I had taken the job because it was a real, honest-to-god, capital J-O-B job, the sort I hadn’t really had since graduating from college (not to shit on the sandwich-making and hostessing industries, which I by no means think I am above or better than, but this is the kind of job that came with a health plan and a 401k). It didn’t matter to me that it would require me to move to northern New Jersey, far away from my friends and my then girlfriend and everything I had grown comfortable with. It was a Job. It was proof that I was not a fuck-up, proof that I could be a writer. It was one of those “justify my life” kind of decisions.
So I moved to Kinnelon, NJ, a small, lake-side community roughly 35 miles and a lifetime away from New York City as the crow flies. What I soon discovered was that my apartment, which was really less of an “apartment” and much more “the finished basement in the house of an aging lesbian couple” was a bit outside the means of my salary (which was low, but I accepted because this was a JOB and I am gutless and without guile in the matters of business). I received two paychecks a month and, if I budgeted correctly, I could use one paycheck to pay for rent and two weeks gas, the other paycheck for groceries and trips to Philadelphia to visit friends and romantic relations. If I budgeted correctly, I could make it on what I was earning.
I did not budget correctly, at least not at first.
It took me about six months to get my money in order and, in those six months, I was broke all the time. I’m still sort of broke now, but it means something different at 27 than it did at 23. Now, when I say I’m broke, what I mean is “I put 90% of this month’s paycheck into a savings account so, yeah, I could conceivably go out for dinner but let’s eat pasta instead.” Back then, when I was broke, it meant that I had $50 to last me 15 days, and I had to make sure I had enough gas to get me from my house to the myriad things a person working for a media company has to go to.
Most of the time, this really wasn’t a huge problem until the end of the month. At the end of the month, my food would run out.
I used to shop for food like a real dipshit. I would go once a month, after payday, and I would attempt to buy a month’s worth of food in a single trip. My thinking was that one big trip at the start of the month would leave me more money throughout the rest of the month. This was a bad plan, because not only was I only buying horrible frozen junk and food that never ever goes bad, but I would always eat the good shit first, leaving me with flour, wilted celery, stale hotdog rolls and ramen once the 20th of the month rolled around.
There was one time, however, that I didn’t even have those meager supplies. I forget exactly how it happened (I think it might have been tax season), but I found myself with a negative checking account, zero in savings, an empty fridge and three days between myself and a life-giving paycheck.
When I say I had no food, I want you to understand that I am not fucking around about that. Here are, to the best of my memory, the contents of my cupboard at this, my time of extreme need:
- 1 (one) jar of peanut butter
- 1 (one) box of green tea, half consumed
- 1 (one) jar of honey, given as a gift
- 12 (twelve) bullion cubes
- assorted spices
There was only one thing that I could really eat, one thing that even real qualified as food: a giant, gallon-sized jar of apple sauce.
I’ve always liked apple sauce. My mother used to make pork chops with apple sauce every so often when I was growing up, and it was always one of my favorite meals at home. As I got older, I used slam apple sauce cups at high school lunch, loving that they were as sweet as candy while still being “healthy” for me. I felt like I was getting away with something. So, having an unopened jar of apple sauce in my time of most severe need was really a special thing for me.
I ended up eating that apple sauce for six straight meals (breakfast – dinner – breakfast – dinner – breakfast – lunch). For 48 hours, it was the only thing in my body that wasn’t water. It was my manna, my life force, my blood and my everything. And, holy fucking shit, did I ever get sick of apple sauce (full disclosure: I also ate about three spoonfuls of peanut butter, like you might feed to a dog, because I was more animal than man back then).
There’s a tendency, when looking back at the past, to soften its edges and remember things not as they were, but how they would be in a narrative. If my life were a story, I would say how that time I was truly happy, because I was doing good work and keeping my nose to the grindstone and making my way on my own and trying to start my own adult life. I guess some of that is true. Being isolated and broke meant that I had to throw myself into my work, and I’m definitely not as good now at some things as I once was.
But really, whenever I see a jar of apple sauce now, I just remember being broke and lonesome and hungry, and I remind myself to never be that way again.