What are you looking at?

Getting into my red Ford Taurus, I dumped my purse onto the passenger seat and turned the key in the ignition. It whined, but wouldn’t start, so I turned it a few more times – each time growing more and more frustrated and despairing. “Start, you mother fucking car, START!!” Pumping the gas pedal frantically, I continued to turn the key, causing the engine to screech incessantly – until a neighbor, Adam, stopped and said, “You’re going to flood the engine if you keep giving it gas.” He lived on my floor with his boyfriend and worked at a local theater. “Let me get my jumper cables,” he said, “I’ll be right back. I got out of my car and kicked the driver’s side door, “You piece of shit!” Someone walking by on the street looked back at me as he kept walking, shaking his head. While I waited for Adam, I had a moment to think about my day, which led to reflecting on what my life was now.

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1999 in technology and poor people struggles

In 1999, the Internet was still new and rudimentary. Email was a novelty. And computers started to become more mainstream. I had never owned a computer, and that was not unusual, but I had used computers at home and school. My parents bought their first computer – an IBM – around 1990; it had a big boxy monitor and used floppy disks. Mostly, we played games on it like Tetris, Paratrooper, Space Strike, and Snack Attack. At school, we used Macintosh computers, which were produced by Apple. I took a computer science class in the early 1990s, in which I learned about basic animation and links. In those early days of public technology dissemination, I was a budding techie and bonafide computer nerd.

With my paltry wages, I couldn’t afford a computer and really had no need for one. All of my business communications were hand-written and mailed via the U.S. Post Office. One day, in my mail, I received information about working from home. This was very appealing to me, as I was working long days and was away from my baby more than I was with her. It didn’t take much to be swayed to take a chance and sign up for a payment plan to enroll in a medical billing program. Perhaps many poor people fall for these offers. All of the curriculum would be mailed to my apartment and could be completed on my own time. But there was one problem: I needed a computer to do the training and eventually work from home.

Since there was no way I could afford it, I decided that I would ‘creatively’ finance a computer to use for my new entrepreneurial venture by writing a check for it that I would pay back, expecting that I would be in a position to pay it back in no time with my promising career. Whenever my bank account had gone in the red, as it often did, I paid the overdraft fee and repaid it as I could. Logically, I assumed that I could do the same thing to purchase a computer – just that it would take longer to replenish my account. Being 20 years old and desperate, I had no knowledge of any additional repercussions, like criminal charges. Vanessa came with me to Best Buy, where I wrote a bad check for a Sony VAIO desktop computer, which came with promotional AOL CD-ROMs with trial subscriptions to the Internet – a bonus to my questionable investment. I thought I was in business.