Frozen assets: Being broke and cold is like having an unrelenting headache

Illustration by Laura Carlin.
"It was understandable to be this broke at, say, the age of six. But I was 26". Illustration by Laura Carlin.

The winter of 1983 was not unnaturally cold by North Carolina standards. There were nights in Raleigh when the temperature dipped into the teens and twenties, but it was nothing like the winters I’d experienced as a child in western New York State, or the one I’d endure the following year when I moved to Chicago. What made 1983 exceptional was that for the first time in my life, I was paying for my own heat.

Before that, I had lived with my parents, or in apartments where it was included as part of the rent. Back then, rather than turning a radiator down – rather than bending over, essentially – I’d just throw open a window. Now I couldn’t even if I wanted to because they’d all been covered with plastic. It was the thick kind that was slightly milky and left me feeling cut off from the outside world. I hated the way it dimmed the light, but every little thing helped. Heat was money, and because I made so little of it that year, my apartment was freezing. Most nights I went to bed fully dressed, sometimes with a woollen hat on. This left me feeling cheated, like I was camping, which should have been free.

I look at my diary from that winter and it’s one endless complaint about how cold I was, and how broke. I was working part-time for a friend who had a construction business. This was his slow season, so I was lucky to put in 20 hours a week. The guys who wielded saws and hammers were paid pretty well, but the only tools I could be trusted with were brooms and shovels, so for me it was minimum wage. After a day of digging ditches I’d return to my icy apartment and work on the art exhibit I had coming up. My medium of choice, balsa wood, was too expensive, so I was reduced to papier mâché, which left my hands chapped and dumb feeling.

I was so broke that year that when my bro­ther’s birthday came in late January, I gave him $6.50. That left me with four singles. That was it, everything I had, including my savings. At the grocery store that week I bought three cans of beans with pennies. The cashier sighed as I counted them out with my stiff, cracked fingers. “Eighty-seven . . . eighty-eight . . .”

When, in February, my mother turned 54, I gave her a wasp’s nest I’d found in a city park. It looked like a desiccated punching bag, and she said the only thing a mother could say when presented with such a thing. “Aw, you shouldn’t have!”

It was understandable to be this broke at, say, the age of six. But I was 26. People I’d grown up with had respectable jobs already. They had cars and some were thinking of buying houses. “What you need,” my father kept telling me, “is something to fall back on, a skill that will earn you some real money.” It’s understandable advice coming from a parent, but artists with something to fall back on tend to fall back. I wasn’t ready to admit defeat yet, so on the days when I wasn’t working for my friend, I’d cross town and perform some chore for my mother: cleaning the oven, waxing the basement floor. I was willing to do anything as long it was inside. Accepting her money brought me great shame, so I’d pretend I didn’t need it, and she’d press it into my hand, pretending she was too old to have done these things herself.

Because I never learned to drive, I’d take the bus back and forth from her place to my own. It’s a normal enough thing to do in a big city, but in Raleigh at that time only black people used public transportation. I remember riding back to my apartment one afternoon and when the driver yelled at a passenger who’d tried to board without paying, the man I was seated beside turned to me saying, “He don’t love life.”

I wanted to ask who he was referring to, the driver or the fellow who’d tried to skip out on his fare, but instead I just nodded, knowing that if anyone didn’t love life it was me. Being broke and cold is like having an unrelenting headache. You can think of nothing else until it’s passed, at which point you proceed as if nothing ever happened.

It’s been decades since I’ve bought my groceries with pennies, or looked twice at the price of something before dropping it into my cart. I see this as the upside of getting old. Yes, the bags beneath my eyes have developed separate mini-bags of their own. Yes, my arm hurts when I reach for my wallet, but at least it’s loaded with money. I pass myself in the bedroom mirror now and admire, not my reflection, but the mirror itself, which likely cost more than I ever earned digging ditches.

The irony is that, money or not, I’m still so cold I can’t stand it. The house I bought in Kensington has no insulation whatsoever. None of the windows fit properly, and when sitting in the living room, surrounded by my finery, what’s left of my hair blows in the oh so expensive wind, reminding me that while everything changes, nothing does.

David Sedaris’s most recent book is “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls” (Abacus, £12.99). His series “Meet David Sedaris” is on BBC Radio 4