Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. "I Don't Want To Die Poor" is the title of my guest Michael Arceneaux's new collection of personal essays. It's a good title, and unfortunately, it's a phrase that millions and millions more Americans have been saying to themselves since the pandemic struck. For Arceneaux, "I Don't Want To Die Poor" is a reference to his student loan debt, which has affected every aspect of his life since he graduated from Howard University in 2007. Arceneaux's first book was the bestseller "I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, And Other Reasons I've Put My Faith In Beyonce," which is about growing up black, Catholic and gay in Houston.
Michael Arceneaux, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
MICHAEL ARCENEAUX: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: In the book, you write that you think you're coming close to paying off your debt. But has the pandemic affected your ability to pay back your student loans?
ARCENEAUX: A little bit before the pandemic happened, my private lender granted me what was their version of mercy, that I could make only - interest-only payments, granted on the condition that the payments would balloon because I still have to pay it off within a certain time frame. But I'll just say, I'm on the path to paying them off, and I was kind of given a little bit of a bone, and I'm making the most of it. But, you know, I'm still worried about my earning potential as anyone else is right now.
GROSS: Is there any flexibility of forgiveness for college loans that are built into the stimulus?
ARCENEAUX: If you have federal loans, you have some leeway in terms of not making any payments between September. But that's not really my concern. I write about it from the perspective of having private loans, which is $100 billion of the trillion that people owe - I mean, that people owe totally, but disproportionately impacts black college graduates such as myself. So nothing that's out there has really addressed anything that would apply to me directly or people like me who suffer from those type of loans.
GROSS: So when you think about the pandemic now, are you more worried about your physical health or your financial health?
ARCENEAUX: Well, I have to worry about both. And - well, it's not - I mean, I just turned 36 on Easter. I'm black. I'm in Harlem. I was actually planning to go to Texas and, you know, spend more time there, but that is not the best place to go, either. So it's not lost on me that of the people that are dying, they are basically my demo. So I am worried about my health.
In terms of, you know, my finances, you know, much of the book I write about - yes, I talk about student loans, but I also write about the fact that we can't always control our fates, as evidenced by the fact that I graduated during the first Great Recession. And now on the heels of me finally feeling like I have some security in my life - which, for a lot of people my age, was really their first time to feel it - now we're in the wave of a pandemic. So it's very scary. So I worry about both because I have to.
GROSS: Yeah. It's like your debt is bracketed by financial crises...
GROSS: ...The financial meltdown of '07 and now the pandemic, just as you're really getting close to paying it off. You know, millions and millions of people are...
ARCENEAUX: I was finally trying to make some money, Terry Gross.
GROSS: Knowing that millions and millions more people are falling off of a financial cliff right now, I guess I'm wondering how that makes you feel. Like, you have a lot of company. I mean, there's always been a lot of debt, but it's really out of control right now. People are just on the verge of having - people have no income or on the verge of it right now.
ARCENEAUX: I am not a misery-loves-company type of person. And, you know, I think what's - one thing that's been interesting a lot of people, including some of my friends who've said, oh, your book is so timely now - and I think that is true. But at the same time, my book was timely before this because, for a lot of people, again, even a year ago, a lot of - I mean, it's not the same. Granted, it does not come with the doomsday plot and us wearing masks. But a lot of these harshnesses that a lot of people are experiencing right now, this is a lot of life for a lot of people last year, including people who are, quote-unquote, "successful" like me.
My uncle, who I reference in the title chapter of "I Don't Want To Die Poor," has died. He died of cancer. I reference that because I finally needed to talk about it because it was really killing me inside that I've lost yet another uncle to a system that literally lets people without much just die. And right now a lot of people are being left to die. A lot of people who put all their energy into these loans to just have access that most people get - take for granted are going to fall behind. I really worry about everyone.
And I feel blessed. And I'm - you know, my struggles of today are not from a year ago or a year before that, but we all, again - just everything is so fragile, and it's just really scary. It makes me really sad for other people who I know don't have it as fortunate as the both of us talking to each other right now.
GROSS: Did your uncle not have health insurance?
ARCENEAUX: He didn't have health insurance, and I realize he had - he was living a lot harder than I thought. He was very funny. He's actually the one relative from my dad's side of the family that I knew as both a child and adult. And as funny and as he - he was and the things he said were kind of just all over the place, if you read my books, he really did believe in me. And I didn't get to share with him that, you know, a lifelong dream was coming. It just makes me sad because a lot of people are going to - basically, not being able to say goodbye to folks that they love.
