How I Became ‘Rich’

During a rare opportunity to vacation in Hawai’i, Stacy Torres is forced to confront her status as better off than where she came from.

Stacy Torres | Longreads | June 2019 | 11 minutes (2,629 words)

On my first two trips to Hawai‘i I photographed things people who live there might consider mundane: red dirt along a paved road, sunlit hibiscus draped over a parking lot wall, blue-faced Zebra Doves so calm I almost tripped over them because they didn’t skitter away like the nervous pigeons back home in New York City. The only palm trees I’d ever seen before appeared on postcards, television, and luau-themed party decorations. In Hawai‘i I wasted no time filling my camera with pictures of real ones: swaying palms against a light-filled morning sky, baby palms trees in the midday sun, and full-grown trees wrapped in twinkling lights under an aspirin moon.

The first trip, in 2009, happened by accident. At least it felt that way. My then-boyfriend wanted to go somewhere tropical. I wanted to go somewhere interesting, though I had no inkling of the plan he was hatching when I mentioned Hawai‘i. I figured this discussion was just another of the fantasy trips we often took in our heads after watching the Travel Channel. Neither of us had passports or much money. But my boyfriend’s job as a New York City public high school special education teacher had wrecked him. For the past few years, half the teachers at his school left by year’s end. C. stood on the verge of quitting too. Instead, he started drinking on the train ride to work in the mornings. Then he took his tax refund and booked us a trip to paradise.

At first he refused to tell me where we were going. “Block off a week,” C. said. I’m going to need you not to be interrupted.” I pressed for details. After about age 12, I’d stopped liking surprises. By then I’d learned they could herald sudden bad news, such as when I awoke to find my mother applying antiseptic to a knife slice on my father’s temple after he got mugged coming home from work. Worry grew about some emergency lurking behind his request, a not unreasonable idea given the last few rocky years. Only after several days of persistent badgering, he divulged, “We’re going somewhere.” I grew more fearful. Where were we going? Why?

We didn’t go places, except the occasional day-trip to Philadelphia on a $10 round-trip Chinatown bus ticket. Sometimes we hopped an Atlantic City casino bus out of Port Authority. We got most of the bus fare back in a cash voucher to be redeemed at Harrah’s, but we dumped that and a few more bucks into the penny and nickel slots. Lucky Lemmings was our machine of choice. We always fooled ourselves into believing riches lay just one more pull away, and cheered when we hit a bonus game. The cute animated lemmings delighted us when they dived from the cliff, or trampolined off a lavender walrus’s back into caves marked with different credit amounts. If we got really lucky, the machine rewarded us with a lemming stampede, and they continued jumping in and out of the caves, green bills swirling and swooshing in their tracks, and manic jangly beeping ramped up as we racked up more credits. We never knew when to stop and usually returned home losers.

***

When we landed in Honolulu, as I gazed at boughs of thick fog suspended from mountain peaks like leis I felt like Dorothy stepping into a Technicolor Oz. I’d grown up in the shadow of the Empire State building and never imagined I could ever feel at home among plumeria the way I did among concrete and glass. Hawai‘i proved me wrong. In Waikiki I let myself be a real tourist for the first time and snapped hundreds of pictures as though I’d touched down on another planet rather than the United States’ 50th state. I finally understood the awe people must feel when they first see Times Square and found myself falling hard for a place I never expected to like.

I had no inkling of the plan my boyfriend was hatching when I mentioned Hawai‘i. I figured this discussion was just another of the fantasy trips we often took in our heads after watching the Travel Channel.

As a born and raised New Yorker, I’m used to keeping my head down and walking fast, but in Hawai‘i I dawdled. It took a few days, but I fell into step with the Islands’ slower pace. My boyfriend waited patiently as I whipped out my camera every few steps. “Just one more,” I said after crouching beside a concrete planter filled with pink and cherry-red hibiscus made incandescent by the sun. My pictures could never do justice to what I’d seen, but I persisted in my frenzy, hoping to capture some of the wonder I experienced when I laid eyes on such startling beauty.

