My father grew up in Oklahoma and Texas during the Dust Bowl. My mom was raised by a single mother who had escaped an abusive husband with her three kids and little else. Both my parents were migrant workers as children, but my father’s strong back and work ethic eventually earned him a union job in construction. Unionized labor lifted our family out of poverty and provided my father with safer working conditions, medical insurance, and a pension. My parents’ loyalty to the labor movement was unwavering.
We lived in a travel trailer so we could follow my father from job to job. Kids who lived in houses were often cruel to us trailer-park children. Few of them would have guessed that my parents had a year’s pay sitting in the bank. Many of their union friends had similar war chests, in case there was a strike. That way management couldn’t starve them out.
Today, with so many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, employers can demand whatever they want from workers. People need to realize that new cars, trips, and gadgets are nice, but nothing comforts like cash.
Three summers ago I moved from the Pacific Northwest to Austin, Texas, in search of a warmer climate. I got what I wished for in spades. By late October the temperatures were still in the upper nineties, and I was unemployed and broke. I had been to interviews all over town and had received polite rejections at all of them.
I was living with a friend from college who worked at a bookstore. One afternoon she and I were doing some grocery shopping — by which I mean she was buying her food for the week, and I was watching her. (She kindly bought me enough ramen noodles to get by.) I was glad just to be out of the apartment, where I’d been stationed in front of a computer all day, obsessively refreshing my in-box in hopes of a job offer.
I was about to tell my friend I had given up and was going home to the Northwest when her cellphone rang. It was a recruiting company looking to speak with me about a job opportunity at a local community theater. (I had given them my friend’s number because I couldn’t afford a phone.) The recruiter wanted me to meet with the hiring manager of the organization in two days. I was elated. Finally things were turning around.
When we got back to the apartment, I had an e-mail from the recruiter containing details for the meeting and some advice: “Make sure to take in a performance at the theater before the interview.”
The cheapest tickets were forty dollars, and I literally didn’t have a penny. My roommate couldn’t spot me the cash either; she had spent most of hers on groceries.
Seeing how despondent I was, she offered to take me out to Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon. Her favorite local honky-tonk band was playing, and she had enough money left to buy us each a beer.
When we got to the bar, we discovered that it was also bingo night — chicken-shit bingo to be precise. You paid a dollar to buy a number on a giant bingo card. After all the bets were made, they let a chicken run free on the card until it did its business. If it hit your number, you took home the pot.
My roommate bought us each a ticket with her last two bucks. My chest felt as if it would explode when I won: $153 in crumpled cash — the most money I’d had in months. I bought my friend a beer and a greasy cheeseburger, and then I went straight to the theater to catch the production.
I nailed that interview and got the job, all because on a hot, dusty night in the heart of Texas, a chicken had defecated on the number twenty-three.
When I left my husband, I had two small children, no high-school diploma, and very little work experience. My grandmother suggested I go to a vocational school to better provide for my sons. She helped me sign up for welfare and gave me a discount on rent in one of the several apartments she owned.
I told the clerks at the welfare office that I would be on public assistance for only one year — the length of the secretarial course I had chosen. I had no intention of making welfare a lifestyle. All I needed was food, shelter, and day care for my children while I went to school. The clerks all smiled as though they had heard that line before.
On welfare I felt rich, because my ex-husband had brought home much less to support the family, but I wasn’t comfortable taking the money. My grandmother assured me that welfare had been created for people like me who had fallen on hard times through little fault of their own. I still felt embarrassed by it.
Food shopping was especially humiliating. I never bought anything but nutritious items and household necessities. No candy, cookies, soda, or chips. Still I was keenly aware of the disapproval emanating from the customers in line behind me as I paid with food stamps. Halfway through the year, unable to bear the shame at the checkout any longer, I informed the welfare office that I didn’t need the food stamps. I would make do with just the cash allowance.
