigeons.
“You want these,” I’d say to the man, always a man. It wasn’t a question. I’d open the cardboard box, balance it between the counter and my soft stomach, unload the records, CDs, chance at another month, onto the counter. A buyers’ skill is subtle, a rapid routine honed over thousands of clocked hours. He picks up a CD and glances at the cover art, which instinctively dials up the work’s artist, provenance, and value from somewhere deep in the alphabet of his brain. He holds the jewel box by its topsides, between thumb and index finger; swings the plastic cover open with a twist of his wrist; pops out the disc with his middle finger in the hole and his thumb on the rim. He flips the thing over in a flash of reflective silver, tilts it beneath a desk lamp to scan for scratches, then makes his judgment and slams it back into its tray. He flips shut the lid with one hand, and relegates each object to its proper stack: These we can’t use right now, These would be a quarter each, Two bucks for these ones, Four for the best. Cash and trade’s the same. Did you wanna look around first? I’d smile and demure, pull out my ID. Afterwards, I’d walk the cash to the bank, put it in the envelope, and let it disappear inside. Into the public mailbox on the corner, I’d slide another envelope, this one addressed to the landlord and containing a money order inside for the full amount. On the top right corner of the envelope I’d put a postage stamp stolen from the office at work: an American flag. I always made a point to place those ones upside down, yet another unnoticed act of rebellion. Inverted, the word FOREVER.
Zero balance, no regret.
This article is an exclusive excerpt from the current issue of Scratch, a new digital magazine about writing, money, and the economics of publishing. If you’re a writer who also needs to make a living, you should get Scratch.
Manjula Martin is co-editor of Scratch and founded Who Pays Writers? Her works has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review online, Modern Farmer, The Rumpus, SF Weekly, Maura Magazine, The Magazine, and elsewhere.
Top image by Manjula Martin