And they didn't have to die. My uncle didn't have to die. None of my uncles have had to die. God forbid something happened to me right now. Chances are I would still be just as susceptible to death. I shouldn't - God forbid if I got it, you know, I shouldn't have to die.
GROSS: You're living in Harlem now. How hard-hit is Harlem by the virus?
ARCENEAUX: If you live in West Harlem, it's very bad. You know, I see the images of people going out, you know, in Brooklyn and Williamsburg having a ball. I've seen the images of people at parties within the city, majority white. It is frustrating. Don't get me wrong. There are people in every group being trifling (laughter) and going outside and not really taking the severity of the moment, you know, seriously. But when you know it's so many black people that are dying that didn't have to die, that is so enraging. And it just makes the already traumatic situation much more hard to deal with.
GROSS: Is it too personal to ask you how much money you took out and what your monthly payments have been like?
ARCENEAUX: Somewhere around $100,000. I think that extra year added that. So it would have been maybe around $80. So it's in that ballpark. My payments started around - for the main private loans, initially, they were $800 because they changed...
GROSS: A month.
ARCENEAUX: ...Like, interest rates. Eight hundred a month, and that doesn't include the - like, the government loan. So that's an extra - that's, like, an extra $200, $300. And it's kind of ballooned over time. So sometimes, again, I can put the government loans deferred. They'll work with you. The private loans altogether - still over $1,000 a month and will be until they're paid off. But, again, we're working very hard to get that paid off as soon as possible.
GROSS: You know, you say that people ask you, how could you not have understood the financial commitment you were making when you took out the student loans? So what didn't you understand about student loans and how they'd affect your life?
ARCENEAUX: You know, I want to make - you know, I don't like to - and you didn't do this, but people have done this. They ask me that in a very condescending, patronizing way. If you read the book, like, yeah, I know I took a risk, but it was a calculated risk. I mean, I knew - I thought about NYU, and then I realized - I talk about how I thought Howard might have been initially a compromise. It was not a compromise. It was actually the best place for me to be. I just need to have the means to have the access that, you know, again, a lot of people are born with that I don't have.
And a lot of people have asked me, would you go back and do anything differently? No. That's the wrong question. The question shouldn't be whether or not I would go back and do it again. The question people more should be asking is, like, why should any person - why should so many people in this country have to go through that? Why should I have to take out a six-figure loan just to have the same access as a lot of other people, like, just have a basic fair shot? That's not fair.
What I didn't know is that, you know, George W. Bush would run the economy into the ground. And before that, media as I understood it, it imploded. You know, I didn't have any pretenses about, like, how media worked. You're supposed to, like, not - we're not supposed to. But you inherently don't make a lot of money, then you work your way up, and then you initially can make something.
Like, I really did study stuff. It's just, you know, the world, when I graduated, didn't exist, which is like right now. A lot of these kids are going to graduate into chaos. And should they had taken out the loans? If they were in my position, I understand why they did. But is the rest of that their fault? You know, like, I just feel like I was ready to - trying to, like, take the ball and chain attached to me. But when I graduated, there was nothing there for me. Everything I was told how it works wasn't there. So what was I supposed to do? And frankly, if I didn't take out those loans, you would never know who I was. I truly believe that. I don't - you and a lot of other people would have no idea who I was.
GROSS: Yeah. And - right. Like you said, you know, when you graduated, it was the financial crisis of 2007 and also media was changing. People were transitioning from print to digital. A lot of newspapers and magazines were going under. And digital tends to often pay less than print used to. So yeah, it was not a great moment to enter the job market for someone who's a writer and journalist. You call the student loan industry barely regulated and predatory. So for people who haven't had student loans, explain from your perspective as a recipient of those loans how the system is predatory.
ARCENEAUX: Well, within the first book - the first chapter of "I Don't Want To Die Poor," I walk you through a college fair at my - what would be described as, like, an inner city high school. And mind you, I know all of this sounds very serious, but I am a clown, so it's a very, I think, humorous description but accurate. I'm telling you how, basically, it's the Army there, the HBCUs, some state schools, and then there's one really, really attractive man from a well-to-do private HBCU outside of the state, who is the only person who actually talked to me about the ability to potentially go somewhere else.
The fact that he even - if he had inspired me even a year sooner, I probably would have won enough scholarship money to even do that, or I would have had more time to talk to more people, to do my own research to realize that these private loans - because the private lenders are the people who reached out to us. Like, these are the people who kind of directly came to us. Like, this is not - it didn't come out of thin air. You know, we - I didn't know that maybe if I had gotten, you know, the loan through my mom's name instead, she could have discharged it later and just transferred the debt to me. Or we could have had so many other things, like - again, my mom is a nurse, working class.
