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Hiding in Plain Sight: Life Under the Wheel of a $1,000 Stroller

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KAREN PAPERNO
KAREN PAPERNO

I am standing in a Mandee's, looking at necklaces for my daughter for Christmas. They are buy one get one half price, and I'm debating if it's worth the $14. Will she wear it? Or should I buy socks and underwear instead because she needs that more? I've never stolen jewelry, but I suddenly understand the desperation of wanting something "nice' that you can't afford. Even if it's under $20. I look at the line of Caribbean nannies -- in Park Slope, there is no chance I'll run into my peers here. Nobody shops at Mandee's. Ironically, many of them used to shop at my store.

I've run a successful business for 17 years. I opened Boing Boing, the first breastfeeding boutique in the nation. I rent breast pumps, sell nursing bras, and know the answer to 99 percent of your pumping/breastfeeding issues. But don't bother looking me up online. You will see an old website I can't take down or access, and a new one that will never be complete. These things cost money, and as I've discovered, you cannot run even a small brick and mortar shop without an online presence. Your store can suck, as long as your website is cute and "organic" that's all that matters. But I didn't want to run an online business empire, I wanted to help new mothers breastfeed and carry their babies. I got certified as a lactation consultant, bra fitter, baby wearing expert, etc., and for years, was happy to share my knowledge and honored to be a part of that special time when things require the touch and support of another human.

Or it used to.

Now parents come in after buying their carriers online and expect me to show them how to use it. After all, that's what I do, right? There is a Yelp review about me biting someone's head off about this, but they probably didn't know they were the third person that day to ask me for help after they already spent their money elsewhere. My mission was to make life easier for new moms when I opened in 1996. Now this neighborhood is filthy with baby haircutting/toy shops, clubs, babyccino cafes, baby DJ lessons, $600 baby proofing companies and cooking lessons for nannies -- and I no longer feel comfortable here as I struggle to pay my bills. It's become a neighborhood of excess and ease while I have sunk into poverty. Here I am, the owner of a shop in the epi-center of the baby universe, and I can't make my rent.

I opened my second shop in 2008; the year my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, and the stock crash. I had opened it as a sanctuary for nursing mothers, with a beautiful room in the back for moms groups. For over 10 years I had been running these groups for free, while I fielded questions, helped moms nurse, and weakly tried to sell them a bra. But I never got on top of running calendars or a store website/online sign-up process. As more people became interested, I got further and further behind with just the physical upkeep and cleaning. (Never mind my home life as my husband was out of work and going through chemo.) I was also dealing with crippling pain, though I didn't know what it was at the time. Unable to keep track of these groups, I would let them meet for up to three months for only $30.( Meanwhile, corporations had figured out how to capitalize on these wealthy women when I could not, and competing mothers groups with a strict six-week limit were successfully charging $150.) Week after week, women would wheel their $1,000 strollers into my shop, hang out in the back, literally leaving their shit for me to clean up after they rolled out; buying nothing and asking for more weeks. Trying to make them happy cost me my second shop. I went out of business, and lost my security because my landlord was a bigger dick than I was.

I let go of all my staff except for one part time employee. I work six days a week, and bring home $43,000. That sounds OK, except we are still paying medical bills and a mortgage on a condo that is "underwater." This summer, the chronic arthritic pain from a congenital bone deformity forced me to finally get a hip replacement. Even with insurance, we are still paying this off along with my husbands two bouts of cancer and his bone marrow transplant. But at least I'm not in physical pain at the end of every work day.

Every single dollar I make goes toward rent or mortgage. When a customer pays cash I try not to eye it too greedily, because I will use that $20 to buy food for my family. I've never been fashionable, so I'm comfortable wearing used clothing, and was so happy to throw out two pairs of 10-year-old jeans with holes in them after my sister in law gave me hers. I am 49 -- too old to wear jeans with holes, and the only reason I had them was I would not spend one dollar on myself when my kids needed it more. Luckily, Park Slope has tons of stoop sales where you can get clothes for under $10 and furnish your home with second hand everything, as I've done. I've pawned my wedding rings, all of our jewelry, and don't miss a thing. I don't own anything else of value, except for my shop, and that's exactly what I'm working on selling now.

My husband works in an industry (newspapers anyone? ) that has seen cutbacks, so we are both super stressed, and try to "drink lots of water" as if that will prevent any further sickness in our family. I never go out, and I've lost friends due to the shame of being so broke. Six years ago, I was the one picking up bills, and joyfully buying presents for my employees as well as donating money to my favorite charities. Now I am too embarrassed to see some friends, because my problems have only gotten worse, and I don't want to be "Debbie Downer" when they are enjoying their well-deserved success. My friends have been so generous, it makes me cry, so I try not to let them see this way, as I actually do burst out crying pretty easily. The stress is constant. It makes you an ugly, bitter person, and the anxiety after that Mandee's episode saw me hobbling home as quickly as I could. I still act like everything's OK, but there are signs of poverty as you keep lowering your expectations until you're buying socks instead of a $8 necklace for your daughter.

Here's how you know you're poor and not "green":

When you cannot afford to fix a chipped tooth so you remember to stop smiling; when you cannot afford the copay on your PT after surgery even though it's the closest thing you've had to a spa treatment in years; when you sew up socks you rationalize how thrifty you are; when you eat beans you tell yourself how high fiber they are; when you're glad your kids are vegetarian because you can't afford meat; when you stop drinking/smoking/eating out and rationalize it for health reasons; when you stop getting haircuts because you're so "carefree you don't care;" when you can't even imagine going on a vacation with your family because you'd "rather stay home;" when you are so grateful for the generosity of your friends you cannot even thank them because you'd wind up bawling your eyes out.

Others have it so much worse; I know. I just want people to know how some of us are hiding in plain sight, serving you with a smile while our gut lurches with hunger and anxiety. I am putting Boing Boing up for sale, and the next person will use social media and about $30,000 to turn my well-loved shop into a great, successful highly profitable business. That person just isn't me.