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Minimum wage jobs are **HARD**

We’ve assigned worth to jobs and we’ve also assigned jobs to people, so we’ve also assigned worth to people. We’ve told certain people that they belong behind the cash register at Wal-Mart or they belong over the fryer at McDonald’s and we’ve decided that those people don’t deserve a decent standard of living. The minimum wage fight isn’t really about whether or not you deserve more money for making a hamburger. It’s really about whether society’s failures and undesirables deserve as much money as everyone else.

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The hardest work I’ve ever done has been for the least amount of money.  Luckily it was only for short periods of time, but I can’t imagine facing that kind of work for pennies for the rest of my life and then having to ask the government to help me make ends meet while my body hurts and my spirit is damn near broken at working 40 hours and not being able to support a family.

I’ve only had two truly difficult jobs in my entire life.  The first was before my freshman year of college when I needed a summer job and my parents bet me that I couldn’t handle manual labor.

(Looking back, this was the period where we were supposedly trying to rebuild our relationship after my coming out in junior high went so badly and here they go basically telling me I was too much of a sissy to do blue collar work.  Shady shady old Black people…)

My mom & dad definitely tricked me.  We went to a factory where they assembled torque rods.  The plant manager took me to this assembly station where these middle-aged women were sitting on stools with all their little buckets of parts around them, putting together torque rods for lawnmowers.  There was a metal bar with a hole in each end.  (I blocked out most of that summer from my memory so I don’t remember the names for any of the parts, but I could still put one together if I had to).  You took a bar and squeezed a little bit of blue lube from a grease gun around the rim of each hole at the end.  Then you put in a ball bearing, some more grease, and a big metal ring kind of like a washer.  You put that end onto a machine and pull the lever to stamp it closed.  Then you squeeze some grease into a plastic cap, put it over the end, and put it into another machine that slides a metal ring over it to keep the cap in place.  Then you rotate your bar over to do the same process to the underside of the ball bearing.  After that, you flip the bar over and repeat the process for the other end.  Rotate the bar over and do the underside.  Then you’re done.  That’s one torque rod.

These women were just chatting away with their little radio playing, assembling torque rods and making conversation.  I was like “piece of cake.  I can totally do this” and I told the plant manager I would take the job.

The head of the Lawnmower Ladies had gone to high school with my mom and she told me what an easy job it was.  The plant manager had gone to trade school with my dad and he told me if I was as hardworking as my dad, I would do really well there.

They were all liars.

I reported for work the next day for training met with the manager in his office.  I expected my trainer to be one of the Lawnmower Ladies, but this big white guy had to be at least 6’5 and 250 lbs of hard living.  He looked like he was strong as an ox and ate one for dinner every night too.  He shook my hand – crushed every bone in it – and led me to the work floor.  We walked past the Lawnmower Ladies who all waved at me.  We passed by an area that I later came to realize was the place where most of the torque rods for cars were made, and we finally ended up in the very back of the work floor full of large parts and larger machines.  This is where they made torque rods for big rigs.  And this is where I would be working.  Each bar itself was between 10 and 25 lbs and each ball bearing was about 5 lbs.  At the time I was about 5’9, 140lbs, and I was expected to pick up the bar, put it on the assembly area, drop a ball bearing into each side, assemble and stamp, rotate the bar, assemble and stamp, flip the bar, assemble and stamp, rotate the bar again.  And I was supposed to make between 100 and 150 a night.  

BITCH.  BYE.

Had it just been me, I would have walked out, but I really couldn’t bear to prove my parents right.  “You think I can’t do blue collar work?  Fine.  I’ma do the blueingest collar work and be fierce at it.“

Anyway, that big tree of a man must have been the supervisor for that area because when he spoke, everyone stopped their convo and turned to hear what he had to say.  “Listen up.  This here is Rafi and he’s gonna be working at station four across from me.  If he needs something get it for him if I ain’t around.”  And that was my introduction to factory life.  (That was also my first brush with grown-ass heterosexual men in decidedly uncharacteristic surroundings for an effeminate gay man to be in.  Surprisingly enough, I’m still friends with one of them on Facebook but that’s a heartwarming story of tolerance for another time ::cue NBC AfterSchool Special Music::)

The process of making a torque rod isn’t hard – you just have to make sure all of the parts are lined up and assembled correctly before you activate the machine to stamp it tight – but that much weight over and over and over for eight hours ain’t cute at all.  I made it through my first shift OK, but when I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t walk.  My legs didn’t work, I couldn’t raise my arms, and I felt like I had slept on a bed of rocks.  I was three hours late to work because I had to soak in some Epsom salts while reevaluating my life.  By day three I was getting blisters on my hands.  By the beginning of the next week I had hemorrhoids.

