Unknown Pleasures, Luxury Poverty

Nicholas Grider



This week I bought a pair of Beats™ headphones. They weren’t just on sale, they were very on sale, only a bump up from the Skull Candy headphones I bought but was returning because they fit weirdly. Since I am an Old Person, I remember a time when you could get pretty great headphones for, say, $35, before the iPod led to the creation of the artificially inflated Headphone Market. In 2016, I think $35 could under regular pricing get you maybe one-third of one crappy ear bud, so I gladly bought the on-sale headphones. I still haven’t taken them out of the box, much less unwrapped the box; I’ve hardly even gotten around to taking them out of the shopping bag. Or, rather: I take them out of the bag, stare at them, return them to the bag, and sigh.

The reason I sigh and hesitate is that I used to have, you could say, a “problem” with impulse shopping. I should pause here to define both “problem” and “used to.” First, the “used to.” Mostly this is not a good thing but I, like my mother before me, tend to react weirdly and really strongly to medication. There’s a pill on the market called Naltrexone that’s intended to curb cravings and impulse behavior; it’s meant for drug and alcohol addicts, and I was warned by the doctor it only had mild effects at best. Not the case with me: I took it before bed one night and the next morning woke up ready for another binge, but I discovered I was not hungry. At all. I eventually made a decision that I should eat something, so I ate one granola bar. The anti-bingeing effect of Naltrexone is so strong that I lost about 15 lbs. in less than a month purely because I’d eat very small breakfasts and then pretty much forget to eat. It took longer for the anti-shopping behavior to kick in, but it eventually did, which is why I’m clutching my pearls over owning an on-sale yet ridiculously overpriced pair of suburban-cool-kid headphones.

Second, the problem: I have a problem with impulsiveness in general, and in particular the two worst areas pre-pill were 1) buying clothes and 2) binge-eating breakfast. I’ll skip the breakfast side-story except to say that I would pound down maybe 2,500 calories worth of baked goods and granola bars and then not eat the rest of the day, not out of guilt but because I still felt stuffed; a (different) medication I’m on put me on a weird hunger cycle. The more damaging thing by far was impulse shopping.

There’s a steep uphill learning curve involved in impulse shopping in which you learn how to maximize your ability to binge and purge retail-wise. You realize, for example: don’t buy anything you can’t return or that’s difficult to return, which meant, for example, that buying used CDs on Amazon withered quickly because although I sort of was happy with the purchases half the time, there wasn’t much I could do. Clothes, on the other hand, operated on a cycle of clothing store credit cards, so they didn’t even touch my actual cash flow (directly) and were really easy to return. The real “problem,” though, was that instead of just returning everything I bought, I’d skim a thing here or there, or I’d find some kind of deal/coupon/discount trifecta and buy something with the intention of keeping it. I never bought anything for some ghastly amount; instead I dug my hole by small deals here and there, and by being pressured into buying more or less a complete business wardrobe in all 100% wool and cotton by an unkind organization I’ll skip over. But even getting shamed into shopping was sort of fun, because it meant I had an excuse.

Fast-forward a few years and my credit card bills started to account for well over half of my monthly income. Since the same was true of my rent, you can spot the issue, so eventually, just when I got my shit together, I had to lower myself into the sludge lagoon of debt consolidation and apply for a gemach loan to pay off smaller debts. (Gemach = interest-free personal and educational loans with quick but flexible repayment schedules founded likely several centuries ago in Jewish ghettos and now still a Thing, as it were.) I had to admit that even though I no longer had a problem, the problem had wrestled me to the ground and spat tobacco on my face, and I was still down there on the gooey floor, wide-eyed with a mix of self-hatred and unalloyed terror, because the same damn week my car died (and was not fixable) and my landlord gave me notice. I don’t have any money for either a car or a new place to live, of course, which means I have some carless homelessness to look forward to this summer unless I really, really get my shit together in a major way. (No self-pity here though because the car was a freak occurrence and the rest was my fault.) I was semi-homeless once before but still had a lockable place to sleep; this will be a little more final, and, of course, put even more of a kink in my plans to apply to medical school than having bad credit. (Bad credit means not qualifying for the loans you need to make it through med school, loans that operate differently than the standard Direct Loan/Perkins deal, though I was also told by an admissions counselor that if I had a history of adverse credit, I shouldn’t bother to apply to med schools anywhere because obviously your credit score is a direct reflection of your character and if you don’t have a pristine credit you simply don’t have what it takes to be a doctor, sorry. This was a nasty little email I received from an admissions counselor so I sent her a very nice, penitent response, apologizing profusely for not being born into a wealthy family, and that was that.)

