In my best days, I didn’t have to look at the price of groceries, a bus ticket was cheap and I could bust my budget for clothes completely guilt-free. Travelling was reachable and the price of a cover wouldn’t decide whether I’d go out or not. Work was not mandatory. Fun was free.
Most of it occurred in an Ottawa suburb, as I was attending a top-rated private school. I didn’t grow up in the Glebe, the West Island, Yorkville or Shaughnessy. Nor in Upper East Side, British Chelsea or a Californian producer’s house. As a product of my generation, my destiny changed when my parents divorced: I slid from rich to upper middle class. But I grew up without worrying about money, and I now call that “rich”.
In my worst days, my chest hurt on the night before rent. Credit hung over me like a sword of Damocles. My heart skipped a beat as I paid for electricity. Love was the least of my worries. I hoped I’d never need medication and vacations were never stress-free.
Those days started with acting, in my tiny Montreal studio, its Parisian equivalent or Toronto’s Portuguese ghetto. My brother would always remind me of how I had chosen poverty. Though it infuriated me, it was partly true. “Partly” because to me, poverty was a side effect to falling in love with acting, and I was a romantic who’d never believed we chose whom – or what – we loved.
Look at it this way: it was like taking a pill to get better, then starting to feel the side effects. The last thing you wanted to hear in the midst of a stomach ache was: “I told you so.” But as a director friend once told me, I was a “tourist of poverty”: just visiting. Many people were much poorer and stuck. But it didn’t mean that my situation wasn’t difficult, and that I wasn’t going to learn a few things along the way:
1. Rich people have real problems. American Beauty is not just fiction. Growing up rich, I encountered family dramas our neighbours never suspected. Rumours made me realize we weren’t the only ones: our hood was filled with addiction, depression and (mental) illness, like any other place on earth. Rich people only had thicker walls.
2. Rich people are generous. Though the opposite is widely believed, my experience taught me something different. True, I wasn’t raised on Wall Street, but I was given so much by rich people, from food to couches to advice to opportunities. Like anybody else, rich people came to need more than material enjoyment: they wanted a purpose.
3. Rich people see poor people as alien dwarfs. If rich people were generous, what explained the right-wing voting spree? Many rich people viewed poor people as completely exterior to them, and ignorance was the perfect ground for growing prejudice. Poor people became lazy bums who exploited the system and didn’t want to work (though everyone needs to feel useful). They wanted to steal (though everyone has some dignity). Apart from… poor people they knew. Then it changed everything, because rich people suddenly understood the history and the struggles. They became generous.
4. Rich people forget. When I asked a friend of mine how his parent’s lives were changed by the fact that they once were boat people, his answer was honest: “people forget.” His parents were now rich and somehow, their daily lives weren’t haunted by their traumatic past. I understood that rich people forgot. Until they ran into poor people. As a general rule, rich people who were once poor had the potential to be more generous.
5. Rich people believe in democracy (but shouldn’t). Democracy is great when it’s not fake. A quick look into the voting system’s financial structures reveals that political parties owe to rich people who “donate” money, for certain ideas to invade the media. The result? Politics favouring the rich. When people blame the 99%, one can only wonder if a poor person’s vote still counts, and if the parties representing the poor will ever get the required exposure.
6. Rich people don’t believe in luck (but should). Not all poor people believe in luck, but most of them know how big a part it plays in becoming rich, simply because they’re constantly confronted to people with more opportunities (background, studies, liquidity to invest…). Rich people might feel threatened by luck because it makes them feel undeserving. But God has a plan so why not embrace it. Rich people who believe in pure meritocracy should read about the 2008 crisis and stop guilt-tripping the poor, which is just uncultured, unrealistic and useless.
7. You can hide it perfectly. Whether you like it or not, wearing a suit or having sangria on a patio will make anybody forget you’re living on your credit card. Including your friends.
8. Being poor is the best way not to be horny. Two words: anxiety, exhaustion.
9. Landlords are the worst. Though I had the best landlord in Toronto and a few decent ones in Montreal, I’ve also seen the ugly side of rich. It’s a landlord who doesn’t know what it’s like to doubt you’ll have a roof over your head. It’s someone who doesn’t know what life is in his own building. And it’s out there.
10. Poor people need Lindsay Lohan and other celebrity train wrecks. They need to know that like them, rich people struggle. Healthy or not, it’s the only way they can feel compassion for them, or find a bit of self-esteem back.
11. It’s more tiring not to work. I’ve tried both working and not working. A 9-to-5 routine allows you to eat and sleep the same everyday, without surprises or stress over survival. It exhausts you mentally, but not physically. It’s a Club Med without the fun. On the other hand, not working means countless hours not being able to relax at home, haunted by budgets and deadlines.
12. It’s harder to be hot when you’re poor. If you need a visit to the dentist or anything different from a haircut you can get at a bike shop, you’ll need loads of money and want to break the cardboard Justin Bieber at Shoppers Drug Mart.
13. Being fat can help you dealing with poverty. That is the bright side to cheap junk food. Because good luck finding any pants on sale if you’re the medium size of everything.
14. You will do anything to survive. Though I’ve never sold drugs or my body, it has crossed my mind. Seriously, you don’t know how far you’d go if you really needed to eat. Never judge an actor who once jerked off in front of a webcam, unless he didn’t need to.
