twenty dollars to live

Posted by on May 30, 2012

How Things Work

by Gary Soto

Today it’s going to cost us twenty dollars
To live. Five for a softball. Four for a book,
A handful of ones for coffee and two sweet rolls,
Bus fare, rosin for your mother’s violin.
We’re completing our task. The tip I left
For the waitress filters down
Like rain, wetting the new roots of a child
Perhaps, a belligerent cat that won’t let go
Of a balled sock until there’s chicken to eat.
As far as I can tell, daughter, it works like this:
You buy bread from a grocery, a bag of apples
From a fruit stand, and what coins
Are passed on helps others buy pencils, glue,
Tickets to a movie in which laughter
Is thrown into their faces.
If we buy a goldfish, someone tries on a hat.
If we buy crayons, someone walks home with a broom.
A tip, a small purchase here and there,
And things just keep going. I guess.

* * *

Since signing papers for a house in St. Louis, we suddenly have a to-do list which might fit nicely on a hyperbolic cartoon scroll–the kind that would cascade all the way down to the ankles. The majority of items on this to-do list involve some sort of cost: a house inspection, home owners insurance, a washer and dryer, and so forth. I had no idea how many things were involved in buying a house, but I am told that no one really does until they actually go through the experience. We definitely could not be doing this without help from family, and from what I understand, this is also pretty typical for “first time home buyers,” which leads me to contemplate wonderingly upon the subject of inter-generational stability and socio-economic status. How easy it would be for a little family like ours to be dragged under if we were adrift in the world without any support. Sometimes the support is financial, to be sure, but other times it comes in the form of things like babysitting, as when Jeff’s parents came and watched our girls so that we could make a trip out to St. Louis to look for a house. All of the pieces seem to be clicking into place, and for that I am really grateful, but I am very much aware of how delicate the entire process feels, and how it demands that we marshal every last resource that is ours to call upon.

There are moments when, as an adult–or maybe as a child living inside an adult body–I am struck by a bolt out of the blue with the reality of how fragile we are as a human beings, and how the most ordinary endeavors of adulthood turn out to be far more strenuous than I ever imagined. Giving birth–that most common of all human endeavors, considering that we all arrived here this way– was my first passage into this lightening bolt realization of my own fragility, and now buying a house is becoming yet another passage into my personal acquaintance with the perils of ordinary life. Everything costs so much money. How easy it would be for our little family, or any little family for that matter, to get dragged beneath a riptide of living costs and become disenfranchised. And once disenfranchised, how does anyone pull themselves up out of that cycle?

This poem expresses well my own inherently limited concept of all things related to finances and the economy.Yesterday I made a spontaneous decision to take the girls, plus a little girl from Esme’s school, to the National Zoo at the end of the school day. It was a very hot day, and Jeff would be staying later than usual at the library, and I was tired, so I just simply wanted something that would make the afternoon melt away. The zoo in DC is part of the Smithsonian, so admission is free. The problem for us is that it is not terribly convenient to get there. So although the zoo is fantastic, we really have not taken advantage of it very many times. Public transportation is an option, but not exactly an easy one, as there is a substantial walk to and from the metro stops on both ends. As stated, I was not in that kind of mood. So I drove and parked, ready to swallow the $16 charge for three hours of parking at the zoo. I also knew that a successful afternoon at the zoo on a very hot day would involve buying ice cream, which would be three dollars times three. The afternoon was actually wonderful. The girls ran through the zoo ecstatically and had a blast. They played for a long time under the misters positioned mercifully along the winding walkway through the zoo until their clothes were soaking wet. That alone was worth the price of admission– I mean parking.

I’m not sure how you put a price on any of life experiences. Sometimes you pay a lot to be entertained and it feels forced and disappointing. Other times something completely free becomes a treasured memory. Sometimes extravagant experiences, like dinners with lots of good food and wine, are thrown freely into your lap, while other times you pay through the nose for a tiny bottle of water. Sometimes, I am willing to endure whatever a day of being a mother to two small children throws at me, without opting out at any cost. Other days I am happy to drop $25 just for an afternoon with my kids to pass by quickly and painlessly.

So here’s the story of buying ice cream at the zoo. When it came time to buy ice cream at the zoo, I went up to a vendor and he said that unfortunately he was closing down because business had been so slow. He pointed me to a vending machine where I deposited three dollars three times to get an ice cream sandwich for three girls. Later, as we were walking toward the parking lot, a vendor came up to me with three ice cream sandwiches in his hand saying, “Do you want these? They’re free. There’s nothing wrong with them, I just need to get rid of them because I’m closing down.” I guess that’s just how things work.

  1. Kate
    May 30, 2012

    I like this poem. It's funny, since coming abroad, I've become a lot more willing to sacrifice money for convenience. Or maybe it's having a toddler and no car to transport groceries that keeps me from getting to the other, farther, inexpensive supermarket instead of the one nearby that charges tourist prices. Just give me my overpriced bananas and make it snappy, thanks.

    I'm so glad to hear you found a house, and I hope you're happy with it. May the Craigslist gods be kind to you in your search for appliances. I am going to try to get my post up tonight but A. is typing away at something, so it may be deferred until tomorrow.

  2. A M B E R
    May 30, 2012

    I recall well sitting in the lawyers office with what seemed like reams and reams of paper documents, signing my name or initials over and over. It was dreamlike, with my round pregnant belly out in front of me, and the high-heeled legal assistants bringing coffee and more documents. I remember thinking "all I really care about is what color we paint the walls."

    And yet, when it is all over, you have passed yet another hurdle into real adulthood.

    I love this post, Julia. As usual, you capture the moments of your life so well and beautifully!

  3. May
    May 30, 2012

    Yes, I've been thinking about this as we (hopefully) prepare to buy our first home. It feels so out of reach! And, as parents in our thirties, how humbling to realize that it will remain firmly out of reach unless we reach out to those who love us, who have generously offered to help.