While in a meeting today for one of my consulting projects, a very brief discussion came up about frugality and wealth. One of the people in the meeting said, “That’s why they’re rich, their frugal.” Not, I thought. And then, I actually said, “People don’t get rich because they are frugal. They get rich because, somehow, someway they have money.”
I do believe in frugality and being a good steward of one’s money, however, I suffer no delusions that this will bring wealth. The discussion made me remember this essay-explosion I wrote a few years back based on something that actually happened to me 15 years ago. I call it, “Getting Brenda Told.” (The names have been changed to protect the innocent, that would be me, and because the real Brenda might sue my ass.)
Getting Brenda Told
copyright 2007 by Candelaria N. Silva
I would not like to think that I was pms-ing, or that I was hunting for bear that day, or that I clearly felt so secure in my job that I thought I could tell my boss off. I mean I grew up poor and know better than to ever feel that secure, even though I was the only bonafide member of the staff who represented the multicultural clientele they touted in their literature that they served…effectively. (It was one of those affluent, white female dominated places where they thought that because they’d read a book or two by Alice Walker or Toni Morrison or dated a Black or Spanish guy once or twice in their younger days, that they knew and could relate to “the folk.”)
It would be better to blame it on the pull of the moon, the mood I was in, the tiny incident that became the straw that broke this camel’s back.
I think it was precipitated by the smug pursing of Brenda’s lips, one time too many. Or perhaps it was just the sanctimonious tone Brenda had used when telling a story about how frugal she was and how well she managed her assets, for the umpteenth time. I tried all the old standbys to keep from getting down to the real nitty-gritty with her – as we used to say back in my youthful days. Maybe it was that I had turned 40 and wasn’t gonna take no mess no more. (Nobody at the office knew I was 40, because I was a good deal older than the lot of them but I looked younger.) Biting my tongue, clenching my teeth, counting to twenty, breathing in-2-3-4 and out 2-3-4, none of my usual self-calming techniques were working this time.
“This month’s getting to know each other better segment of the staff meeting, will be devoted to personal finances.” Brenda said. “I want to empower the women of this organization to be powerful with their money. If you are a good steward with your money, your money will be a good steward for you!” Brenda exclaimed.
“One, one thousand, two –a- thousand, three…” I started doing my silent mantra. It was the breathing technique I learned in Lamaze classes when I was pregnant with my daughter and I found that I called on them a lot at this particular job.
“Did you know that most of what we desire is a want not a need?” Brenda asked.
I guess she needs that silver Ja-gu-ar she drives and expensive artful jewelry she wore, I couldn’t help but think.
“Did you know that you should pay off your credit card balance each month? I do and I never pay a finance charge.”
Well bully for you, I thought.
“Did you know that you should have at six months salary in a savings account?”
I was doodling now. Doodling while people talked was a way for me to concentrate on what they were saying, or in this case, keep from screaming at the top of my lungs – SH-UU-TT UP!
“I’m passing out a budget form and a book about women and finances that I hope you will all read at your leisure. I won’t ask you to share your budgets but I will volunteer to go over your budgets with you privately to make suggestions about where you might make better choices.”
I was tapping my toe now, thankful for the carpet in the conference room. Had it been linoleum or wood – my impatience would have reverberated loudly.
“Let’s take a minute to go around the room and share a personal financial goal you’d like to achieve. It could be saving for your kid’s college or buying a house. I bought my first house when I was 26 you know.”
First house. First house! Starter home. Just the concept boggled my mind. I’d be happy to own any house or piece of house that I could. I was 40 and hadn’t owned a piece of property yet. I wanted to buy a triple decker or four-unit brick building in Roxbury or Dorchester. I’d have my own floor and have units to rent out to bring in income. If I were lucky, this would cover the mortgage. This goal was at least three years away and would require some major sacrifice and no major unexpected expenses on my part. I started twirling a stray lock of hair around my right index finger.
“Everyone’s being awfully quiet,” Brenda droned. “People are usually uncomfortable taking about finances but it’s one of the most important things we should talk about. I hope you all aren’t concerned that you’ll be judged – you certainly won’t. Remember our ground rule on confidentiality – any personal information shared in our meetings, stays in our meetings.”
Like hell it does I thought.
“One of the qualities of a director is to have strong leadership. I know this is an important topic. And, while I won’t share personal information, I am aware that some of you are struggling to make ends meet.” She looked in Lillian’s direction before she was able to stop herself.
