Though her family sometimes received food stamps and occasionally had their utilities cut off, Marcie Alvis Walker’s parents led her to believe that they were an average middle-class Black family. They encouraged her to pursue her dreams and told her that if she worked hard enough, she’d achieve them. The small catch was that Walker’s dream was an elusive one for any cash-strapped and undereducated Black woman: being a New York Times–bestselling author. Now, as a published non-bestselling author, she wishes she’d had a backup plan.

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Having “a pot to piss in and a window to throw it out” was the greatest measure of success in my family. It was the meter to which the worth of any man, woman, or child was measured.

For instance, you might wonder aloud about someone who’d caught your eye only to hear someone tsk, “Don’t go messin’ with that broke and busted man! He don’t even have pot to piss in and a window to throw it out.” This was also the meter we used to measure whether a man, woman, or child had the right to have any material desires.

For example, you might be sitting at the kitchen table flipping through the JCPenney catalog, and a nice pair of shoes might catch your eye, causing you to give a little sigh of innocent longing and wistfully wish aloud, “I sure could use a pair of burgundy suede pumps.” Your aunt, your sister, but most likely your own mother will promptly remind you just how skint you are. “Now, you don’t have any business looking at those shoes when you don’t have a pot to piss in and a window to throw it out,” they’ll tell you while laughing as if they were the Queen of Sheba sitting atop a pyramid of riches, and you were their peasant, groveling at their feet in the sand. As the youngest, I believed everyone in my family was a “have,” while I was the lone “have not.”

When I dropped out of college because my Pell Grant had dried up and I was terrified of taking out even more student loans, I ran all the way back home. My mother hadn’t supported my decision when I called to let her know that her prodigal one was returning. She didn’t run down the road to meet me. She didn’t bring me the best robe or put a ring on my finger or shoes of any kind on my feet. There certainly wasn’t the aroma of a fattened calf butchered and roasted, nice and tender, to greet me. No dancing or singing. I arrived home with my boxes of deferred dreams and unmet potential, only to hear her say, “Why would you come back home when you don’t have a pot to piss in and a window to throw it out?”

I assured my mother that while, yes, I was indeed her greatest failure-to-launch, her greatest cavern of arrested development stuck like a cog in the great wheel of fortune, most great writers of our time starved a little along the way. If anything, I was an American Dream in the making, a rags-to-riches epic tale unfurling right before her eyes. Just wait and see, I assured her. I had a plan.

The same year I flew home to make my mark as a literary star, I watched an Inside Edition interview with Donald Trump about the launch of his Taj Mahal casino, which he called “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” When the host said the casino would need to make over a million dollars a day to cover expenses, Trump said, “No problem,” and that his “business sense and ego will make it happen.” He then went on to say: “Ego’s an interesting thing. I mean, I have always been referred to as somebody with a big ego, but I really believe that I’ve never met a successful person without a very large ego, and if you don’t have a big ego, you’re not going to be successful.”

Now, I know it’s hard to imagine, but it was 1990, and in 1990 Donald Trump was everyone’s favorite inspirational mogul. He’d been interviewed by every major news source. His book The Art of the Deal was a New York Times bestseller, plus he’d been a featured guest on Oprah, and that was pretty much all my wealth-lust heart needed to consider his advice bona fide. So I really believed myself to be the next Waldenbooks bookstore sensation. I would write my book while I waited tables and become a self-made American fairy tale just like The Donald, as we used to affectionately call him. My mother’s wiser and, frankly, more solid advice be damned!

When I got my first waitressing job as a server at the Red Lobster next door to the affluent and luxurious Beechwood Mall, even my mother had to admit that things were looking up. I was making real money. Sometimes as much as a hundred dollars a day if I worked a double shift. And for a while, even though I still didn’t have a pot to piss in and a window to throw it out, I was content with enough money in my pocket to, at the very least, buy a pot—even a whole set if I wanted.

Then, one Saturday night, my ego, bigger than all 130,000 square feet of Trump’s Taj Mahal, took a hit and kept sinking after I got tipped… one dollar, a one-dollar food stamp, and a six-pack of green apple Now and Laters by a party of eight. Over the next seventeen years, I would work in five more restaurants as a server, a hostess, an events manager, and a PR and marketing manager while writing many more chapters of books that didn’t contain enough substance to become an actual book.

Sometimes, I did think about going back to school and finishing my degree, but Sallie Mae had taken its toll. Was it wise to take out more student loans rather than work a j-o-b and pay them off?

In a 2016 CBS interview, Trump said debt was a great way to make money: “I’m the king of debt. I’m great with debt. Nobody knows debt better than me. I’ve made a fortune by using debt, and if things don’t work out, I renegotiate the debt. I mean, that’s a smart thing, not a stupid thing.”

Makes me wonder if I’d heard him say this in 1990 (back when the world actually bought what he was selling) if I would’ve heeded his advice and taken on more student loan debt so that I could graduate from college. It’s not the greatest guidance, but it’s better than his manifest-destiny speech of believe it, name it, claim it.

Unfortunately, I’ll never know. I never took the gamble. I didn’t increase my debt and receive the fortune of a BA in English literature. Instead, I would continue to watch shows like MTV Cribs, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Deal or No Deal and, of course, The Apprentice, with millions of other Americans who had big dreams of pissing in four-hundred-dollar Le Creuset pots before throwing it out their penthouse windows onto the suckers below who didn’t believe in themselves enough to become successful and who didn’t have the common business sense to have a big enough ego to dream golden dreams of grand casinos or New York Times bestsellers.