But I stuck it out because I was determined to prove to my parents that I could be a sissy and still do hard work.  (I was a misguided youth laboring under the false dichotomy of what “real men” should do and believing I’d gain respect by proving my “worth as a man.”  We were all lost at some point, don’t judge me.)

A month into the job, I had gotten into the swing of things.  My supervisor said I had a “knack” for lining up the parts correctly every time so I rarely had to redo or scrap a rod.  He set me up with a large order that was impossible to fill in one shift – something like 700 parts for Volvo – so that I wouldn’t have to switch out the machinery or alter the process between changing from one type of torque rod to another, and I got to steadily pound away with just a break for lunch and a break to pee.  My bonus for setting the record was a whole $20 and a certificate that I still have.  I was proud of myself because I had accomplished something I didn’t think I’d be able to, but nothing in me was excited about my paycheck every week.

I went through all of that for $8 an hour.  My first office job in NYC I made a few times that amount and I spent 80% of my shift watching movies on Youtube, chatting on Facebook, and updating my blog.

Most of my jobs after the torque rod factory were retail jobs.  I was personable, not that ugly, and I could count money.  I worked in retail all through college and my first years in NYC, finally leaving retail to work for a concierge company.  I quit that job after Fashion Week and the Super Bowl descended on NYC back-to-back and I was just completely over playing virtual fetch for rich folks with too much money and no common sense.  I needed to decompress and find a job with no stress and little responsibility and I thought working in a juice bar would fit the bill.  How hard can it be to smile and make smoothies?

I lasted 6 shifts before I quit and went back to office work.  Standing up for 8 hours with barely any down time while rich people (only rich people spend $100 on a supply of juice for a week or $12 for some mashed up fruit) are standing around rudely acting like they will literally die if they don’t get their order in the next 90 seconds.  That “customer is always right” bullshit is annoying to deal with in clothing stores, but it’s amplified to the nth degree in any kind of food service with a counter.  “We’re out of pineapple right now.“  I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS!  I WALKED ALL THE WAY DOWN HERE SPECIFICALLY FOR THIS SMOOTHIE!  “I’m sorry, I believe this was made with chocolate whey instead of vanilla whey.”  WHY CAN’T YOU PEOPLE DO ANYTHING RIGHT?  I SWEAR EVERY TIME I COME IN HERE.  “Wait, slow down just a second, you want the #3 but substitute spinach for kale?  There are no leafy greens in this.  Did you just want to ADD spinach?“  THAT’S WHAT I SAID.  ARE YOU AN IDIOT? OMG JUST LISTEN.  

It took everything in me not to throw a smoothie in somebody’s smug ass face.  But I stood back there for six shifts with a fake smile plastered on my face.  For $9 an hour.

During my 3rd or 4th shift, one of my old bosses from the concierge job came in and  asked (with all the surprise and incredulity in the world), “you’re working HERE???”  Why would *I* – a college educated 20-something with a deep resume – deign to work with the lower class slinging juice for pennies?  To be honest, it should have made him take a look at the office he was running since one of his best employees quit suddenly to take a pay cut and make juice, but that’s beside the point.  

The point is we know what the cashiers and the baristas and the smoothie makers and the burger flippers make, and we look down on them.  We’ve separated the workforce into employment by class.  We expect certain people to bag our groceries, certain people to make our Big Mac, certain people to write on our Starbucks cup, certain people to find a size Medium in the back, and certain people to hand us a wine list.  There’s a hierarchy at play even though none of those jobs are all that dissimilar from one another.  We give more respect to the waiter who tells us the specials over a white tablecloth than the guy who blends our smoothie, but the biggest difference is environment.  They both have to remember ingredients and pretend to care about what you want.  They both have to be well-versed in the available options to be able to make a suggestion for people who have no idea what they should choose.

That assignation of worth doesn’t just affect wages and the uphill battle to raise the minimum wage to a livable standard.  It also affects perception and how we view different segments of society.  I recommend Kate Norquay’s entire article about her years working at McDonald’s but this part is especially pertinent:

McDonald’s is supposed to be a job for people who can’t do anything else. I noticed that the majority of entry-level jobs didn’t hire people who looked like the people I worked with.

At McDonald’s, there were people with disabilities, overweight people, people who weren’t conventionally attractive, people who couldn’t speak much English, young teenagers and a lot of racial diversity. These people made up the backbone of the store. They were respected as some of our best workers.

Then I would look at a store like Starbucks, and the majority of the time, I would see people who looked like me. White, early 20s, reasonably attractive, slim, English speakers.

