Money Isn’t Everything … Unless You Don’t Have It, And Then Yeah, It’s Everything
In February of 2012, a month after I began working for EBONY.com, they asked if I wanted to go to Milwaukee to witness and write on the unveiling of a Black bikers exhibit at the Harley-Davidson museum. Although I had zero interest in motorcycles, I accepted. It was an all expense paid trip to a city I’d never been to and the Black Biker thing seemed kinda cool. Also, and most importantly, this trip would finally cement my position as a “professional writer” — a status I’d be striving for since making the decision to write full time two years earlier. Although this milestone was completely psychological — and although the angst about my status was self-induced — it was necessary for me.
The year before, I’d received my first sustainable writing gig: a head editor position for a magazine project The August Wilson Center for African American Culture (AWC) was attempting to launch. Starting in April, I’d receive a check for $2,700 once a month; which in Pittsburgh was enough for my then girlfriend and I to rent a townhouse together and for me to comfortably upgrade from the 2008 Mercury Mountaineer I’d just finish paying off to a new Dodge Charger. Unfortunately, the AWC began to run out of money that fall. And by November, I’d stopped receiving checks from them. The EBONY gig, however, came serendipitously. A week before I learned I’d no longer get paid by the AWC, I was in New York city doing a photoshoot with Essence Magazine for a feature on “relationship bloggers.” While headed to Essence’s offices in Manhattan, I happened to run right into Jamilah Lemieux on the street (we actually almost literally bumped into each other) who told me A) she’d just been hired by EBONY to help revamp their digital presence, B) she’d literally just left a meeting where VSB was brought for some mysterious honor (which I’d later learn was us being named to that year’s EBONY 100), and C) she wanted me to call her later that night. And it was during that phone call that I was offered a still yet-to-be-determined position at the new EBONY.
The Milwaukee trip was the culmination of this journey; confirmation that I made it, that I’d finally captured that nerve-wrackingly elusive status. That feeling possessed me as I checked into the Iron Horse hotel — easily the bougiest hotel I’d ever been in — and thought about all the writerly trips I’d be taking going forward. And then, when my bank card was declined for not having enough in it to cover the $250 for incidentals, I was struck back to reality. I was caught in a financial deadzone. The money from the AWC dried up, and I’d just received my first $1,400 bi-weekly paycheck from EBONY the day before I left, but didn’t have time to deposit it. My bank account was on E. I knew I had no cash. But I also assumed that since this was an all-expense paid trip, I wouldn’t need any money. So I called a friend back in Pittsburgh, concocted a lie about accidentally leaving my bank card at home, and he let me use his credit card to check in.
I was reminded of that experience two weeks ago, when checking into a Marriott near the University of Maryland, where I was to appear on a panel the next day. There was a mix-up with the travel agency, and my room hadn’t yet been paid for. But instead of the near-disaster and humiliation of 2012, where I didn’t have enough money to participate in some free shit, I handed the clerk my bank card, and said I had no problem covering the room. I knew I’d be reimbursed. But even if I wasn’t, I still didn’t terribly mind. I had it.
It’s always been ironic that VSB has been considered to be a platform that exists without corporate influence. Whether you agreed with what I wrote or what Panama wrote what one of our contributors happened to write, you could always say that the thought behind the piece, at least, existed without a latent financial agenda. Basically, we weren’t sellouts allowing money to dictate our editorial strategy. This has always been, and will continue to be, a lie. Money — both the possession of it and the lack of it — has influenced every VSB-related decision I’ve made since 2010, and will continue to influence my decisions as long as I’m able to make them. While I wasn’t working and writing to please a specific entity, the work I’ve done since making a conscious effort to grow VSB was intended to make us generally and myself specifically more valuable, even if that value was still an abstraction. The muscle I developed allowing me to write 10 to 15 pieces a week was forged out of a fear of irrelevance and the financial purgatory that comes with no one checking for your shit. I wanted to matter. But not just because I believed I have interesting things to say, but that I needed those interesting things to pay my rent.
I know this is not a unique dynamic, particularly among freelance writers. Many of whom allow who’s paying what and when to determine what and when they write. In a cruel irony, the people who are most equipped to freelance are people who don’t actually need to. Who have other sources of income, and aren’t constricted by the immediacy of digital media — allowing them to devote more care to their work — and don’t need to spend a sizable amount of their working hours chasing and stressing over pay.
This relationship with money and its connection to my work was made even more labyrinthic by the intersection of complex relationships between masculinity and money, and Blackness and money, and writers and money permeating through me and converging inside of me. I never wrote extensively about money before 2016 because of the shame attached to not having as much of it as I believed I should. And also not having as much of it as I assumed other people assumed I should. Even as I’d write about the toxicity of socialized masculinity, I’d allowed that same toxicity to prevent me from addressing a topic that impacted my work more than any other, worried that it would make me appear less masculine.
And now, well, I have a lot of fucking money. There’s no other way to put it. I don’t quite have “fuck you” money, but I have enough now where I no longer have to think about it unless I want to. By the end of 2015, I’d already managed to etch out a decent living; my income from various revenue sources comfortably surpassing the $2,800 a month that delighted me in 2012. But the book deal I signed last November changed my life. So much that, in a two year span, I’ve gone from ashamed that I didn’t have as much as I believed I was supposed to to embarrassed that I have so much.
I’ve retained this belief that both writers AND Black people — and Black writers specifically (and Black writers who write about race even more specifically) — retain some sort of authenticity and community through a shared financial struggle that we’re never, ever, ever, ever to speak of aloud, and the psychic acceptance of this new financial status hasn’t been easy. Even now, as I type this, I’m tempted to delete this paragraph and continue pretending even as I recognize that the money I currently have may have saved my life — and the morass of indecision of not having it could have ended it.
As many of you are aware of, I had a serious health scare a couple months ago. Since then, I’ve learned that the scare was due to a vessel condition I’ve actually had for several years, and its treatable. This condition was discovered after going to the ER for some unrelated chest discomfort. As we all know, emergency room treatment is not cheap. And neither are specialists I’ve seen, or the countless MRIs and x-rays and stress tests and blood work I’ve undergone since. But I was able to see all of these people and conduct all of those tests because I now have enough money where I don’t have to worry about how much it cost. But if this same chest discomfort happened, say, in 2012, I weigh the cost of going to the ER against the relatively minor amount of pain I was feeling, and I probably just go home and continue to go untreated.
This is just one of the decisions I’ve made and indecisions created by the presence (or lack thereof) of money. There are many others. Like for instance the lie I told my friend when needing his credit card instead of just admitting why it was necessary, and other lies I may have either implied or outright told to conceal the truth of my financial status. Also, I’m 38 years old, and I’ve never been on a real vacation. I’ve taken trips, sure. But each time, I’ve interrupted them to work. Once even buying the ridiculously overpriced cruise WiFi on my honeymoon to edit a piece I’d already published a week earlier. It’s romantic to categorize that as me having such a work ethic and such a love for my work that it’s impossible for me to go very long without it. But the less romantic reality is that while that love for what I do is genuine, it exists in concert with a desperation, a fear of writing or doing something (or not writing or not doing something) to topple the eternally tenuous Jenga structure of doubt I called a “writing career.”
Of course, things are different now. Much different. And barring some unforeseen calamity, this will be my new normal. Now, I just look forward to the day where it feels normal. I won’t hold my breath for that though. Especially since I’m finally able to breathe.