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Derek Jennings

The broke column



To quote the late great Tupac (and it's only fitting since he's just released, like, his eighth posthumous album), "this is the realest ish I ever wrote." OK, I'm quoting the radio-friendly version. What has me all hyped, though, is a new book called The Broke Diaries: The Completely True and Hilarious Misadventures of a Good Girl Gone Broke. I've wanted to write about my own wiping tears broke (sob) history before, but I just never had the strength. Plus my wife would kill me for putting all our business out in the street. But now I can write about somebody else's brokeness. The book, by first-time author Angela Nissel, is a collection of diary entries from when she was, well, broke. Besides the long-assed title, what makes the book special is her biting and often downright bizarre humor in the face of circumstances that would otherwise be anything but funny. The majority of the episodes take place when she was in college (a perfect setting for brokeness) at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.

She started writing the diaries while a senior, majoring in medical anthropology, and published them online, where they quickly garnered a cult following of bemused bystanders and fellow travelers. As the word spread at Web speed, the diaries eventually came to the attention of a representative of Villard publishing, a new publishing imprint at Random House geared toward African-American readers.

But how can being broke be funny? "I really don't know, I guess I laugh to keep from cryin'," © Q-Tip, back when A Tribe Called Quest was still together. That sentiment, from a rapper, echoes the essence of hip-hop's forbear, the blues, which itself speaks to a self-deprecating perseverance at the very core of the black experience. Yet the format of this book, a series of bite-sized journal entries that cut immediately to the daily drama, and its subject matter, the sharing of experiences so personal that they're only fit for your closest friends or complete and total strangers, make it perfectly suited for the World Wide Web. It's a sneak treat for the have-nots checking the Diaries on the down-low from work or school, yet written for the literary canon of the Internet generation. As such, The Broke Diaries ironically spans the digital divide, while remaining accessible to all. Well, at least to the broke and near broke. It's probably Greek to folks like the first President George Bush, who once went to a grocery store and was amazed at the scanner thingies. Guess he used to get all his food air-mailed in or something. But I'm sure you can relate.

See, I know a lot of y'all are broke. You can't front, 'cause I see you reading this free newspaper. But don't worry about it. The beauty of this book is that it teaches us that there's no shame in that. It's all right. OK. Group hug, everybody. I'll admit, maybe this wouldn't strike me quite so funny if I was still broke. But it would have at least been useful. The Broke Diaries is, as Nissel so aptly puts it, the Encyclopedia Broke-itannica. It's a veritable compendium of broke knowledge. What do you do when you're short on change and in desperate need of Ramen Noodles? It's in there. Need a (probably) legal way to get free textbooks? In there. Wanna know how to get into Chex Systems database? OK, you probably don't want to do that but it's in there too. A lot of the entries are things most broke folk can relate to, but there's also some stuff that leaves you shakin' your head like, "you all alone on that one, girl." For instance, she once dated an inner-city chicken farmer to get a free meal.

In between giggles, now that the bills are paid, I certainly pondered my own experiences of brokeness. Some people are born broke, some go through a phase of it, and some achieve it later in life. It's all about having a pocket full of Washingtons (if that), in a land of Benjamins and Grants--running with the wrong dead presidents. But brokeness isn't all bad. Being broke engenders creativity. Like when I was in eighth grade and painted a mural on my bedroom wall with Q-Tips (the cotton swabs, not the rapper) because my cheap paint brushes kept shedding bristles. A kid with a buncha money wouldn't have thought of that. I'm thankful for my occasionally broke childhood. Don't get it twisted: We weren't poor, just broke. I grew up solidly lower-middle class. I'm blessed to have both a mother and a father, and since both of them worked, I was about the only kid in school who had to pay full price for lunch. The ironic thing was that the kids with the pink or green lunch tickets (free or reduced) seemed to have better gear and more money than I ever did.

