Magazine article The New Yorker

College Try

Magazine article The New Yorker

College Try

Article excerpt

The rough patch I skidded into when my son was in first grade and I embarked on single-momhood would not earn me a slot on the poverty tables, yet at no other time in my life have financial anxieties transformed my head into such an anthill of fret.

By every yardstick, I was O.K. My career as a poet--if such a thing can be said to exist--had won me a few prizes and thus the relatively illustrious post of assistant professor at Syracuse University. I owned a modest home, had health insurance, an agreeable divorce. But every month, after I wrote checks for the mortgage, utilities, and my portion of child-care costs, only a few hundred dollars remained for everything else. Clothes, food, transportation, medical whatnot--all got chipped from that chunk. My debt was inching up like floodwater, and when I sat down to pay bills I felt the panicked breathlessness that must accompany drowning.

Because my mind secretly believes it can figure its way out of anything, I used razor-sharp margins on the budgets laid out in a spiral notebook I carried everywhere. But, no matter how many pots of beans I calculated cooking up, the numbers wouldn't tally. Some nights, a phone call from some barky-voiced creditor so panicked me that I'd tear off sofa cushions and rifle old coat pockets in search of spare coins, though I'd long since rooted out and rolled every penny.

A garage sale yielded less than a hundred dollars. Sale aficionados swooped in, and treated me like the chump I was when I hadn't the heart to haggle over nickels for my worn baby blankets or banged-up drip coffeepot. I was left with a house so cavernous that my son asked if he could skateboard in it.

Worst of all, I didn't have a car, and in parenting terms, in a midsized city with irregular buses and an annual snowfall measurable in yards, that turns out to be a burden. The bus trips to and from my son's after-school program were two hours. To go to the grocery store, I hauled him in a red wagon--often crimson-faced from cold--over slushy sidewalks and roads. I'd wave cheerfully to my neighbors and mutter something idiotic about fresh air while I burned with shame.

Some warped pride kept me lopped off from help. I'd grown up among the working class, and poor-mouthing, as we called it, was frowned on. …

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