15. Poor people are not all dumb and uneducated. In my building, I met students who refused parental help, genius programmers with mental illness, divorced or unemployed baby-boomers, immigrant families… In a Niagara Falls’ Tim Hortons at 4am, I once met a single mother who taught me about French politics as she was wiping the floor.
16. Education is not the only way out. Some rich friends of mine didn’t finish their bachelor’s degree. They made it with their skills (I recommend computer science), perseverance, connections, etc. Go to school but don’t expect a golden spoon along with your diploma.
17. Some cities are poor-friendlier. While rich cities might offer more opportunities in terms of social mobility, poorer cities might offer cheaper rent, food, transportation, covers, etc. It’s all about quality of life, what’s important to you and what you get for your income. Some cities make you feel like there’s no place for the poor while others have artistic neighbourhood that don’t trust people with money.
18. It’s better to be poor in America if you’re healthy, but in Canada if you’re sick. So I’ve heard. American healthcare sounds like a nightmare, but finding affordable food (ask Nunavut), phone services or Internet connections in Canada is not a piece of cake. Additional charges randomly appear without logical reasons.
19. Being poor in a rich family is very American. Or North American. In more traditional cultures including some European ones, it’s less frequent to see parents lend money to their kids. They will likely give them money, but also less freedom. Rich kids will then be granted more responsibilities and expected to fulfill their parents’ and family’s needs.
20. Poverty is culture. I tend to feel closer to a New York artist than to a Montreal business man. Culture doesn’t only depend on where you’re from.
21. Some people are better at being poor. I’m not one of them. It has nothing to do with growing up rich or poor, and everything to do with how you were raised. If you learned how to cook and budget as a deal-aware teenager, you will suffer less.
22. Immigrants see it differently. Living two years in another city, completely legally as it was in my own country, I still struggled on a cultural level. I can only imagine how hard it’d be to move to another country where the language and papers are different. Immigrants work hard without always expecting “fair” results. They sometimes pass on this mentality to their children. Unlike privileged kids, they don’t take as many things for granted, not even when it comes to justice.
23. It is impossible to explain poverty. When people told me actors were poor, I still chose acting. Because I looked at it rationally: I could manage to count money. But could I manage uncertainty about my ability to pay rent? Could I manage the stress, the exhaustion and their real harm to my body? Poverty was technical, but mostly an emotional ride. Which meant the only way to understand it was to live it, like it’s often the case in life.
24. Debt is like dirty water. Yes, we all know it’s wrong and potentially harmful. But would you tell a thirsty traveler not to drink water in the desert, just because it’s dirty? It’s there, and urgently needed. What else should he do?
25. Charity hurts. Charity is not the best way to help poor people, because it’s as sweet as it’s humiliating, reminding you of your own weakness. It’s better to give people a shot, a chance to show what they’re good at, a real opportunity i.e. the one they’re looking for, not the one you think they need.
26. Being poor is not poetic. Unless Motorcycle Diaries is your only life plan (which is fine), you will meet exhaustion and the only beauty that’ll matter will be that of a signature at the bottom of a cheque (apart from when you’re creating). Let people who’ll watch the movie of your life find it poetic as they chew on organic pop-corn sitting on their leather couch.
27. Money is power, but limited power. Money is an incredible catalyst to convince people to embark upon your project, or simply that you’re successful. But it can’t completely control things like health, or whether people like you or not. This depends on other things.
28. Poor people have no time for politics. If you are a bourgeois revolutionary who had time to reflect upon the future of the world, don’t get angry when trying to convince poor people to fight the fight. The world needs you, but you can’t expect everyone to have time for that when survival comes first. Poor people might even vote for parties that make them poor. They need time to understand, and right now they don’t have it. Change the world for them, just don’t wait for them.
29. You can kill a rat with a broom. Well, my roommate can. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
30. Being too rich or too poor will equally kill your compassion. When truly scared for your own survival, ugly instincts kick in. You become aggressive and heartless. Such is the way nature intended. On the other hand, being too rich can make you lose touch with the reality and feelings of poor people, especially if richness is the only thing you’ve ever known.
31. Being poor will make you a better and worse actor. If you manage to preserve your compassion, it will grow. On the other hand, not sleeping to work on a script between two eight-hour shifts won’t help, though you can still pull it off.
32. Acting is not a skill. It is, but not on the market. Two many people want to do it, and too little people care about its quality. Also, it’s easier to ask a singer to sing a song or a dancer to dance in front of you than to ask an actor to act on the spot. Accept it and make money with another skill.
33. Acting is for rich kids. You can still make it if you’re not one of them, but don’t be surprised if a lot of them make it. The acting business is built for the rich who are ready to “pay to work”. It requires more time than modelling and to make money with it (it’s possible), you need to invest like crazy, from headshots to reels to workshops to personal projects to union fees.
34. Being poor is relative. Don’t say you’re poor cause you can’t afford a cottage. And if I’ve convinced you that being poor is hard, imagine what it really is for a homeless or an orphan from a third world country. Had you forgotten? I hadn’t.
35. Being poor will teach you things, like anything else in life. I’ve often wondered why I needed to go through the unpleasant nature of it, but figured I had something to learn from it, though I couldn’t identify exactly what. That was until I wrote this post.