This was the bias that both me and the people around me were applying to my job. I meet the criteria for a “good” job at a clothing store. People who come from good backgrounds aren’t supposed to end up in McDonald’s alongside those who couldn’t do better if they tried.

If you’re a white girl in your early 20s, you will be ridiculed for working at McDonald’s. But I don’t think the same applies for disabled people or middle-aged immigrant women, for example. Their friends aren’t quietly snickering, “When are you going to get a real job?” Because this is the job we expect them to have.

We’ve assigned worth to jobs and we’ve also assigned jobs to people, so we’ve also assigned worth to people.  We’ve told certain people that they belong behind the cash register at Wal-Mart or they belong over the fryer at McDonald’s and we’ve decided that those people don’t deserve a decent standard of living.  The minimum wage fight isn’t really about whether or not you deserve more money for making a hamburger.  It’s really about whether society’s failures and undesirables deserve as much money as everyone else.  

McDonald’s is the face of the minimum wage fight, not the Lawnmower Ladies working in the torque rod factory because we know what the workers at McDonald’s look like, and it’s easier demolish support for raising wages by associating those wages with the less-educated, less-attractive, less-AMERICAN worker giving you a bag of saturated fat.  In some respects, working in a factory is about as American as it gets since it was our manufacturing prowess that solidified the middle class after World War II.  I was making $8 an hour for backbreaking work in a good ole American factory, but nobody is putting that in the same conversation with the fry guy or the smoothie maker.  The two hardest jobs I’ve ever had in my entire life, the most physically and mentally demanding undertakings I’ve ever put myself through, were for the least amount of money.  That’s why I support raising the minimum wage.  They are doing the jobs that have to be done that nobody else wants to do, but we pay them pennies to do it because we’ve assigned them a place in society and that’s where they must stay.  Even if they wanted to, it’s impossible for everybody to move up the ladder of employment because capitalism is a pyramid and somebody has to be at the bottom.  

If you have any doubts about the minimum wage, I implore you to take a sabbatical from your decent salary to go flip burgers or fill a quota in a factory beside real people who are facing that for the rest of their lives.  Look them in the face and tell them they don’t deserve a decent standard of living.  Tell them they should 40 hours a week in a thankless job just to stand in line for government benefits so they can feed their families.  I have to believe that in my heart nobody can actually do that to another person one on one and face to face.

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On Television

Maid is the best show on Netflix.

There’s no more realistic portrayal of single motherhood in poverty than this series.

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I do a lot of stream-of-conscious thoughts about things I’ve seen and I call them Hot Takes. These are Hot Takes, but a little more in-depth than usual, with some personal reflections at the bottom.

1. C’mon Emmys! Everybody is doing their good good acting here. I used to sweep hair in my mama’s salon and I used to do electrical work on my daddy’s remodeling jobs, so I know the pressure of doing your best work with a parent around. So, props to Margaret Qualley for hanging in there with her mom, because Andie McDowell ain’t no slouch.

2. Lo-key was waiting on Anika Noni Rose to break into song, at least a lullaby or something.

3. You can call it prostitution or whatever you want, but you not finna put me in a house with this man and expect me to keep my draws on.

4. The shame of being poor is so complicated and layered. You know you need help. Your friend in a position to help you knows you need help. You also know that your friend knows. And yet, you pretend you do not need help! Your friend pretends that you do not need help, because they are ashamed that you need help and they want to avoid making you feel more ashamed about needing help.

It’s all an extension of this value we put on people based on how much money they make. Rich people are rich because they are good people and are being rewarded for being hard-working, good people. Poor people are poor because of some moral failure. Part of the reason the fight for higher minimum wages is so tough is this moral hierarchy of salaries. The person who bags groceries deserves to make enough money to live, but giving them a higher salary puts them closer to your salary, and you feel like you’re a better person than they are because you made choices (or had choices) that kept you from being in a position to bag groceries. You want to be able to look down on people who you feel made bad choices or don’t work hard enough.

So, it’s hard to ask for help. You don’t want your friend to look down on you like a person who made bad choices or doesn’t want to work hard enough. You pretend everything is fine so you can look like a good person.

5. The fact that Alex also has to parent her mother is a great addition. I think a lot of conversations about single mothers stop there, at providing for their child. A lot of people in poverty are there because of the lack of choices they had growing up, which is a reflection of the environment created by their parents. Young adults are sometimes caring for their parents too.

