Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Riches: Oakland 2010-2013
Oakland, summer 2010 or 2013, pre- or early apocalypse. Walking slowly on your crip parking pass and cane to that big Target on the Shellmound in West O. Limping in with all the other three hustles, waiting on food stamps, crazy and not eligible for state disability, or making state disability stretch folks. The chin-nod smiles to the other cane-using walkies and the chair users, people who clearly wet-wiped themselves down because the shower was just too much today, people who've been crying all day. Just like you.
You find yourselves here. Not at a community center run by the state or one run by anarchists or an eager social justice nonprofit. Your community center is all of you shopping the dollar section. Hoodie and scarf and leggings and vest ready to take on take off, Oakland hot cold, your cloth shopping bag full of special rocks and pain meds and tinctures and snacks and water, ready as you can be for any possible way your bodymind might fall apart.
After, you'll drive to one of the many free parks with spectacular nature to your east coast eyes--redwoods?--or the pull-off at 60th past the 80 to sit and watch the Bay. The cops won't show up unless it's after 10 pm or someone's drunk. No matter how fucked up your car is, how the registration's overdue from last year and you've got six unpaid parking tickets you can't pay so they're gonna triple, that view of Mt. Tam and the big real ocean makes you rich. Seeing other brown, disabled, poor people around you makes you rich.
Your car's full of old coffee cups and mason jars, its rained on for twenty years leather ragtop is molding and flaking from the inside. But it's your palace. You can haul anything- free furniture you notice on Bay Area Queer Exchange when you're working from home and trying to be productive while your belly hurts and breakfast takes two hours because all your roommates want to talk (after all, aren't you always home?) All the snacks for the show, tons of nettles you pick for free at a secret spot near Muir Creek, your friend's manual wheelchair, all the performers back to Oakland from the Sins Invalid show (even though Aurora has to hang her head out the window because the mold is so intense.) All these places, they are rich. Four queer of color krip artists doing a show about sex and disability, getting paid, driving home late together? Riches. Lucky.
You're still broke as hell and worry about money constantly, but you always have. And right now, you feel rich, even with that worry. You've got enough for food and your $175 rent, gas at the cheap place on San Pablo, community acupuncture at the $10 spot, Arizmendi pizza crumpled tinfoil wrappers. Pretty is easier here than so many places, you can just look outside. You can go outside because it doesn't snow, your hips hurt less because there's no snow, you can get high CBD weed from Harborside and a free reiki treatment while you wait for them to bag it up. Your bank account reads $435, $127, - $97, sometimes $1178 for a second before you pay rent and credit card minimums and student loans. But you have time. Time to write, time to drive your friend to work or acu. Time to have a meeting and another meeting. Time to be a disabled, queer brown artist.
Eventually, you will realize that all your smartass strategies that make you feel like a baller still don't pay anything close to what other people consider enough. But right now, you feel like you've figured out the secret.
There's fear. Always. The feeling in your gut of waiting on the check, walking to the mailbox, emailing to follow up again, what happens when there is some fuckup and some money you were counting on doesn't show up for months--eight months one time--and some abled money person is so casual about it.
It's hard for you to explain yourselves to the abled and monied. They figure, you must have a trust fund or a rich parent to be able to do all these things. Be sick and say it out loud. Not have a 9-to-5. Write. How do you explain, you're just poor, always been? You don't call yourself poor, because you are so clear you are not working at Walmart or cutting hair in Worcester like your cousins. You always feel lucky, so lucky, just to be able to breathe. And just regular, regular. Poor folks you know don't call ourselves poor, we're just regular. Artists are supposed to be special snowflakes anointed by god, but there's this other way, the way you were taught, that we are ordinary, on the bus, falling apart. Especially when we're spending hours of our days on the toilet, making a movie with all your krip friends on your couch, too sick to work, laughing, writing a poem on your phone as your ass squeezes out more IBS. But you don't have access to so much able -bodied folks who aren't nuts can grab. All that little bit of extra art money went right to the therapy that stops your millionth suicidal ideation from working, that allows you to lurch back from pain, from another pneumonia.
It's hard to explain lifelong disability and insanity to people whose ableism makes them unable to see yours no matter how often you blow your spoons explaining it.
You look back at all those years of early 20s crazy girl hermit life, $425 apartment life, weird brain, hustle, three days peace with the landline pulled out the wall, walking silent, writing poems on your Mac classic. Reaching to late-30s, big room in a shabbypretty collective house, hustle, bedlife, shared-password Netflix, words, picking free herbs in the park, $100 car. All your queer sick friends on the internet, all the ones that slowly stump towards you, you to them. The blog posts you write on a level 6 pain day on a heating pad in your same fleece sleep pants you don't have the spoons to wash, space heater blasting, pain patches slapped on, that you post up and maybe someone sends you $20 in Paypal, someone thanks you, someone thinks it’s bullshit.
Slow life, poor life, abundant in time and pain life, queercripfemmebrown writing life. Not the only one. Invisible to those who can't conceive of it. But here. Here.
[Image Description: A non-binary femme of Sri Lankan and Irish/ Roma heritage in her early 40s and a mixture of dark brown curly hair with fuschia pink and gray streaks wears a leaf green dress, bright pink lipstick, and a silver nose ring in a Brooklyn park. She smiles in delight with her eyes closed as she reaches towards a cascade of light purple wisteria blossoms. Her upper arm bears a tattoo of three cosmos flowers and Tamil lettering, which translates to "in my blood a million stories."]
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer, sick, and disabled nonbinary femme writer and cultural worker of Burger/ Tamil Sri Lankan and Irish/ Roma ascent. The author of Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home (Publisher's Triangle and Lambda Award 2016 finalist, American Library Association Stonewall Award winner 2016), Bodymap, Love Cake (Lambda Award 2012) and Consensual Genocide. She is also co-editor of The Revolution Starts At Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities. Her work has been widely anthologized, most recently in Glitter and Grit and Octavia's Brood. From 2006-2016, she co-founded and co-directed Mangos With Chili, North America's longest running QTPOC performance art tour. She is a lead artist with the disability justice performance collective Sins Invalid, and is a weirdo who writes about survivorhood, disability justice, queer femme of color bodies and lives in Sri Lankan diaspora sitting in her room. brownstargirl.org has more.