People don’t generally choose to be poor. Money may not buy happiness, but if you’ve ever been broke you know that having no money makes you pretty fucking unhappy—you’re eating ramen twice a day and hoping the unemployment check comes and buying eggs (the only “groceries” you can afford) with spare change and constantly thinking about how you don’t have money or a way to get money and how there’s no way, mathematically, you can pay your rent and electric bill. It’s like your brokenness is a big backpack of rocks you have to carry around with you at all times, and the straps dig into you until all you can think about is money and food and how you don’t have either. No one fantasizes about being poor except for well-off teenagers who romanticize being poor in the same doe-eyed, naïve way some kids fantasize about being orphans or hobo train-hoppers.
Well, turns out, some people really do want to be poor, or at least “struggling” or “bohemian.” First, there was Taylor Cotter, a 22-year-old college grad who found a job and is upset she never got to experience “life-changing, character-building experiences” like “living at home and not working a part-time job.” Then there was the post from the Daily News’s aptly-named Page Views blog, “Chasing a Hipster with a Baseball Bat: A Young Writer Gives up on the Bohemian Life,” where some guy named Frank Santo relates how his experience chasing a “strung-out hipster” with a baseball bat and hanging out in an apartment where a bunch of people were on bad drugs convinced him to flee Bushwick (the neighborhood with the highest performance-artist-per-capita rate in the USA) for Manhattan. Santo’s piece opens with this astonishingly moronic first paragraph:
OK, set aside Keroauc and Ginsberg and the relationship between their lifestyle and their writing—Bukowski? Bukowski is your idea of a “bohemian” writer? Bukowski was a drunk who spent all day at the bar and the track and took an incredibly awful job at the Post Office. He didn’t “take up” any kind of lifestyle to “pursue artistic inspiration.” He wasn’t going, “Hmm, I think I’ll wreck my life and become an anti-social drunk! That’ll be good for my writing!” because no one sane ever thinks anything like that.
Santo doesn’t describe how he came to be living in a skeezy loft in Bushwick, but you can infer that he wanted to be like his buddy Bukowski. The stupidity of this idea is illustrated pretty well in his piece, as when he goes to an artist neighbor’s apartment, he sees, “through the wide-open door to the bathroom […] a man, on the toilet, his head in his hands, elbows on naked knees, sitting utterly still in the darkness of the room.” Seeing someone like that doesn’t make you Bukowski—being someone like that makes you Bukowski. And it’s not fun.
A lot of being “bohemian” is awful: hanging out with drug addicts, living in unsafe buildings where your neighbors steal your mail, working on stuff that doesn’t pay, selling your books so you can eat. Santo’s piece illustrates all of that pretty nicely, but his conclusion is “This isn’t for me, I’m moving to Manhattan,” rather than “This lifestyle sucks and the people who live it aren’t choosing to do it.” Most people living in those shitty lofts can’t move to Manhattan because they can’t afford it. They aren’t tourists getting their rocks off by living with poor people because they think it’ll build character or give them interesting stories to tell. The reason writers and artists are poor is that art doesn’t pay. If you devote yourself to your writing and spend hours in front of a desk every day doing work no one pays you for, you’re not going to earn much money. Poverty doesn’t lead to art; art leads to poverty. If you’re confused about that—if you imagine that all those poor, fucked-up artists you love threw themselves on skid row and lived in unheated rooms as a lark—you’re probably 16 years old.