A Life Lesson Learned at the Welfare Office…

My 2-year-old son and I both lived in a tiny, one-bedroom loft in what some would call a “shitty neighborhood.” I was only 22 years old and was struggling to make ends meet on my own. My abusive ex-husband refused to give us a dime so I was waitressing and looking desperately to find a second job.

Our little loft apartment was small but functional. The burgundy front door opened to a narrow kitchen lined with 1970’s Spanish tile and filled with aged wooden cabinets, a small stove, and a puke-yellow fridge. Beside the kitchen was a living room with a wood-burning fireplace in the corner. Next to the fireplace was a flight of stairs covered in matted beige carpet that led up to the loft above the kitchen, which contained a bedroom, bathroom, and one small closet. It was dark and musty with wood paneled walls. The lone “window” in the entire place was a sliding glass door in the living room that opened up to a small, cracked slab of concrete on the back. Directly behind the concrete slab was a wide wooden fence that failed to block the the noise from the busy street behind it.

The only furniture I had at that time was an old dresser, a small TV, and a squeaky black futon. Since neither of us had our own bed yet, my son and I slept together on the futon in front of the fireplace every night. I named our dingy little apartment “The Chalet” and filled the place with tiny little candle votives I got from the dollar store. I would turn off the harsh overhead lights, light all the candles, and pretend we were in some high-end ski chalet in Aspen…surrounded by fresh, unmarked snow and a forest full of elk, reindeer, and friendly wolves who watched over us. 

Looking back I realize how dismal the apartment seems when I describe it, but at that time I was ecstatic to have it. I was so grateful for that little Chalet. It was quaint and cozy, but most importantly, it was ours. There was no more abuse, no more screaming, and no more yelling. There was no arguing and no crying. But most importantly, there was no more fear. It was just the two of us, finally living in peace. Despite the obvious challenges, it was the happiest I’d been in years.

One evening I was at the laundry mat, washing our clothes and reading a book to my son. He was always such a little busy body, so I had to occupy him nonstop to keep him from crawling around the dirty, lint-lined floors. He finally fell asleep in my arms and I sat there watching the clothes spiral in the machines in front of me. That’s when it dawned on me: I was a single mom on a limited income, I should be able to qualify for some government assistance. My pride didn’t want to go there, but I only needed temporary help, until I could get back on my feet. I decided it couldn’t hurt to accept a little help if it was available, especially for healthcare and food. Besides, isn’t that what the system was designed for? To help people who are struggling get back on their feet?

The next day I went downtown to the Social Services Department to fill out the paperwork. I sat in the waiting room and took a look around. The room was packed with people of all ages and races, and kids were running all around the room. It smelled like moth balls and Lysol. I was trying to hold my toddler still but he was fussy and wiggling in my lap.

My name was finally called so I walked up to the clerk and handed her my paperwork. She was a large African American woman with flawless skin and bright, smiling eyes. 

“Hello, I’m Tamara. Please have a seat,” she said pleasantly as she nodded towards the chair in front of her.

She perused my paperwork for several minutes, making notes while I sat there uncomfortably. I felt embarrassed to be there, and wanted to leave. My pride would’ve probably gotten the best of me if it wasn’t for my son. If I was alone, I could afford more time to get back on my feet, but I had to get myself in a better place as soon as possible for him.

“You marked the box that you are married, and gave some information about the identity of your husband, is all that correct?” she asked.

“I’m still legally married, yes, but we are separated. I…I haven’t been able to afford a divorce yet.”

“I see.” 

She started typing something on her computer. 

“And I see here you’re currently employed at a restaurant?” she asked, without looking up.

“Yes, I am waiting tables but really trying to get another job during the day,” I responded.

She finally looked up and took a long breath. 

“Miss Julie, I’m sorry but I cannot approve you for any kind of government help at this time. You are still married and it appears your husband makes a decent amount of money….”

“But my husband won’t give me a dime!” I interrupted, then caught myself and simmered down.

“Then you’ll need to take that up with him in court. Would you like me to connect you with someone?” 

Shame and humiliation immediately ran over me. 

“So you mean to tell me that if I had a baby out of wedlock, and didn’t have a job, then you would be able to help me?” I felt tears of humiliation well up in my eyes.

Tamara put her pencil down and looked up from the paperwork to make eye contact with me.

“It’s a little more complicated than that, but I’m afraid you’re right. You can come back and try again when your situation changes. I am so sorry…” 

My son started to fuss and I squirmed in my seat. I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment. I was better than this. I was WAY better than this. The last thing my husband had told me when I left him was that I would never be able to survive on my own. He told me I was a loser and would always need someone to help me through life. If I accepted a handout now, then he would be right. 

I cleared my throat and swallowed hard in an effort to hold back the tears.

“Thank you for your time, Tamara, I appreciate you meeting with me,” I said.

I scooped up my son and walked swiftly out the door. I couldn’t wait to get out of that place.