When I was on the freshman basketball team in High School, we used to bust (Ebonics Teachable Moment No. 24: See Snapping, Playing The Dozens, Mutual Ridicule) on each other on the bus ride before and after away games. Other than dead parents, pretty much everything else was inbounds, and ultimate points were awarded for the elusive "shut up," where you cracked on someone so hard that they had nothing to say in reply. I was usually pretty good at this. That year, for whatever reason, my mom had gotten me this big wool overcoat that probably belonged to an uncle or something. It looked like a mortician's coat and I wouldn't wear it, so I had this tan suede, sweater-jacket kind of thing, and on top of that I'd wear an oversized, fall-weight varsity jacket (my father had gotten it from coaching and gave it to me). Now, winter can be pretty cold in New Jersey, and the yellow buses didn't have heat, so I'd sit in my seat, chillin' (literally). I didn't think anything of it, but one particularly cold night, we were snapping as usual and some kid sporting a fresh leather came out with "Jennings' Math: Two Summers equals a Winter," referring to my improvised winter coat, and, I guess, a sideways swipe at my academic skills. Now that was a broke moment, and the vast majority of the people on the bus thought it was a hilarious one, except me. I was like, "ha, ha, ha, eff you" and shut up for the remainder of the trip. Recalling that now makes me want to go to the next reunion and compare paychecks, but that wouldn't be nice. Would be funny though.

Angela Nissel is no longer broke, being an Internet entrepreneur and ingénue. She's the very busy and successful co-founder of The vibrant, eclectic Web site started out as a hangout for fans to interact with hip-hop and soul music artists like The Roots, D'Angelo and Common, but quickly mutated into an off-beat destination where people with weird names like Bluetiger and Gloworm can quiz each other on which samples were used on Ultramagnetic's Critical Beatdown, argue about reparations, write freestyle poetry or discuss the intersections of hairstyle and nationalism. It's probably good that she has a day job, seeing as her target market is broke people. Who do she and Villard think they are, Fingerhut? Actually, while she discusses everything with candor and humor, her experiences shed light on circumstances that are not amusing. Brokeness is Big Business, predation on the poor is rampant, endemic, and a whole lot doesn't get done about it because the broke folks are either embarrassed or lack the political clout to lobby for change, while the people with the power to make the change either have no understanding of the plight, or profit from it themselves.

Locally, one need only go to a working-class, or predominantly black or Latino neighborhood to peep the phenomenon. Along a one-mile stretch of New Bern Avenue in Raleigh, there are no less than three separate rent-to-own places, and probably a dozen check-cashing spots. In the rental places, folks who don't have credit, and don't get money in big enough chunks, can spend a little per week to pay for necessities (household appliances, furniture) and slight luxuries (TVs, stereos, computers), but the long-term cost of purchasing the items can be as high as three or four times what it would cost someone who just walked into Best Buy or Lowe's with a few hundred dollars in hand. Writing on her first experience in a check-cashing place (a previous entry explained how an innocent mistake cost her her banking privileges and left her money "homeless"), Nissel states: "I am really teetering on the edge of this temporarily broke/permanently poor dividing line. All I need is one push from the left and I might trip over that line and land smack-dab on Poor." She then proceeds to break down how her $77.12 work-study check dwindled down to $59.26 after the check vultures finished gnawing on it.

The Independent, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and others have written extensively in the past on predatory lending practices, in which the huge, brand-name financial institutions deny people at the front door for bad credit, but then own subsidiaries who turn around and make loans to the very same people through the back door at two and three times the interest. Still, those practices persist. Maybe it will take popularization of the plight of broke Americans to get the issue on the front burner with legislators and public-policy experts who could do something about it. Maybe. In the meantime, bankruptcy filings are soaring across the nation, as people teetering on that temporarily broke/permanently poor line are crossing over in droves in advance of legislation steamrollered through Congress by lobbyists for the banking and consumer-finance industries.

Nowadays people are getting laid off left and right--we hear about another few hundred every day. Even in the high-flying, tech-laden Triangle, if you listen you can hear nervous mumblings in hushed tones about Recession. Former start-up stalwarts are finding their lives (and stock options) upside down, as their instant Internet equity (just add IPO) increasingly evaporates. All this is to say that even folks who never came up on the broke side of the mountain may be seeing it on their way down. And they'll need some tips.

But unlike those of us who bravely went before you, and paved the way, bouncing like checks off into the frontiers and hinterlands of capitalism, they'll have a map. They'll buy up this book with their severance pay to get a glimpse at the shape of things to come. Broke people will be the Next Big Thing. Trendy. Respected. Understood. Chic. I can see it now: This will be the start of a whole new genre, Broke Literature. Kids will go to Duke and major in Broke Studies (well, the ones not training for a promising career in biased basketball refereeing). Copycat popular books will abound: Being Broke for Dummies, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Brokeness, Chicken Soup for the Broke, Learn To Be Broke In 24 Hours (actually, that's called Atlantic City). And the broke shall inherit the earth. EndBlock

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