I got a job ten days after finishing vocational school, having been on public assistance for exactly one year and one day. I’d also saved four hundred dollars, which allowed me to buy my first car and a work outfit. I paid for both in cash.
I was abandoned as an infant by my homeless, nineteen-year-old birth mother and adopted by a middle-class couple when I was four months old.
As an adult I developed a relationship with my birth mother, and she helped me find my Saudi Arabian birth father and even sent me a picture of him as a young man, standing in front of his father’s private jet. After my birth father learned that I had a chronic disease, he wanted to send me to Johns Hopkins Hospital to make sure I had everything I needed — all paid for by him, of course. I thanked him for his generous offer but said I took good care of myself.
For my birthday, less than a month after I’d contacted him, my birth father wanted to give me a present. When I resisted, he said, “Can’t you just let me do things my way?” I told him he’d already given me the greatest gift he could by not rejecting me, but he still sent me three dozen white roses and an iPhone.
When my town got hit by Hurricane Sandy, my birth father called me nearly every day. After the evacuation, I slipped up and mentioned my financial difficulties to him, and he asked if he could help me just this once. If I gave him my checking-account information, he would deposit ten thousand dollars in it.
Ten thousand dollars.
“More if you need it, of course.”
Oh, of course.
My friends say he just wants to help, or that he’s trying to make up for lost time. I tell them what I think any adoptee would: that it’s more complicated than that. He and I haven’t even met face to face yet. I believe he means well, but right now his money feels dirty to me.
And, although I’m never sure if I can believe the stories my birth mother tells me, there is this: when my birth father found out she was pregnant, he offered her ten thousand dollars if she’d have an abortion.
My grandfather spent a lot of time at the racetrack. I believe he loved horses and gambling more than he loved my grandmother. From time to time a small envelope would arrive in our mail addressed to me, bearing the return address of his butcher shop. Inside I would find a crisp hundred-dollar bill and a clipping from the Daily Racing Form with the winning horse circled. Its name would inevitably be Big John or John Henry or Johnny Diablo — some variant of my name.
I treasured these little missives, even though my mom always whisked the bill away to be applied to my college fund or piano lessons or home repairs. I liked that I received a share of my grandfather’s winnings more often than my brother or sister, and I believed it wasn’t just because horses named John were more common than ones named Rick or Marcy. I liked that the money simply arrived without my having to make my bed or earn an A or give a recital. I liked that my name alone was enough to bring my grandfather luck.
John Unger Zussman
Portola Valley, California
We’re not really sure where the idea came from: to each put a dollar into a kitty every time we made love. My recollection is that it was my fiancée’s teasing suggestion that she should start charging me.
We’re not kids anymore. I’m in the second half of my life — OK, I’m probably in the last third. But we are very much in love, and the kitty has grown nicely.
We originally thought we would use the money for some treat we wouldn’t normally splurge on, but we never seemed to have a good reason to spend all those dollar bills. When we learned about an after-school tutoring program for underprivileged students, we agreed to donate the money to it.
Since then our sex life hasn’t slowed down, and we’ve found other good causes to which to give the money. It feels good to know that our love has the added benefit of helping others.
My father was a construction worker in the Bronx, and every winter he was out of work and had a hard time keeping food on the table for our family of eight. My three brothers, two sisters, and I were happy to have peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for dinner, or maybe just oatmeal.
Because I’d been born on February 1, there was never enough money for me to have a birthday present or a cake. My other siblings all had birthdays in the summer and fall, when our father was working.
On my eleventh birthday my mom sent me to the store for a loaf of bread. On the way there I spotted a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk. I picked it up, expecting it to be a fake, but it was real. I ran all the way home and happily gave the cash to my mother, to be used to buy food for the family. That night we had fish sticks and french fries for dinner, and for dessert my mother had made me a surprise: my first birthday cake.
