Life Was ‘Rich’ When I Was Poor

Growing up as an 80’s kid

The most interesting thing about growing up poor is that I didn’t realize I was poor. As long as I had food in my belly and a place to sleep, life was good.

I loved my childhood. My mother was a waitress and my father was a car mechanic. I don’t have many childhood memories of my father because my parents separated when I was five years old. We moved from a trailer in the hood (although I had many tricycles as you can see), to another trailer located in Hollywood, Maryland with my to-be step-dad.

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My step-dad worked in Washington, DC, near the Capitol so he was a bit of a celebrity in my eyes. I had only visited DC once on a school fieldtrip. My friends used to ask me: “Hey, where does your step-dad work?” I’d respond: “He works in Capitol Hill with very important people.” I felt good about my standard response but I’m sure it confused many kids considering we lived in an unflattering trailer. I laugh when I think about that now. My step-dad looked more like a Bounty Hunter than a Capitol Hill employee. Imagine: A trailer in a lonesome field, a big guy living in it who could kick your ass, a German shepherd named “Axel,” and a few beaten down vehicles. Oh yeah, baby.

The trailer was tiny – brown and off-white in color. It wasn’t pretty, certainly nothing to brag about but it was “home.” My bedroom was like a human sweat locker, just big enough to squeeze in a single sized bed and a tiny dresser. Dark brown paneling surrounded me. Didn’t everyone have paneling in the early 80’s? It was hideous yet nothing made me happier than being with my family. I especially adored my little brother, Michael. We didn’t have much but we had love and togetherness. Today, lots of families live in huge homes even though most only use a handful of the rooms. Why do people need all this space?

No one complained there wasn’t central air conditioning or a dishwasher. Nobody whined that there was only one TV console with no remote control. Funny thing is I don’t know how I’d survive today without a remote control. If my remote died in the middle of the day, I’d rather run out to Walmart for new batteries than get up and change the channels.

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Who remembers the TV Guide? It was awesome. I used to sit down and circle every show or movie I wanted to watch. If I missed the opportunity to see a good movie, I might not see it again for another year. That ain’t no joke.

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The Wizard of Oz always left me in “awe.” I didn’t believe dwarves (or little people) were individuals I’d ever see in real life. After all, I did live in a small town. As a kid I felt amazed that TV producers found so many of them for one movie. Am I the only person who thought this way?  🙂 Now, there’s several reality shows starring little people and I love it.  I’m a fan of Little Women LA and The Little Couple.

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Another thing I find thought-provoking is that I didn’t hear sexual or foul language on regular TV channels back then. Today, children can turn on the TV and learn more about life’s vulgarities than I knew of at 25 years old. Actors and reality stars can say “ass,” “dick,” “bitch,” and insult others because it’s considered funny to so many people. I don’t get that? Why? I guess saying “Take a step back, jerk!” isn’t as cool as saying “Take a step back, motherf**ker!” Haha.

I remember the enthusiasm I felt when the fat Sears catalog was delivered around Thanksgiving time. I put my marker to work circling a thousand items I wanted, knowing I’d only get a few of them. But that was okay because just the book alone made me feel happy inside. I loved looking at the many colorful pictures. Who feels that way anymore? There are no catalogs for kids any longer. Now children are on Amazon asking their parents to order them things all year long.

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School days taught me a lot about different cultures. My most influential educator was my 5th Grade Teacher, Ms. Betty Brady. She went above and beyond the typical 5th grade education. She actually cultivated us about life. We wrote poetry and talked about our feelings. We took picnic lunches in the woods, sat in a circle and named positive things we liked about each other. Another cool thing we did was write down our name/address on a piece of paper of which we attached to a balloon. All at once, we released our balloons into the sky hoping someone far away would receive it and become a “pen pal.” A few kids were lucky and it worked! Can anyone imagine doing this now? That’d be like giving a possible child molester your full name and location.

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Hollywood, Maryland was so small that we only had one African American in our class. His name was Jermaine and he was super cool and friendly. I didn’t understand until I was older that racism is something that’s taught by adults to children. It doesn’t naturally exist on its own. We also had one disabled boy in our class. His name was William. I don’t know what condition he had but he wore a sturdy back-brace daily and struggled to walk sometimes. My classmates were helpful and kind to everyone. No one was cruel or obnoxious acting.

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I didn’t have a miraculous wardrobe, and I owned just a few pairs of shoes yet I felt okay with that. None of my buddies made me feel inadequate over it. I’m not sure the same applies in today’s world.

Our elementary school had a special program called “Grand Pals.” It was an incredible experience. Each 5th grader “adopted” two elderly persons living in our local nursing home. Our grand-pals were chosen by drawing names out of a jar. Although I don’t recall their names, I vividly remember who my grand-pals were. One was a blind black man and the other was a disabled veteran (both legs amputated at the knee) who carved wooden ducks as a hobby. I was fascinated by both of these gentlemen. They were so welcoming and kind to me. They shared stories about their lives with me and my letters were posted on their bedroom walls. Those two men will never know how much their wisdom and friendship meant to me. How many elementary kids in this generation can say they’ve had this type of experience?

