Broke like me

Broke in Berkeley

At the end of one of my classes last semester, I happened to glance over at the guy sitting next to me. My thoughts were elsewhere, but when my eyes caught sight of his backpack, I couldn’t avert my gaze.

He was pretty well organized, and with a slot set up for his laptop, he obviously had a system going. What attracted my gaze was not his square old HP, however. Inside his well-worn backpack was a white plastic trash bag set up like a liner around his books and folders and his computer. When he had everything stowed, he pulled the red tabs of the bag together and folded it over on top of itself before zipping up his bag.

When he finished, he looked up and caught me staring.

“You have a trash bag in your backpack.”

He was immediately overcome with embarrassment. He ducked a little and looked away from me.

“Oh. Yeah.”

I didn’t let up. I didn’t want him to be embarrassed, but it was suddenly vital to me to make this connection.

“It keeps your stuff dry. It’s because your bag isn’t waterproof. Right?”

Finally, he looked back at me. “Yeah. I’ve been doing it since high school.”

I smiled at him. “I used to do that, too.”

We stared at each other for a long moment. We knew without saying it that we were children of the same house. We looked nothing alike, but he was my brother just the same. I knew that he had a long walk or bike ride ahead of him somewhere on his way home, and that experience had taught him that the rain curled the corners of his textbooks, made the ink smear and run. I knew he had done it since high school because he had always faced these same circumstances and had developed strategies to cope.

I knew he was poor, and I knew he had grown up poor, like me. We understood each other.

After he got up to leave, I put my laptop into my backpack. My trash bag is black, and I ripped the red pull tabs out of it a long time ago. It’s less noticeable that way.

Since that day, I’ve gotten to thinking about the skills and habits of poverty. On a global scale, most of us who grew up in the United States experienced a very privileged form of poverty. I haven’t suffered like the starving children in Darfur or displaced refugees anywhere in the world. The American experience of poverty is not comparable to that; it’s a completely different world. But I did grow up itinerant, often homeless — the very definition of poor in America. I grew up learning and developing the skills to cope with poverty, just like that guy with the trash bag did.

That tiny life hack of a plastic liner in a backpack represents a specific set of skills. I bet that guy also learned to sew when he was very young to repair what could not be replaced. I bet he’s owned more than one pair of sneakers held together with duct tape and shame. I bet we both studied more than a few times by candlelight when the power went out and stayed out for days.

He and I are in the same boat now, although the waters are calmer. For me, coming to UC Berkeley meant access to financial aid, work-study or other jobs and the support of a good school. Although we’re poor college students, some of us feel comparatively rich these days.

The good news is that it’s cool to be poor in college. Most people have to budget when they can go out and when they have to stay in. For those of us with the skills and experiences of poverty, this kind of coping is familiar — even comfortable. We know how to live broke, and this is our time. This column will explore these strategies and skills of poverty.

So what’s it like to be Broke in Berkeley? It’s knowing where all the best deals are and how to get there for free by using your Cal 1 Card every day. It’s sacrificing time and convenience to save money. It’s fixing or repurposing broken furniture and worn-out clothes; it’s bringing dead electronics back to life rather than just throwing these items away. It’s not being ashamed of these habits. It’s finding a way around the cost of textbooks, having well-chosen and supportive roommates and keeping your eyes on the prize.

If you’re Broke in Berkeley, you probably don’t plan to stay that way. We all want our degrees to launch us into a different life — hopefully one where our skills of poverty won’t be needed and our bags will come already waterproofed and we won’t spend much time in the rain. Until then, we have to stay sharp. After all, the skills and secrets of being Broke in Berkeley mean the difference between a dry laptop and a broken one.

Meg Elison writes the Monday column on financial ssues affecting UC Berkeley students. Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].