And she's talked to me about this since we've talked about, you know, my debt, obviously, a lot. She mentions how the doctors that she knows or certain other people have, like, gamed the system. Meanwhile, what I have is, essentially, the equivalent of the subprime mortgage crisis. So that - if I can't do it in any other way - that's what it is for a lot of black students. It is the equivalent of a subprime mortgage loan.
GROSS: Your mother had to co-sign your loan, and she was unhappy about you taking out a loan of so much money. What do you think the loan meant to her when you took it out?
ARCENEAUX: I think my mom just saw what it was. It was, like, debt (laughter). It was debt that I didn't necessarily want to, like, carry. While she understood that I had, you know, loftier goals, this - you know, this country doesn't really make space, more often than not, for people like me to have those types of dreams. It wasn't, like, out of spite. It wasn't jealousy. It was out of a real, genuine concern for her child, knowing how difficult this country makes it for people like us.
So she has never really - I mean, we had that moment. But she - as I note in the book, she apologized for that really not long after it happened and has supported me along the way. It's my guilt and my shame that I carry to it because, to me, my struggles with that debt, which impact her credit, I don't want to be another black man letting my mama down. That's what that is. But even my mom, to her credit, is like, boy, stop worrying about that. I'm not worried about that. You're doing the best you can. You're going to pay it off. I'll let that go. Why won't you let it go?
So, again, it's a lot of me trying to let - forgive myself for certain things that, you know, I don't even need to forgive myself for 'cause all I wanted to do was do right by me and, by extension, right by her and the rest of my family.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Arceneaux. His new collection of personal essays is titled "I Don't Want To Die Poor." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "SACRIFICE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Michael Arceneaux. His new collection of personal essays is titled "I Don't Want To Die Poor." That's a reference to the college loan debt that has affected every aspect of his life since he graduated in 2007. His first book was called "I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, And Other Reasons I've Put My Faith In Beyonce."
So you managed to get, like, 17 scholarships right before you started college.
GROSS: But you still needed loans, so I guess the scholarships were modest but very helpful. What was the hope of college for you and of going away from home in Houston to Howard in Washington, D.C.?
ARCENEAUX: Regardless of what my, you know, professional pursuits might have been, I might have, you know, benefited from some time away from home. And I think that's one aspect a lot of people sometimes don't necessarily consider, particularly when you're queer or trans or just, you know, different enough and you don't fit and what kind of hostile environment that can be and that you need to escape. You need a place where you can really be yourself or figure out what that means. College also meant, to me, just access to a better life.
My mom, to her credit - we did not grow up with much, but I always praise her for showing us where hard work looks like, what humility looks like. She went back to school to go from an LVN into an RN to also make more money to better support us. But she always instilled in me, like, college was, like, just a ticket to me, like, to have a better life and to have a fairer shake, again, because a lot of us are just not given that.
I saw Howard University in particular as a place where so many of the black people that I admire from so many different industries went. People like Debbie Allen from Houston went there. And, you know, she was an actress, a choreographer. "A Different World" meant so much to me, as it did to a lot of, you know, college students but, in particular, black college students. So I saw that school as, like, an opportunity for me to get the kind of life that I think I deserved to have.
GROSS: You sometimes had problems paying your monthly payments, and you'd get calls from the collection agency. Describe what the calls were like and the difference between the people who were nice on the phone and the people who weren't.
ARCENEAUX: So I will say when you, again, owe private student loans in particular, corporations are - surprising no one - are not as forgiving as the government is. So they will hound you. Some people are nicer than others. Sometimes I've gotten calls as early as 7 or 8 a.m. That's Eastern time. That's Central time. That's Pacific Standard Time. I've lived in different (laughter) time zones. They call you whenever. They don't care. Some people are nice.
But the thing is, they'll call me and say, you owe such and such and such. But if I don't have, I don't know, $3,000 to give you that day or even $1,800, I don't have it. And then they say, well, maybe we'll have some options. That's if they're actually nice. But these people don't allow options. The - for the entire - so far, the 12-year run ends - what? - next year so - no. Yeah, it does end soon. So they'll call and say hi. You owe this amount of money. If they're nice, they'll try to fake and give you options. But the reality is, you don't really have any options. It's either pay or, like, your credit is going to go to hell.
