I was dating this boy that had a huge crush on my best friend. Which was fine. I didn’t like him like that either. If I’m totally honest, I probably had a crush on her too. ANYWAY….! Everyone had a crush on her. She was that girl in high school and to this day I still have no idea why she chose me to be her sidekick for those few precious years. It was like she reached down into the gutters and pulled me into the light. I was a NOBODY and even worse, a SCUMMER before she decided I was worthy.
The three of us had just scrambled up my porch and threw open the door to my apartment ready with our usual shouts of “Hi, Mom!” “Hi Ms. Arnett!” “Hi, Crystal’s mom!” before closing my bedroom door behind us. My house was the best for hang outs because even though there weren’t any snacks, my mom was pretty oblivious to our mischief and gave us a lot of space. I’m a mom now and looking back, I have to add that it was far too much space. She was a great mom, but for some reason, she just did not parent me once I became a teenager. She treated me like a little adult. I could come and go as I pleased for the most part.
When we opened the door, we found a young man dressed in a suit and tie holding a paper out for my mom to sign.
“Whoa! What is going on here?!” I was freaking out because my mom was illiterate and there was no way that she knew what she was signing. I wasn’t going to say that in front of my friends but also, WHAT WAS SHE SIGNING?!
“Hi, young lady!” um this guy was like 5 years older than me. Maybe. Ugh. I hated him instantly. “I just sold your mom a new Vacuum!”
“We don’t need a vacuum! Mom! What is going on?”
“Let me show you how it works. You will not believe the dirt that you had in this carpet!” He holds up a bag full of filth that he informs me (in front of my friends!) that he cleaned out of this one small patch in our living room floor. Now I was boiling. And I was so embarrassed I thought I might puke. This was a touchy spot for me. I had only just started bringing friends around to my house when I hit high school because before that I was too ashamed of our poverty. My mom was too sick and too depressed to clean our house and I was too young to care about cleanliness. Plus, I was my mother’s daughter and the only time I can picture her cleaning was when she was helping my aunt at her work.
Mr. Salesman pointed to a square of carpet that was about 10 shades lighter than all of the surrounding carpet. It probably had never been vacuumed. It was gross. I could see it now and so could my friends.
Still, we didn’t need a vacuum! We had one. “Oh my God! This is such a SCAM! You did not get that much dirt out of that tiny area of carpet!” I snatched the paper out of his hand. “Give me that! What did my mom just sign?!”
It was worse than I expected. The vacuum was more than $1000. My mom was unemployed. In fact, she had never in her entire life held a job on the books. Babysitting for pocket change was just enough to maybe buy us a few of the odds and ends that food stamps and HUD housing voucher didn’t cover. That vacuum would take us YEARS to pay off. We couldn’t even afford the lights and heat as it was. We were not only month to month, we were on the pay $10 here and $10 there and hope that they don’t turn it off plan!
Maybe he didn’t know that. But he could have looked around and figured it out. I mean we were the kind of poor that you could see.
I did not know what to do. My panic was greater than my shame. There was no way we could pay that bill but there was my mom’s signature right on the bottom. That was one of the few things she could write. I would always write out the letter or wherever and then she would write Thank you. Deborah L. Arnett. You would think that since it was the only thing that she could write that maybe she would have perfected it but no, it was so messy and shaky like a kid learning cursive for the first time.
I took the contract with me and I went outside. I needed space to read it through and try to see if there was a way out of it. My friends followed me. I was humiliated and pissed. The boyfriend watched helplessly as tears spilled all over the papers. He was a goofball. Silly and mischievous and not the most practiced in navigating difficult emotions. But his reaction was exactly what I needed.
“You know what?!” He reached for the papers. “Nope. Give me that.” Riiiiiiiiip. He grinned from ear to ear as he shredded the contract. “Your mom didn’t sign nothin’.”
The 20 year old vacuum salesman descended my porch steps pretty quick. He was red in the face and spitting words at us that I could not even hear. I could not believe this boy just did that! We dated for maybe a week longer and I never even kissed him, but that boy was my hero that day.
The icing on the cake was that the carnival was in town and we saw Mr. Vacuum Salesman at the fried dough stand. The boyfriend went directly into action. “Hey, look everybody! There’s our friend Hoover! He likes to steal from poor people! Hey, Mr. Hoover! Where you goin’, buddy? Come back! Maybe you can sell us a vacuum!” He followed him shouting for everyone to hear until he left. He was probably just another poor kid at his first job from the next town over but I guess he learned a lesson that day.
My mom didn’t even care that we weren’t buying the vacuum or that her teenage daughter’s boyfriend ripped up a receipt of sale on a major purchase she made. It was like she had been under a spell and once the paper was ripped, the spell was broken. She literally did not react or at least I don’t remember any reaction.
She must have known that it was a trash decision, but also this was the same woman who watched the game show “BIG BUCKS NO WAMMIES!!!” Where she would shout that at the television and cheer when the contestants won money and actually take it personally when they lost. She would enter for the Publishers Clearning House Sweepstakes every single month and buy things on credit (who would give her credit? Oh right! Publishers Clearing House, the company that is famous for scamming poor people into thinking they were going to win big!) So, maybe she didn’t realize it was a bad purchase. Who knows?
My mom had elaborate plans for how she would spend our money when she finally beat multi-generational poverty by winning the million dollar sweepstakes. It is actually when I remember these plans that I realize how deep my moms delusions and anxiety were.
This woman who could not do basic math or read or write would sit me down and explain in elaborate detail about how if we won, we would lose our state medical insurance and she would have to pay for all of her AIDS meds out of pocket and so we wouldn’t really be rich because we would have to put aside for that. We would have enough money though to get my grandparents out of the trailer park. We would get ourselves a nice double wide and they would move in with us. We once had a landlord that lived in a double wide trailer across the way from our single sized one and it became the epitome in my mom’s mind of comfortable living.
I do not share my mom’s desire to win big but I did partner outside of my class and although it wasn’t a conscious decision it basically was the same as winning big. In the United States, partnering outside of class is one of the few ways to climb the class ladder. Its not as impossible as opening your door to find the Publishers Clearing House delivering a giant million dollar check, but still not that common.
I haven’t spoken to the boy/class hero in many years, but I might send this to him. This marked the beginning of a shift for me away from shame about my poverty to a healthy anger about our society’s class system.