It was the summer of 1994, and I was a broke graduate student living in a sweltering apartment and rolling coins to buy groceries and cigarettes. I needed a summer job to tide me over until my teaching assistant’s stipend started back up in the fall. My mother knew a retiree who worked part time hanging window treatments in people’s homes. He needed a helper and paid ten dollars cash an hour, under the table.
On my first day of work Jack picked me up in his van. As we rode to the job site, he asked about the guy I was dating and advised me that too many “girls” today don’t know what it takes to keep a man: be pleasant and don’t let yourself go. He cautioned that I shouldn’t eat more than one meal a day or I might lose my figure. And he chastised me for smoking.
From Jack I learned all about hanging window treatments. He taught me how to measure to the insides of the window frame for blinds and how to center the hardware for drapes and install them so that they hung just above the floor.
Jack was also an amateur pilot and talked for hours about flying his two-seater Cessna. His favorite stories were the ones in which something went wrong and he had a close call. At the end of each day Jack always paid me for my hours worked and my travel time — plus twenty or forty dollars extra.
One day, instead of taking me to a job, Jack surprised me with the offer of a ride in his Cessna. I was terrified, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I got aboard the plane. While we were in the air, Jack asked if I would go with him that weekend to an air show; we could fly there Friday afternoon and fly back Sunday evening.
I wanted badly to believe that Jack was inviting me in a fatherly way, but when I looked over at him, I saw in his eyes that he was not. I shook my head and said, “I can’t.”
Jack turned the plane around and returned to the hangar without a word. Then he drove me back to my apartment and handed me a twenty-dollar bill for the two hours I’d been with him.
I never worked for Jack again, but I’d already made enough money to keep me in cigarettes and books through the fall semester.
When I was a little girl growing up in Virginia in the 1930s, there was no air conditioning. During the summer months people did whatever they could to keep cool. White people, for example, drove around in cars at night, and black men stood on street corners talking, laughing, and hoping to catch a breeze.
One hot night when I was five, my mother and father, our dog, Comfey, and I were riding through a “colored” section of town. We stopped for a red light, and Comfey, who’d spotted a dog on the sidewalk, jumped out the open car window to give chase. The light changed, and I pleaded with Daddy not to drive off and leave Comfey. We waited through several light cycles for her to come back while I wailed and my father tried to calm me.
Then an old black man came walking up with Comfey in his arms. “Here’s your dog, Captain,” he said to my father. My dad thanked the man, told him where he worked, and said he should come by the next day for his reward. After the man left, I asked my dad what reward he would give.
“Money,” he said.
I wanted to know why he hadn’t just given the man some money now.
My father replied, “Do you think I would open my wallet in front of all these men? They’d knock me over the head and rob me.”
On the drive home I talked about nothing but the champion who’d saved our dog. My father — probably tired of hearing me sing the praises of another man — told me the man had brought the dog back only because he’d known he would get paid. But I never doubted that he was a hero.
I’m at a Central American cafe, finishing my rice and beans, when a boy appears at my elbow, his tiny right hand outstretched, palm up. “Da-lah,” he says. He looks up at me with huge brown eyes and does not smile or frown.
“Don’t give him anything,” my companion, Eva, says. “The drug dealers force them to hit up tourists for money.”
I look at the boy in his dirty green shirt, his eyes like two pools I could tumble into.
“No, no, no!” Eva flaps her hands at him and starts to rise from her chair. He turns and slinks into the street.
“Poor kid,” Eva says.
I look down at my plate. As a child, on trips to New York City with my parents, I learned how to steel myself against panhandlers. My father, who had survived the Great Depression, would tense his body and avert his eyes as he approached someone who was asking for money. It was as if one side of humanity — our side — had concluded that this other side was almost of a different species.
You’d think, after having gotten a job at a church, I would have been kinder to beggars. I worked in a poor downtown area, and struggling people would appear several times a day outside the locked door to the church office. They’d buzz the doorbell until one of the staff members appeared. It seemed the request was always money for a bus ticket to see a sick relative. Fortunately we could direct them to two nearby social-service agencies that would help them.
