The term "nouveau riche" is a fancy way of saying you're a rich person who acquired your wealth on your own. You didn't inherit it all from your great-grandfather. You worked for it. Either that or you bought that lottery ticket fair and square. But I actually prefer the term "New Money" because it's a way of saying, "Yes, I am trash and I'm embracing it!"
I am New Money.
I feel lucky to live in America — where people will treat someone like me (trash) as if they come from bloodlines with Benjamins [US$100 notes] streaming through them.
In England, they are not as impressed with people who have made their own dough within their lifetime. New Money is considered gaudy there. But in America New Money is celebrated more than Old, because it was earned in some way or another.
We use our new money for stupid shit like spa treatments where eels eat the dead skin off of our toes or baby seal fat is injected into our assholes so we look young again. (A lot of marine life is utilised for some reason.) People applaud us. Go ahead, start a charity and give back a little and no one in the States gives a hot damn how you got it.
You were knocked up by a basketball player and took him for all you could? Great, here is your own television show. You made a sex tape with a mediocre rapper? Here is the key to a billion-dollar corporation.
Or, in my case, hey, you told dick jokes to drunk people in small rooms at places called the Giggle Bone and the Banana Hammock?
Would you like a movie deal?
Looking back, I realise this is technically my second time to fall into the New Money category. My parents were living the textbook New Money lifestyle during my childhood ... until they slipped into the No Money lifestyle just in time for my delicate pre-teen years. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I was born a precious little half-Jew in Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side and sailed the five blocks home to our huge duplex apartment in a limo. Dad's idea. My parents were rich. They were rolling in it. I mean, I thought they were. They'd take a private jet to the Bahamas at a moment's notice, and they thought the high life was going to last forever. It didn't.
My dad owned a company called Lewis of London, a baby-furniture business that imported cribs and such from Italy. I don't remember why they named it "Lewis of London" but if they were looking for a fancy name that only New Money people would use in order to make something sound high-end and international, they knocked it out of the park. At the time, no one else was selling fine foreign baby furniture, so rich Manhattan parents sought out my father's store, where they could pick up the fanciest tiny infant prisons that money could buy.
I had some extravagant, rich-person things as a little kid. We moved out of the city to a nice suburb on Long Island when I was 5, where we would eat lobster once a week and smoked fish for Sunday breakfast. Or as we called it, Jewing-out hard!
On lobster nights, my mother would bring the live ones home from the grocery store and put them on the kitchen floor for my brother, sister, and me to play with. At the time, I thought it was just a fun thing we did before boiling the tasty crustaceans, but in retrospect, I realise that we were playing with our future food in a Little Mermaid-eating-Sebastian way that was very uncool. Couldn't they have just got us a pet goldfish? All the other kids were outside riding bikes and we were making our lobsters race each other like gladiators. Sick.
Either way, when I remember what it was like to grow up in a wealthy household, the food we ate stands out the most. Come to think of it, that's mostly what I remember about any event or moment in life — the food that was there.
A couple years ago, before I had "real" money, I asked film director Judd Apatow if it was fun being rich, and he explained to me that once you become rich you find out all the good things in life are free.
He said you can buy a house, good sushi, and CDs, but that's about it. Still, as someone who waited a lot of tables and ate off people's plates on the way back to the kitchen, fancy sushi sounded pretty good to me.
Anyway, Lewis of London cornered the market — until other stores started selling European baby furniture and my parents lost it all. Which happened, incidentally, during the onset of my father's multiple sclerosis. Cool timing, universe!!! I don't remember how it felt to lose everything, but I do remember men coming to take Dad's car when I was 10.
I watched him standing expressionless in the driveway as it was pulled away. My mother claims she didn't know what was happening financially, but if this were an episode of MTV's True Life: Squandering That Chedda they would say, "She blew his millions on furs and homes." And if it were a Lifetime movie, they would say, "She was a victim whose life changed drastically in a split second." I don't know which is true. Probably neither. All I know is that my mum stayed in the house denying reality like it was her job when those men came to take away the black Porsche convertible.
I didn't generally notice the loss, but I did notice a change in the quality of my birthday parties. That's probably where I felt the biggest shift in my family's financial situation. When I turned 9 and we still had money, my parents threw me a "farm party" at our beautiful home on Surrey Lane, a quiet street in Rockville Centre. Early that morning, a box with holes in it was placed in the garage. When I removed the lid, a gaggle of baby ducks looked up at me. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I remember believing in my heart that I was the little girl in Charlotte's Web. I was so in love with those little creatures that I could have sat there and petted them all day, and died happy.
Since we could afford the whole kit and caboodle, real-life farmers carted real-life farm animals to our house in shifts throughout the day. Bring on the donkeys! We had a pony; we had goats; we had chickens. If you're a kid from Iowa and you're reading this, you're like, who cares? A couple of animals in your yard sounds like a Tuesday.
But trust me, if you're from New York and you have a cow in your driveway, you're rich — and the most popular kid in school for a year. All of my little friends dressed up in overalls and played in a pile of hay and went f***ing crazy. It's gross when you see it for what it really was: a bunch of well-off kids whose idea of a great time was to slum it like poor farm children. I've also been to a food-fight birthday party. Can you imagine starving kids in Syria watching us waste food like that? It makes me shudder.