Lillian was the other poor person in the office. It may have been even harder for her to be in the meeting than me because she was white and nobody else in the office that was white didn’t come from an affluent background, including the interns! Lillian hailed from South Boston. She’d been hired part-time as a receptionist and worked her way up a few positions. Brenda always bragged about how bright some of the parents were in the programs we ran for school systems. She was more thrilled by having found Lillian than she was at hiring me, even though I was the only person of color in the office. After all, I came to them with a resume, a degree, and, it had taken a while for them to fully appreciate or partially acknowledge, skills equal to, and in some cases, sharper than their own.
Lillian didn’t take the bait and shot a slightly venomous warning from her green don’t-fuck-with-this-Catholic-girl’s eyes to Brenda’s glacier-blue eyes. Everyone knew she was getting screwed in her divorce. Brenda had recommended a lawyer but he wouldn’t even talk to Lillian because the amount disputed was too little for his firm.
“Well,” she cleared her throat. “I guess I’m going to have to volunteer someone. How about you Dahleen?” (My name was Darleen, but she pronounced it Dahleen.) You have the photo of a house pinned on your cubicle. I think I overheard you were trying to buy a house – why don’t your share your dreams for your house?”
“I’ll pass.” I said.
“No, really, we’d like to hear about your house. It’ll help the rest of us get started.”
“No really, I’d rather not,” I said in my most definite leave-me-alone tone.
“Help a, what is it you say, sister out,” Brenda said and giggled about what she thought was her cleverness.
Oh-no-she-didn’t, I found myself thinking a phrase I’d never actually used in real life. It was time to get “too-too ethnic” as they used to say on the TV show, In Living Color.
“No, thank you, Brenda, I don’t want to play today.” (I meant to say share but it came out like I really felt. She was always playing with us.) “And I don’t appreciate your trying to talk like what you think is Black to me.”
“We women have to stick together. I don’t understand why you won’t talk about this. I mean I can help you as can your sister staff members. You’re the only one of us who doesn’t own a home…”
“So you’ve done a poll of homeownership among the staff?” I began but was quickly in
terrupted by our accountant who said, “I can’t believe you said that Brenda. This is a bit much even for you.”
“That’s aw-ight, Sue,” I said in a “too-too ethnic” tone and I didn’t give a damn. It was now officially on. I swallowed hard and took a deep breath. “Let me tell you how I really feel about this whole discussion. You must be the most insensitive person I know. People don’t share that kind of information with people at work unless they choose to do it one-on-one with a friend. I work here – y’all are not my friends – no offense intended to anybody ‘cause I ain’t your friend, neither. I’m friendly because that’s the way a professional is supposed to be…
“And, furthermore, if I wanted to get advice about money – I would not go to a rich person,” I stood up (knowing that this threatening posture would probably get me fired – intimidating Black woman that I was when I stood my 5’8”, 200-pound self up) and looked her straight in her eyes.
“Yes, you.” I pointed my finger straight at Brenda. “I’m saying it to your face – you’re rich. Rich, rich, rich! And, furthermore, you are not rich because you are frugal, Brenda. You are rich because your Mama and Daddy were rich, you married a wealthy doctor, and your grandfather left you money that paid for your college and the down payment on your first house. None of your money comes from your own effort.
“All the bullshit saving you do – clipping coupons, and bringing your own lunch, and re-gifting us with gifts you were given but did not want or were duplicates of something you already had…how offensive is that…you are not frugal, Brenda…you’re cheap! You almost killed us giving us leftovers that you’d frozen from the charity dinner during our staff retreat. You were too cheap to order fresh food.”
“I-I-I-I…well…I-I-I. I don’t know what to say,” Brenda sputtered. “You seem to be taking everything out of context…you obviously overreacted to something I said. You’re making this personal – I didn’t realize you harbored so many resentments.”
“I didn’t make it personal. You took us there! I told you I didn’t want to share my financial goals.”
“I-I-I…let’s go on to the next agenda item…Heh-Heh. I guess this was the last agenda item. Our next staff meeting is going to be in two weeks. We’re adjourned.”
“And,” I started because I wasn’t going to let her have the final word. “I don’t anyone to come up to me and tell me how much they agreed with what I’ve said. If you can’t support me publicly when it counts, I don’t want to hear from you later. Believe that. All except for you, Lillian. I know you understand. And you, Sue, you don’t understand my financial position but you did try to reel your buddy in today. Thank you.”
I hurried out of the staff meeting – avoiding the sympathetic, we’re- with-you-sister looks of my so-called colleagues. Damn, I thought, fuming in my office. I guess I’d really done it now. As James Brown sings “don’t start none, won’t be none.”
Well, I was looking for a job when I got this one, I thought to myself as I went to the resource room to see if there were any empty copy paper boxes lying around so I could start packing before I was asked to. Then I stopped. No – let them fire me. At least that way I could get unemployment insurance. I hummed for the rest of the day ’cause, finally, “I got Brenda told.”
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