The one time of year we couldn’t do this was on Christmas Eve, when even the social-service agencies closed early. That afternoon we’d be finishing up the bulletins and checking that we had enough candles for the midnight liturgy when the doorbell would buzz over and over. The specifics now always involved children and toys. I didn’t give cash but wrote checks from the discretionary fund. Although I often questioned the existence of the supposed children, I felt OK about giving people what they wanted this one night of the year.
I have a friend who believes we should drop some coins or bills into every open hand we pass on the street, even if nine times out of ten the money goes to booze, because one time out of ten someone might buy food with it. Once, after this friend and I had lunch, a beggar approached while I was walking to my car. His eyes were glazed and his words slurred, but I gave him a five-dollar bill anyway. Did I do the right thing? Or was I a foolish enabler? How can we avoid a scam and yet be in solidarity with those in need? These questions linger in my mind — alongside the memory of the boy in Central America with his outstretched hand.
The robbers backed out of the store with the money from the till, leaving behind my father’s dead body. My nineteen-year-old brother came home to give me the news while the police questioned our traumatized mother.
With my father’s murder our family lost its center. My mother and brother turned silent and stoic. There was a trial, which I heard little about, and the three robbers, all in their early twenties, received life sentences. My mother never considered counseling. Instead we each struggled in our own way: My brother got caught up in alcohol and gambling. I succumbed to drugs, eating disorders, and a succession of bad boyfriends. Our mother worked a lot, trying to hold us together financially, at least. And we did all manage to continue on — until my brother committed suicide.
The men who killed my father were eventually released from prison, and all three ended up back behind bars. Fifty-one years later I continue to be astonished that so many lives were irreparably damaged, so many people imprisoned in one way or another, over two hundred dollars in cash.
“They’re all advanced students,” the art teacher told me. “And they’re seniors. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”
I arrived thirty minutes early. The old building was off campus, and the inside was dirty and littered with papers, pop cans, and fast-food bags. The waiting room was empty, its walls covered with stained and yellowed wallpaper. I sat down.
The teacher stepped in at 9 AM, the time the class was supposed to start. He said they were ready for me, and I could change in the restroom.
By the light of a single hanging bulb, I got undressed and put on the robe I’d brought from home. Then I went to the big classroom at the end of the hall.
The space was full, and the students at their easels were all male. I trembled as I made my way through the crowd. As the teacher gave me a hand up onto the foot-high platform, he touched my shoulder and whispered, “Just stand still to begin with. I’ll tell you what to do.”
I did not faint. I did not run out of the room. I was four months pregnant and married to an abusive alcoholic. My husband’s GI Bill check paid the rent, but he insisted I work to cover everything else.
I took off my robe and dropped it to the floor, feeling thirty pairs of eyes looking at my naked, pregnant body.
“Sixty-second pose,” the teacher called out. He began giving instructions to the students and also telling me when to change poses. I moved like a robot: the tin woman. Sixty seconds felt like an hour. I remember the teacher lifting my arm at one point and positioning me as if I were a spear thrower. I was twenty-one. I was afraid. I was ashamed. But I needed money, and this was under-the-table cash: no deductions.
I blushed when the teacher handed me a ten-dollar bill at the end of class. I hoped he would ask me back, so I could buy chicken and some apples and maybe pay the electric bill.
He did, and I got better at posing, braver. At first I was a round, big-breasted fertility goddess, and later I was a thin, angular woman with white stretch marks on her hips. My naked body supported my son and me and my abusive husband for the remaining five years of that marriage.
I am now almost seventy. My body is slender but loose-skinned and dotted with cellulite, my belly divided by a scar. I wonder: Are there any drawings of me left out there from all the hundreds made in those classes? Did someone keep me young?
When I was eleven, I took a babysitting class to learn the basics, such as first aid and how to change a diaper. I also learned how to market myself by distributing flyers to all the parents I could find.
