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"I've been Rich, I've Been Poor...."

The opening scene in Slumdog Millionaire is a montage shot in Calcutta: the scenery rich with color and filth, young people marrying in traditional silken dress draped in chrysanthemums, barely clothed children running in packs, laughing and playing, oblivious to the poverty around them, beggars lying in the street while old women sell their wares and prepare food in roadside carts. I welled up watching this montage, because that is life. Calcutta is a perfect example of the heartbeat of humanity in all its beauty and tragedy.

 

Maybe this scene touched me so deeply because all my life I’ve walked the line between extravagance and poverty. Even though I grew up poor with a single mom who worked nights, I still had opportunities to dine in French restaurants, mingle with the elite and ride in limos. And today, though we ride the financial rollercoaster being artists and raising a family, we’ve traveled the world, been treated like royalty, hung out with celebrities, performed in top venues, slept on three million-thread count sheets in five-star hotels.

 

Straddling both worlds, what I’ve noticed is this. When I am in a five-star hotel, or lush resort or country club, I feel safe. I am lulled into a feeling of serenity by the trio playing live jazz in the background, the fine foods, the impeccable service. And I realize that this false sense of security comes from the fact that the rich use their money to keep themselves immune to the real world, and when I am in their world, I share the immunity. If only for those moments, I can exhale and forget about the pain and struggle. They live in gated communities sealed off by walls, they spend their time in private country clubs and resorts where the other 98% can’t get in, or the finest restaurants where only their kind can get a table. When they have problems, they pay other people to handle it. Their money is a buffer that keeps them at a distance from the everyday squalor, the heartbeat of humanity. So maybe they can avoid suffering, but they also avoid the richness and depth that comes from it.

 

Although I have always been a performer, my dream was never to be famous. I grew up around celebrities whose fame sealed them off from the world, isolating them from reality. But I always wanted to dive into reality, to understand life and people. I was not born to be a princess in an Ivory castle, protected from the world. I was meant to dig in with both hands, and to get those hands dirty, to feel, taste, experience it all.

 

Had I grown up a child of privilege, I would have missed so much. Take right now, for instance. If we were rich, we could have called our maintenance man or gardener when there was a five-foot snake in our yard, but instead, my husband wrangled the thing with his bare hands and relocated it himself. Or when the sink backed up last week, we would have called someone instead of having my husband under the sink with wrenches and pipes. And we could just throw money at an attorney to handle our case, rather than me having to practically become one myself. But…on the other hand, now I know a lot about the legal system and how to protect myself, and my husband can wrangle snakes, pipes, threatening neighbors and washing machines readily. We’ve also learned that you can lose everything you own in a fire, be bankrupt and homeless, and not only survive, but thrive.

 

Like a funeral pyre on the banks of the Ganges, we’ve risen from the ashes, literally, and figuratively, several times over. But now I say this to life….enough with the lessons. I’ve got my PhD in hard knocks. I’d like to rest on my laurels for a while. After all, I’ve earned it.

 

Gertrude Stein once said, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Rich was better.” Yes, I’d have to agree that’s true. But then again, if you were stranded on a desert island, who would you want there with you? The guy with the trust fund and pockets full of useless, green paper? Or the guy who can wrangle a five-foot snake?

 

Personally I’m glad I picked the snake wrangler, who can also write me a song and serenade me to sleep. He makes me feel like a millionaire.