Money Changes Everything

The Night My Mom Brought Us a Fake Pizza

My mom had just brought us a fake pizza. Not a knock-off frozen pizza from the supermarket. Not pizza rolls or school cafeteria pizza. This was some paper thin and crunchy cracker-like substance. It was misshapen and covered in a red sauce that was bitter and metallic like it came straight out of a Delmonte can. And patches of dry, waxy cheddar cheese were unevenly scattered over it.

About three hours earlier, my sister and I had complained about being hungry. It was 8:30 at night. Earlier each of us had rummaged through the kitchen to find something to eat. She had opened an old can of soup, and I had a sandwich with a single slice of Oscar Mayer bologna. But a couple of hours later, we were still hungry. So we bothered our mom.

In one sense, we were a 10 year-old and a 13 year-old who were just pestering their mother. In another, we recognized something wasn’t right. Though we knew no different, we did know we weren’t the families we saw on TV. We never had enough food in the house. Meal time was always a conversation--not of what to make, but what to buy. It’s almost as if she hoped one day we’d forget to ask, and she’d save five bucks. So our tone had healthy dashes of “Seriously??” mixed into it.

We’d seen at least two commercials for pizza as we watched TV past mom’s prone body on the sofa bed. And that’s what we wanted.

“Do you have money for pizza?” she asked us. My sister and I exchanged a quick look. We treated conversations about money with our mom like the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” I don’t rat out my sister’s stash, and she doesn’t rat out mine.

Whenever we got money from our grandparents for birthdays or Christmas, we hoarded it away. Occasionally my sister bought clothes or makeup. I bought comic books and very rarely a G.I. Joe figure. More often, we tucked it away because we knew there would be a time mom would go out of town and leave us with nothing to eat.

Throughout my childhood, mom had on again off again boyfriends. Some lived locally, others lived a good distance away, like upstate New York or Long Island. Either way, she took every opportunity to spend the weekend away from us, most times leaving straight from work on Friday and returning home after work on Monday. When she did, she typically left us a $5 for food for the weekend. Sometimes she’d call and say she left money when she hadn’t. Who were we going to complain to after all?

Our secret stash of birthday and Christmas money came in useful. But we were always frugal. Stretching five bucks to feed two people for three days? We would buy dry pasta and make big batches of sauce to eat all weekend. Or we’d get instant pancake mix one weekend, and cheap family packs of store brand hot dogs the next. It wasn’t glamorous, but we got used to eating the same thing five or six times in a row. The only respite was having Sunday dinner with our grandparents.

Our secret stashes were important. And the secrecy was of top importance. We were really careful to hide our money.

A little background. Money disappeared in our house. My sister had a purse. And I had a wallet. But it would have been extremely foolish of us to keep our meager cash holdings there.

Since our mom worked nights, she had all day while we were at school to rifle through our drawers and our pockets looking for loot. And when she found some, it was a miserable experience. My trusty spot was a giant hole in the carpet in the room I shared with my sister. It was a worn spot about two feet across in the center of the room, but perfect for sliding a couple of $20 bills deep enough that no one would notice them. One day, my stash was gone.

I watched TV shows showing the ways drug addicts behaved to get money, and it was always dramatic or tragic. Selling their bodies or pimping their kids. It wasn’t until I watched “The Wire” and saw the wacky and absurd ways Bubbles tried to get money — stolen copper scraps, makeshift counterfeit bills — and I finally said, “Wow… that’s my mom.”

Sis and I agreed to give mom money for our pizza. She demanded ten dollars each. Twenty dollars. For pizza. In 1985. Right.

I never saw my mom get dressed so fast. My sister and I waited in a sort of cautioned anticipation. We were going to eat. Weren’t we?

Three hours passed, and mom was nowhere to be seen. We talked like kids do when they’re mad. We knew this would happen. She’s off sniffing coke. She’s the worst mother ever. I hate her. When I move out, she’s never going to see me again.