During one of those moments on our second trip, while my boyfriend and I rode past more pry-your-eyes-open beauty, I experienced another taste of just how far I’d come. The gregarious cabdriver reminded me of my father. He joked that he’d charge us double for listening to the CD of lilting ukulele music he played — a compilation that was a gift from his daughter, he added. I imagined that if my dad had been a Korean immigrant cab driver in Honolulu instead of a Chilean immigrant doorman in Manhattan, he’d have used the same spiel. When the driver rounded the final bend in the winding road to Diamond Head Crater, he pointed out Kahala below, an area filled with million-dollar homes and sparkling swimming pools. In the distance two small island humps rose from the ocean like a scene from South Pacific. The driver then interrupted the spell of my thoughts with unexpected commentary. “This is where the rich people live,” he said, “like you.”

Like me? I winced. I saved ketchup packets from McDonald’s. My kitchen cabinets overflowed with pilfered napkins and plastic utensils from skuzzy fast-food joints. My boyfriend was the son of a building superintendent and a school cafeteria worker on the Lower East Side. A few years before his family lost their home of four decades in an eviction, along with everything but some photos, a pile of old clothes, and a tin of loose change. “We’re not rich,” I said but let it drop as he pointed out other tourist attractions as I sunk further into my seat. He’d said it so matter of factly, how could I argue?


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My dad would have run with this, unleashing a haughty laugh. “Yes, rich like me.” I could picture his smile of smug satisfaction. He loved people to think he had money he didn’t. Dad delighted in telling whoever would listen that he lived in Chelsea while omitting the details of how he managed to live in a Manhattan neighborhood now packed with art galleries, swanky restaurants, and million-dollar condominiums. Long story short: no one wanted to live there when he arrived on a bitter cold day in March 1975.

“This looks expensive,” Dad often said while modeling his latest clothing purchase from his favorite discount store in Elmhurst, Queens. It didn’t matter what the item in question cost, so long as he could pull off the illusion of having money. Doing it on the cheap was even better. After all, only he knew that he wore irregular Bloopers brand underwear beneath his expensive-looking clothes.

We had a game we played: “Guess how much this costs?” my father would ask. “I don’t know,” I said, feigning cluelessness. But when he revealed the price, the too-good-to-be-true low figure often amazed me. Whenever my father admired an item of clothing or piece of jewelry of mine, I shaved a few dollars off what I’d paid to maximize his approval and avoid any disappointed looks. My father was an expert bargainer, in part because he didn’t give a damn about walking away. I was only a middling haggler, emboldened to ask for a few dollars off when buying multiple things. Once I got over my attachment to an item, going low and threatening to walk, I found I lacked my father’s magic touch. No one came running after me; they let me walk.

***

I recognized the taxi driver as the same person who had taken us to the airport the year before, during our first trip to Hawai‘i, though I doubted he remembered us. I remembered the first cab ride well. He asked if we were on our honeymoon. “No,” I said, disappointing him. I was disappointed too, having lost faith my boyfriend and I would ever have enough financial stability to get married. After eight years together, I’d resigned myself to the burdens of a long relationship with few of the perks. The simple wooden cross that dangled from the cab’s rearview mirror comforted me as I prayed in earnest that the plane wouldn’t crash. I had been 29 on that first trip, and less than a week before I’d boarded a plane for the first time. The furthest I’d traveled before was Toledo, Ohio to visit my boyfriend’s sister — a cramped 14 hours by Greyhound bus.

Maybe the cab driver was right, I thought later as I clicked through the day’s photos. I wasn’t rich, but I’d now gone to Hawai‘i not once but twice. My father understood this fact in an uncomplicated way that I couldn’t: A daughter who vacationed in Hawai‘i conferred bragging rights. We were moving up in the world. He even told me to save the plastic bag from the store where I purchased souvenirs for his friends. “Why?” I asked. “I want to show them,” he said. Dad wanted to prove to them I’d really gone there; that this time he wasn’t telling another tall tale.

I’d collected my own physical evidence, but for different reasons. Guilt hovered over these trips. As I took in dazzling sights — 30-foot palm trees dancing in gentle trade winds and the lavender silhouette of Diamond Head Crater against a shimmering moonstone sky — I longed to share what I’d seen with those I left behind, like my sister who’d never traveled to more than three states. She spent her life shuttling other people’s children back and forth to school five stops on the subway and considered a trip to the Jersey Shore an extravagant journey. If I could get just one more picture, from just the right angle, maybe I could bring a piece of this home.