6. Also, I’ve been working out in my head how to word this and it’s always clunky, but here goes: I like that this story is about a white woman. One of the reasons why conversations about social safety nets and universal healthcare and access to housing only go so far is racism. There are too many White Americans who will cut off their nose to spite their face — they don’t want Black people to get “free stuff” so nobody ends up getting aid. The picture of the Welfare Mother as painted by (Mostly Conservative) White America is a Black woman in an inner city with multiple children by multiple men locked up by the state. It’s not an intelligent white girl running from a bad situation cleaning toilets to get by. I think Maid is an important piece of art about poverty because everyone can watch it devoid of race. Conservatives can “see themselves” and Liberals can see poverty divorced from having a conversation about what part race plays in the choices we have.

7. It’s a near-perfect limited series for me. I haven’t read any of Stephanie Land’s essays (the story is based on her), but now I’m going to. I can’t say anymore here without spoiling it, but it touched me very deeply and it’s taken me about a week to process it. I’m about to add some more personal observations, but there will be spoilers, so you can stop here if you haven’t watched it.

Score: 9.5/10

 

Spoilers ahead!

I watched this last week, but it’s taken me a long time to be able to process how it made me feel. Y’all, I was sobbing multiple times throughout the course of that series, because it was so accurate. I’ve been homeless and I’ve made bad decisions because of mental health struggles and I’ve worked in a domestic violence shelter just like that, and I was transported. The stories are told so well.

I’ve used pennies to pay for something off the dollar menu. I have budgeted every cent I had for the entire month to make sure I had enough money to ride the subway to work…but only to work. There was a bad patch years ago where I had been unexpectedly fired from a job and had trouble finding a new one. When I finally got an offer, I didn’t have any money for transportation to and from work until my first paycheck, so I walked home every day. Three hours, regardless of the weather. I had to walk home, because I had budgeted everything I had until my first paycheck. I’ve negotiated labor with a landlord. I had been living in an illegal basement apartment where the owner got caught and I had to leave with no money for First, Last, and Security. This old gay man on the UWS let me live there for reduced rent in exchange for errands, cooking, and cleaning.

When I saw Alex’s pocket of cash slowly depleting with each essential purchase, y’all. Y’all! I was sobbing. I check my bank accounts and credit card balances multiple times a day, every single day, to make sure I still have money. Before I buy anything at the grocery store or put my card down to pay a bill in a restaurant or make a purchase online, I check the account to make sure there’s money in it. Logically, I’ll know that I have more than enough money to last me for a few months, but I have to check, to make sure the money is there. Every single time! I mean, I don’t have any money now because my savings dried up during the pandemic, but even when I’m comfortable, I still feel very uncomfortable.

Not having enough money to live is embarrassing and soul crushing and you don’t want to talk about it, because you’re ashamed that you failed. But you need to talk about it, because you still have to live, and you need help. The way Maid captured that tightrope act is masterful storytelling.

Paula, Alex’s mother, adds an entirely new level that we don’t often see. I’ve never had to care for anyone other than myself, but in caring for myself I saw a lot of Paula. I’ve made a lot of bad decisions because my brain was too foggy to make the right ones. I once lost a job because I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks. I knew I had to work and I knew what would happen if I didn’t go to work, but I couldn’t actually make myself get up and leave my room. I’ve put myself in so many abusive situations for some sense of stability. Sometimes I could see that where I was or what I was doing was unhealthy or dangerous, but I put it aside, because you gotta eat. That’s about as much detail as I’m ready to put online, but I’ve told myself “I’m fine!” a lot, when I was absolutely not fine.

And the shelter…

I’m still in a bad place because one of my girls from the shelter overdosed a few months ago. I can’t shake it and I want to find another way to help that’s further up the chain of command. When you work in a DV shelter (and I volunteered in one for a decade), you do see the same faces come back and forth. And then one day you don’t see them again and you wonder, “are they back in a bad situation or did they finally shake it?” But you can’t wonder too long, because there’s a new face. There’s always a new face.

When Alex is back with her ex and down an emotional void toward the end of the series, I had to take a break. I think I cried for like ten minutes. There are so many women I never saw again at some point, and I know that’s where they are — in a void, just going through the motions, trying to survive. They’re stuck there because we don’t have enough systems in place to pull them out. We have court systems that won’t help you leave an abusive situation until you have a black eye or a broken bone. No rewards for being smart enough and brave enough to see the physical abuse coming just beyond the horizon — you have to stay until you get hit, and then maybe there’ll be assistance for you.

It takes a special kind of person to do that work for decades, and it’s not me. I can’t go back to a DV shelter. I don’t have the inner strength necessary to do it and I don’t know how I feel about that. I’ve told myself that it’s okay to admit you’re not strong enough to help the way you want to help, but I grew up with guilt as part of my upbringing. I feel like I’m failing myself.

But it also makes me more determined to find a way to help further up the chain. The more steps removed you are from the day she leaves a bad situation, the more women you are dealing with who are absolutely ready to leave for good.

