Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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My wife and I were living in a bleak Midwestern steel town, working long hours but not making enough to pay our bills. Some months we put food on the table with a credit card. Our boy had just turned three, and we pampered him with everything that didn’t cost anything: digging for worms in the yard, taking walks in the neighborhood, singing and dancing around the house.
The winters were long and gray. We closed off half the house and tended the old furnace in the basement like a sacred flame. There was a mall a few miles away, and every few weeks I drove my boy there, skidding on the icy streets in a fifteen-year-old Toyota pickup. We would walk up and down the heated mall, look in the shop windows, ooh and aah over telescopes at the camera store or robots in the toy store. I’m not sure whether he understood that you could buy these items and take them home.
Right in the middle of the mall was an open space that held a huge merry-go-round: brightly colored ponies bobbing up and down, polished wooden benches. Tickets were only a dollar, but two dollars was an extravagance to me at the time. My son and I would pause and watch it go around, and sometimes he would dance to the calliope music.
One day I brought along two dollars in quarters and dimes so we could ride the merry-go-round. The man tending it told me that only my boy needed a ticket; I could ride for free to hold him. I put him on a horse and placed my hands around his waist, but when the ride got underway, he didn’t like it — too high, too much motion. So I lifted him off the horse, and we sat on one of the benches instead. Round and round we went, waving at the shoppers going by.
Every time I thought I could spare a dollar that winter, I drove my son to the mall, and we took a ride. He would lean into me, his blue eyes shining, taking it all in. He didn’t know we were broke. His happiness made me want to cry.
In 1997 I was fresh out of college with a degree in English literature and living in Los Angeles. My dream was to be a novelist and screenwriter and drink all day, like William Faulkner, but my first job didn’t pay enough for me to afford alcohol, let alone LA rent. I stayed with my parents in their apartment in Koreatown and worked at a postproduction studio.
The office was three stories of gleaming modernity: metal handrails, exposed beams, wall-to-wall windows. I sat at a table near the front door, answering phones and greeting the movie execs and talent who came to view the “dailies” — raw footage that had just been shot. The film editors were all men, and I was frequently sexually harassed. Hunter, one of the editors, would sit at the edge of my desk and pester me daily, often touting the benefits of casual sex. “It’s just about bodies, the moment,” he would say. Then he’d share his latest erotic encounter in graphic detail while eyeing my body up and down.
One of our clients, John, was an award-winning commercial director. He had long hair and kind eyes and always looked like he’d just come from sailing his yacht. I liked him because he was the only client who didn’t demand that one of the assistants park his car for him. He spoke to me not as an underling but as an equal. So when he invited me to lunch, I accepted.
John drove me to Beverly Hills in his Ferrari convertible and offered to buy me any overpriced outfit I wanted. I let my fingers drift over the silk dresses, pretending not to notice that their price tags were more than my weekly paycheck.
“Let me help you,” he said. “You’re struggling.”
I was tempted, but I knew it would mean I owed him. So I said no. He insisted on buying me an expensive face scrub instead: Japanese oatmeal with natural apricot scent. When I wouldn’t accept the box, he opened it and stuffed my purse with the packets. (Could it get any less romantic than forcing facial exfoliant on me?) I gave him a hug and went back to Koreatown.
Meanwhile my boss, Don, was grooming me to be a producer — a fancy-sounding title for the person who managed the money.
“I trust you,” he told me. “You’re sensible. I don’t trust most women.”
His plan was for me to run the business while he and his boyfriend went on world cruises. I told him no, that this job was temporary for me, and I wanted to become a writer. He got angry and said I owed him. Plus John wouldn’t come back if I wasn’t there. He was their most important client! Don leaned over my desk and put his face right in mine as he yelled. Although I knew never to cry at work, I did. Then I quit.
The other employees refused to believe it. “No one leaves,” they said.
“Who will be my eye candy if you’re gone?” Hunter said.
I gave my two weeks’ notice, said my goodbyes, and left without knowing where my next paycheck would come from. I never went back there or saw any of those people again.
