This week my wife and I finally closed on our first house. We’re now officially homeowners—and some home it is, too! Our zip code boasts the seventh highest per-capita income in the United States. Higher than Palm Beach. Higher than Beverly Hills 90210! Our house has two floors, a 25-foot ceiling in the living room, three bedrooms, a couple of walk-in closets, two and a half bathrooms, central heating and air, a fireplace downstairs and one in the master bedroom, a laundry room, three-car garage, a small front lawn with grass and trees—uncommon here in Vegas—and a 50-foot heated pool in the back with an adjoining hot tub. Not bad at all.
As I shared on social media the morning after the closing, being a homeowner has special meaning for me. I used to be homeless back in Chicago, for a bit. During my junior year of high school, and the first half of senior year, my family stayed at either my grandma’s house in Logan Square, my Titi Maria’s house out by the HIP, or my mom slept in the car while I stayed with friends out in Wheeling where I went to school.
Back then I never even dreamed of living in a house. Maybe I fantasized about it, fleetingly, but I never planned on it. I was going to be a writer, and a Black Latino one at that, so I braced myself for the strong probability that I would never earn the scratch to live higher than some moldy roach-infested apartment above a liquor store.
You can blame my wife for the house we now own. She has the business career and makes business money, and I’m very lucky that she does—no one knows that better than I do. It allows me to do my work freely, without worrying about paying bills or pleasing some editor.
Yet, while I can’t speak for my patrona, I know I’d trade in this great house of ours for a more humble abode if everybody in America were guaranteed a home of their own. I wouldn’t do it gladly—I’m human, after all—but I’d do it anyway. Sure, I want to live in a mansion as much as the next greedy person, but, more than that, I want to live in a society where homelessness is unheard of. It would make living in and owning my own home much more enjoyable if I knew there weren’t thousands of younger me’s out there scrambling for a warm dry place to sleep every night.
I’d give up the hundred-dollar steaks, too—again, not gladly, but I’d do it for the greater good. Because whenever something expensively delicious crosses my lips, I think of the friends and family members who don’t get to eat anywhere near as good as I do or as often, and that ruins the taste for me. Then I think of the people all around the world, the kids especially, dying of hunger, who can’t even imagine what this loaded baked potato smells like, or the roasted artichoke hearts, or the lobster mac & cheese, most of which will end up in the dumpster behind the restaurant. There are people who might kill just to lick the glaze off my plate. And thinking of all that gives me indigestion, and makes me hate the whole meal, the restaurant, and myself.
I feel trapped between what America wants me to be, what I can be, and what I know is good and right. I wear Gucci shades, Gucci flip-flops and a Bulova watch because I’ve been trained to value those things, and because, for most people, such things are signs of success. And because American culture has everybody wanting to seem successful, and I’m an American born and raised, I want to seem successful too.
Now, a rich person will tell you that they’re not trying to seem successful, they are successful. They say it and believe it because they’re rich. The terms rich and successful are redundant in American culture. If you’re rich, then you’re automatically successful, and don’t even think of calling yourself successful if you aren’t rich. No one calls the lady behind on her bills who runs the battered women’s shelter a success. Or the brilliant artist about to be evicted. Or the teacher about to get her car repo’d. But the billionaire who’s hated by his wife and kids and is sexually assaulting every pretty young thing that crosses his path—what a success story! They might even put him in the White House, or at least the House of Represenatives.
“You know you’re boujee now, right?” my brother told me during his last visit. He saw how bothered I got. “But it’s OK,” he said. “You deserve it, after what we’ve been through.”
Deserve is another funny word. What does anyone deserve? Why do I deserve this house and these expensive things, while other people don’t?
A lot of people, in my generation and younger at least, seem to think they deserve to be rich and famous, live in a mansion, drive a Bugatti, and fly around the world on a private jet. American culture trains us to believe we deserve these things, or that we should at least strive to acquire them. If you’re not greedy, you won’t fit in here. If you’re not rich or famous, you’re nobody. What an ugly philosophy.
Most people resent a lottery system that rewards people who not only work very hard but get extremely lucky—especially when a few people are lucky enough to be born on the right track and don’t have to work so much. But as soon as anyone actually wins the lottery, figuratively speaking, then they absolutely adore the lottery and will attack anyone who criticizes it. Those people are just “haters,” “jealous,” “lazy,” “stupid,” they’ll say.
As I’ve already hinted at, we are not living in a meritocracy. Don’t believe the financial gurus on social media who get their jollies by shaming people for their own lack of wealth. Our system does not always reward talent and hard work, not even regularly. If it did, the fruit pickers hunched over in the fields would be millionaires and the government might actually govern.
“It’s all about who you know” is what you hear in almost every industry or career path, meaning your success is determined by your access to certain people and places, which itself is largely determined by your class, the people and places you were born into. If you were born rich, chances are you’ll die between 100-thread-count sheets of Egyptian cotton. But born poor, you better pray you’re entertaining or handy with a ball.
I won the American lottery purely by accident. I wasn’t even playing. I only fell in love with someone who happened to be gunning hard for the lottery and got lucky, at least in part. And now I live in this expensive house and have expensive things.
But what about the people who are smarter than me or work harder—who are more deserving? What about the veteran who comes home from war just to sleep in a flimsy tent under a bridge? What about the kid who’s going to try to fall asleep tonight on an empty stomach? Do we just throw up our hands and say Oh well, that’s how the system works?
What an ugly system, too.