Tuesday, June 22, 2004

A Short Disquisition On Eating While Poor

So today I got some money. Not a lot: $95. That's enough for me to pay $65 in storage fees and take €20 to eat on, which is good, because I was down to about €0.18 cash on hand.

Now, the way I finesse this is, when I get a lot of money -- say €50 in discretionary spending money -- I stock up on what I call stores. Canned tomatoes, olive oil, regular (corn) oil, eggs, Parmesan cheese, canned tuna, rice, flour, stuff like that. This gives me the building blocks for meals to come, and although it may deplete the initial capital, the add-ons are usually very reasonable: fresh vegetables on the day I'll use them, meats in the market that are on their last sell-by date to be used that night, stuff like that.

There's a third category of goods, too: things which deplete slowly. Mostly these are cleaning articles or health articles: blood-pressure medication, toothpaste, toilet paper, razor blades, laundry detergent. They tend to be rather expensive, except for the toothpaste, but I hate running out of them.

I always know almost exactly how much I have in my pocket. It's been this way for two years. I unconsciously add up a subtotal as I shop, and you can often see me putting things back on the shelf as I do a mental triage: how important is this right now, today?

And that's what I found myself doing today. I was out of Parmesan, and I have a nice big basil plant (and a whole bunch of infants sprouting in the window-box, I'm happy to note) and a box of ravioli, so...pesto. I had to walk 20 minutes, a couple of miles, to Alexanderplatz to buy some more, since Parmesan, except for nasty pre-grated stuff, isn't available at my neighborhood supermarket. This meant that, with a big €20 in my pocket, I was headed to Temptationland. And sure enough: I found myself sweating over a package of Italian sausage, salsiccie, a product which has only recently started appearing in these parts. It's something I miss dearly from the U.S., and this stuff, although it's made from chicken, is imported from Italy. Because it's exported to Germany, it lacks hot pepper and fennel, but that's easily enough added in the cooking process. The damage on this package was all of €1.32, but I'd already committed to about €6.30 for a nice hunk of cheese. I was also interested in a superb bottle of wine -- a Primitivo from Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, where they've woken up to the fact that people pay top dollar over here for American zinfandels and the Primitivo grape is the same thing -- for €3.99. That twenty was threatening to disappear, and there's still some basic stuff that has to be bought, and the next few days to think of, because there's no projected income for a while. I'd also had a light breakfast, and some Japanese rice crackers were beckoning to me. They were €1.49.

I put the salsiccie back, and then picked it up again. It would be just plain stupid not to buy this. It was the wine I had to put back. I've pretty much stopped drinking unless I go out, and I'm sorry to say I haven't stopped smoking, but these decisions have to occur organically if they're going to work, and one day when I had to take a case of empty beer bottles back for the €3 deposit it'd bring me, I spontaneously decided not to buy any more for a while. The beer I had the other night with the guy from Toronto was the first in a while. And, although I'm already feeling guilty about it, I bought the rice crackers and ate them as I walked back home.

I've now got €7.52. I'll have to go to the local market later, or at least stop by the Vietnamese guy's vegetable stand, which is always dependable, and buy some lettuce and tomatoes to make a salad to go with the pesto. I also want to get a melon and a lime for breakfast to go with my cereal (although that introduces another factor: I almost always cook stuff that makes leftovers, and I only eat half a melon in the morning, so the price amortizes over two days), and I really want a basket of strawberries, too, because the season is here, they're all organic and local (from Werder), and they're mostly very good. They also seem to have reached a price of €1.99 per basket, and that's a lot if the melon costs the same and the lime is thirty cents. Again, they last two days -- if they don't rot in the fridge, which the really ripe ones often do.

It's amazing to me that I'm able to eat as healthily as I do, although I'm relatively flush at the moment. There have been weeks recently when I ate biscuits for dinner (flour is only 35 cents a kilo) or went into the stores so hard that I was literally out of everything, right down to salt, at the end of the period of poverty; it took a fifty just to re-stock the place.

That I'm tired of this, that two years of doing it every single day of my life is well enough at my age, goes without saying. That it's almost certain to continue for the forseeable future is also almost inevitable: people who were supposed to help me hook up with editors have vanished and I'm so busy dealing with the minutiae of my life, as detailed above, that the leisure to sit back and dream up good new workable ideas and figure out where to sell them simply doesn't exist. There's a possibility, I suppose, that I'll go under because of this, but that, I think, is a ways off, assuming my health holds. The work I'm doing now often surprises me when I sit down to do it because it's so good. It hardly matters that I'm writing for a dime a word -- the same rate I was getting thirty years ago, when a dime bought more -- because I enjoy writing so much. I may be overly optimistic, but I believe I can write my way out of this hole and move on. I'm still looking for a hungry agent who can look a couple of years into the future and see a lucrative relationship with me. I'm still betting I can come up with, and execute, the ideas and the work that will allow that to happen.

But right now, I've got that €7.52 to shepherd. Maybe make it last through tomorrow, except I now realize that I also need nuts -- I use pistachios -- for the pesto. And after that? It's anybody's guess.

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