Los Feliz, California
I was determined to pursue my dream of a college education, being the first in my family to do so. In September 1957 I started attending California Western University. I’d been in the Navy and had the GI Bill to help me out, but after paying for tuition, books, transportation, and other expenses, I was just getting by.
I moved into my parents’ rented house in Ocean Beach, and shortly after that, my mother suggested a small financial contribution for food and housing expenses would be appreciated. She told me not to cut into my college money, though.
I paid what I could, but it wasn’t enough. When Christmas came around that year, things were looking pretty bleak. My folks had no money in the bank and no income other than Dad’s salary, which wasn’t enough to support a family of six. We had a mostly bald Christmas tree with few gifts beneath it. The two youngest got socks and underwear. My parents, my teenage brother, and I settled for even less.
When all the packages had been opened, and the floor was covered in wrapping paper, the others presented me with a heavy box. Everyone watched with expectant smiles as I unwrapped the present and pulled out a beautiful Smith Corona portable typewriter, the best you could buy. A college student needed a typewriter, they said. Everyone had chipped in.
I have no idea how they managed to pay for it. To this day I cannot think of that moment without tears.
I’ve been a prisoner in Texas for twenty years. All able-bodied inmates in the state are required to work, but we do not get paid.
When a prisoner has no family or friends who will donate to his commissary account, life here is even more unbearable. We aren’t fed enough at meals. To supplement our diet, we buy ramen-noodle soup from the prison store. Those with money add cheese, chips, and other items to their soup, while those without sit and watch, hoping to be offered the last few bites in exchange for washing the empty bowl.
Prisoners commit degrading and desperate acts just to earn some soup. Guys will wash their neighbors’ clothes, using the toilets as their washing machines, or sell their weekly roll of toilet paper.
Broke coffee drinkers also do some questionable things to get that fix of caffeine. One man I knew would hide in the shower with another prisoner and please him sexually in return for a four-ounce bag of instant coffee. The prison store sells a small pot that heats water for coffee. Those who can’t afford a pot use another way to heat the water: they attach wires to a set of nail clippers, place the clippers in a cup of water, and slide the other end of the wires into a wall socket. These illegal “stingers” sometimes blow the circuit breakers.
Soups and coffee are not the only commodities prisoners hustle for when broke. The indigent are allowed twenty-five sheets of writing paper, five stamps, and five envelopes per month. If you need more, you must get them from other prisoners. You’d be surprised at the lengths a person will go to in order to write his family and friends.
Those who have no money often lie to the prison medical staff about having ailments or cut themselves to obtain medications, ointments, and other supplies to sell. Some even sell their legitimately prescribed medications and risk getting sicker, all to have a little more to eat.
Ricky “Wiz Kid” Moulder
Tennessee Colony, Texas
Full of the optimism of youth, I moved to Florence, Italy, at the age of twenty-two. I bought a one-way ticket with money I had made cleaning gutters. A high-school friend had put me in touch with an Italian named Martino, who rented his extra room to me. He rode a Vespa, wore a silver cross around his neck, and didn’t speak any English. To walk to the city center took forty-five minutes, so Martino stole a yellow bicycle for me. I painted it black in a dark alley at night.
I got a job bartending at a place called Amadeus Music Bar, though it never had live music while I was there. It was managed by a Senegalese man named Big No, who rarely spoke, never smiled, and wore a gold medallion of a machine gun. I didn’t have a work visa, so Big No paid me in cash. He told me if the cops came by, I should sit at a table and pretend to be a customer. He didn’t smile when he said this. When the cops came by, that’s what I did.
I made seven euros (about nine dollars) an hour. Every night at 4 AM I had to close up: Clean the bar and espresso machine. Restock the liquor. Mop the floors. Wipe the tables. Clean up the vomit and urine and shit in the bathroom. Put up the chairs.