When I had a school assignment I turned to the Britannica Encyclopedia set in our home. Those books were amazing, filled with color portraits and easy to understand. My parents took out a small loan to buy them. Now, schools basically require you have a computer/Internet at home to research projects and essays. Oh, and a printer.

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In middle and high school, a fight was just that… a fight. A kid worked off his or her aggression, spoke to the assistant principle, then went home for a few days. Today, most schools have cops permanently located within the school “for your safety.” Now a child could be smeared with a criminal record if he/she gets into a fight. Did bullying become worse or was it there yet ignored because social media didn’t exist?

I wrote letters to friends and boyfriends in school. In class or in the hallway, I passed my note to my recipient with a big smile upon my face. Also, back then people wrote addresses down in an actual address book. What have we gained since social media and email began? Swiftness of communication. And for this generation, speed is everything. What have we lost? Closeness, voice contact, the intimate communication of actually knowing what a person is feeling, and that can only come from presence. I don’t know any families that are actually closer as a result of email or social media.

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I remember the enjoyment I felt when my favorite song played on the radio. I owned a stack of 45-records and a few albums.  Then cassette tapes came out.  Major improvement! I discovered new music at a local record store called “Can’t Stop the Music.” I eagerly awaited the release of new albums. There were no piracy issues because people were allowed to record songs straight from the radio.  Imagine that!  Who else thought it was incredibly annoying to play their favorite song on their cassette tape? Fast forward. Stop. Play. Rewind. Fast forward. Stop. Play. God forbid you tried this out with your “Walkman.” It was ridiculous. Now a person can just turn on their iPod and hear their favorite tunes whenever they want. The “thrill” is over.

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House phones: I’m reminded of when “call waiting” first emerged. My friends and I were so excited! I told my girlfriend, Sheri: “Okay, call me at exactly 6 p.m.” Then, I’d have my boyfriend call me at 6:05 p.m. just so I could hear the BEEP and try it out. Mission achieved.

If I met someone I wanted to talk to, we exchanged home phone numbers on a piece of paper. If paper wasn’t available I wrote their number down on the back of my hand. If I wanted to ask a guy out, I didn’t start communicating via texting or IM’ing. I called his house. ‘Ring-ring…riiing-riiing…riiinnngggg-riiiinnnngggg’ (Please don’t let it be his mom or dad who picks up the phone… please don’t let it be his mom or dad who picks up the phone…) Then I’d talk to that boy for HOURS on the phone. Time just flew by. What the hell did we actually talk about? Who knows…

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I kept my sanity after breakups because back then there was no way to keep tab on your exes. Then the Internet came. Yikes! “Oh no, girllll… He was tagged in a picture where he’s hanging all over some chick. You gotta see this.”

A 35mm camera was the happening thing but if you were poor, Fujifilm invented the modern disposable camera. When I wanted my film developed, I had to take it to a store, drop it off and wait a few days. There were no do-overs. I photographed what I photographed. If I didn’t like the picture and wanted to redo it, too bad. The moment was gone. It’s printed now. If my eyes were closed, my hair was a mess, I had red-eye… oh well. Now, a smartphone takes better pictures than some digital cameras on the market. Constant do-overs make people appear flawless and it takes away the humor of an ugly photograph.

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Renting a movie was an adventure! I strutted around the movie store looking at all of the boxes of beta/VHS tapes available. I read the covers from front-to-back and glanced at the actors’ fashion statements. I dreamt of becoming a beautiful woman like the many featured on the movie covers. Who remembers “Be Kind. Rewind.”? Haha. A person had to rewind their tape or else the rental store charged a fee. I was sneaky too because I used to wander into the X-Rated room in the back to check out the naughty porn collection. That is how I learned about porn as a kid since there was no internet at our disposal. It scares me that a kid can easily access a porn site without their parents knowing.

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If I wanted to play a video game I went to the arcade armed with pockets full of quarters. I stood at a big boxy thing squeezed in next to a lot of other big boxy things, put in quarters and played the hell out of the games. And then I went home happier and poorer. Now there’s X-Box, PlayStation, games on our phones… you name it… endless entertainment available right at your fingertips.

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I spent my free time outdoors. Nature was my life. As kids, my aunt, Kristi, and I loved playing on the old railroad tracks behind her house. We caught tadpoles and held them in our hands without thinking “ewww….. gross.” I’ll admit I was afraid to hold a frog in my hand because I was told it would give me warts. I must have some kind of wart-fighting-power because I never did get any warts.

