Hard Times Come Calling On The Comfortable

When I was growing up in the black communities —– and there are many — of the Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s, talking about "cash money" meant you were quite serious about not having any and you were on an earnest hunt for where and how you might get some.

Before black people and women could easily get loans and credit, we had to scramble for cash for purchases, large and small. I remember my Uncle Bobby explaining to his mother that he needed some "cash money to get a car." Maybe that car was the key to getting to a job.

I was reminded of those times when I heard Jay Hoggard, a professor of music at Wesleyan University, use the expression in a delightful interview on WNPR's "Where We Live" during a discussion of the spirituality of jazz. He told of the difficulties of making money if you choose jazz as a profession. The search for cash money is just as serious as putting together the perfect jazz combo, and often a lot harder. Together, these two words embody the absence of what you need most to live the life that calls to you.

Thanks to Martin Luther King and countless, nameless others who marched for me; to the power of televised pictures of Bull Conner and his snapping dogs; to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the women's movement and to the doors that began to open, I moved away from those day-to-day money worries.

I am a direct beneficiary of the historic '60s and the changes they brought. Three decades of satisfying jobs and good money allowed me to live well, raise and educate my children comfortably, travel when I wanted to and not worry about how I was going to buy my next car. I was part of America's good financial times.

I am also part of these changed times.

The global economy reels, our national economy sputters menacingly and I — now retired for a decade — feel I'm returning to my old, less secure financial roots.

In 1975, when the first article I ever submitted was published in The New York Times, I was more stunned than proud. I began my essay with "Growing up poor in the Midwest …" A few weeks later in a phone call with my father, his first words were not praise for a writing daughter. "You were never poor!" he sputtered angrily — this man whose first job was a scarfer in a steel mill. It was my first experience with poverty or modest means as a social disease. We were poor. Where is the shame in that?

Now, I'm on fixed income and unable to afford to do many of the things I could once do. If I say so publicly, I sometimes detect a nervous flutter of eyelids and an embarrassed downward glance. Whether it's bigger war machines or yet another handbag, I believe our need to pretend we can afford things we can't afford accounts for much of our present financial paralysis.

I'm still better off than most of the people on the planet and better off than many other Americans. I live a small but lush life with my husband Lee and Bette the cat. We own our home, we can still pay our bills and we have, as my grandmother would say, a little money "put by."

But when the time comes to buy another car, like my Uncle Bobby, this time I'll have to think about gathering some cash money to buy it. And, I'm not alone. The search for cash money has spread. As Jay Hoggard said so well, "Even the money people ain't got no money now."

As we say in the African American community when someone says something clearly profound — honey hush.

Reprinted from The Hartford Courant

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