This story originally aried on February 8, 2020.
Leila Marie Ali was always the thriftiest one in her family.
Her dad is generous to a fault, always quick to dispense bills to a person on the street or send a chunk of his taxi driver earnings to relatives back in Somalia and Yemen.
“I remember thinking, this man is taking care of what felt to me like an entire village in two countries, and not taking care of us as well as he could be,” Leila says.
Leila’s mother is a wizard with managing debt and bill collectors; she was constantly patching a delicate bulwark against poverty. But now and then it would collapse.
“It was a juggling act, and if one ball fell, then the whole thing fell apart, you know? And I watched that happen to her on more than one occasion growing up,” Leila says.
Leila was responsible. She’s learned the mechanics of capitalism from her mother, the value of generosity from her dad. She always paid her bills and made good on her promises.
So it was a shock when, a few years back, she was forced to declare bankruptcy.
“When you think about, what is money? It’s a tool, but it’s also an agreement,” Leila says. “What I remember is simply that I was breaking an agreement, it’s like breaking a promise. And that doesn’t feel good.”
The bankruptcy was largely the result of external forces, mainly student debt and her mother and stepdad’s divorce. But Leila started to see that there were other factors, too, that she had inherited a more complicated relationship with money from each of her parents than she had realized.
She began to write about it. On the way to a book manuscript, Leila produced an essay about her father, her mother and money, called “Coincidence of Wants.”
Leila Marie Ali joined Sound Effect Host Gabriel Spitzer in our studio to share excerpts and insights. Click the “Listen” link above to hear the interview, and read the passages from her essay below.
Excerpt #1: “Father”
His sense of worthiness when it came to any money he made was nonexistent. For him there was always someone in the old country be it Somalia or Yemen that needed his last dollar so much more than he did. And he gave it to them. He gave it to all to them. To know poverty so intimately that no matter what you have you feel completely unworthy of keeping any of it, is a depth of understanding that he knew I would never be able to relate to, and so he didn’t try.
“The past is the past Baba.” He would say, “Why you want go there so much?” I’m a historic tour guide I want to say. I know everyone’s history but my own. Instead, I say nothing. The story I often tell myself is Why bother? He won’t understand me anyway.
I’ve never known a person to give away more money than my own father. I am both proud and frustrated by his attitude toward money. Growing up, during our brief limited visits together if we passed a homeless person on the way to whatever restaurant we were going to he always gave them a few singles. If he didn’t have any small bills he would save his change after the meal and go back to give his change to that person. He often dropped me off to my mother’s apartment with a couple of bills. Always an irregular amount. Sometimes a few twenties other times a few hundreds. Whatever he earned that day, that’s what he gave.
Mr. Ali paid no child support regularly. That wasn’t his way. If he saw you, he gave. If he didn’t he wouldn’t. It wasn’t malicious, careless or thoughtless, it was cultural. What is child support to a Somali anyway? A very strange custom for someone more familiar and comfortable with nomadic culture. Love and support is given in person. When we were together he gave me the world as he understood it. Money, food and advice about how to be less American which usually came in the form of a scolding. That’s the Somali way or what little I knew of it anyway. For my father, the entire world is less fortunate than him. He spends as if his earning potential is limitless.
Excerpt #2: “Mother”
Everything about money was a game for Mama Bush. Growing up as the eldest of 4 kids in the projects deep in the heart of Brooklyn in a Catholic functionally single-parent household (her father was more skilled at emptying liquor bottles than putting in an honest day’s work) money was always a scarcity. Charlene got creative with the little her mother was able to spare to take care of the children while working grueling hours in one low-wage job after another with vanishingly thin returns.
At the end of the month Charlene would help her mother come up with increasingly creative ways to rob Peter in order to pay Paul. Making a dollar out of 15 cents was more birth rite than skill in the projects. But there were rules to the game rest assured. Mama always had a method to her madness. Rule number one, always pay the rent in-full and on-time. Rule number two, always pay friends and family before creditors. That also happens to be the code of the street. Always take care of the neighborhood and the neighborhood will always take care of you. Outside of that anything goes.
She learned to float by just making minimum payments to creditors and if the minimum was too high she learned to call for a rate adjustment. If multiple bills were owed at roughly the same time, she’d call the creditors first and work out a payment plan. Pay each of them half or whatever fraction you can manage but pay it on-time. All things through communication. On-time was a big deal, where she was short on cash she was long on integrity. If Charlene could talk to you she could always negotiate a deal.
This ability to intuitively see through the capitalist matrix of the US economy, to know intimately that the value of something is artificial and arbitrary, that we assign value to objects and that objects don’t assign value to themselves felt like a super power. You want $50? Charlene said, “Nah, brotha, I’ll give you $25 today and you can hit me up next month plus interest.” And people trusted her because she was a woman of her word. “Leila be true to your word.” She said. “It’s ALL you have.” She said. “Cause when they stop believing you, you done.”