The people that are mean sometimes, which is really interesting, they're like, well, why don't you have it? And then start giving you career advice. And what annoys me about that is, like, OK, with all due respect, you're working at a call center. So you are speaking down to me based on the presumption that, because I can't pay my bills, I'm broke or poor, and so by virtue, I should be treated less than because that's how you think. But I'm, like, on the other end - I'm like, beloved, I probably - I'm pretty sure I make more than you, yet you're talking crazy to me.
And in one instance, as I recall in "I Don't Want To Die Poor," people called me on Christmas Eve. I'm in my twin bed in my mama's house, as if that's not humble enough, looking at this old picture of Mickey Mouse that we never took down.
ARCENEAUX: And I'm being harassed on Christmas Eve, like, why you don't got the money? (Laughter) And then they - oh, you buying Christmas gifts? No, I'm broke (laughter). I just tried to make sure I didn't pay health insurance. I will try to get you some money next week when these people finally pay me. But yeah, they really talk to you crazy, some of these folks. It's like, maybe that's your sense of power. But why would you - it just blows my mind that people could think in a situation like that to exercise even less compassion. That's also not a way to make me entice me to want to pay you faster, by the way. People need to work on their approach. That's not the right way to hustle.
GROSS: Did you ever think of the people who were calling you telling you it's time to pay, that they were people who were pretty on the edge financially themselves and that's why they were taking one of these call center jobs. I don't think people like those jobs. That doesn't make it any easier to get the calls. But, like, they're...
ARCENEAUX: One or two has actually mentioned that (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah. Uh-huh.
ARCENEAUX: I've actually had one or two people say - because I already - I literally know the drill. I was like - I've said, your employer does not allow much in the way of any type of (laughter) negotiation. So you're about to waste your time. And then sometimes - like, in the case, there's one or two times - they've been like, you know what? I've struggled with this, too, and I know they don't really give you much in the way of options. I'm really sorry. I know you're trying. I'll at least leave a note on the account. I'll try to get the calls to stop for at least a few days.
There have been moments when people in those ways - like, that have exercised grace. And I do appreciate that because the other people, when you're already feeling bad about - it's not like you don't want to pay. No one wants to be, like - you know, not pay a bill. No one wants to be, quote-unquote, "irresponsible." But it's like, if you're struggling, you're struggling. And kicking me when I'm down is not going to, you know, make the situation any better.
GROSS: You've asked yourself what your life would be like now if you'd accepted being gay before you left for college. How do you think it would have been different?
ARCENEAUX: Well, I would've gotten more scholarship money because there were organizations that (laughter) provided scholarships for queer students, particularly those in need who might have wanted to get away. But I wasn't ready to face that truth about myself. And I mentioned in "I Don't Want To Die Poor" how I helped one of my friends with her essay that got glowing, you know, reviews and won some money.
I think if I accepted myself sooner, I probably would just have a easier life all around. But, you know, you are who you are until you aren't. You - everybody works at their own pace. So yeah, I would have liked, you know, the less debt, but it would have been actually not probably the safest way for me all around to come out then. I'm not saying my parents would have hurt me, but I just don't think it would have been the best environment for me, scholarship money or not.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us my guest is Michael Arceneaux. And he has a new collection of essays called "I Don't Want To Die Poor," and that's a reference to the college loan debt that's affected every aspect of his life. So we'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANALOG PLAYERS SOCIETY'S "MOMENTS COMBINE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Michael Arceneaux. His new collection of personal essays is titled "I Don't Want To Die Poor." That fear is a result of the student loans he's spent years trying to pay off ever since he graduated from Howard University in 2007. His first book was the bestseller "I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, And Other Reasons I've Put My Faith In Beyonce." It was about growing up in Houston black, Catholic and gay.
So part of the reason why you took the loan to go to Howard is that you felt you really needed, first of all, to go to college, a good college. And second of all, you wanted to get away from home. And you write about how your father was often drunk, argumentative, sometimes violent. Was the violence directed against your mother, against you?
ARCENEAUX: We did have some violence and kind of, like, chaos in the home. But, you know, I will say, in the first book, I give him grace because I tried to give context to how people become that way, because I think it's really important to, if not for them - not really for them, for yourself, learn to see how people are and why they are that way in order to forgive them and to give yourself that own - your own sense of closure. But I will say, in "I Don't Want To Die Poor," I took it to another level, in that I write about my dad's addiction from the space of me really, really liking to smoke weed and get high because I needed the escape because I had avoided vices for so long.