I want to be the person who can offer a job. Her boss wasn’t the best boss, but Alex was able to make money because there was someone there offering (very basic, mildly exploitative) employment for someone with no skills.

I want to be the person who can offer housing. When my mom married my dad, she didn’t sell her house, because she was proud of it. She was a single Black woman in the South who bought her own house, and when she moved in with my dad, she rented her house out to other single Black women who would’ve had trouble finding housing elsewhere. She accepted low income housing credits and she adjusted the rent based on what the woman could pay.

I want to be the person who can offer free legal services. If Alex had had a lawyer the first time she went to court, she wouldn’t have lost her daughter for a week. If she hadn’t had a lawyer the second time around, she wouldn’t have been able to take her daughter to college with her so she could make a new life for herself.

What I really want to do is go to med school to be an OBGYN so I can give my time to free clinics in underserved communities of color. There are no unwanted children in Maid, but in reality, that’s the number one predictor of poverty for women. Unwanted children keep women shackled to bad situations and oftentimes it’s the result of no access to reproductive services. Birth control, from preventative to reactive, needs to be free and available.

There are so many reasons Maid is a good show, but the realism is intense. There’s no part of it that I didn’t recognize in some way, either personally or through the stories of women I’d met in the DV shelter. Everyone who has ever been poor can relate. Every woman who has ever been in an abusive situation can relate. And everyone who has experienced neither should watch it for a glimpse into what those lives are like.

 

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Everything is broken.

What are y’all doing to preserve joy? I’m very sad.

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I was depressed after I moved to NYC. Years and years later I would finally get diagnosed with depression and anxiety, but back then I just looked for coping mechanisms to make me feel better. I didn’t want to do drugs, because they make you look old. I didn’t want to eat my feelings, because I’d already been chunky when I was younger and could vividly remember my babysitter calling me “husky” for the first time when I was in second grade. And I didn’t have any money — retail therapy wasn’t option.

So I volunteered. I learned during COVID lockdowns last year that I’m actually a nurturer, and taking care of people makes me feel better. When I was new to the city, I volunteered because it made me put my struggles into perspective: I hated my apartment on the top floor of an overpriced building in Bushwick where they were making crack in the basement, and I couldn’t find a job that paid me enough to eat more than bologna and cereal, but I did have a roof and I did have food and I did have my health. Volunteering also tapped into my desire to help people feel better, so it was a win-win. I started volunteering at a battered women’s shelter, which turned into babysitting for their kids when they had job interviews. Babysitting eventually became a full-blown youth program in the neighborhood complete with college prep, tutoring, and museum trips.

I met so many kids over the past decade who I think about all the time. One girl made me want to rip my hair out because she used to drag everybody around her unprompted, so I had to discipline her, but I also had to hold in the laughter each time because she was so smart and the reads were good. She works for the MTA now. There was a little gay boy who used to follow me around everywhere. The center was administered through a Catholic Church and he was just so fascinated by an openly queer man traipsing through the building like I owned the place. He’s currently at CUNY to be a teacher. One of my kids got into Penn. One is a manager at the Target where I shop.

One night years ago, maybe 8 years ago thinking back to the apartment I was living in at the time, I got a call around 3am. One of the women said a teenaged girl had walked in. She thought the girl had been sexually assaulted, but the police hadn’t been called yet because the girl was asking for me specifically. I got dressed and went, but I didn’t recognize her when I got there. I pretended to, but I had no idea who this girl was. June looked to be around 13, and she was disheveled, but she obviously wasn’t living on the street. Street kids never come in wearing a satin bonnet on their hair.

I was able to pull the backstory out of her. June and her mom had briefly stayed at the shelter a couple of years ago when they ran away from the home they shared with a man who was physically abusive. I guess June’s mother and boyfriend worked it out soon after, because she went back to him and I never saw the mom or June again, but I did remember her after I talked to her for awhile. She was good at math I think. Or science. It was a long time ago, but I remember being impressed with a class she was taking at her age.

Fast forward a couple of years, and mom’s boyfriend raped June, so she ran back to us. She said she felt safe at the shelter and she didn’t know where else to go. She didn’t want to run to the police because the boyfriend’s brother is a cop, but we talked her into it. What other choice did we have? The system is imperfect, but without reporting it, there was absolutely no way for her to protect herself from this man.

