The first time I stole food was in 2007. I was living in Tokyo through a study-abroad program and my living allowance had run out for the year. I remember exactly what I stole, partly because of how I felt in that moment, but also because I would steal them again: spaghetti noodles in plastic packaging and a packet of eggplant-and-tomato sauce from the back aisle of the hyaku-en shop, the Japanese equivalent of the dollar store. I sporadically stole the same two items from that store for months. And each time I felt like Aladdin.
“One Jump Ahead” was the second song of the 1992 Disney movie, where Aladdin stole a loaf of bread and sent guards on a chase throughout the Agrabah marketplace, and my favorite line was, “Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat, tell you all about it when I got the time.” It felt like a perfect summation of being poor, told in its simplest terms, and it became my mantra. When I couldn’t afford textbooks in college and scanned pages from the bookstore: Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat, tell you all about it when I got the time. In the Peace Corps, when I accepted $50 an hour for giving weekly English lessons to a French diplomat: Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat, tell you all about it when I got the time.
But Tokyo was the first time I was hungry enough to actually steal food from a store. Technically, I shouldn’t have been in the study-abroad program to begin with. After I passed the exams and interviews, I learned that registration required showing proof of income and a bank statement to confirm your family had at least $10,000. My dad said he would “take care of it” and asked for help from a friend, and she Photoshopped several zeros to my dad’s $100 checking-account balance. I charged my flight to Tokyo on a credit card I had no intention of paying—gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat—and started the first of many adventures being surrounded by people I felt were rich while I pretended to not be poor.
Aladdin was my poverty-stricken role model. I was in love with the premise of his life: that someone could be poor, but valuable; a thief, but a good person. Before I had any academic understanding of poverty, I understood Aladdin.
When I got older, I continued to struggle financially while being surrounded by people who were well off. I assumed they were well off, at least, but no one talks about money, so I was left to guess their relationships with it. Aladdin wasn’t enough for me anymore, though—I wanted to be “normal,” and not poor—so I looked elsewhere in pop culture for practical insights into “normal” finances. I wanted to feel less alone, but also wanted to know what “normal” meant to those around me. I wanted to know what was normal to want, earn, or inherit. I wanted to know how much money people had, where it came from, and how they spent it. I wanted to know if they thought about money as much as I did.
And at every turn, our culture failed to talk about money in any specific, meaningful way.
The trope has a name: “undisclosed funds.” It refers to what happened on Friends when Rachel was upset about her first paycheck from Central Perk—you knew it was meant to be a “small” amount without knowing what “small” actually meant. It’s what happened on How I Met Your Mother when salaries were measured in “craploads.” It’s what happens when a character negotiates by writing a sum of money on a slip of paper—something no one does in real life—and you can’t read the paper, but only judge the other person’s reaction. (The exception that proves the rule typically comes in the form of heists and ransoms, where villains toss around meaninglessly large and arbitrary dollar amounts deserving of parodies like Dr. Evil’s scheme for $1 million.)
It’s taboo in America to talk about money, and though art tends to challenge taboos, our popular culture largely falls in line when it comes to finances. Even in the age of prestige entertainment, television series often play coy, hiding specifics partly to protect a series from feeling dated due to inflation, but also because no one wants to say what constitutes “a lot” or “a little” to “normal” people—even when the absence of numbers can be distracting.
Instead, we’re left to sleuth our way to an adequate understanding of how money works in a story, or ignore finances altogether. Characters are either rich, comfortable, or struggling, but we rarely know how rich, how comfortable, or how much they struggle in concrete-enough terms to relate to. Money is involved in every important decision in one’s life; TV characters simply frown at a bank statement or gasp at a hidden figure on a piece of paper. The topic of money requires the most awkward suspension of disbelief in fiction.
When I started grad school after the Peace Corps, I lived in New York City on a budget of $1,500 per month. I went to NYU and took out student loans for about $25,000 a semester and lived on the same diet as I did in Tokyo, $1 boxes of spaghetti and jars of pasta sauce. After grad school, my total student debt was about $115,000. I worked at a nonprofit that paid me $41,000 a year. And I kept looking, mostly in vain, for candid representations of money. The habit never went away.
Every time I stream a television series or movie, I pause for money. When I watched The Chair on Netflix, I paused on the split second that Sandra Oh looked at the professors’ salaries in her department. Out of 14 professors, the highest salary was $132,239, and the lowest was $76,235. When I watched Sonic the Hedgehog last year, I paused to see the $4,600-a-month apartment that Tom and his wife were browsing online. When I watched Insecure on HBO, I paused when Molly opened a co-worker’s paycheck to read the amount for $6,991.54. When I watched Succession on HBO, I paused to think after Connor and Tom warned Greg that $5 million is the worst amount of money to drive someone crazy, because it’s too much to keep working, it’s not enough to retire on, and it makes you the poorest rich person in America.
This past summer, I took my nephews to Six Flags, where we stole Dippin’ Dots. It was my first time stealing food since Tokyo, though I didn’t intend to steal our ice cream. Their payment systems were broken, and the apathetic teenager who served us said that it would take a while to fix and whispered that we should just go. And I was grateful, because Dippin’ Dots were expensive. I feel the same about most things at theme parks. As we walked past game booths and through the obligatory gift shops at the end of roller coasters, my thoughts came back to some version of “Who can afford this stuff?” Who can afford to eat here? Who can afford these clothes? Who can afford Dippin’ Dots?
I imagine many of the parents around me had the same thoughts. But they probably kept them to themselves, too. I imagine we all paid for our overpriced food and expensive games while calculating in our heads these very specific prices on our very specific budgets from our very specific incomes, and felt gratitude when the Dippin’ Dots’ credit card machine was down. I wish television talked about it more. I wish the undisclosed-funds trope was a thing of the past. But I wish I talked about my relationship with money more, too. I promised to tell you all about it. It’s past time.
When I asked readers the other week to share the minimum income they would need to be financially content, the answers ranged from $25,000 to “Elon Musk’s money.” The most common answer, though, was in the $70,000 range for a one-person household. Thanks to all of you who shared.
But my favorite email came from Anne, who told me that she’s 62 years old and follows my newsletter because the world tends to spin too fast for her. “Who knew my 68-year-old husband and I could become hooked on Arcane,” she said, before ending with, “P.S. We watched Don't Look Up last night and are trying to decide if there is a worse movie that has ever been made.”
Anne, I am honored, but more importantly, that postscript was the funniest thing I read all week.
This week’s giveaway is a hardcover of All Boys Aren’t Blue, by George M. Johnson, which is a coming-of-age story about Johnson growing up Black and queer in New Jersey. It’s been optioned for a television series by Gabrielle Union and was banned from several high schools, and who doesn’t love sharing banned books? If you’re interested, send me an email just telling me if you, like Anne, watched Don’t Look Up, and I’ll send the book to the first person who hits my inbox. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Twitter @JordanMCalhoun.
Until then, 19 days until Saga returns.