I speak too well to be poor. Even as I’m weeping on the phone, and the very kind woman is explaining to me that I had to make more before the pandemic to qualify for help, and I try to explain to her that there was no way to make money before the pandemic, and that I started the pandemic already in need of help — I’m aware that I’m using bougie words like: “I’m sorry, I know this is so irksome.”
Irksome? Irksome? Surely, no one who lives in New York City on less than 10K/year uses the word “irksome.”
A few days ago, early in Advent, I received notice that I was not eligible for rental assistance because, and I must emphasize this, because I was “too poor.” That is, precisely because I was in financial need before the pandemic, I am now ineligible to receive financial assistance while in the pandemic.
Needless to say, as someone whose earliest memories include receiving an eviction notice on the morning of my ninth birthday, as the last of my friends from my first-ever sleepover left and my mom got the mail —
As someone who knew rent insecurity subsequently as month after month I heard my parents fretting about whether they could make the payment, and I dutifully reused paper lunch bags to save money; as I subjected myself to hand-me-down bras when puberty hit; as I tried not to cry when my school uniform popped open over my bosom in class because it was eighth grade and no one was going to buy me a new blouse —
As someone who then ended up paying out of her Catholic school teacher’s salary for her parent’s mortgage while I eked out a life in the old homestead’s basement, giving voice lessons on the side and never having enough for savings, because I was paying for a mortgage that wasn’t mine —
As someone who finally moved to New York City, where rents are astronomical and salaries uneven, working in the theatre which pays — if it pays — even less; having acted more like landlord with tenants than a person with family —
And when the pandemic hits, and no one will stay inside and keep each other safe, hence closing down my industry until all of you can behave, while my roommates leave the city at the height of the pandemic, leaving me paying twice the rent, and the state is paying me $600 a month total, —
And then I’m told “I am not rich enough to be given rental assistance” —
I cried to the woman on the phone. I hated that. I know when I call for help, I probably sound like I look: white, cultured, privileged. I don’t register as “poor.”
Surely, no one who uses the word “irksome” knows what it’s like to eat nothing but mac and cheese and awful, awful canned green beans for years, because that’s all anyone ever gives a food pantry. Because “poor people,” fundamentally, don’t deserve things like protein, right? Poor people have done it to themselves. Poor people aren’t like us.
Surely, no one who can quote Aristotle, and who knows the proper placement of a salad fork, is really, really poor. I mean, after all, look! She’s smiling! She’s sorted out how to live far below the poverty rate, and to run her own business, and to pay something (it’s like $20) to the artists that she hires. Look! She’s landed on her feet! She’s sorted out her bills. She must want for nothing.
So let’s give her nothing.
Because we know what “poor” is.
And it isn’t her.
But it is. It’s me. And it’s people like me. And it’s people who use the word “irksome” and people who’ve never heard of “irksome,” and people who say the word “irksome” but in another language.
Advent is the season of mercy. It is, in many ways, the season of poverty. And the question that I pose to you is: what will you bring to the manger? Canned green beans that you would never eat yourself? Or a coffer full of gold.
Therefore, I beg you, for the love you bear to God: give the best food you have to the food pantry. Give better food than you buy for yourself. Get presents for the giving tree. Give better presents, and more generously than you purchase for yourself. And get the government to actually take care of its citizens, financially. Better than themselves.
Because you never know what person beside you has been turned back from the inn.
Emily C. A. Snyder is a professional novelist, essayist, and internationally produced playwright, working out of New York City. She is the founder and artistic director of Turn to Flesh Productions which develops new plays in heightened text with vibrant roles for women and those underrepresented in classical art. She is also the host of Hamlet to Hamilton: Exploring Verse Drama.