She ended up with CPS and I don’t know what happened after that. I dropped the ball. Her mom was on and off drugs, so I don’t know if she was on June’s side or the boyfriend’s side, but I would guess the boyfriend. We saw a lot of instances where the man would take an interest in the daughter, and the mother would blame the daughter for “enticing” him. But yeah, I totally lost track of her. She never came back to the center and I just let myself forget about it. We had so many kids come through with their mothers that we’d see for a week or two and then they were back to their lives. I don’t think you can keep them all in your spirit, because emotionally and mentally, it will wear you down and tear you apart.

A couple of days ago I was chatting with one of the kids I met back in the day, Alissa. We were giggling about memories we both had from when she used to come by for the afterschool program. Sometimes they find me on social media and it’s nice to see them doing well. Alissa has a kid and does nails not too far from the center. A lot of them live right in the same area, and they know each other because they went to the same schools or they’re related.

Alissa told me June died a few months ago of an overdose, probably fentanyl-laced heroin. She doesn’t know what happened with June’s rapist, but June was in foster care for a few years, aged out, and worked the streets selling sex for rent money, and then for drugs. Alissa and June had mutual friends from the neighborhood because they went to school together and she got those pieces of the story through the grapevine.

I don’t know how I feel. I’ve heard bad outcomes before. One of the kids I used to tutor in English was shot and killed a couple of years ago. A few have been in and out of jail. You try to focus on the wins and realize you can’t help everybody, but so so so many people failed June and I feel heavy inside. If her mother had had support to get off drugs, support that wasn’t immediately tied to imprisonment for possession, it’s possible she could’ve stood on her own two feet without a man, and she wouldn’t have had her daughter around an abusive boyfriend who would eventually rape her. If the foster system was equipped to provide guidance for young adults, June wouldn’t have been on her own when she turned 18 without resources. If we had better social safety nets in this country, she wouldn’t have been forced to do sex work to keep a roof over her head.

I don’t write about politics and current events as much as a I used to. For a few years, I was making a decent income breaking down the news of the day into my own words so other people could take an interest in what was going on in the country. I felt like I was helping people get involved — by giving my POV, they would be inspired to do something. I liked getting messages from readers about how I made them look at something differently or why they donated to a certain cause because of what I said. I was being helpful, and that’s the nurturing part of me. I could make the world a better place by staying informed and keeping others informed too.

And then I stopped believing that. I just did not want to write anymore after the 2016 election. It peeled back too many layers of the country and I didn’t think anything was actually fixable. The United States is rotten to the core. Everything is broken and nothing works. Human nature isn’t as intrinsically good as I’d hoped. You can’t teach empathy and you can’t help someone care about human suffering, so what was the point?

I do appreciate the people who have the moral foundation and mental fortitude to continue fighting the good fight, so I didn’t think it was responsible of me to put more negative energy out there. Better to be silent and let the fighters fight than to get on this soapbox and continually tell people how broken everything is.

I got diagnosed with depression and anxiety a few years ago, and after some false starts, I found the right pharmaceutical cocktail for me, and some of the negativity lifted. Everything isn’t terrible all the time. There is joy all around us. Even in times of darkness, the overall trajectory of humanity is still an upward trend in a positive direction. It’s hard out here though. June has me down a well and I’ve been at the bottom of it for a couple of days now. Why didn’t I check on her? She should be working at Target or doing nails or going to CUNY to be a teacher. She shouldn’t be dead. She asked for me specifically when she ran to the shelter for help, and then I just…released her to the system and into the world.

I don’t know y’all. I’m trying to focus on the wins and keep the positives in mind, but I’m tired. Some of y’all who have been reading this site for a long time wonder why I don’t write as much anymore, and I just don’t always have the energy to pay attention to the world the way I used to. There are just so many Junes and I don’t know what to do about it.

What are y’all doing to preserve joy? I’m very sad today.

 

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Happy Birthday Mommy!

I baked a little something for you!

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Whew!

It’s been a YEAR and, to be honest, I’m not doing that well, so I just wanted to check in real quick and get some things off my spirit.

First of all, let’s get the most important stuff out of the way immediately:

Jackée is gonna be on Days of Our Lives!

I don’t know who she’s gonna play or what the character will be like, but clearly I will be tuning in…because I’ve been watching that doggone show since birth because of you.

Also: Don’t actually go to her Twitter. You too High Holy Christian for all the mess she puts on the internet.

Anyway, yeah…this year has been rough. I got my dream job in March (yay!) but then I lost it a week later because the office closed due to the pandemic and I got let go — last hired, first fired. The first day on the job I actually cried on the way home because I’d been searching for that perfect career move for years and I thought I finally found it. So, that was a huge disappointment that knocked me on my butt for awhile.

