A 2023 Column Contest Winner

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.

- - -

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace.
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go.
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living.
And the child born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, good and gay.

I was a Friday child with a Saturday moon rising.

In all of my fifty-four years of life, with me being the baby of the family and all, you’d think someone might’ve mentioned that we were poor. You’d think that during my tendril years of running wild along our family vine that someone would’ve sat me down and explained that for all my reaching for the sun, I just wasn’t ever gonna touch the sky.

Someone should’ve explained to me that we were like runner beans, hearty and plentiful, able to withstand both drought and pestilence—but we were without a trellis or twine or a field or a pot. If someone had just told me we were vines without so much as a stick of bamboo to support our proliferous flowering, I might not have expected so much out of living and instead found some satisfaction in the simple, run-of-the-mill, garden-variety, ordinary, runner-bean-type things of life. I would’ve shooed away grandiose thoughts of moving to the city and “making it” like the Jeffersons or the Cosbys. I might’ve taken up with a visionless yet dependable, broad-shouldered man with a job and a pension. And I would’ve pinched my nose while I kissed starry-eyed suitors who were charming and gentle, but without a lick of talent or a stitch of true potential other than being a postman or working down at the Ford factory.

If they’d told me we were poor, I might not have thought myself to be a peony in life’s green garden, bright and lush. I would’ve known I was just as basic as a daisy or as common as a dandelion. I wouldn’t have tossed myself at the feet of love interests who were self-described Homerists, or Second City improv actors, or abstract painters, or cousins of famous rappers, or fiddlers who lived above magic shops, or chefs. Good lord! I would have avoided the chefs altogether. If only I’d known the truth from the get-go that we were poor and that poverty doesn’t bother with love if it wants to keep a chicken in the oven and the lights turned on. If only they’d told me that holding out for a hero was expensive, and believing in yourself was as foolish and fantastical as believing in Santa Claus, and falling hard for dreamers while dreaming your own too-high, too-far, too-hard dreams was a pointless practice for pot-less, plot-less, twine-less, loose-to-the-ground runner beans such as us.

But no one told me.

And so here I sit, tough and stringy, my dreams crammed into too tight a pod. If only I’d known that not everyone has a trellised life with room to grow, upward and onward, toward harvesting a mouthwatering life, I might’ve settled for common, plain, day-in-and-day-out days with few worries except for replacing a broken-down furnace every now and again, or visiting a sick cousin. Other than the occasional upsets that any life brings, the days would’ve ticked on barely noticed. Peaceful and quiet. What a triumph!

While I might not have known that I had grown up skint and threadbare, I knew that I had indeed come from humble Black roots—circa 1969—rank and file, sturdy and proud, an accomplished class-of-’87-high-school-diploma recipient.

I did go to college and majored in English literature with a Writer’s Certificate minor at a university nicknamed “Can’t Read Can’t Write Kent State.” If I’d known that I was a poor, far-from-legacy student, I’d have listened to my Bible as Literature professor, a Harvard man who’d earnestly asked me to consider earning a doctorate for a professorship when I told him I wanted to be a writer. “What kind of writer?” he’d asked. “The New York Times bestselling kind,” I said, not even flinching, serious as a beatnik in a turtleneck. If I’d known that Zora Neale Hurston died destitute and was buried in a pauper’s grave, and if I’d known that white men like Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville had similar fates, I would’ve believed that old white professor when he assured me that most writers had a day gig. But I’d thought he was just jealous (you know, “those that can’t do, teach,” and all that), so I laughed and laughed at that man’s receding hairline, orthopedic shoes, and doddering ideas.

If I’d known that my Pell Grant had nothing to do with my brilliance and everything to do with my parents’ lower-than-a-living-wage paychecks and that one day my grant money would run out, I might’ve pledged a sorority to fill in the missing blanks on my pedigree, which would’ve guaranteed me a “Mrs” degree—if not a bachelors. I might’ve tried a little harder to network with the uppernecks rather than brooding with theater minors, dance majors, and cool philosophy professors who were good for buying rounds down at the tavern that never carded.

If I’d known I was as poor as my mother was poor as her mother was poor, I might’ve had the foresight to courageously put those heady beer-soaked pub conversations aside and found more elevated rooms where people didn’t just sit around pontificating the meaning of life or debating if God was indeed dead, but instead discussed stocks and earnings and ROIs. I might’ve met a Black Alex P. Keaton who would’ve been so charmed by my pluck and dazzled by my courageous resolve to rise above my position that he would’ve not only overlooked my meager beginnings but counted them as a blessing. Together, he and I would’ve looked squarely at my slowly-dying elders and their have-not, nickel-and-dimed-to-death lives. We wouldn’t have looked away but given a helping hand to any loved one in need who worked hard and at least tried to make something out of themselves, as I had. We would’ve set up a United Negro Next-in-Kin College Fund for the next generation. And we would’ve been happy in our stability. I could’ve been a philanthropist of the arts rather than a lover. At least then, any artist who sent my heart aflutter would’ve been a tax write-off.

But no one ever told me we were so poor, so I didn’t understand that all our getting was hard won, and our rising fragile and rare. Like all wide-eyed and naïve children, I assumed that life is what you make it and that fair is fair and hard work always pays off.

Believing that every glass is half full, I dropped out of college, married, divorced, raised a kid, and remarried. Along the way, I worked as a hostess, event manager, bookseller, nanny, and barista. I’ve been employed by high-end furniture stores and HomeGoods. McDonald’s and a James Beard Award–winning restaurant group. I’ve started businesses that failed before they started. I’ve sold Mary Kay and been a stay-at-home mother. And never once did I doubt that my passion and talent and good looks would eventually get me to wherever I wanted to be in life (that is, if only I knew where I wanted to be). I even signed a book deal with a major publishing house thirty years after my meeting with my old Bible Lit professor. So I guess I did make something out of myself. Not an Oprah-picked bestselling author, but an author. Not an author with a professorship as a day job, but a broke-ass author with nothing to lose and nothing to fall back on, because I didn’t know that failure doesn’t lead to success and rags do not metamorphose into riches.

In the publishing world, authors are like runner beans, hearty and plentiful. But only some have a pot, a field, a trellis, some twine, and a tender gardener willing to fertilize, weed, and water their vines. Those without tender loving care and a great head start will likely die before the harvest. Most of us germinate and bloom along the ground—half-runner beans. But if given a trellis and a chance, we too can climb. Our tendrils are not as long, and that’s okay.

I wish someone had told me these things, which is why I’m telling you today: I am a published writer with a good number of followers (a number publishers dream about), and my bank account is negative 418 dollars and 85 cents. It’s not because I’m bad with money. It’s because I didn’t know that growing up we were poor, and everything I had was the spoils of some compromise of sacrifice. Out of their love for me, no one in my family ever told me to pick a different dream. And because I was a child of the ’80s, no one outside my family bothered to warn me about the precariousness of dreaming—well, except for my Bible as Lit professor, who took one look at me and knew exactly where I came from and where I was going.