Sometimes I lay awake at night, tossing and turning, and think about how my friend with a one-bedroom apartment on the upper east side right next to the train station leaves her door unlocked without fail every time she leaves her home. How can she risk that? Who would be that reckless? Why would she not care? It’s because she doesn’t have to care.

It turns out the reason is that she can spill Vietnamese takeout on her laptop and then come out of an apple store with a brand-new MacBook Pro without a problem. Rent still paid, no problem. Because she can get delivery every night and not think about those extra five dollars in delivery fees. Because she can count on a new gift being delivered from her parents without fail every week. Because she can buy new hardback textbooks off of amazon for school instead of spending hours on the internet desperately looking for a free old edition pdf of the textbook. Because she can accidentally spill food on a paperback then get a new copy of it delivered by her father without asking for it.

Sometimes I lay awake at night and think about how my life will never look like that. I will never have the luxury of treating my things like they can be replaced or having food magically appear at my door without thinking about the extra fees. I don’t get to be reckless. I have to care.

Everything I own is most likely the only version of it I will have. I don’t have money that allows me to replace the things I lose, break, or ruin. So, I lock the doors of my apartment and check to make sure it is locked again and again whenever I leave because I know that my apartment is an immense privilege that I get to be able to afford. One that I may no longer have if they raise the rent next year.

I have to guard every book and every device I have because replacing most things isn’t an option. Everything is precious. I hold my purse tight when I walk down the street at night. Part of me is ready to fight for the $20 of cash on me with my life because I really need that money.

I count delivery fees. I worry about my computer needing repairs. When my headphones need to be replaced, I mourn the money that doesn’t get to go towards the rent.

In New York City, there are dozens of cities. Dozens of different cities that we all live in. It’s different versions that depend on how much money you get each month or don’t get. Some of us are in the city of wondering maybe I will get a roof over my head this month, others are in a place where they are thinking maybe this month, I’ll find a place to sleep where I won’t freeze overnight. Then there are those who wonder is this the month the COVID travel restrictions will let us go skiing in Switzerland? Then there are people in the middle thinking, maybe I’ll make rent this month or maybe I’ll save enough of my salary to survive next year.

Unfortunately, these different cities that we live in are all the same place, which also happens to exist in a culture where we don’t talk about the different places. We pretend we all are in the same place with the same struggles. We pretend the myth that We Are All the Middle Class is true.

We don’t mention money. And if you do mention it, the social group gets very quiet and quickly moves on to a different topic. Those thinking about going to Switzerland say things like if you work hard enough, you can make as much money as you want.

After 18 years of education, my biggest lesson on classism was moving to New York City with a limited budget to attend a private university with private university tuition. I followed the high school myth that private colleges are better than public colleges, which led me to think that losing tens of thousands of dollars every year would be worth it for me to get a Private School Education. That the thousands in debt would be worth me being able to say I go to this university or me being able to think that a Private Institution Education was somehow better than a public one.

This is how classism finds its way into our college search. It’s how those of us who can’t afford private universities think it’s worth it to go to one anyway. We pay exorbitant amounts of money even with our scholarships for the privilege of becoming a part of a not-so-selectively-admitted class body of students. A student body where some students can pay full tuition and others are scraping by on scholarships or somewhere in the middle. A place where no one wants to bring the glaring disparity in financial privilege between the thousands of students who are living drastically different lives because of these differences.

A school with incredible social justice classes where we study and talk about every type of oppression, injustice, and institution of power but rarely do professors want to delve into the “-ism” of financial oppression and class privilege because they know their student body and they know how their bills are paid. So, they focus on the other “isms” and dedicate ourselves to social justice that is intersectional enough to a point. They pretend classism isn’t a vital piece of justice and that all other forms of oppression don’t compound with classist oppression. Because recognizing financial privilege would hit too close to home for the students in these classes.

This questionable financial decision I was forced to make at 18-years-old decided my financial situation for the rest of my life. It brought me to New York City to a school with some of the most profoundly financially privileged people I have ever met in a city with one of the most immense wealth gaps I have ever seen. I literally was submerged in a world of classism and wealth disparities that would come to suffocate me.

I realized quickly that I had to find work as a student to stay here. To survive here. But at the Private Institution that expects everyone to make tuition payments in full in advance, I had to make my student schedule adjust for my jobs to pay that tuition. These jobs would not allow time for the seemingly required unpaid internship that I needed for my future career prospects. Instead of the nonprofit part-time unpaid internships of my peers, I worked dozens of jobs that did nothing for my future career because they paid tuition. They paid rent. They paid for me to go out to social dinners that my peers always seemed to think cost nothing.

I worked as a nanny for millionaires in Brooklyn who treated me like I was an object for their use. I walked dogs that lived in penthouses. Office aide work and tech support with no training. Meeting strangers who would pay me just to hang out with them (yes it was very scary). More nannying gigs. Dog-walking, daycare, cat-sitting, etc. Whatever it took.

I was worried about being homeless more times than I can count, so when it got really bad again, I started nannying deep in the middle of a pandemic.

Some days during my junior year when I was taking 18 credits, I would wake up for work at 6:30 am then go to school full time then work as a nanny until 8 pm just so that I could make rent. I had to reject my first internship offer because I needed to keep qualifying for the pandemic unemployment that was keeping me alive. I’m still a nanny now, serving children who are thinking about when they can go on their next skiing trip.

But all that work and missed internship experiences didn’t stop me from applying to graduate school at a public university that I could actually afford for a master's in mental health counseling.

I got in.

After working nonstop in the service industry doing whatever it took since I was fifteen to be able to live in this city and survive, I am now on my way to graduate school in my city.

This did not only happen because I worked my ass off because I did, but it also happened because of the financial backing and class privilege that I had that let me move to this city in the first place. The financial support from my parents that helped fund part of my education and some of my bills.

This system is rigged from the start and you cannot move to higher education without some financial privilege that gets you there.

But I survived. I survive. By counting the numbers and counting my privilege that allowed me to get here. I count the fees and check my locked door every day on my way out. I work and sacrifice to stay here. It is my city now.

Every day I know that I could lose this life. And I am not alone. Other people live in this place with me.

We survive. Because that is what the people in this version of this city do. That is what the people who have to walk 20 blocks sometimes instead of taking the train do. That is what the people who can’t afford to fly home for all the holidays do. That is what the people who have to count all the numbers to scrape by do. That’s what we who work in the service of those wealthier than us do. Raising babies with trust funds. Driving limos. Running kitchens. Walking purebred dogs that cost more than our monthly rent payments. We do what it takes to survive.

Because the numbers are unforgiving. But we find a way to make them add up. Because it’s our city too. And we fight harder than anyone to be here just like immigrants who made this city keep it alive and running.

New York is filled with people living drastically different lives that we don’t talk about. Differences that make us who we are.

Some of us can leave our doors unlocked and others count fees. Some of us think about how everything can be gone in a moment and some of us have already had everything lost. Some of us know our days and our cash flow are numbered.

So, we count.

We work. And pray that we can keep working. Keep surviving. Keeping this city running. We check the locks on our doors.

We are careful. Counting.

And waiting. For something to change.

Writer, future counselor, feels too many things but makes lots of good things too. *they/them*