And I realized, you know, alcohol kind of - I don't really like - I mean, I can drink and hold my liquor. It's very, like, a Arceneaux man thing, like a trope we say among ourselves, the ones I do talk to. But that didn't sustain me. That made me feel weird. But I actually did like weed because it calms me down. I mentioned in "I Can't Date Jesus" I've tried antidepressants. But I say in "I Don't Want To Die Poor" about my dad in particular is that now I under - I mean, I understood addiction.
And I'm not saying I'm an addict. But I'm just saying, you know, that feeling of escape and pleasure, particularly as you kind of - in my dad's case, you know, he was abused. He grew up poor, rural. There are not opportunity a lot of - my dad's a very hard worker, very talented. Like, I admire him, you know. Even if I've, you know, hated him a lot of the times, too, I still love him. But, you know, again, that doesn't excuse what he's done. But I have a better understanding of it now.
And I really do get, you know, how even those moments of escape, those senses of pleasure, you have to really, really be careful about that because it's easy to fall into that, which is why I usually try to tell people in general and tell myself is that, I try to allow myself to have moments of anger and frustration, especially now, as we just, frankly, don't know what's happening. And a lot of people, particularly my folk, are dying. But I have that moment. And I let it go because if I hold onto it then I will turn to some other vice. And then that's how addiction happens. And that's what happens to my father. That happens to a lot of people's parents - what happens to a lot of people.
GROSS: Have you and your father been able to talk about the violent episodes of the past?
ARCENEAUX: No. My dad doesn't talk - we don't talk about stuff like - here's the thing. I would love it if my dad had the language - and again, this is not intended to diminish him at all because it's not about that. He doesn't have the language and the - to talk about any of that in the way that I would like. And that's - sometimes I think some people kind of make the mistake of kind of giving people expectations that they just will never be able to meet. I've had difficult conversations with my father about - even then - what he was doing. We've since had some conversations. But they're very minimal. And he is who he is.
But because I have already made peace with a lot of it and, you know, with age comes - you quiet down. So I don't really have to think about it as much either, to be blunt. We now - you know, he calls and checks on me all the time. I mean, we only talk for a few seconds, kind of like, hey, boy. How are you doing? (Inaudible). You all right? All right. I love you, boy. Bye. Even - like, I - over the last, you know, few years, I ended a call being like, love you, Pop. I've gotten him to say love you back.
And to me, that's like, you know, again, we're not going to have that conversation. This is not the end of, like, some great, you know, family movie that's going to come out on Christmas staring, you know, whoever - some black actress I love. That's not - it's not going to go down like that. But where we're at is good. I love him. He loves me. I need to work out some of the other stuff, maybe, just with a therapist because a therapist will have the tools. But, you know, he's as good as he's going to get. And I made peace with that. So we're OK.
GROSS: Did your parents stay together?
ARCENEAUX: Yeah. They're together. I don't get it. It's not business. Whatever.
ARCENEAUX: Yeah, whatever. And then I'd bring it up to my mom. And she's like, yeah, whatever and laughs. I don't know. (Laughter) I mind my business. I'm out of it.
GROSS: How do your parents feel about you writing about them in such a personal way?
ARCENEAUX: My dad and I have never really talked about my books. My dad is not going to, you know, go to Barnes & Noble and pick it up. My dad don't use the computer. Like, he's aware because I've done certain things. He know what I do enough. And he just makes sure I'm OK, you know? He's - that's my dad. My mom is far more aware. She did not love me talking about my life because she's come from a school of thought of that you don't tell your business.
And if you read "I Can't Date Jesus," which the title is a nod to her (laughter), her disapproval of me being so openly gay, I guess. You know, my mom has since said - well, I mean, she even said it then, you care too much about what I think. Does she read my books? No. But I will say, in light of some recent events regarding "I Can't Date Jesus," namely that it's being, you know, adapted for series...
GROSS: Into a TV series?
GROSS: Oh, wow. Congratulations (laughter).
ARCENEAUX: Thank you. Well, I will put, like, the - we don't - we're in development, you know? I feel very confident. But nothing is for certain. I will just say, I'm working with Jerrod Carmichael and Lee Daniels and Marc Velez, along with 20th Century Fox, on the TV adaptation. So...
ARCENEAUX: ...The one conversation we had with - about the book when it first came out when I went home for Houston - to Houston for an event was not a pleasant conversation. So I've really not spoken a lot about any of this since then, which is, you know, not great. But because of some things that are happening, just realistically, we're going to have to have this difficult conversation - conversation, actually, didn't turn out to be that difficult. Does my mom necessarily approve of everything that I do? No.