Then mom arrived. She came in with a pizza box and laid it on the loveseat. We both thanked her, half-ecstatic and half-amazed at the scene before us. There wasn’t that hypnotic pizza smell filling the room and the box was cold, but our stomachs didn’t care. We popped the lid of the box, and there it was. A room temperature, giant, ill-shaped cracker covered in acrid sauce and a layer of waxy cheddar cheese.

Before I wrote this, I sent my sister an email retelling the story of this night to make sure I hadn’t imagined it. To this day, I have so many questions. Where did this thing come from? It was obvious she took our money to buy drugs, but that doesn’t explain the pizza. Who has the ingenuity to make a fake pizza? Who lacks enough of a moral compass to steal from her kids, but so strong a desire to save face that she creates a makeshift pizza from random products in the cupboard? And where did she get the box? Did she rifle through someone’s trash? Are we touching garbage box.

My sister’s reply to my email?

“Yep, bro. You remember it right. That really happened.”

Very little in my life has been driven by money. I have always had middle class jobs. I’ve lived in middle class apartments. I’ve never even owned a car -- much less flashed something ending in “coupe” or “GT” with shiny chrome rims. At the same time, money has played a central role in shaping my adult life. It was a constant white noise radiating in the background of my childhood. And it was a major impetus, a push or a pull in all of my important relationships.

When I was a kid, I associated money with two major feelings. Hunger and shame. When I was very small, as with most kids, I didn’t really register how my family was doing financially. My dad drove local delivery trucks, and my mom was first a crossing guard and later a receptionist. So before my parents divorced, it’s probably safe to say that my parents weren’t even middle class. But still, even with two kids, we always had food. There were presents on Christmas and on birthdays. At the same time, I don’t recall ever eating at a restaurant that wasn’t McDonald’s, flying on a plane, or taking trips that didn’t involve driving. Yet I was perfectly happy.

A year after divorcing my dad, my mom married a police officer. And she moved up from a receptionist to an executive secretary. And as I got older, I started to understand money a little more. We moved to a really nice apartment, and the cop bought brand new living room furniture. Then he got a cool projection TV for their bedroom, and it got “Home Box Office,” so we could watch movies any time we wanted. He and my mom each had their own cars.

Their marriage lasted two years. And those two years, first and second grade, were my only experience with middle class until I was out on my own. The state of our finances after the divorce was the simple math of:

1) A single mother earning modest wages supporting two kids

2) A troubled dad who never paid a cent of child support

3) A mom who decided that there’s no real difference between poor and dirt poor, so let’s spend 40% of household income on drugs

As a kid I didn’t know any of this. I just knew that things had changed. We moved from the three bedroom apartment to a one bedroom in the basement of the same building. My sister and I shared a room, and mom slept on a sofa bed in the living room. Christmas was much smaller -- my sister and I usually got one present a piece for a few years, and when we got a little older, there were no presents. Every so often, the phone would get cut off.

At some point my mom burned the bridge with the phone company so badly that we went without a phone for about two years. During that time, my mom also burned a bridge with our landlord who stopped accepting promises to pay off months of unpaid rent. So we moved across town to a ratty apartment above a carpet store. Mom managed to fool the phone company with a fake name, so we had a phone for a little over a year — until my sister graduated high school and bored and jobless rang up $300 on teen chat lines. The phone was turned off again.

Some people don’t really understand the concept of having no money. They think that simply means you can pay your bills and your rent, you can buy food, but that’s it — no movies or toys or new clothes. It’s not like that at all.

In my case, our family having no money meant you buy enough food to live day to day, and everything else was negotiable. Everything. Mom haggled with our landlords, giving anywhere from 0-50% of the rent certain months with a promise to catch up next month. She picked which bills to pay in reverse order of importance. Lights always got paid, everything else got stretched to the limit of being cut off, and then she paid something. We ran into danger when her habit crossed the line and affected food.

My sister and I were fine (confused but fine) because these things rarely affected us directly. We had the shame of getting pulled from class and taken to the principal’s office because tuition hadn’t been paid. We’d get ambushed by the landlord, who had no problem asking a nine year-old and an eleven year-old to relay the message that we were getting kicked out.