Don't worry, the irony came back to bite me in the ass soon after.
Life got less and less comfortable for us after my parents lost all their money. We began moving into smaller and smaller homes until it felt like we were all sleeping in a pile — and not a fun pile like the monsters in Where The Wild Things Are. A sad, poor pile like the grandparents in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. (Amy, do you ever reference adult books? No!)
By the time I was in college, my mum had moved us into a basement apartment, where my sister, Kim, who is four years younger than me, had the one bedroom and I had to share a bed with my mother. (Quick tip: do not try to ditch a cab when you are black-out drunk and then get in bed naked with your mother. The cab driver will follow you home and knock on your door, and then your mother will have to apologise to him and give him cash while you lie giggling and nude under the sheets, where you are experiencing the bed spins ... I heard from a friend.)
But to be honest, I never felt poor, even when we were. I always had enough money for lunch and to go on field trips with my class. I was always well provided for. We would go to the occasional Broadway show or take a road trip to somewhere with trees and a lake or pond, or a sizeable puddle when the going got really tough. We were living above our means, just not Real Housewives of New Jersey level. It was more like the staff at Lisa Vanderpump's restaurant. (Yes, I only speak in Bravo metaphors; thank God for Andy Cohen.)
It wasn't until college that I began to take note of the fact that I had to work a little harder than the average student to get by. I was living on my meal plan, stealing food from the student union, and scamming drinks off guys when necessary — which wasn't easy because in freshman year I looked like a blond Babadook. I got a job teaching group exercise classes at my college and those classes were my main source of legal income. (I sold a little weed and shoplifted from department stores too ... oops — shhh.) Anyway, I was the worst drug dealer ever. I would run out of baggies and have to use entire garbage bags for the smallest amount of weed. I'd give a gift along with it, like a baked potato or whatever I had lying around the apartment.
When I graduated college I was B to the R to the O to the K to the E. Broke broke. Vanilla Ice broke, before HGTV Ice. I made enough money waiting tables to pay rent and eat nothing but cheap dumplings every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And snack. And brunch. I lived in a closet-sized studio apartment with a Craigslist room-mate. One night a bunch of comics were going to get sushi and I couldn't go because I'd spent my last few dollars paying for my five minutes of stage time.
Sushi in New York costs more than a blood diamond, so it was out of the question for me. But one of the comics, Lorie S, kindly bought me a california roll. I was so grateful and felt really embarrassed that I needed her to get it for me.
But I worked really hard and, soon enough, instead of buying stage time at open mics and going home hungry, I started making a couple-hundred dollars a weekend doing stand-up. And then about four years ago, I started making a couple-thousand a weekend. The first very, very big cheque I got was for a performance where I was paid $800 for one hour. I ran around my apartment, screaming for joy.
When I made my first real chunk of change doing the Last Comic Standing tour, I took my sister to Europe. Instead of sharing a cot in a filthy youth hostel, we got to stay in real hotel rooms with private bathrooms and everything. They weren't fancy, but we felt like the Rockefellers. Or if you're a Millennial, the CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records.
But the thing about Old Money (Rockefellers) vs New Money (Roc-A-Fellas) is that both still have M-O-N-E-Y.
I don't care if the Old Money folks look down on me for being New Money. I will happily clink glasses with them sitting up front on a plane. What an amazing privilege it is to fly first class! I don't take that for granted. I still recall the first time I stepped foot on a private jet. The first time for anything having to do with money is the best. I was doing a show headlined by Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, and Aziz he-doesn't-need-a-last-name. The show was in Connecticut, so the trip home wasn't far, but when Louis asked if I wanted a lift I said, "F*** yeah!"
People with money feel guilty about having it in front of people who don't, and they don't want to say the words that make others hate them. He didn't say, "Amy, would you like to fly on a private jet I have paid for to travel the mere 20 minutes it takes to get home?"
No. He said, "Do you want a lift?" as if we were in an old movie and I was a distressed damsel waiting for a streetcar on a rainy night.
The year after my parents lost it all, my birthday party was much different than the barnyard fantasy experience I had during the rich years. The theme was the Lionel Richie song Dancing on the Ceiling. Dad put a light fixture on the rug in the middle of the living room and the seven kids in attendance danced around it as the song played, over and over again. Dad filmed it with his camera upside down, and then we all watched the recording and ate pizza.
I actually remember it being a great time. It was, and still is, a great song, and the kids didn't care. We didn't need a bouncy castle or someone dressed as Rainbow Brite to have a good time — give us some pizza and a disco ball, and there's a party. I didn't even realise we were out of money; I just thought my parents were confused about my level of affection for Lionel Richie.
Today, I'm just as happy as I was when I was waiting tables at a diner or collecting
unemployment after getting fired. I don't believe that money changes your level of happiness. But things do get easier, and I feel great in the moments when I can help someone. I still mostly stay home and order Chinese food or sushi. I still get drunk and binge-eat late at night. But now it's just on more expensive wine instead of the boxes of Carlo Rossi that got me through more than half of my life. I'm glad I struggled. I think I'd be an asshole if my money were anything other than the new kind.
Extracted from The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer (HarperCollins, $35).