On Being "The Poor One" as a Kid

Sometime during my youth I saw an interview on TV with Richard Branson or some other eccentric rich person, where he extolled the value of circling yourself with people who are better off than you are. His theory was that they will help you get to places you wouldn't have made on your own. I took this to heart, not in popularity, but in financial status. Networking, I've been doing it since elementary school.

My first experience with this was befriending a girl named Veronica. She was very sweet girl, with freckles and a cartoonishly tiny heart shaped mouth, who would always ask me to sit next to her during art time. She was also very different from my friends I lived in the project developing housing neighborhood with. She didn't know what a food shelf was, and she brought her own lunch to school. Very fancy! And her mom drove her to school every day! These things meant she was a rich person in my eyes.

My neighborhood friends were nothing like Veronica. We would play tag outside of the food shelf every week in what was considered our town square, and we spent hours just running around and picking blackberries off of the bush behind the alley of "the rich lady's house". We accompanied each other to the dentist for checkups because there were no adults around to take us. Our favorite topics of conversation were about growing up to be Fly Girls and which Ninja Turtle was the best. Having new clothes was always a big deal, because everyone wore hand me downs. I was the rich one of the poor kids, because my parents bought me dresses from Chinatown and I would tell them they were couture from Paris. They never believed me, but it was fun to pretend.

One day, Veronica invited me over to her house for her birthday slumber party. This didn't sit well with my parents, because it just didn't make sense to want to spend the night anywhere but home when you have a home and bed. But with plenty of begging and my older sister agreeing to drive me, I got to attend. My sister also drove me to K Mart to pick out a toy for my friend as a birthday present. I didn't know what to get Veronica, so I bought her what I would have wanted. She wasn't too thrilled about the Ninja Turtle.

Things I didn't know were a requirement for attending a slumber party:

1. A sleeping bag and pillow

2. Pajamas

When I arrived for the slumber party, all I had with me was my wrapped up gift and the clothes on my back. Veronica's parents were caught off guard, so they laid a half folded blanket on the floor for me and gave me an extra pillow. Sweet Veronica loaned me a nightgown, which confused me because I didn't know you had to change for bed. I also didn't know you had to brush your teeth before bed, so I didn't have a toothbrush. I swished my mouth with mouthwash and tried not to stare at the other girls.

The other girls didn't like me. It was like being in a sea of Veronicas, all white and freckle faced with their hair in braids. Except these girls saw me as different. I was the only non white person in the room, and I was weird because I didn't know what a sleeping bag was. They whispered to each other in front of me and would bring up topics I didn't know anything about, like going to summer camp. My topics of conversation, primarily "In Living Color" and "Yo! MTV Raps", fell on deaf ears because they weren't allowed to watch those shows.

I didn't sleep that night. Instead, I waited for everyone else to fall asleep and went into the adjoining garage and worked on putting together a puzzle. Veronica woke up in the middle of the night and asked what I was up to. I brushed it off and told her I'm just not comfortable sleeping on the floor. She agreed with me and helped me put together the 500 piece puzzle.

The next morning, Veronica's parents made breakfast. This was unheard of to me as my parents usually let me fend for myself in the morning. This my very first experience eating breakfast that wasn't cereal or an Eggo waffle. French toast, even now I think the name sounds fancy! And they served it with fresh fruit and powdered sugar or syrup. I was a bit embarrassed because I had no idea how to eat it, so I ate mine plain. It was the most delicious and sophisticated thing I had ever heard of.

After that, I was never invited to another slumber party or birthday party of any sort. My neighborhood friends and I didn't get birthday parties where we were allowed to have friends over, so I could never return the favor to Veronica. I wonder if her parents were aware of my status and invited me out of pity. She probably didn't know it, but I was her charity case. And it was worth the experience just to feel like a rich kid for a day.