New Money

On the illusion of wealth.

Image: Roy Luck via Flickr

A few years back, I spent a summer in Houston acting like I had money. Then I fell in with some white kids who came from money. I guess you could call it a scene. All gallery openings and coffee bars and stage-dives. We’d flit from club to concert to loft to bed, occasionally stopping to take stock of the time. Or at least I did. Because that shit was brand new to me, very nearly alien, a reality so divorced from mine (black, Caribbean, Baptist, middle class), that I couldn’t help feeling threatened by it, and enticed by it, very nearly always wondering exactly how far it could go.

A few things had to happen for any of that to work. Mostly, I worked the parking lots at NRG Stadium. Made no dollars an hour. I said, Sir, Ma’am, you can’t park that here. Sometimes folks spat at me from their trucks, and my buddy Manny gave them the finger, and I’d up-charge them on their way out. When I wasn’t working, I read novels that were entirely divorced from my life, The Line of Beauty and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Gatsby—books where boys, occasionally queer, acquired reams of splendor out of chance and circumstance.

Also, the guy I’d been dating left the States for Busan. We’d found a situation house-sitting for a friend across town. It was our way out of rent. We figured we’d fake playing married, but after a few days of quietly throwing furniture at each other we decided that tapping out was, in the end, the best for us both. So the house I was now sleeping in, alone, was a solid reminder of my social ceiling: no one in my family had ever owned property as nice. Very few people in my family owned property. I was pretty sure I never would. The neighbors cocked their heads at me whenever I mowed the lawn, and I told myself I wouldn’t wave. But usually I did.

There was this line from Baldwin’s Another Country I kept coming back to: he says “love is expensive” and “one must put furniture around it, or it goes.” I’d lie on my borrowed couch for hours, saying it once and then once again. Did it matter how much that furniture went for? Or where you’d bought it from? Or whether it’d been inherited? Bought in cash? If you were paying it off month to month?

I’m obviously not the first person to fall in love with the illusion of money. Or the notion that they’ve never been privy to capital-C culture. Everyone, everywhere, has at least a little bit of something, and it’s usually reams more than they think. But a thing that can happen when you’re a minority, coming from a background where the supposedly canonical entities aren’t in your daily discourse, is that, sometimes, you feel like if you take your eye off of the ball, just for a moment, not only will it disappear, it’ll very well turn out that it was never there to begin with. You made up the whole fucking thing. And those friends you made? Sorry, fool. Those references you thought you had in common? You don’t. So the battle becomes less about proving to everyone else that you’re supposed to be there, than proving it to yourself, once, and then once again, until you’re dead.  

So I was reading The Beautiful Room is Empty at this coffee bar in Montrose when a white guy sat across from me and asked what I thought of Edmund White. It sort of fucked me up. What I thought of anything, let alone a book, wasn’t a conversation I had with strangers. My parents both read pretty often, but mostly sci-fi novels, stories where black people left the lives they led to ascend towards the stars.

He’s cool, I said.

Sure, said the white guy, but why?

He’s not afraid to write about sex, I said.

I was surprised when the white guy laughed. I thought my answer would send him running. But what he did was start a monologue on how this was one of the something something merits of a something something blend of author. Except I didn’t have time to hear about that. I also didn’t much care. I had a shitty job on the other side of town, so I thanked the white guy for the chat, and he offered me a cigarette.

He told me he’d see me around. He said something to the tune of, Until next time. And there was no event on this Earth where I thought that would happen so I just said, OK.

Only I did see him again. At another coffee bar, a few days later. He asked me if I’d finished the White, and it took me a second to realize what he’d meant. He recommended another book, something “a former lover” had given him, and the next time I saw him, at another bar, he asked me if I’d read it.

I started catching him every couple of days. Mostly in the same places. Sometimes he was with a friend, and sometimes in a group. Except for this one Filipino guy, they were mostly white, too. We all talked. Or they talked, and I just sat there. Mostly about novels, but also films I’d never heard of and people I’d never slept with. The overwhelming majority of the time, it was easier to stay silent than ask about the significance of the Dardennes or Franzen or Tartt or Eugenides, or why the B-Side of that re-released vinyl sounded a beat slower than the original. I did a lot of nodding.

Eventually, the Filipino guy asked me what I did in the evenings. I mostly texted Busan and slept-walk around my borrowed house. Counted the days until I’d lose it.

I told him I was free.

There’s this band you have to see, he said. My boyfriend is in it.

When I told him I didn’t have any money, he laughed, and said it didn’t matter. We were friends, he said. He’d get me on the list.

That was news to me. I hadn’t known that we were friends. I told him I didn’t know anyone, then he smiled and grabbed my shoulder. He said, Nobody knows anyone, and everyone laughed.

When you think too hard about becoming a thing, you run the risk of its eventually, inevitably, becoming your reality. Of course there are limits to that line of thinking (for years, as a kid, I willed myself into inheriting the Death Star). But the principle is pretty destructive. You become an actor, or a pauper. Which is all well and good, until the show eventually ends; then you’re just caught in a lie, and, even more stridently, the fact that you yourself are the only one to blame. The months I hung around and housesat, I mostly felt like a phony, or the recipient of a cosmic punchline: whole chunks of my family were on food stamps, and I myself had no capital to speak of, and yet here I was, on this beautiful block, with these beautiful people.

