By Judith Goff
I wasn’t broke for long, thank goodness—money-broke, that is. I had quit my corporate job to save the marriage, but the marriage went straight to hell anyway. He wanted out fast, and he got out fast, and my lawyer brushed aside my indignant demands for support with a stern, “You’d better go get a job, any kind of job—go sell nylons in Nordstrom’s—and you’d better do it soon, because you’re never getting any alimony.”
Broke feels bad. Broke feels dangerous, a crumbling cliff’s edge. Broke is going through the furniture cushions looking for loose change. Broke is using up everything in the cupboards and fridge before buying fresh food. Broke is sweltering in the Philadelphia summer to save on air conditioning. Broke is watching a realtor hammer a “For Sale” sign into the front lawn. Broke is a tearful talk with the gardener and the cleaning people, ending years of service. Broke is pounding the pavement—and even flying to Chicago—to find a job in the middle of a recession. Broke is coming home one day from the job hunt and having the stay-at-home-mom across the street come over and start crying as she says, “I don’t know how you do it” (and I can’t imagine what other option she thinks I have).
Broke teaches a lot about gratitude when friends rally, when luck turns. Broke is learning to accept friends’ offers to treat for lunch or coffee or even dinner. Broke is letting the neighbor fix the back porch stairs for free. Broke is trembling with gratitude when a good friend offers a $5,000 advance to edit his book—the gift of a chance to earn money, to experience the dignity of work, worth more than the money itself. Broke is joyously letting friends know about the letter confirming the salary and perks of the new job in Chicago.
As I said, I wasn’t money-broke for long, and I wasn’t even heart-broke all that long. I ended up leaving Chicago and moving to an even better job in San Francisco. Every day, I walked to work through the Financial District wearing nice heels and a well-made suit and the ever-present trench coat. And in the trench coat pocket, I always kept a few bills folded up, ready to hand to one of the broke and broken on the street. I had my favorites: the guy in a wheelchair who, I discovered, wasn’t faking it and really couldn’t walk; the woman who spent the foggy nights on a warm air vent outside my building. Sometimes I had to track them down because they’d moved from their usual places. And they never recognized me. And a few folded bills could barely have made a difference in their lives at all. But they made a difference in mine—a way to remember others’ kindnesses, to show gratitude for my good luck.
Judith Goff is a retired speechwriter and editor. She is currently working on trying to figure out memoir writing. She was born, raised, and educated in central New York State and has lived in California since 1990. You can read another of her pieces on this site: “My Exotic Parent”.