We rode in the back of my step-dad’s pick-up truck. There were endless bicycle journeys; Kickball; Tag; Candy cigarettes; Mello Yellow; Starburst; Scraping change from the couch cushions; fruit flavored Chapstick. We used make forts in hollowed bushes and re-hammer rusty nails into makeshift signs or we made mini sailing vessels with old pieces of wood. We flooded the narrow hillside of my yard using a garden hose and like magic, a “flowing river” appeared for my sailing vessel. Speaking of garden hose, I used to drink water straight from it without hesitation. Now, I’d probably need an immunization shot before pulling such a stunt. I was easily amused with a dirt driveway and a few small rocks to carve out Hopscotch blocks.

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On pretty days, we’d try to catch butterflies. This is totally unrelated, but I have a confession. I’m 42 years old yet I’m still haunted by an act of violence I committed once on a butterfly. I saw a wounded butterfly on the ground and instead of putting it out of its misery I took one wing and ripped it off. I have never forgotten that horrible act, as if it were some Jeffrey Dahmer shit or something. I have no idea why I did it. “I’m sorry, Mr. Butterfly. Please forgive me.”  😦

In the evenings, my grandmother gave us old mason jars and we’d run out in the front yard trapping lightning bugs. We poked holes in the metal lids and kept them overnight. I loved how they lit up the room at night. Some of the breathing holes weren’t big enough so many of my lightning bugs suffocated and died as a result.

Come to think of it, I’m starting to feel like a bug murderer… WTH.

Honeysuckle bushes lined the right side of my grandparent’s yard and we picked many of them for a taste of sweetness. Raspberry bushes were located in the woods right beside my house. Kristi and I picked huge bowls of them. It took hours and the chiggers we were totally worth it because the berries were free and delicious in exchange for the labor.

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I roamed the back streets throughout my neighborhood until sunset without concern from my parents. I wore a watch, the only way to tell time – A Swatch Watch.  Now, if a person doesn’t know where their kid is at all times, there is possible cause for panic — and a call to 911 may be in order.

We used yarn for ‘string art’ – ‘Witch’s Broom’ or ‘Cat’s Whiskers’.  Endlessly, we tried to come up with new string tricks.

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I had multiple bundles of colored string of which was used to make friendship bracelets. I pinned the knotted end to a pillow and then braided until it was long enough to fit my wrist.  I loved seeing the final outcome.

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Kristi and I choreographed dance acts to our favorite songs and performed our synced moves in front of our family in the living room. We looked ridiculous but it was fun and it killed time.

Often times, my grandparents took Kristi and I to the flea market and we loved it!  We frequently came home with multicolored rabbit foot key chains. I wouldn’t want one of those now – how depressing… “Let me cut off an innocent rabbit’s foot and color the fur. Children will love this.” Hell, I’d have PETA beating down my door today for owning such a trinket.

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Yard sales were fun. My mom and I used to hit up every yard sale in town. I’d always come home with a cute top or VHS movie. I wasn’t embarrassed to wear hand-me-downs. Before we left our house, we used to scrape up change from all around the house to treat ourselves to McDonald’s after yardsaling.

My parents used a map to go somewhere… Yes, it’s called a map. Crazy, isn’t it? I bet if I handed my adult son a map today he’d have no clue what to do with it. I recently watched an episode of 20/20 where a college student decided to spend her Spring Break on a solo road trip. She followed her Yahoo Maps app all the way to a dead end dirt road in the blistering desert. She was stuck there for nearly a week without gas or cell phone reception before someone finally found her.  She could have died.  Why aren’t we using maps as backup to GPS?

When I started working at my first job I had to either balance my checkbook or visit the bank to know how much money was left in my account. Pretty wild, isn’t it?

I had to teach my adult child how to write a personal check just last year:

Matt: “Mom, how do I write out a check for the security deposit on my apartment?”

Me: “You fill out who it’s going to, the dollar amount, and write the cash line out as (ex.) “One Thousand two hundred twenty-five dollars and xx/100. Date it. Sign it.”

Matt: “What? I don’t understand.”

Me: “Re-read what I last texted.”

Matt: “Can you just send me a picture of a voided check and pretend you’re writing this out so I can see?”

Me: {Laughing out loud} “Sure.”

If I left my house I didn’t care if someone couldn’t reach me. If I needed to reach out I used a pay phone booth. They were gross but it got the job done.

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Nearly everything I did in my childhood for entertainment was cheap or free. That’s the intriguing part. What kid can say that now?

Killing time never involved me texting, taking a selfie, scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, Snap Chat, or Twitter… seeing how many “likes” I had… Instead I took time to think… really “think.” Boredom made room for me to reconnect with myself.

Did technology take over? The Internet came with a lot of knowledge but it also filled our heads with plenty of junk and fluff like YouTube, endless porn, social media, and crimes. It gives people an excuse to stop speaking to others in person. It provides individuals with online bravery to insult or bully other people.

Life seemed simpler and healthier to live with less communication technology than we have today. Most would agree that it creates a sense of dependence that we did not used to have, not only in the form of separation anxiety from the people in our lives, but also from the separation anxiety we have developed for information and technology itself.

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