But, to her credit, even when she doesn't like what I do professionally, she's still been there the whole time. We argue. Sometimes we don't speak. We have a very difficult conversation. But that's what our thing is. You know, sometimes, queer people may be not be completely pushed out. And it's kind of this weird, gray area, but there is love there with my mom. And I've actually talked to her a lot more during this because I had planned to be in Houston more because we're not getting any younger.
So will she read the book? Probably not. Is she aware? Well, she has no choice but to be now (laughter). But she's not - she's been really supportive. If anything, she's just kind of given me advice and asked me to basically not be taken advantage of. So I'm actually really happy that what I thought I wouldn't be able to share with her, including, you know, this book and other things that might be coming - you know, if we survive - she's been really nice about it. We had a really, really nice conversation last week. And it actually made me really happy because I was worried about what could potentially happen. And I'm happy. I worried if you were going to make me cry, Terry Gross, by the way.
ARCENEAUX: I'm keeping it together. I was, like, dancing to a new - from a song from a rapper called Young Thug. And then randomly, there was like, wait; is Terry going to make me cry?
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Arceneaux. His new collection of personal essays is titled "I Don't Want To Die Poor." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED NASH'S "THE FOUR FREEDOMS (FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Michael Arceneaux. His new collection of personal essays is titled "I Don't Want To Die Poor." That's a reference to the college loan debt that's affected every aspect of his life since he graduated in 2007. His first book was called "I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, And Other Reasons I've Put My Faith In Beyonce." It was about growing up black, Catholic and gay in Houston.
ARCENEAUX: I just made the sign of the Cross. Thank you.
ARCENEAUX: Shoutout to my mom.
GROSS: Do you go to church anymore?
ARCENEAUX: Oh, no. Well, OK, so - no, no, no. I went to Mass once with my mom end of 2018. She did not ask me to go. I surprised her. I was like, hey, Momma (ph), can I go to church with you? Sure. And she tried to act like she wasn't excited. But I was texting my sister. My sister's like, she excited. (Laughter) Don't let her - no, I went with her to Mass. It was actually really sad. There was, like, no one there. It felt really lonely. So I haven't been back. No, thank you. But God bless.
GROSS: You still put your faith in Beyonce (laughter)?
ARCENEAUX: Won't she do it? Yeah. She just released - you know, she just released a song with Megan Thee Stallion, another Houston person, and brought joy to my life in darkness. Yes. She always is right on time. I just need to get her to read "I Can't Date Jesus" and realize I'm alive - any day now.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's right. OK. You know, I'm thinking how you have a foot in two really different worlds. You know, on the one hand, you're still in debt for your college loans. On the other hand, like, you have this deal to get your first book adapted into a TV series with Lee Daniels working on it. And, like, another example of that, like when your first book, "I Can't Date Jesus," came out, you were invited to do a paid speaking engagement in Philadelphia where a lot of, you know, very high-powered, prestigious people have spoken. And they would reimburse you your travel for getting there, but you had to lay out the money in advance, and you didn't really have it. So, you know, you're in two worlds at the same time. And having a foot in the world of, like - of being an author, of having paid speaking engagements and now having this deal to adapt your memoir, (laughter) you're still in debt.
ARCENEAUX: Yeah. I became a New York Times bestselling author the same week I lost my health insurance. And there's a chapter in the book called "It's Cheaper To Die," which references, you know, again, another weird, gray area of people who make more than the median income, which is not a lot in this country, but don't qualify for subsidies. And for varying other reasons, your health care is kind of really bad. And if you miss a payment, it's a wrap. And I have student loans, so I still got to pay those.
And actually, with my mom thing, another reason why we get to - can't really talk about my, quote-unquote, "success" is I was still broke. She was still getting them calls (laughter). In fact, a week ago, she still thought that she had to, you know, chip in a little bit, like $50 on my loans. And I was like, who told you that? And I literally had to call the lender and say, do not talk to my mother. Leave her alone. We've already arranged this. She's never giving you another dollar in this life. Do not do that. I was actually enraged by that part.
But, yeah, I do have a foot in both worlds because I just really know how difficult it is to attain social mobility. And I say this with respect, but I don't think most people in media and entertainment recognize that even being able to exist within these industries, which are really designed for people who can afford sacrifice, that most people can't afford those sacrifices.
I am very lucky to even be able to get my mom's good credit to go into debt to get in those spaces. Do you know what I mean? So I recognize - and I think, oftentimes, a lot of things that are missing is, like, the working-class perspective, because a lot of the book is, you know - shoutout to the marketing team and my publisher - about chasing a dream. You know, this is also about real economic anxiety, which I heard was a topic people love to talk about, and yet (laughter) don't really hear from, like, people like my background's perspective.