I charged $1.75 an hour and was soon making a substantial amount of money. (This was the 1980s.) When my piggy bank became full, I needed another place to keep my savings. Rather than help me open a bank account, my father advised me to create an “envelope account” in one of his filing cabinets. “For easy access,” he said.
My father had a happy-go-lucky attitude about finances. He worked in real estate and, according to him, was always about to close the Big Deal that would allow us to own jet skis and shop at high-end clothing stores. He didn’t understand that a family needed a steady income and that the bills had to be paid first. He also showed no remorse at taking my money from the envelope in the filing cabinet whenever his own cash was low and he wanted to have drinks with his buddies after work.
To this day my father owes me — and just about everyone else he knows — money, but I am long past expecting to see it. He was diagnosed this summer with vascular dementia. Most days he doesn’t even remember that he has three children, let alone how much money he “borrowed” all those years ago. Of one thing I am certain: when I have children of my own, they will learn from a young age how to manage and protect their money.
In the 1970s my boyfriend made his living playing the violin on the street in Los Angeles. He brought in enough dollar bills and quarters to support himself in a bare-bones way. He also had a gig at a swanky restaurant in Pasadena where opera singers sang to the diners. My boyfriend’s job was to perch on a high wall outside the restaurant and play for the well-dressed couples strolling in the door. “Oh, look, it’s the fiddler on the roof!” they’d exclaim and then leave a dollar or two in the violin case on the sidewalk.
One night a man exited the restaurant by himself and stood listening to the music coming from above. He stayed there for a long time, through one piece after another. Finally the man dropped some money in the case and walked to his car. At the end of the evening my boyfriend climbed down to gather up his tips and found a hundred-dollar bill.
The next day we picked out an engagement ring. It cost exactly one hundred dollars.
When my dad died a year ago, I flew to Delaware to be with my mom. I was so distraught, I could barely speak the words “My dad died.” Not to my boss, who would fire me a few months later for being a terrible employee. Not to the flight attendant who asked if I was OK. Not even initially to my husband.
I don’t know how people plan funerals. My parents had always said they’d rather have a “celebration of a life,” but my father’s death from a heart attack had been completely unexpected. No one was prepared to celebrate. I had talked to him just two days prior.
Trying to be helpful, my husband started going through my parents’ bank statements, figuring out which automatic payments we should postpone. Meanwhile I canceled Dad’s credit cards. A couple of days later my mom realized that she had extremely limited access to the money in Dad’s accounts. She didn’t need a lot, but she wanted to buy groceries. Then she remembered.
She opened the freezer door and grabbed a plastic bag marked “liver.” Inside, wrapped in butcher paper, was a thick pile of bills.
“Your dad always thought it was a good idea to keep some cash on hand,” she said. “For emergencies.”
Kelsey Dilts McGregor
Trudy wore a coat in the middle of summer and always had on the same clothes. She was in her fifties, short and slight. Every day I’d see her pace up and down the avenue, hands stuck in her pockets, eyes trained on the sidewalk.
I had a luncheon place, and sometimes Trudy would take a break from walking and stop in for a bowl of soup and a glass of water, leaving three dollars at the register to pay. She didn’t talk much and occasionally leaned her head in her hand as she ate, as though it was a chore to sit upright.
One time Trudy sat staring straight ahead, not eating the soup I had brought her. I asked if there was a problem.
“Too hot,” she said.
“You mean too spicy?” I asked.
“Yeah.” She wouldn’t make eye contact with me.
“Do you want to try our other soup?”
It was the longest conversation we ever had.
Trudy wrote a check for her soup one day, then wrote another the next. Our collection service later told me both checks had bounced. I asked them to leave Trudy alone, though, and they agreed grudgingly; after all, they made their money through the collection process.
