One of the perks of professoring–in addition to getting paid to choreograph rooms full of people’s thinkings about thoughts, access to all the binder clips you could ever want, and a toilet-to-person ratio that can’t be beat unless you actually work in a toilet factory–is the long breaks between semesters. I taught last spring and am teaching a summer class now and still had nearly two months off in-between. Months off that aren’t the result of unemployment = tears of joy.
One of the downsides of professoring is that months off means months not getting a paycheck. Not getting a paycheck = tears of non-joy.
But no worries, I thought. I spoke to payroll in June, confirmed the payroll schedule for spring checks and summer checks, and budgeted and lived accordingly. Shit was tight for a mo, but this week has been circled on my calendar for months as the resumption of summertime-and-the-livin’s-easy…
But when my bank account was still balsa-wood light come payday, I called payroll to see what was up. Turns out there’d been an error on their end. No check till next week.
Now shit had gone from tight to too-tight-to-exhale.
With a week to go before my financial manna fell from the sky, I took inventory. I had $3.05 in change, much of it in grimy sticky pennies (no, I don’t know why they’re sticky; no, I don’t wanna know), $2.34 in my checking account, and a car running on fumes. Luckily, my job is only 3 miles away. So I decided to put $2 in gas in the car, get 70 cents worth of rice, a can of chick peas, and seltzer water. Not exactly feeding the multitudes with five loaves of bread and two fish, but I was gonna have to stretch in ways that’d make Ukrainian gold-medal gymnast Tatiana Gutsu, my 8th grade dream girl, blush.
Still dreaming my dreams of you, Painted Bird...

Still dreaming my dreams of you, Painted Bird…

The first gas station I went to declined my card. Figuring they were just a bag of dicks, I tried another station. Same thing: no dice. It dawned on me that my card wasn’t declined for not having any money. It was being declined for not having enough. I was being judged–and found wanting–by a gas pump. There’s low, and then there’s low. This shit was low. This shit also meant I’d have to do what I’d hoped to avoid: walk into a gas station and hand another man $2 (in quarters) and say “Two dollars on pump six.” I walked in and handed this lil’ short dude eight quarters and told him two bucks on six. He could have accepted the money graciously. Could’ve accepted it without comment. Could’ve looked at me funny and just left it at that. Instead, he tried to give the money back to me.
“No, just use your card,” he said.
“I can’t.”
“No, no, you can, I fix, I fix. Use card swipe here.” He pointed to card swipe on the counter. The poor dear thought I was offering him change because my card wouldn’t swipe properly.
“No, really. I’m just using–I want to pay cash.”
“How you only get two dollars gas?”
“That’s all I need,” I lied. It wasn’t a lie so much as an inconvenient half-truth.
I went to Wild By Nature and ended up splurging on $1.30 worth of rice. I’m Puerto Rican. If there’s rice in my kitchen, all is well. If there’s not, I assume the zombies have taken over and I start looking for chainsaws and the high ground.
I used my debit card to pay for the rice. There’s that moment when you pay with a card where you and the cashier are waiting for the red APPROVED signal to pop up on the screen. When I was waiting for that, unsure if Netflix had stuck their sticky fingers in my account and pulled what little money was left, I could hear a Bernard Hermann/Hitchcock soundtrack in my head. That’s how nervous I was.
I went to a second grocery store in the same plaza, King Kullen, because it’s usually the cheapest (where I live, you can’t find a basketball court or a decent bodega anywhere, but the nearest plaza has three–THREE–supermarkets). I’d ruled out fresh produce because in an irony worthy of Yakov Smirnoff, in America, healthier food is more expensive. And the day I finished my third graduate degree, I swore off Ramen Noodles forever.
If my alphabet soup of degrees accomplishes nothing else, if at least made me forswear this "food."

If my alphabet soup of degrees accomplishes nothing else, if at least made me forswear this “food.”