I was supposed to throw away the old pastries and paninis in the glass case beside the register, but instead I’d pack them into my shoulder bag until it bulged and ride my stolen bike through the empty streets, back to the quiet flat I shared with Martino, where I’d collapse into bed.
I ate the old pastries and sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and spent my cash on a course to become a certified English teacher. The classes lasted from 8 AM to 3 PM each day. Afterward I would sleep as long as I could before going to bartend. I got hardly any sleep, but I was twenty-two, and there was something romantic about it all.
As soon as I was certified to teach English, I was offered a job that paid as much an hour as I made in an entire night of bartending. Shortly after that, Big No called and asked me to cover a shift. Though my bartending days were coming to an end, I agreed.
It was dark and raining lightly as I biked to work. I felt free and on the verge of a breakthrough. With my new job I’d be able to afford to take women out on dates — or just eat out myself, for that matter.
Then I was hit by a car. I lay on the pavement in the rain while the driver yelled at me in Italian for not having a light on my bike. My ankle was shattered, and I spent two weeks in a hospital room with no running water. The guy in the bed next to mine had an infection that smelled rotten. The woman in the adjacent room wouldn’t stop moaning, “Moio, moio” — I’m dying.
I lost the job. I had a broken ankle. I’d never felt so broke.
In the early 1990s my husband and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment that smelled like a nursing home. He sold paint; I waited tables. We were so broke we couldn’t even afford fast food, but we were young and in love. We spent our free time doing puzzles and shooting pool in the apartment-complex rec room or playing tennis out back and laughing so hard we couldn’t even swing our rackets. On the weekends we would stay in bed drinking coffee and watching reruns.
Twenty-five years later we have two children, two homes, two cars, a boat, a truck, an SUV, snowmobiles. My husband works long hours for a corporation and seems bothered by my very existence. We never laugh — just work a lot. I’m tired and cranky and feel guilty for going to the gym or picking up a book or magazine because there is always so much to do.
Other than our children, I would give up everything we have and go back to being broke in that smelly apartment.
I had an unpaid internship in Los Angeles and drove a produce truck to make ends meet. I bounced down the freeways, transporting hydroponic lettuce to farmers’ markets for an Indonesian man named Yanto. I managed to bring home a total of twelve thousand dollars in 2006.
My apartment complex was in a residential area with four-hour street parking during the day. I would set an alarm to remind me to move my car every four hours. One day I forgot and received a seventy-two-dollar parking ticket. I had absolutely no extra room in my budget. If I paid the ticket, I couldn’t pay my portion of the rent. I stared blankly at the slip of paper, amazed that something so small might lead to my eviction.
The next week my car was stolen. How would I keep my job without a car? Commuting to the farm by public transportation took me six hours each day.
I ended up borrowing a rotating selection of friends’ cars — a feat of organization that required a color-coded spreadsheet. Upon opening the cash box at the South Pasadena Farmers’ Market one evening, I found a check for $215 from Yanto and his immigrant friends.
Their gift touched me deeply. I still had privileges that many of them didn’t: being white and a native English-speaker; being a legal U.S. citizen; having friends with money. When my car was found a month later, stripped of a few essential parts, my friends raised the funds to help me get it running again.
I can still feel the shame and helplessness of living paycheck to paycheck, the fear of a misstep that overshadowed everything. I like to think it informs the work I do now with at-risk families.
Los Angeles, California
My share of the rent on the Washington, D.C., apartment was just forty-two dollars a month. If it had been much more, I would have been broke.
The apartment was above a flower shop on 17th Street, not far from Dupont Circle. I had moved there because my older brother was a lawyer in the city.
I worked for an explosives company, blasting away the bedrock downtown to create four-story underground parking garages. What I really wanted to do was make steel sculptures. I had an arrangement with a stone-sculptor: I helped him on occasion in exchange for a small studio space, where I had set up my welding equipment. When I was working, though, I had no time to sculpt. Then I got laid off and had time but no money to buy oxygen and acetylene.
