I really needed a new coat.
I’d had the same black one for about four years. I don’t like black; I love color and I’m fascinated with combining colors that match well and flatter people, and black doesn’t flatter me at all. But it was a good, warm, serviceable coat my grandmother gave me for a Christmas present, and I wore it until it literally fell apart. In mid-January, in Wal Mart, when we were finishing up our grocery shopping, I tried to zip the coat up, and the zipper fell to bits in my hand.
It was time to go coat shopping, with less than forty bucks available.
I’d just been to the thrift store earlier that week. I used to get all my clothes secondhand, when we were much worse off. Now I buy professional-looking new things for conferences and such when we can squeeze it in and when there’s a sale, but for most things I still go to the thrift shop. I know where to look for everything we need secondhand– clothes, scarves, junk costume jewelry that makes me feel dressed up, stained things I might be able to dye with Rit to make them look new again, boring brown boots that I paint with acrylics to make them look edgy. That’s how I knew there were no cheap used coats in my size at the shop that week, whether they were flattering on me or not, and I’d have to pay more for one somewhere else.
I looked crossly across the store at the coat section, which had ugly neon-colored parkas for about thirty dollars each. Neon colors don’t flatter me either. I’m a Warm Autumn. But I felt nervous about being choosy– there I was spending my EBT card, after all. We are working hard and on the very cusp of not needing it anymore, and I’ll be glad to be rid of it. But we still qualify for a bit of aid and we still struggle to make ends meet this year so far. And when you’re poor and your clothes look too expensive, you get judged as being a spendthrift who ought to be more careful.
Of course, you get judged no matter what. To need any kind of help in America is to be despised. Nobody who needs help passes muster. If you look fashionable and well put together, people assume you spend too much on your appearance. If you look shabby, they blame your poverty on your shabbiness and ask why you can’t respect yourself a little more. If you’re slim they assume you waste your money on health food and if you’re fat they tell you to stop buying ice cream. If you don’t have kids you’re a trashy poor woman on birth control and if you do have kids you ought to keep your legs together to save money. But I especially didn’t want to look like the irresponsible spendthrift kind of poor person. That’s my least favorite set of insults.
One would wish that my fellow Catholics would be the healthy antidote to this, but they’re often the worst of all. For example, there is an incredibly creepy old Catholic professor who makes it his business to tell everyone online what a bad person I am because I am poor and “on the dole.” Sometimes he says “Patheos ‘writers'” with “writers” in scare quotes as if we really dictate into fancy machinery instead of writing it out, and sometimes he says my full name (although he tends to misspell it). But as far as I can tell he’s always alluding to me in his rants, because as far as I know I’m the only writer currently at Patheos Catholic to make a point of writing about how Catholics need to stop poor-shaming, using my own life as an example. I have him blocked on Facebook and Disqus, but well-meaning people send me screengrabs of his rants because they are concerned for me. You can all stop doing that, by the way. I already know.
And I keep writing about poverty, because I want to make people aware that such things happen. I want my fellow Catholics, in particular, to understand that there’s a real human being laboring under all of that dismissal and mockery, a human as valuable to God as they are, and everything they do to them is what they’ll eventually be judged for doing to Christ– may God have mercy on all of us sinners, of whom I am the first. I know very well this will make me a lightning rod, but I keep it up because I think it’s important.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t make me nervous, though. It doesn’t mean I don’t wish I could dress and act in just the right way to win the approval of nasty people– or at least make them be quiet. I would love to be the exact kind of person whom they’d leave alone, even if they saw her pull her EBT card out of her coat pocket.
That’s how I ended up in Wal Mart in January, holding the wreckage of an old coat around my shoulders, broken zipper in hand, staring at ugly neon-colored parkas and feeling obligated to buy one so that I would look ugly in it, in order to appease people I despised.
And I snapped.
I was not going to buy an ugly coat. Since I couldn’t possibly be a good poor person, I would be a bad poor person with a coat I liked that made me look nice.
I held the broken coat around me as I went home. I searched online thrift and consignment stores, and I found a nice camel-colored pea coat that actually suits me, real wool, like new; it was a ritzy expensive brand, but buying it used and combining coupons I got the price down to thirty-five bucks including shipping.
I bought a new-to-me coat that flattered me, and made me look like a spendthrift. I’m happy every time I put it on.
And when I pull my EBT card out of that coat’s pocket, I do it with a flourish.
(image via Pixabay)