Now you’re probably thinking something the lines of: okay, kucker (Yiddish for shithead), if you’re so fucked that you’re going to be homeless, how is it you justified a hundred-dollar pair of headphones. I, of course, am wondering the same thing, but here let’s shove this in a direction called the Psychology of Poverty. It’ll be fun, trust me. So here’s the deal: I’ve been poor my whole life. Dirt poor. White trash. I have watched NASCAR, I have been a janitor, etc. etc. When you’re that poor your whole damn life you begin to assume you’ll always be poor. But also, when you’ve been poor your whole life and US culture is constantly screaming at you that your net worth is directly tied to your moral worth, you end up upending the apple-cart of what US culture wants to call “good fiscal behavior,” such as: having a savings account. Foregoing instant gratification in favor or a careful consideration of the future. What middle-class and rich people don’t get about us is that we learn pretty early that we do not, in fact, have a future, and as such, why should we bother with it? Things are bad. They’ll probably get worse. Have a tiny bit of fun/self-medication now before you get sucked underneath the surface of the waves permanently.

Rich folks, meanwhile, assume they have futures, so they plan for them; many of them also, sadly, think they know what it’s like to be poor because of a real but made-up-titled thing I’ll call the Professionalization Dip. In the Dip, middle-class and rich people grow up as comfortable people with comfortable futures, but at some point during their carefully-planned steps toward adult futures they experience a cash shortage during college or grad school or some pro doctor or lawyer mill. They equate this structurally temporary shortage with poverty, so their thinking about poverty slides into a ditch because they think, “Well, I was poor and I’m not poor anymore, why don’t those poor people just stop being poor?” I have been told, I mean I have actually been instructed, by a former rabbi, to simply stop being poor. No, really.

So most of western culture ends up with a severely warped idea of what poverty is and so when they see folks like me with nice shoes or iPhones or eating fast food or smoking or drinking or having loads and loads of sex, they slide further into a fallacy ditch because they begin to equate everything I just named with explanations for why poor people are poor. What’s actually self-medication in the present because the future is bottomless fog seems to them like a kind of willful failure to follow the simple steps out of poverty: 1) Stop being a bad person, and 2) Stop being poor. Simple as that! It does not work this way, of course, so instead of me ranting at length about the evils of comfortable people let me yank this back into headphones vs. homelessness. Same basic deal as I just described with a gloss of social invisibility I’ll get to shortly; I need headphones now, and I like how the store model fit, and I’m completely fucked, so does it matter either way?

It does, of course, matter, but it’s tough to get myself to believe that when my attempts at med school, at Breaking the Cycle of Poverty, have so frequently derailed despite my 3.95 GPA and my extracurriculars and my genuine interest in biochemistry. I try and get told no and try and get told no and try and get told no so eventually, while I never give up, I say to myself, well, okay, if this is a huge No I have to get around, I need small allotments of pleasure in the interim. It’s not as if I’m going to get all Deluxe Lifestyle when I am a doctor and buy some dumb mansion and fill it with dumb furniture and live there with my cat and drive some dumb luxury car to the workplace where I get overpaid to try to help people get well and take dumb holidays to dumb places like Florida or Europe. Nope. I’ll probably still just rent a two-bedroom apt., though one with built-in a/c so I don’t have to fuck around with window units. I want to be a doctor so I can help people 1) as part of my job and 2) via charity. Being not-poor is also an important motivation, but that’s the distinction: I don’t want to be rich, I just want to be not-poor. I don’t want to have consider being a homeless MD wandering red-light neighborhoods all night before showing up to work filthy and disheveled and smelling of despair. I want security.

