The Great Thing About Having Been Poor
Written by Bill Maher for RSN
If you grow up in America, it’s pretty rare if you don’t love money. One of the first things I ever remember being punished for was stealing money. Five dollars, off my father’s dresser. I was so little, I don’t think I even knew it was wrong to take something that wasn’t specifically mine – I recall this being my introduction to the concept of “larceny is bad.” But somehow, I knew it was good to have cash.
After I left my middle class household at 18, standard of living took a real tumble for a while. At Cornell, I had no money, and boy did I look it. They called where I lived the last three years Collegetown, but Collegetown was really slums in a rural setting. Landlords did not have to work that hard in Ithaca, N.Y. – every year, there was fresh supply of eager tenants among the students who didn’t want to live in a sorority or fraternity. It was a sweet market for a slumlord.
But even that looked good compared to what was waiting for me as I began my illustrious career as a standup comedian in New York City in 1979. First year I lived on 99th Street in Spanish Harlem, a five-floor walk up, toilet down the hall. No shower – a tub that sat in the kitchen with a snake-like attachment that hooked up to the kitchen sink. Walked home every night from the comedy clubs on the tony Upper East Side, watching the neighborhoods become poorer and scarier as I made my way north, and I’m sure the only reason I was never robbed was, they took one look at me and knew it wasn’t worth the trouble. Sometimes, freedom really is just another word for nothing left to lose.
And yet, in a short 33 years, things had turned around enough so that I was able to give a million dollars to the super PAC of a certain mixed-race president who, I would like to remind all my overconfident progressive friends, does NOT have this election in the bag. And a lot of people this last week have said the same thing to me: “You’re not picking up the drinks tonight?”
The great thing about having been poor is how liberated it makes you if you eventually become rich. There’s nothing like the knowledge that you don’t need money to survive. That the money cushion you lie on every night doesn’t have to be three feet thick, and you can still get to sleep.
Other people seemed surprised I had a million dollars, which amused me. I’ve had a television show since 1993; television pays well – I may even have another million lying around somewhere. Every year when I visit my accountant in December to see how the year went, he always says I’m the best saver of all his clients, which amazes me, because I feel like I deprive myself of absolutely nothing. I once asked him, what do your other clients spend their money on? Because I know who some of his other clients are, and I know they make WAY more than I do. He said that what they spend their money on is always changing, and that’s not even the point – the point is, however much money they make that year, they always spend all of it! That’s how they think: have money, spend it, because the real tragedy would be to die and have money left over.
Me? I just don’t have expensive tastes I guess – I don’t collect cars or paintings or jewelry, and I gave up my heroin habit years ago. But I also know that, as I said when I presented that giant check to Priorities USA Action last Thursday at the end of my stand up special on Yahoo!, “This hurts!” I was trying to make the point that if I could do it, a lot of other people could do it a lot more easily than me. You know, the only place in America where the millionaires and billionaires are predominantly liberal is here in Hollywood – with the possible exception of Silicon Valley and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. There’s a reason that of the 16 billionaires that have contributed to super PACs this year, 14 have given to Republicans. It is generally the party of the rich. And in a post-Citizens United world, the party of the rich has an advantage like they’ve never had before. In 2008, the most you could give to a candidate was $2,300. Now it’s Infinity. No, the election is not in the bag.