I didn’t see Trudy for a while after that. When she finally did come in, she ordered her usual, and I brought it, having decided that I simply wouldn’t charge her. She left while I was busy in the kitchen. On the table I found three dollars and a red rose. I never saw her again.
I was nineteen and back home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the summer after my freshman year of college. I struggled to find a job, because I hadn’t planned ahead, and pretty much all the seasonal positions had been filled. My mother suggested I go to stay with my grandmother in her trailer in Finleyville, just south of the city. Her husband had died a few months earlier, and I’d been unable to attend the funeral. Maybe I could redeem myself by spending the summer with her.
Finleyville is farm country, and the few stores and gas stations in town weren’t hiring, so I mostly sat around my grandmother’s trailer, watching soap operas or playing pinochle with her or just lying in bed in the guest room, staring at the last ten-dollar bill I had to my name.
One Sunday my grandmother asked me to go with her to her Baptist church. I reluctantly put on my good clothes and drove us there. After the fire-and-brimstone sermon, the collection plate came down our row, and I realized that all I had to give was my last ten-dollar bill. I could have just passed the plate on, but instead I dropped the bill in. Maybe God was watching and would reward me for giving Him my entire fortune.
I figured my grandmother would be proud of me, but on the drive home she all but whacked me on the back of the head. “What were you thinking?” she bellowed. “That was your last ten dollars!” She said the church was rich enough without my making myself into a pauper. When I found myself homeless, she told me, all the pastor in his spiffy suit would give me was leftovers in the soup kitchen.
She was right: I’d been a fool for giving away the last of my cash. Now I was broke.
I didn’t learn about karma until I became a Buddhist years later, but I think I got my first taste of it that summer. On the following Tuesday I was hired at a nearby farm to labor in the fields. The work was dirty and tiring, but money was money. I’d never even applied. The farmer had seen me at church and thought I looked like a strong, decent boy. The pastor had told him where to find me.
St. Petersburg, Florida
School’s out for summer, and I am trying to decide what to do for the day — maybe ride my bike or roller-skate or walk to the park — when I hear the steady clip-clop, clip-clop of a horse making his way down the narrow alley behind our house. I rush to our back gate and see a handsomely groomed animal pulling a large wagon loaded with every sort of castoff household item imaginable: furniture, books, knickknacks, clothing. The wagon’s driver is known as the “junk man.” I watch as driver and horse methodically go up one alley and down the next, stopping to dig through each trash can and retrieve potentially worthwhile goods. All the neighborhood kids stop their games of hopscotch or kick-the-can to watch the junk man pass by. Though he is covered head to toe in grime, he sits upright like a fine coachman. Not even the ice-cream cart, driven by a man on a bicycle, causes as much of a stir.
Around noon the neighborhood kids gather at Ernie’s Corner Grocery to get a closer look at the junk man when he stops to buy a bottle of cola and a package of Twinkies for his lunch. Some days he purchases meat and cheese in white butcher paper from the deli counter. At the register he pulls a roll of bills from the pocket of his tattered pants and pays the tab. Then he nods to Ernie and returns to his wagon to continue on his way, but not without first treating his horse to an apple or a carrot.
In the fall a newspaper article reports that the junk man has been found dead in his trailer, which has no indoor plumbing. Having no known relatives, he is to be buried in a pauper’s grave.
The more sensational story comes later: After our junk man’s trailer had been moved to clear the lot, the workmen discovered, buried on the site, boxes filled with cash. Our junk man was a millionaire.
On a flight to Nairobi, Kenya, in 1979 my boyfriend somehow convinced me to hide most of my money in my underwear — “just until we get through customs.” One had to declare all funds carried into and out of the country, and a friend had told him that the best exchange rates would be on the street-corner black market. I wrapped the cash in airline napkins and tucked it away. I was almost disappointed when we walked out of the airport without so much as a glance from a customs official.
Our plan was to explore the city, then board the night train to Mombasa and swim in the Indian Ocean. The small package between my legs conformed to my body so well that I soon forgot it was there.