GROSS: Yeah. You manage to have a humorous voice in writing about a lot of, you know, bad stuff that's happened to you. Does that come naturally? Or do you have to, like, transform it into something with a humorous twist?
ARCENEAUX: Naturally to the point where sometimes I piss myself off. And I actually do credit my parents for that. My dad is hilarious. My mom is hilarious. My siblings are hilarious. We all have our own personalities and senses of humor. Everybody's funny. But there are a lot of people who are funny, you know, as a result of, like, chaos, 'cause I - at least for me, humor is how I stay alive. So it's not forced. I think of anything in the book, there were moments where my natural inclination was maybe to make a joke, but I took it out because I'm like, this actually doesn't require that. Just let it breathe. But, you know, I do have a lot of humor in me.
GROSS: Just one more question. You know, growing up working-class, maybe being on the edge of sinking below working-class for a while, does the reality of the possibility of being poor - do you think that it's more apparent to you as somebody who still owes student loan money than for somebody who grew up middle-class?
ARCENEAUX: You know, I hope right now a lot of people are realizing that when they say most Americans are one or two checks away, again, from ruin, that also can apply to them. You know, those bread lines that are, you know, all across the country, particularly in Texas and Houston and Dallas, those are not all, you know, working-class or right below it. It's a lot of people who, you know, found themselves in the situation because in the same - I mean, it impacts working-class, poor people the harshest and the swiftest. But fundamentally, we should really be asking ourselves a lot about how society worked before because I see a lot of people, friends, everyone like, oh, I can't wait to go back to normal. First of all, we're not - there's no sense of that - that's not happening. Whatever you thought normal was, that's not coming back. And even so, why would you want to go back to that? Because, again, a lot of folks were down, and a lot of folks were defaulting. A lot of people were dying because this health care industry is merciless. It's just even worse for a lot of folks now.
So hopefully, people are taking that perspective. And I will just, if I can, add this one thing, even about the TV stuff and with "I Don't Want To Die Poor" and a lot of my work - because I've actually been revisiting a lot of my work in regards to, like, my book and potentially the series is that I really have been talking about class this entire time. And I hope onscreen and in books that I give voice to people who I just feel like are not heard from. But I think even though if I'm specifically talking to some people, everyone can take away from the fact that, like, right now it's just harder than it needs to be for reasons beyond our control. It's very easy to, you know, punish yourself in so many different ways.
The lessons of "I Don't Want To Die Poor" and "I Can't Date Jesus" - I just continue to tell people, please don't be as much of a mess as I was (laughter). That's the thing. And in this case, I'm just trying to add a little bit more compassion, specifically, to, like, the working-class folk in this country, many of whom are black and are being left to die.
GROSS: Well, Michael Arceneaux, thank you so much for talking with us. Stay well. I wish you good health and your family, too.
ARCENEAUX: Thank you so much for having me. I wish the same for you.
GROSS: Michael Arceneaux's new collection of personal essays is called "I Don't Want To Die Poor." After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review a new album by the band X. It's the first album of new material with the band's original lineup in 35 years. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BISIO QUARTET AND RON SODERSTROM'S "A.M.")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker says the quartet X was the greatest band to emerge from the LA punk scene in the 1980s and that the band's new album "Alphabetland" can take its place alongside the best work they've ever done. "Alphabetland" is X's first album of new material with the band's original lineup in 35 years. Ken says it's proof that getting older doesn't mean being less passionate.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALPHABETLAND")
X: (Singing) Tearing up the sidewalks, pouring wet cement, erasing your initials, alphabet wrecked. I watched you pour white gasoline to cover up your scent, burned your name to cinders, alphabet wrecked. Blue you wear like martyr blue, atom bomb bruises, cold war flu. Blue you wear like martyr blue, atom bomb bruises, cold war flu.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Listen to that. The hammering beat of the drums by D.J. Bonebrake, the razor-slash guitar riffing of Billy Zoom, the sweet and sour harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Yes, X, the greatest Los Angeles band to emerge from punk rock, is back. The music on this new album "Alphabetland" is the sound of X snatching back its past in order to fuel the music of its future.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATER AND WINE")
X: (Singing) The divine that defines us, the evil that divides us. There a heaven and a hell, and there's an, oh, well. Who gets passed to the head of line? Who gets water and who gets wine? There's a heaven, and there's a never. There's no tomorrow, only forever.
