Two Dollars and a Dream

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Chicago Skyline with Faces

Broke is a state of mind. This is why it’s not hard to see a lottery winner go from millions of dollars to bankruptcy in 60 seconds. A poverty mindset is like having bad blood in the body: it has to be cleaned. Ever wonder why there are so many reality show “housewives” (most are just glorified mistresses who are not married to their counterparts) are filmed jumping over tables to fight in 4-star restaurants?

Though we grew up on Chicago’s rough-and-tumble South Side, my parents had a different mentality when it came to the status quo. In many ways, we were the same number and had some similarities to the characters on the show, Good Times. There was me, my sister, and my brother. Like J.J., I fancied myself an aspiring artist back then, too. Much like Florida Evans, my mother was a devout Christian; my father could be about as intimidating as James Evans, if not more so. He wasn’t above threatening all the neighborhood gangbangers against recruiting my brother and I. Also, like James, my dad was constantly reading something.

When the summers came, there were lots of opportunities to get into trouble. Many kids started the school year in September pregnant or having gotten someone pregnant; some kids never made it back to school at all.

We were allowed to play with our friends, go to the neighborhood pools, do stupid bicycle tricks (channeling Evel Knievel), and walk clear across the city, if we’d like. However, between summer camps and Vacation Bible School programs, my mother had an interesting way of switching things up: weekly trips to the Cultural Center or one of the museums.

My mother was the queen when it came to stretching a buck. She could pinch a penny until Lincoln began to cry uncle. Her talent was being crafty about exposing us to the world on a tight budget.

For starters, most of the museums were located downtown. The DuSable Museum bordered Hyde Park, not very far from one of our favorite places: the Museum of Science & Industry. We like it so much because, back then, it was always free admission and there were plenty of exhibits. The other museums had days when they offered free admission, as well.

However, the Cultural Center, which was in the heart of downtown, was always free. In addition to often having some sort of hoity-toity event or lecture, there was a plethora of books! During that time, the Center also doubled as the city’s Central Library, so it held more volumes than even the collection at the sprawling Carter G. Woodson Regional Library. For hours on end, I could peruse the massive shelves, sit and just read.

In order to encourage us to make a day of our adventure, my mother gave us two dollars each. The breakdown was simple. Before we left home, we had a nice breakfast. It cost 50 cent to ride the bus and train to get downtown and the same amount for our return trip. The extra dollar was for lunch. We had discovered a restaurant within a couple of blocks of the Center that sold a Chicago style hot dog and fries to go for our remaining four quarters. The trick was that you had to take your order to go, which suited us just fine. My siblings and I would beat the lunchtime rush, grab our food, and go to Grant Park for an hour. They had water fountains, so we had something to drink. Then we’d return to the Cultural Center to hang out some more.

The funny thing is, when we would return from one of our trips to a museum or library, most of our neighborhood pals were in awe. Those were places they’d heard of but had never gone. Eventually, we began talking their mothers into giving them a couple of dollars so they could accompany us.

It’s amazing how such a small investment allowed us exposure to a world outside of the dirt, grime, and crime we’d grown used to. Those two dollars purchased our tickets outside of poverty mindsets.

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