I cannot, right now, even fathom what security might be like, though, because I’ve never felt it. This isn’t a complaint; you’re born into the family/community/city you are, and that’s that, and I’m working hard to get a handle on security, because I think I’ll like it a whole hell of a lot more than headphones, but for right now, all I really have to hang on as a talisman that I one day might be able to do Comfortable People things are a pair of overpriced headphones that I need both for school and for the terror of terrors: public transit. I have a nice little deal called ochlophobia, a fear of public transit. Some things are worse than others; planes are not great but they’re workable and feel more like “trip transportation” than a local sojourn to the dollar store or whatever. I’ve only been on a train once, a commuter deal from Chicago to Milwaukee, and that was okay too. Subways and buses, though: no. No, as in I canceled everything for the next solid month that isn’t within walking distance. That month includes the spring semester of school, except I can’t not attend school, yet I can’t go, and won’t ever be able to scrape together car money from scant family and friends who are unmoved to help me but impressed by both the frequency and epic scale of my fuckups.

So the headphones would signify I look like a (poor) person with headphones on a bus, and I’ll probably let my hair grow a little and let my “almost a beard” grow a little and hunch and try to look possibly unstable so nobody so much as tries to say hello to me. Because: what do I do if someone says something to me on the bus? I don’t know. I also don’t know how to get on, how to get off, where to sit, how to work a transfer, how much danger I’ll be in, how to not have panic attacks, how to look either invisible or vaguely threatening, how to be invisible, how to ghost the bus from stop to stop, and what to do if I can’t be a ghost and I end up being a human with a phobia and I have a panic attack on a bus but it doesn’t look like a panic attack so people get all sorts of incorrect ideas about my bulging eyes and loud honking noises and chest-clutching, etc.

Doesn’t seem too tough: the best way to conquer a phobia is exposure therapy so just get on the bus, headphones or not, and ride the bus, and I’ll allegedly realize that oh my! My irrational fear is irrational, how silly of me! And I’ll fall so deeply in love with city buses that I’ll abandon my pre-med track in favor of becoming a bus driver. Seems simple to you but to me homelessness is an amorphous and somewhat distant armageddon while public transit’s armageddons, plural, haunt me constantly and I remain essentially housebound and freakout a lot and I walk to the Target a block away because I don’t have a pair of headphones that doesn’t hurt my ears and/or offer a sound not unlike a transistor radio, so I can clutch my unopened Beats box and think that the future is all molten aluminum of pure horror followed by mountainous doom but I love music, music calms me down, if there’s anything I should invest in it should be music-listening devices, because the end is nigh in several ways, but quality headphone ownership is brought about by the approx. 20 hours per week I’ll spend on buses if I don’t drop out of school, which means they’re alluring and comforting and terrifying, and my imagination skitters into dark corners about what might happen if this or that person sees me wearing them, plus I should be Responsible and save the money for a car, but I know poor-person-economics don’t work that way, and the money will be siphoned away in bits by things like trash bags or Kleenex, so I might as well own some nice headphones because the end is nigh, probably, because I am an absolutely hopeless case, but that means I don’t deserve headphones, but I don’t feel like I’ve done enough to deserve to be punished (i.e. return the headphones) so as you can see, it’s not a pair of headphones.

To someone with more money than me, it is just a pair of headphones. A purchase made out of desire or to fill an actual need. And that’s that. To me, however, they’re simultaneously victory and defeat; they’re luxury poverty. So after writing this I’ll probably clutch that Beats box and carefully open it and possess a pair of nice headphones I cannot afford and forestall terror and doom via purchases, and then wake up tomorrow with the old familiar dread: shit, I bought yet another thing I cannot afford, dumb as usual, box them back up and return them no matter how much I like them, and then, the next time they go on sale, buy the fucking things all over again, because poverty is many things, but it’s only very rarely one thing in particular: simple.