Then Travis and I stopped speaking. I had been building up this resentment toward him and his boyfriend because all of the things we used to do, he was doing with his new boyfriend instead, and I didn’t have anybody to hang out with anymore. We were on lockdown so I couldn’t go anywhere. We’re best friends who live together, which was great until the boyfriend moved in and I didn’t have my best friend to spend quarantine with anymore. They’ve since broken up, but the cracks in our friendship are still there — I resent him for ignoring me and he resents me for not trying harder to accept his boyfriend. We’re fine now (great, actually) but it’s right under the surface if we get upset about something unrelated.

And our third roommate is…difficult. In the best of times he’s not the ideal roommate because he’s LOUD and oblivious to other people’s needs. He’s absolutely the type of person who should be living alone, but since the pandemic, it’s ten times worse because he’s an actor and a comedian who no longer has a stage to perform on, so his computer is his stage. All day every day is just the sound of his voice, from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep, hanging out with his friends videochatting, yelling and doing voices.

I wear headphones all day now and just count down the days until the lease is up because I can’t wait to get out of this apartment and away from him.

Speaking of away from him, I thought I found an outlet this summer. I met guy (we’ll call him John since other people can read this)…and we had chemistry! I don’t trust my feelings around men anymore. I’ve never developed deep feelings for a man who returned those feelings. It’s just a string of unrequited love, so if I feel a spark, I try to stamp it out to save myself another disappointment. But this was different because he pursued me. I let John make all the first moves to be sure I wasn’t building a fake relationship in my head like I usually do. He told me I was beautiful every day, he kissed me first, he came on to me first, he suggested we take a trip together, he suggested we move in together. I heard all the right things, so I let myself fall for this man. I was almost looking forward to the inevitable Winter COVID Lockdown because I could go hang out at his apartment and get away from mine. We were gonna cook and watch the snow. I was gonna spend a week or so at his apartment here and there to make sure we could live together in preparation for a move next year. He wanted to get two dogs.

Just before Halloween, John’s energy was off. I’d had a pumpkin carving party and our dynamic was different. He wasn’t paying much attention to me — which is fine because all of my friends are great and they all liked him — but the lack of affection was odd. So I brought it up a few days later and he said we should go back to being “just friends” because it bothered him that people thought we were, and asked him about whether we were, in a serious relationship. John had said from the beginning he didn’t want to be in a serious relationship, and I was totally fine with that. I told him he could date whoever he wanted, but he said he didn’t want to date anyone. I told him he could have sex with whoever he wanted, but he said he wasn’t interested in sex. He just wanted to make new friends and work on himself, but we had this great connection that he was really into. I was like, “okay…if that’s what you want…”, but I told him people would assume we were in a serious relationship if we kept acting like we were in front of everyone. He said he was fine with that — let them think what they want.

He wasn’t actually fine with that, so he decided we should pump the breaks.

And the next week John fucked my friend that I had introduced him to, the friend that he’d been sitting next to at my party instead of talking to me.

Here’s the thing Mommy…my self-esteem is shot and my abandonment issues are through the roof, and it goes back to that moment when you found out I liked other boys and our relationship changed forever. You were my best friend growing up. I felt awkward around the other kids, I felt awkward around my dad, I felt awkward around my cousins, but you made me feel normal. If I wanted to watch Days Our Lives and talk about the war in Kuwait, you let me. You took me everywhere and taught me so much about life. You told me I was the most important thing in the world to you. And then my teacher told you I was gay and you told me I was going to Hell. And you told me that regularly for the next ten years. I told you I was going to marry a man and have a happy family and you told me I was gonna get AIDS and die alone.

I let you make me feel bad about myself for years. Even after I moved all the way up the East Coast to NYC, I still felt like I had to respect you, even while you were tearing me down. When you would end every conversation wanting to pray with me for God to take away my homosexual demons, I let you, because you’re Mommy and I didn’t want to lose Mommy. When I finally got fed up and decided “this is the last time, this is the last conversation,” it was your birthday 9 years ago. I never told you why, but I picked that day because we had a fun conversation. I called you to wish you Happy Birthday and you gave me all the latest gossip on the family like you always did. We talked about random stuff, laughed a lot (your laugh is so ridiculous and I miss it more than anything), and then I jokingly asked you what I should buy you for your birthday — jokingly, because we both knew I had no money and I wouldn’t be getting you anything at all. You replied that you didn’t want anything; all you wanted was for me to give up my homosexual demons and come back to the Lord.

Mommy we had talked for an hour, a delightful conversation about everything, and in that last sentence, you threw me in the trash again. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had taken it since I was 12 years old and I just reached my limit. I kept the conversation light and made some kind of joke to get us back on track, but in my heart I knew I would never speak to you again until you made a turnaround. I wanted that to be the last conversation we had in case it was the last conversation we had, so that our last conversation would be full of good memories for you. I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth, but I wanted you to be left with lightness and joy. I swallowed my feelings, told you I loved you, and hung up for the last time, because you died later that year.