At midday we stopped at a cafe and sat outdoors under a banyan tree. While my boyfriend ordered two chais and two samosas, I went in search of a ladies’ room. I found a free-standing shack containing a single toilet. There was no light inside once the door was closed, so I had to manage in the dark. When I was done, I found the chain for the tank by feel and flushed. Remembering I had my cigarette lighter, I flicked it on to have a look around. That’s when I saw the bulk of my money twirling around the filthy bowl, disappearing into the sewers of the city.
Two years after my mom passed away, I got a call saying that my ninety-one-year-old father was at the emergency room. An ambulance had brought him to the hospital after he’d passed out at home. I drove there and rushed into the ER. A nurse led me to the room where my dad lay. When I started to ask him what had happened, he whispered for me to come closer. “Check my wallet,” he said, and he nodded toward a table on which his billfold lay. “There should be $636. Count it.”
I quickly counted the cash. Sure enough, there was exactly $636.
I asked my dad whether he’d actually thought the hospital staff would steal from him, and he said maybe the ambulance drivers would: “They don’t make that much money.” When I asked why he carried so much, Dad said, “Just in case I need a plumber or an electrician in the middle of the night.” This was the late 1990s, yet the thought that people might accept payment by check or credit card had not occurred to my dad.
My father passed away in 2001, having made it to the twenty-first century still paying for everything in cash.
My husband’s business had a petty-cash fund for minor office expenditures. No one kept any account of how much was in the fund or asked for receipts to show where the money had been spent. I found out later that this is how it began: my husband would grab some cash to pay for the hotel rooms where he had lunchtime encounters with women.
This probably went on for at least ten years until he had so many women that he began holding out half his monthly paycheck to shower them with flowers, lingerie, lunches, jewelry, furniture, and even a house. When I confronted him about his reduced take-home pay, he told me the company had hit hard times and this was our new reality. I walked away from the conversation feeling as if it were my fault for asking.
As it became more difficult for me to pay the bills, I began to whittle away at our savings. Occasionally I asked my husband how the company was doing. When he grew tired of my asking, he would take money from the company and put it into our checking account.
Toward the end his spending was out of control. He had maxed out several credit cards in the company’s name. He’d written company checks to pay our bills. No one ever suspected. Everyone trusted him.
Then one day his friend and business partner discovered a paper trail to the embezzlement. It took months to uncover the full extent of it. The investigation became so stressful that the other two partners had their lawyers draw up a deal to put an end to it. No charges were filed. No jail time. My husband (now my ex) lost his business and family and friends. He has new friends today. I don’t believe they know how he robbed everyone close to him to pay for sex.
My family never had any cash when I was growing up — unless you could count the coins my siblings and I would find in my father’s chair. They fell out of his pockets while he was drunk.
We may not have had money, but we had our grandfather’s good name.
“Is your grandfather Buddy the cop?” adults would ask me.
When I said yes, they’d tell me about something he’d done for them and how they’d never forget him.
At home we often heard about the bucolic lifestyle Grandpa and his wife and nine kids had enjoyed. They were poor, but they could always throw another potato in the pot to feed one more mouth. (A spud splashing into a pot of water should be on our coat of arms.) If a hobo came to the door, Nana would find some way to send him off with a sandwich or a cookie.
My grandfather picked up pennies on his daily walks and put them in blue laminated cases that had a slot for each year. My siblings and I would examine them every time we visited: “Look, 1902 is filled in! There’s 1936!” It was a proud moment when I found a penny that I could add to the collection.
After my siblings and I had become teenagers, our visits to Nana and Grandpa’s grew less frequent. Some of us became more like our father. Others, like me, strove to uphold the name of that mythological family we’d grown up hearing about.
One day Grandpa called my brother Mike — his namesake — to the basement. Mike had been getting into trouble, and we were sure that Grandpa would straighten him out. He’d done it for strangers who still respected him decades later. Surely he knew the magic words to help our brother.