I bought this black denim thrift jacket. You could name the presidents on the change in my jeans. For a while there, I could spit the discographies of bands whose names sounded like Party City columns, groups my friends back home would’ve choked on between laughter (You’re listening to who, nigga?). But the thing about this inaccessible fantasy (of having money, of being culturally literate), is that my contribution to the inaccessible bike-lane of a certain lifestyle was the illusion of diversity. Or the illusion that everyone can be privy to it. For a little while, that’s what I gave. And, for a minute, I got to pretend I was proof that was true.

So I started hitting shows at Fitzgerald’s and the Warehouse and Rudyard’s. I loitered around the Theatre District. I got towed all the time. I hit little dive bars downtown, where a guy wailed on stage while a quartet of goths blew their trumpets behind him. I frequented a two-woman show on a private college campus where the actors played thirty-odd characters between them. I couldn’t pay for most of these things. Or rather, I didn’t pay for most of these things. My friends, in their benevolence, had taken it upon themselves to educate me, shepherding me around lines and into fitting rooms and through soundchecks. The first times it happened were jarring. I felt like Frodo fumbling the ring. But soon enough, I got used to it, the way you get used to anything, and before the tab even began I started miming I’m with them.  

One time, I tried bringing my new friends to the places I frequented. These were taquerias and cantinas and Vietnamese parlors; immigrant centers where food was cheap and white folks were scarce. These were the places that I could afford, but mostly they were the places that could afford to have me—they were Houston to me. I loved them more than anything (I still do). But what crossed my companion’s faces wasn’t disgust or shock or even disappointment. It was just like, Of course. Of course that’s where he’d bring us. After one excursion to this taqueria on Airline, upon eyeing the looming cross at the register, the group immediately redirected to another locale across town (a white-owned Venezuelan/Chinese/Hawaiian fusion food truck). And while, months ago, I would’ve been ready to box someone, I didn’t even protest. I said, OK, we’re gone.

One day I told Manny all this after a shift. We took a lot of our meals at this three dollar banh mi spot on Wheeler. It’s closed now, but two sisters and their grandkid owned it. They worked out of four toaster ovens and a coffee machine. It was the most comfortable room in Houston.

Manny didn’t flinch. He hit me with an instant, unperturbed, Bro. So I said, Hear me out, and then I explained about the nuance of my friend group. I told him about the time that we crashed an improv show only to become a part of it. I told him about the time one of the white women wandered stoned onstage during a concert. I told him about the the time I attended a reading that brought everyone to tears, a Pulitzer prize-winning poet who rocked his shoulders on all of his consonants, and here Manny interrupted me to ask one of the sisters for a refill. Then he yawned.

Right, said Manny, super fucking cool.

But Manny was wrong. These were my friends! We did a lot of things together and for a while it was cool. We weren’t so foolish as to have made a pact, I don’t think, but there was definitely a day where sat by the bayou, smoking, wondering when we were gridlocked by the city. Somebody noted that the only way to transcend Houston was to leave it. Somebody else said that it had to be molded from the inside out. On both sides of my family, this wouldn’t have been an option. The folks I grew up with didn’t just leave where they were born. We stayed, always, and fixed what we could. Mostly we reacted to the things that would happen.

When a stranger finds herself navigating a strange land, there’s usually an event or an illumination or something that tells her she doesn’t belong. That’s usually what it takes. And sometimes it takes a while. I feel like, a lot of times, for people of color in the States, it’s usually their contact with unfiltered whiteness. In Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland, his protagonist turns to that dissonance often, pining that “I wanted to get to Berlin [and out of Chicago], a chance to be another me.” Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, says “there is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.” In T. Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville, his narrator says that, for his über-privileged characters

it’s not that [they] had never had black people around their house before, or even a Chinese guy once, but never a Malaysian who looked Chinese to some and Indian to others, fancied himself black at times, and wanted to be the next Lenny Bruce Lee; a preppy black football player who sounded like the president and read Plato in Latin; and a white woman who occasionally claimed to be Native American. They were like an overconstructed novel, each representative of some cul-de-sac of idiolect and stereotype.

I guess what I’m saying is that my fakery ended the way everything ends: a little time. My new friends moved away. They graduated or dropped out or had twins. One pair took off to Portland in a junket, and we waved as we watched them drive up the road.  One of us started teaching abroad. Our Filipino friend didn’t renew his Visa. Some of us sought oil and gas, because Houston, and others found physical therapy and surgery, because Houston, and I watched them all go. Wrote pithy emails to the ex. He wrote to say he was doing well, that I should try taking things a little easier. The couple I was housesitting for came home. I lost the place to stay. I was broke as shit again and living with my parents and working the parking lots and my buddy Manny was there, like, Bro, glad you’re back. One night at this bar, near the end, someone asked where their token was, and of course they meant me, but at this point I couldn’t have given less of a fuck. I was already gone.

There’s a part of me that’d like to say everything at that particular moment was egregious, or at the very least sub-optimal. But that’d be a sort of revisionist history. A few years later, I’d come into a little more money. I’d travel to some dope places, cities I hadn’t thought black people could go. I ride a fixed-gear bike around the bars I’d been introduced to, back then, and my revolutions around town are very nearly identical. But all of that came later, and when you’re broke in the now, you’re not thinking about someday or next year or even next week, because dinner is tonight and you are hungry. The friends I made were nice. I think of them from time to time. But sometimes it occurs to me to wonder if they think of me, too.

Although of course no one ever really goes away: one day, a few weeks into the Fall, Manny and I were working our shift when a guy I recognized from that circle parked his car. We sort of locked eyes. We looked at each other too long. Then he tipped me too much, and Manny said, What the fuck, and I told him it was nothing, don’t worry about it, here comes another one.


FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.