My favorite landlord experience came when I graduated college and got my own apartment. Mom hadn’t spoken to me for a month because, without any conversation on the matter, she assumed that I — with my magical entry level salary — was going to transport her from the ratty apartment above the carpet store to a beautiful new apartment. When that didn’t happen, and I found my own place, she didn’t take it well.

I stopped at the carpet store below to drop off keys. Frankie and Hester, the elderly couple who owned the store, greeted me with horror.“What do you mean you’re moving out?” Frankie asked. I explained that I had found my own apartment across town.

“Well, what about your mother?” Hester chimed in. Frankie pulled me to the desk where Hester produced a ledger. It showed dollar amounts by month that my mother owed for rent. She was nine months behind for close to $3,000.

He was shocked at what I was doing. You know, a kid graduating college and moving out to live on his own. Madness.

“How can you leave her like this?” he asked me. I explained that I wasn’t responsible for her rent. I was barely there three months out of the year.

“But the only reason she’s behind is because she paid for you to go to school!” Frankie shot back.

And there it was.

I could explain to him that my mom hadn’t paid tuition for a single school since Reagan’s first term.

I could explain how the vice principal pulled me aside the day before high school graduation and told me I couldn’t walk because we owed $2,000. Grandpa paid that one.

I could explain how the same high school wouldn’t let me register for my Junior year because we owed $1,500. My uncle paid that one.

I could explain how my sister’s high school told her not to come back because we owed so much tuition. My sister refused to talk to my mom about it. For weeks she got dressed in her uniform and pretended to go to school.

I could explain to them that I was nearly kicked out of school my freshman year of college because I mistakenly thought my tuition was being paid. I could explain that I paid my own way and somehow still had to pitch in for rent during the three months a year I was home.

Or I could tell them where their rent money really went. But despite the display of moral indignation, all they really cared about was the money. So I wrote them a check for $500. It was the last money I had in my account after paying my first month’s rent and security deposit. I handed Hester the check, crying a little out of frustration. I told them simply that my mother had never paid a cent of my college tuition. Frankie took the check and shook his head at his wife. “I just don’t understand,” he said. “What kind of a son does that?”

I’m honestly not sure. The question was pretty funny coming from Frankie and Hester — two hardworking people well past 70 who owned a business together, selling and installing carpets. They had two sons. One was an addict who routinely sold the furniture his parents bought him for drug money, had it replaced by his parents, then sold that, too. Little Frankie lived in the apartment next to us, and once in awhile I would see him walking on the fire escape and looking into our window for something to steal. It seemed ridiculous considering how we lived, but this was coming from a man who had only a mattress and a drinking glass in his apartment. At some point, he even stripped up the carpeting his parents had installed for him and sold that. One night when I was fifteen, I remember helping him and an emaciated girl he hung with carry his kitchen table down the stairs. He’d knocked on our door, and I found the circular table wedged between the walls in the landing halfway down the flight. Not sure how much crack, crank or meth he got for it, but once he was gone, I watched “Twin Peaks” in peace.

Frankie and Hester’s other son was much more boring. He was more of the Biff Loman of the two. He got money from his parents to open a liquor store next to his parents’ carpet store. It went bust, and he, let’s say, started to get high on his own supply. The store closed within 10 months.

So, no, I didn’t put much weight into Frankie’s and Hester’s evaluation of my value as a son. But I often wondered what kind of person I was. I still do. A lot of my behavior once I reached my early teens was indicative of a child who had no respect for his parents. And you could debate for days whether or not that was justified. But on the grand scale any perceived effects of that lack of respect was minimal to her. Did I treat her like a mother? Probably not. But I went to school, got good grades, never got into trouble, stayed home for the most part, and never asked for money for anything other than food. I wasn’t even into clothes, so generally I got by on anything I wore until it fell apart. Problem was I just didn’t like her. And I understand how that would be hard for a good parent to accept -- a good kid who doesn’t like me. But for a bad parent?

A bad parent should consider herself lucky. By Vegas terms, my mom was down to her very last chips, caught a card on the River and broke even for the night.