Mike came upstairs holding a bag, and we all went straight to the car to leave.
“What is it?” the rest of us asked. “What’s in the bag?”
He let us peek. Inside, I saw the penny collection that represented so many hours of searching.
Mike sold it two weeks later to buy cigarettes.
Budd Lake, New Jersey
For my fiftieth birthday my best friends got together and offered to buy me a plane ticket to anywhere in the world. I chose India.
I spent six months there. About three months into my trip, I stayed at a government-run tourist bungalow in Pushkar, Rajasthan. From my window I saw a small shack. Thinking it was a restaurant, I climbed over a high wall and crossed a field of marigolds to get to it. When I reached the open doorway of the thatched hut, two young boys tumbled out and asked who I was and what I was doing in their yard.
Their young mother, Anar, came out next, with her third son in her arms. She and I quickly bonded so much that I spent the night with her and her boys and her husband, Beirut, instead of in my rented room.
Two years later I came back to Pushkar with photos I had taken on the previous trip of Anar and her boys. It was a happy reunion. Anar now had a fourth son as well. I spent a few weeks with them this time, helping cultivate their modest cilantro field. Anar lived on twenty U.S. dollars a month, which she made selling cilantro and cooking for Western tourists. I realized that for the cost of one month’s rent back home — five hundred dollars — Anar could build a house in India. Should I give her the money? I worried her mother-in-law might beat her and take it, or that she would be intimidated into giving it to the older men in her family. But I had come to trust in Anar’s capabilities.
I went to an Indian bank and got five hundred dollars’ worth of rupees — the biggest stack of bills I had ever held. When Anar and I said goodbye at the bus stop on the edge of town, I told her that I wanted to help her build a cement house with a floor and a roof — a place she could call her own. As I began to pull out the bundles of rupees, Anar bent over in tears.
We were able to stuff the bills into her sari. She had a tin trunk with a lock, she said, where she could put the money.
A year and a half later I returned. Anar and I fell into each other’s arms. “I have something to show you,” she said. One of the boys gave me a ride down a sandy path on an old motorbike, with Anar jogging alongside. We turned a corner, and Anar yelled, “There!”
In the clearing was the loveliest one-room cement house I have ever seen.
San Francisco, California
My parents grew up during the Great Depression, and my father had an aversion to borrowing and always lived within his means. By staying out of debt and making conservative investments, he eventually had a net worth of a million dollars, despite not earning more than fifteen thousand a year.
My sister and I never wanted for anything and went to state universities without a single college loan. Whenever we came home to visit as adults, our father would hand us each a few hundred dollars. More cash arrived in cards on birthdays and anniversaries, and at Christmas. He also helped with down payments on our houses and cars. I found these gifts embarrassing; after all, we were both employed, married adults capable of supporting ourselves. But my husband told me I should just accept the money as graciously as I could, since it gave my dad pleasure to give it.
As my dad got older, he became focused on avoiding inheritance taxes and made his estate into a family trust, the details of which he put into two blue binders that he made my sister and me bring with us on every visit, in case they needed to be updated. He also had us practice opening his safe, so that after his death we could remove all the cash from it. I often wished we could talk about something other than money, but nothing else seemed to interest him.
When my mother became ill, my father’s cash gifts increased. At every visit he’d hand us each a stack of hundred-dollar bills as thick as a brick, wrapped in tinfoil. After my mother’s death, Dad became depressed and had a small stroke. He sold the house and went to Virginia to live with my sister, where he spent a happy, peaceful year before dying of another stroke ten days after his ninetieth birthday. Our blue binders made it easy to divide the estate. I saved some of my share, but I also got my kitchen remodeled, went on a vacation, and had my yard landscaped. Now, as I sit on my deck watching the sunlight filter through the trees, I think maybe money can be a kind of love.
Kathleen Kase Burk