When I walked in to the store, I looked up and could hear choirs of angels singing: there was a massive sale on broccoli. I hadn’t thought I could afford fresh vegetables (“fresh” may be putting it a bit strongly; the broccoli was Joker green and purple), but 2 stalks of broccoli were only 55 cents. SCORE.
You win some, you lose some: the seltzer water had been 88 cents, but had jumped to $1.50. I knew I could get it at the 3rd supermarket for less, so I decided to accept the blessing of the Joker broccoli and move on.
As I stood in the seltzer aisle, counting through the sticky pennies in my pocket, I didn’t feel ashamed. Or upset. I really felt this peaceful joy. I’ve chosen to subscribe to the idea that everything unfolds as it must, and so I can’t complain about my current state. This isn’t predestination–it’s not like we don’t play a/the major role in the shape of our lives and kismets. But I have a roof over my head–maybe a mold-infested roof, but a roof nonetheless. I don’t live above the neighbors from hell anymore; I’m not kept up at night or woken up by people killing each other. I’m not drowning while trying to afford an unsustainable house with my unsustainable ex. So all in all, being temporarily poor felt dreamy.
I was hoping there’d be a self-checkout lane. I’m generally philosophically opposed to them, but the cashier was this super hot girl and we always flirt. I didn’t want to hand a super hot girl I flirt with a bunch of sticky, grimy pennies. Seriously: you could have exhumed Abe Lincoln at the grossest apex of his decomposition and he wouldn’t have been this gross. Alas, there were no self-checkout lanes. C’est la vie.
Right as I got to in line, a new cashier came in and replaced Super Hot Girl. SCORE 2.0!
I let my mind and eyes wander, deciding to be a “writer” and note details about my surroundings to write about later. As the woman in front of me was about to accept her receipt, just seconds before it was my turn to checkout, I happened to look down and saw a folded green bill on the floor. My heart rate doubled. The Bernard Hermann soundtrack returned. I dropped to the ground so fast I mindfucked gravity and scooped up the bill before the cashier could notice. Didn’t look at it. Just stuck it in my pocket, paid with my gross change, and left, neither aghast nor ashamed, but aglow.
As I walked to my car, I knew whatever denomination the bill was would be a godsend. If it was a single, I could get chick peas. If it was a five, I could put gas in my car. If it was a ten…good Lord, the things I could do if it was a ten. If it was a ten I’d feel:
It was a twenty.
I cannot put into words what I felt when I saw Andrew Jackson’s ugly mug looking back at me. The closest experience I can equate it to is the first time my first girlfriend shared her D-cups with me.
I went to the third supermarket to splurge on seltzer water and chick peas and a loaf of bread (hello, French toast!). As I neared the store entrance, a young man and a young woman were crossing perpendicular to me. They were both around 18, I’d guess. The girl was gorgeous–a stunning body, a total 10. Her breasts were amazing. How can I comment on a stranger’s breasts so assuredly? Because for reasons I will never understand and never question, this girl decided to change her shirt right then and there. She was not wearing a bra. She did not seem to mind that she wasn’t wearing a bra. As they crossed in front of me, she took off her shirt, was comfortably topless for about few seconds, then put on a new one.
One of my favorite people is a dude named Dennis. Dennis turned me on to a word sci-fi master Robert A. Heinlein coined in his book Stranger In A Strange Land: “grok.” Dennis says grok means “to reach an understanding with the universe by immersing one’s self in it.”
“That’s what the universe does,” Dennis says. “It shows us.”
Dennis is…I’m not sure he’d call himself an atheist, or an agnostic. He’s a self-described humanist and, if not a non-believer in a higher power, a skeptic. I’ll close with something he wrote to me after I told him this story, because Doc has a PhD in life and I think he says it best:
“I have had numerous experiences in my life in which it seemed that someone or something was watching my back. As you know, I’m not prone to superstition, but more times than I can remember I have been spared, or saved, or maybe just maintained, by the universe. I know it’s a random cosmos, populated by electrically charged atoms that bump and fire in some organized chaos that I’ll never understand–and it might be the very fact that I don’t understand it that forces my brain to try and make some sense of it in the only framework I’ve been given, but there are times that [I] feel a sense of there being a parental bent to it all. It’s as if this universe appreciates the fact that I’m aware of it, and that I don’t clog my imagination with predigested images of a reality that is direct conflict with what is really going on out there…And let’s not forget–you got to see titties.”
Has the universe ever unfolded in unpredictable ways in your life? Ever been forced to improvise because of a lack of money? Has a stranger ever wittingly or unwittingly flashed you? Do tell!


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