I thought too of my late mother on these trips, and played the what-would-she-think-if-she-were-alive game. But I already knew the answer. Mom would have been thrilled. She always wanted more for my sisters and me than she’d had, and I guessed she wouldn’t quite understand the sense of betrayal that sometimes welled in my chest whenever I caught myself enjoying the luxuries we could never afford while I was growing up, whether a hunk of Manchego cheese or a trip to Hawai‘i. Even my camera revealed changes in the way I took pictures from trip to trip. The first time we went I took pictures to prove to myself that I’d really gone there. At home I’d had trouble believing I’d spent a week in this breathtaking place, even when I appeared in the postcard-pretty photos. The second time I took pictures with confidence that I’d someday return; they would tide me through a cold New York City winter until I reunited with a place I’d come to love.

***

“Where are you from?” asked a woman with a thick mop of silky black hair a few days into our second trip, while serving me at the Poi Bowl, an unassuming Hawaiian food eatery in a mall on the edge of Waikiki. To stretch our food dollars, we’d hit Poi Bowl hard along with Zippy’s, a local chain, and the supermarket. She studied my face as she divvied a heaping portion of kalua pork and macaroni salad into the neat compartments of the Styrofoam takeaway tray. “New York,” I answered, without much thought. “Where are you from?” she tried again, unsatisfied. “Chelsea?” I said, grasping and unsure of how I had failed to give a satisfactory answer. “In Manhattan, I grew up there…” I continued in an effort to prop up the botched exchange with extra details. “Ah, ok,” she said shortly, as though she had given up on obtaining the desired information, and moved onto serving the next person in line.

I’ve attained some privilege. I don’t punch a clock like my dad; I work in my pajamas some days and get paid to read, write, think, and teach. I can afford a cappuccino once in a while.

At first, I thought perhaps she asked some version of this question of all tourists. But the crew didn’t seem like small-talk types, more focused on their assembly line serving during the lunchtime rush. Before I finished paying, I was tempted to return to the food counter and clarify what she wanted. How had I failed to furnish such essential information about myself? I didn’t know the answer; I didn’t even understand the question. Only when I set my tray on the table, it dawned on me she might have been curious about my ethnicity. I’d gotten some version of the “where are you from” question throughout my life, especially when someone saw my last name on a form or official document (Oh, where are you from?). But I didn’t really know. Where was I from, and where was I going?

***

On the way to the airport, we got the same cabdriver again. He remembered us. “You were here for a long time,” he said. My heart sank. I turned my head towards the window as we zipped past Honolulu one last time. My eyes rested on the driver’s tanned forearms, his leathery hands at ten and two on the steering wheel. Instead of praying for safe travel I thought about why what he’d said the other day made me sad and why I was so uncomfortable now. “Rich” implied a pulling away, a separation I didn’t like. He told me I wasn’t like him, wasn’t like my father, though I felt closer to him than the mansion-dwellers he thought I belonged with.

My boyfriend always over-tipped. He’d grown up with a broom in his hand, not so long ago. I don’t know how much he gave that day, but enough that the driver looked down with genuine surprise at the bills pressed into his palm. “Oh? Thank you,” he said with a wide smile. “See you next year,” my boyfriend said, with a confidence I couldn’t yet muster. I decided then that maybe being “rich” wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

I thought going to Hawai‘i would mark the height of my travel, like my Mom’s story of her one faraway trip to Spain before she had us. But the trip turned out to be the beginning. I’ve not traveled nearly as much as my counterparts in the academic world I now inhabit. And these days I still struggle financially to pay down a mountain of student loan debt and make ends meet in a high-cost area. Other aspects of the middle-class world continue to perplex me, like dinner party etiquette and knowing when to keep my mouth shut. But I’ve attained some privilege. I don’t punch a clock like my dad; I work in my pajamas some days and get paid to read, write, think, and teach. I can afford a cappuccino once in a while. I’ve resigned myself to never getting ahead (welcome to the middle-class), but I always seem to land on my feet. I’m still finding my way but no longer suffer a poverty of imagination or ultra low horizons.

Though I may never feel “rich,” especially when I look at my bank account, I no longer wince at the word as though it was an accusation. But I hope one day to see our cabdriver again. He was right. I’d come a long way to see him.

Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.

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Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.

Editor: Sari Botton