And now I’m stuck. I still feel so much guilt for being fed up. I missed you then and I miss you now and I feel like if I hadn’t stopped speaking to you, you wouldn’t have died, and we could’ve eventually found our way back to each other. I keep letting people treat me badly because if I stand up for myself, they’ll go away and I’ll never see them again. If I stand up for myself, I’ll be alone, and I would rather be with someone and feel bad some of the time than be alone and feel bad all of the time because I don’t have that someone anymore.

I realized that about myself a few months ago, so that’s the first step. And I’ve tried to stand up for myself more as of late.

Last week, a friend (we’ll call him Brian) asked me out to dinner. I met Brian just before the pandemic and he’s such a sweetheart. We had an instant bond and I was looking forward to getting to know him, but COVID kinda put a halt to that. NYC bounced back this summer, and Brian lives in the neighborhood, so I invited him into our little bubble for a couple of parties and brunches. We already had some mutual friends, but he also took quickly to John and to Travis, so he was a good addition to my social circle.

At dinner, Brian told me that he had fucked John. I introduced the two of them. I invited them both to brunch and to parties. The week after John said we should just be friends, he was out to dinner with Brian and fucking afterward.

All of John’s flings are hot and all of the guys he would show me on social media that he liked, fucked, or planned to meet up with looked more like Brian than me. I was insecure about being involved with a guy who looks like John because gay NYC is vicious and I could imagine the whispers of “wow John is way too hot for that guy” because I’ve heard people I know say it about other couples. John knew this. John knew about all of the guys I was into who liked Travis — the taller, hotter best friend — instead of me. John knew about all the times I’d been out with my Friends Who Lift and how some random guy would make me feel like trash because I don’t look like them. He knew all of that and still fucked my hot friend the week after he broke up with me. All of the men in the city, all of the men right there in Hell’s Kitchen where he lives, all of the men who hit him up on Grindr, and he fucked the one that would obviously hurt me the most.

But I cut them both off! Obviously I’ll never speak to John again because that kind of betrayal — when someone knows your insecurities and disregards them anyway– is like a knife to the heart, but my first reaction when Brian told me what he did was to let it go, because this is gay NYC and most of them do have fewer boundaries and hangups around sex than I do. My boundaries aren’t invalid just because other people don’t share them and I did what I needed to do for my mental health. I don’t have to prioritize a relationship that’s damaging to my mental health. I don’t have to swallow my feelings to make someone else feel more comfortable with their personal failures or mistreatment of me.

So I’m proud of myself for standing my ground, but it’s still the holidays, and I’m still lonely. I miss John every day. I miss what we could have been doing this holiday season, all the winter plans we made. When I was younger, I’d assumed I’d have a family by now to make Christmas traditions with. Instead, I just watch the little family I’ve built in NYC — my circle of friends — latching on to their own families, and I just feel rudderless and a little rejected. Abandonment issues are complex.

This is a lot longer than I meant it be. I hadn’t planned to tell you about the “gay stuff” because I know it makes you uncomfortable. I still haven’t finished reading the email you wrote me, but I read a little more of it each year until I start crying again. I’ve gotten to the part where you’ve come to terms with my attraction to men, so I think you would be okay hearing about my relationship/friendship problems at this point.**

And if not, well here’s a cake to sweeten it up a little!

I do love to bake — thanks for passing that on to me — but I don’t decorate anything….thanks for passing that on to me too. I decided to bake a cake and actually try to decorate it for once, and the end result isn’t half bad! True, I did try to make a Red & Hunter Green Christmas themed cake and I guess my dye was the wrong kind so it’s a Pink & Pale Green Easter themed cake instead, but it tastes good. You would especially like it because it’s not super sweet and I used buttermilk instead of regular milk.

So Happy Birthday! I feel a little lighter after getting some of that off my chest. Maybe this will be a thing and I’ll bake you a little something every year and give you an update about how I’m doing. Next year’s update will be much better than this year’s, I’m sure of it.

If nothing else, I’ll be much better at cake decorating anyway.

Love you Mommy!

(**a note for y’all who don’t know: When my mom died, I went through her emails to compile some information for my dad and I found an email that she had written to me a few weeks before she died. She sent it to an address I no longer use so I didn’t get to read it before she died. The first line says “I’m sorry…” and it took me about 7 years to get farther than that. I still haven’t finished reading it because I know she died thinking I ignored her email and I’m not strong enough to handle it yet.)

 

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Email: rafi@soletstalkabout.com
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