As I walked down the corridor in that cold, government building, I made a promise to myself. I was going to immediately file for a divorce, then I was going to work my ass off and be so damn successful that my piece of shit ex-husband was going to ask me for money one day. I really envisioned it in my mind with such crystal-clear clarity that I could even hear his voice in my head, begging me for money. He was going to desperately need my help one day, and I was going to tell him NO.

It took ten whole years before that “dream” actually came true, every single detail of it. The irony is that I was so laser-beam focused on my own personal success that I totally forgot about getting revenge on my deadbeat ex-husband, so when he finally did call me to beg for money, it took a moment for me to even remember I had ever wished it to happen in the first place! And even though I told him no, it didn’t feel nearly as exonerating as I’d imagined it would. But that’s the interesting thing about goals. You work so hard to achieve them, and when you finally do, you realize the end result is never as satisfying as the journey was getting there.

That’s why I’ve learned to embrace the journey, it’s where all the real fulfillment lies. Our dreams and goals are meaningless without the work it takes to get there.

Exterior photo of the actual loft apartment I shared with my 2-year old in Greensboro, NC.

A Scantily Clad Performance Taught Me a Valuable Lesson

It was a cold February in 2005. I was having some problems in my marriage and felt as if heading out of town for the weekend would cure everything. I called my cousin and she agreed that New York City was just the medicine I needed. We booked our flights and within a few hours we were pounding the pavement of this luscious city.

We ventured down Broadway and decided a show was in order.

“What do you want to see?” she asked me.

“Not sure, let’s mull it over in the next bar.”

Without hesitation, she ducked into the next drinking establishment and before we knew it we were downing Irish Car Bombs with some locals.

“We wanna go to a show tonight,” I announced to one of the smiling, red-faced gents we were sharing drinks with.

Before he had a chance to answer, a tall young guy with tousled brown hair and a giant Adam’s apple chimed in, “You need to catch a burlesque show. It’s the new hot thing around here. My roommate performs at this great little place called The Slipper Room, you’ll love it.”

“Whoa…burlesque, new?” my cousin asked, sarcastically.

“Well, it’s kinda being reinvented. People like the tease…” he responded.

I looked at my cousin and she shrugged slightly as if to say, “why not?” I nodded back.

“So, where is this Slipper Room place, anyway?”

That night we got all dolled up in our best NYC hooch attire and caught a cab to the Slipper Room. It was a quaint little place that was whimsically decorated with old paintings and dusty velvet curtains. Votive candles sat atop each round table, and a large bar made from mahogany wood lined the entire back wall.

We found a table near the front and claimed it.

“I like this place,” my cousin said through a smile.

The lights dimmed and the sound of a saxophone drowned out the crowd’s babble. We watched intently as the curtain slowly lifted, exposing a toned, fishnet-covered leg, one inch at a time.

I was hooked.

Exactly one year later, I was holding auditions to create my own show in North Carolina. I put ads in every paper and on Craigslist, searching for classy dancers that were desperate to perform.

I was scorned and laughed at for my attempts. Naysayers were telling me that no one would support that kind of show in Greensboro, and that it had been tried more than once, only to flop on opening night.

I ignored them. I was going to do something totally unique, and I was going to do something else that no one had done before: donate the proceeds to a charity.

After months of auditions, costuming, and rehearsals, we had finally prepared a great little show. I had named my troupe The Stiletto Starlets, and was submitting press releases everywhere I could imagine. I happened to get a half page feature article in the local paper, showcasing my troupe and our charitable efforts. It was entitled, “Burlesque Comes to the City”, and under the heading was an ultra-large picture of yours truly, donning full burlesque attire. I’m sure my mom was proud.

We pre-sold 250 tickets for $30/each, and 50 VIP tickets for $45/each. Flop? Hardly.

The craziest thing is that the charity we pre-selected to receive the funds sent me a letter only two days prior to the show refusing the money. It was the MS Society, and they didn’t want any part of what we were doing. Their letter basically said, in a nutshell, the following:

“We appreciate your choosing us, but after much careful consideration, we feel that burlesque is demeaning to women, and do not want your money. Thank you.”

I was flabbergasted, especially since I had sold the tickets on the pretense that the money was going to the MS Society. Gulp.

I had to embarrassingly address the audience the night of the show, but luckily everyone agreed to vote on a new charity. Brenner’s Children’s Hospital won the vote and we sent the money to them.

This worked out to my advantage because when the press caught wind of the mishap, they were all over it. My troupe got even more exposure and therefore pushed me to put on yet another successful show just five months later.

I’ve been swamped with my new company and have since retired from my stint in show business, but the valuable lesson I learned was to never let anyone stop you from pursuing what you want to do. The only way you can ever fail is by not giving it a shot, and by listening to others who, quite frankly, just don’t have the balls to do what you can. Period.