TUCKER: When X first emerged in the late 1970s, it was a mixture of influences at once unique and familiar. Exene and John Doe met at poetry readings at Beyond Baroque, a bookstore and performance space in Venice, Calif. The two of them, poets turned songwriting collaborators who were also briefly married, shared a literary sensibility akin to the Beat poets of the 1950s. That same decade inspired Billy Zoom, who had played in throwback rockabilly bands. What made them punk was their vehemence, their concise bluntness, their contempt for the fat-cat decadence and oversensitivity of the Los Angeles music industry all around them. X didn't sound like anyone else, and the band knew that that meant they were on the right track.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE LIFE")
X: (Singing) Wind up a top. It spins till it drops. It spins fast. Hit the gas. That's me falling. That's my calling. It's been a strange day, strange night, strange day, strange life.
TUCKER: Like a lot of bands, X had a big creative surge at the start of their career. They cut their four first four albums - all of them excellent, some of them great - in three years, then followed a period of creative and commercial struggle, a burnout and a breakup, other projects and silence.
The new material doesn't have a trace of nostalgia or a slackening of intensity. If anything, the words, the guitars and the drums possess a go-for-broke urgency, a feeling of if not now, when? Recorded shortly before our present situation shut everything down, "Alphabetland" dramatizes one widespread reaction to the current moment, the feeling that if you're ever going to get something done, do it now and don't waste time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODBYE YEAR, GOODBYE")
X: (Singing) Beats keep beating my brains in. Everyone's talking so loud. Why can't we stop for a minute and pull away from the crowd? What gives us the right to be so loud this silent night? Guzzling tequila, spilling cups of coffee. One lover died but another is hoping. Chimes are chiming for hearts that are broken. Goodbye year, goodbye. Please don't make us cry. So long year, so long. We'll sing you out with a song. The party started...
TUCKER: I was lucky enough to be living in Los Angeles when X first got together, and I spent many a happy evening slipping on and off various LA freeways to hunt down the tiny nightspots, Knights of Columbus meeting halls and the abandoned buildings that X found to perform in in the days before they were signed to a record label. I would look around these small, hot, cramped rooms and think, why isn't everyone in the world here? Who would not love this music? Forty-plus years later, John and Exene and D.J. Bonebrake are in their 60s, Billy Zoom is in his 70s. I listen to this new music and now I think, aren't we lucky to have this gift once again?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DELTA 88 NIGHTMARE")
X: (Singing) We're going to go to Cannery Row. We're going to go to Cannery Row. We're going to flop at No Hotel. We're going to get drunk as hell. We're going to go to Canner Row. We're going to find Mack and Doc. We're going to go to Cannery Row. We're going to go to Cannery Row. Delta 88, Delta 88, nightmare. Delta 88, Delta 88, nightmare. Delta 88, Delta 88, nightmare.
GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed X's new album "Alphabetland."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be a doctor working on treatments for COVID 19. He's best known for his research into the rare disorder he suffered from, Castleman disease. He created a network of doctors, patients and scientists to crowdsource the most promising research for the disease with startling results. He's written a new memoir called "Chasing My Cure." I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a recording by Little Richard, one of the first great rock 'n' rollers. He died Saturday at the age of 87. This is the title song from the 1956 rock 'n' roll movie "The Girl Can't Help It." Little Richard performs this in the film.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT")
LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) She can't help it. The girl can't help it. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. If she walks by, the men folks get engrossed. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. If she winks an eye, the bread slice turn to toast. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. If she got a lot of what they call the most, she can't help it. The girl can't help it. The girl can't help it. She was born to please. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. And if she's got a figure made to squeeze - she can't help it; the girl can't help it - won't you kindly be aware, the girl can't help it. The girl can't help it.
If she mesmerizes every mother's son, she can't help it. The girl can't help it. If she's smiling, beefsteak become well done. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. She makes grandpa feel like 21. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. The girl can't help it. She was born to please. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. And if I go to her on bended knee - she can't help it; the girl can't help it - won't you kindly be aware that I can't help it. I can't help it. Because I'm hoping, obviously, that some day the answer will be the girl can't help it and she's in love with me. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. Oww (ph).
If she walks by, the men folks get engrossed. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. If she winks an eye and the bread slice turn to toast, she can't help it. The girl can't help it. She got a lot of what they call the most. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. The girl can't help it. She was born to please. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. And if she's got a figure made to squeeze, she can't help it. The girl can't help it. I'm hoping, obviously, that some day the answer will be...