Caviar Dreams…My Ass!

“Entrepreneur”-one who owns, launches, manages, and assumes the risks of an economic venture.

I have been very excited since taking the plunge into the world of the self-employed, thus becoming a tad liberal with my time and money. Seriously, someone needs to put a potato sack over my head, drive me to an unknown bridge, then dangle me over the edge and very forcefully explain that I’m not making the big bucks just yet! Yes, I am unfortunately known for diving head-first into anything that excites me, and lately I’ve been simply fascinated with new business ventures (whatever they may be). Case in point: This past weekend I took a 3-day real estate investment course. Now, let me just start by telling you this wasn’t some flim-flam bogus bullshit that you go to and decide to give up your firstborn child and sell your soul to the devil just to be a part of. This advertised as a legitimate educational course with a planned curriculum. It was taught by a real professor, who also happened to have made it big time in the real estate biz. It cost a total of 500 bucks, but I’m a sucker for success stories…plus the housing market has me intrigued right now, so I signed up for the course and got ready for a long weekend of learning and inspiration. Yeah, right.

First of all, I will say that the course was slightly educational. I did learn a few techniques about wholesale real estate, pre-foreclosures, and mortgage options. I also met a few people who, like myself, were hungry for a great investment opportunity but not sure where to start. With that being said, let me explain how this ingenious plot works to have you saying “Here’s my American Express…” before your coffee gets cold.

Day 1: They prep your emotions by filling your heart with some great motivational stories. I love that shit. Then they tease you with a tiny bit of informative and educational material, just enough to have you taking notes and sitting on the edge of your cold, hard seat. Then they tell you how important it is to have great credit. Once they have everyone in agreement, they tell you that during lunch, you need to pull out your plastic and call to increase the limits as much as you can. This theory, (or so they say), is to give you a higher credit score. This makes sense because the less you owe compared to your limits, the higher your score. This is the part where my red flag went flying, especially since they just finished explaining how you should use “other people’s money” to buy property, and never put anything in your name. Hmmm. This “assignment” was to be done by everyone and then we all had to report back after lunch and say how much we got our credit limits raised. I’m sitting at my table, totally dumbfounded and wondering if anyone else in the room had figured out what the hell was going on. As I watched them race to their cars with their cellphones, I realized they didn’t.

Day 2: I contemplated not going back for round two, but curious to see how quickly my opinion would be validated, I simply couldn’t resist it. I walked in the class a few minutes late only to suffer glares from the professor. She quickly explained how she had been to boot-camp courses taught by (insert real estate tycoon here), and HE would have charged her $50 for being late. I slowly removed my oversized sunglasses and sipped my coffee through a smile. Bitch.

The first hour was another tease-o-rama for real information. Just as I started thinking I may actually start to learn something here, alas, get my money’s worth, the Bitch starts telling us that in order to ever make wise real estate investments, we must enroll in “Advanced Training.” Advanced training? Then what the hell had I paid for, a hand job without a happy ending? Apparently so. She then proceeded to list the various courses needed in order to become a millionaire. I was flabbergasted when she wrote down the final figure for how much this “Advanced Training” would cost us. $48,000. Yes, I said $48,000. For a 6-week online course and a fucking mentor. Once I realized no one was going to come out and start talking about timeshares, I looked for Ashton Kutcher’s hot ass since I was absolutely sure we were all being Punked. He never showed up.

Day 3: Remember those lovely credit cards you increased the limits on the first day? Well, now is the time to whip those babies out! Don’t even think about saying you don’t have the money for “Advanced Training”, since the instructors vividly remember each one of the poor suckers who felt compelled to share their stories with the class after lunch that first day. I specifically remember the sweet little guy at the table next to mine. He was an ambitious young man who worked overtime at two different jobs just to afford THIS class. What he lacked in brains, he made up for in spirit.
”I called at lunch and they raised my Visa limit to $2500!” he excitedly proclaimed.
”Good! Now you need to fill out a few more applications so you have more available credit on your report. This way, you can get approved for more houses and become a millionaire quicker! Now here’s the phone number for Citibank…I have it memorized for some insane reason…hahahaha!” the Bitch said.
Heaven forbid there be any naysayers, since she would make them feel like Tom Thumb in front of the room and tell them they were destined to a life of poverty since they were too pussified to take the “Advanced Training.” Who knew the Anti-Christ was a short, pudgy white lady? 
I didn’t participate in the assignments, but she never gave me a hard time. I think it’s because once I removed my sunglasses on that second day, she saw the question of authenticity in my eyes. I locked her in a stare-battle and refused to look away. That was when the Bitch realized I wasn’t intimidated by her browbeating, and she avoided me at all costs. 

Before lunch on the third day, I packed up my shit and left early. I still had some of my weekend left to do something productive, and maybe even a little partying…after all, this entrepreneur was ready to get off her butt and start hanging out with some real motivators…her friends!