While I waited for my first unemployment check, I borrowed money from my housemates, my friends, and my brother. I wanted to believe I was living the bohemian life — suffering for my art and all that — but I worried I wasn’t committed or passionate enough.
It turned out I wasn’t eligible for unemployment benefits. There were nights I went to bed hungry. My housemates shared food with me, but I could mooch off them only so long. My brother, who lived out in the suburbs with his second wife, would have gladly fed me, but it was too far to ride on my bike. Once in a while he bought me lunch in the city. I didn’t want to keep asking for money.
My poverty came to define me. I wasn’t an artist; I was just broke.
At Thanksgiving my brother and his wife invited me to their house. I thought I’d be able to relax and watch football, but I was too anxious about my financial predicament. The other guests were lively, talkative, and funny; I was none of those things. I think I made everyone uncomfortable.
After dinner my brother suggested that I go for a walk with him and his wife. Walks have always been my family’s solution to problems. Motion somehow decreases anxiety.
The leaves had fallen from the trees, and we kicked at them as we went. Then my brother said, “Let’s walk in time together.”
I looked at him. “What?”
“Come on,” he said, standing between his wife and me. “Take my hand.”
The next thing I knew, the three of us were strolling hand in hand, swinging our arms. I don’t think I had ever held my brother’s hand before. I enjoyed the sensation of his fingers in mine. In that moment I felt safe. I felt abundance.
In the late spring of 1980 I’d just finished a semester at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and was in Ketchikan, Alaska, looking for work. Unfortunately the fishing season hadn’t started yet, and the loggers were on strike, so there were no jobs to be found. My cash dwindled until finally, after a week of subsisting on whatever I could catch or gather, I decided to go back to Wisconsin to see my girlfriend.
The ferry to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, cost $18.40, and I no longer had even a penny. Fortunately a local deckhand paid me twenty dollars to finish scraping barnacles off a skiff, and I bought a ticket and boarded the ferry that night.
Once the boat was underway, I met an older man in work clothes who was driving to Montana and said he’d give me a ride, no problem. But first we had to make the border crossing into Canada. It’s unwise to go through customs with a stranger — you could be held responsible for any contraband the other person has — so he agreed to pick me up on the other side of the border.
In the morning I was first in line to go through customs.
“How much money do you have?” the officer asked me.
“Some,” I said.
I needed to have a minimum of two hundred dollars, he told me: “We don’t want anyone getting stuck in Canada, homeless, drawing on government resources.”
“I have one-sixty,” I said.
The customs officer looked me over. “One-sixty, huh?” he said.
I tried not to fidget.
“Well that’s pretty close, I guess.” He waved me through.
In the gray light of an overcast dawn, I set my backpack on the road and beamed inwardly at my cleverness. The customs officer had thought I meant $160. Actually I had $1.60.
It was at least two hours before the old man’s red van finally appeared. I reached for my pack so I could hop in, but he zoomed right past without even looking my way.
Just then the cloud cover parted, and a shaft of sunlight illuminated the open road. I was 2,500 miles from home with a dollar and change in my pocket. I felt alone and a little scared, but also supremely alive as I hoisted my backpack, adjusted the straps, and started walking.
When I was nine or ten, my family lived in a trailer park in Freeport, Illinois. The local junkyard was nearby, and my sisters and I would scavenge there. One week I found a rotary push mower that still worked — kind of. I dragged it back to the house, cleaned it up, and gave it a try. It made a satisfying snick-snick-snick. I was in business. I went around the trailer park, offering to mow people’s lawns for five dollars. Quite a few neighbors took me up on it, and I happily pushed my mower over their grass, then collected my hard-earned money. Holding that first five dollars in my hand, I imagined saving enough to buy a Nintendo game.
At home I cut a slit in the top of an empty Kool-Aid container and stuffed my money inside. I showed my mother and told her my plan for the money. She said that was a wonderful idea.
I soon realized our trailer park was too small to keep me busy, so I started venturing outside of it. My mother was fine with this, as long as I returned home by dark. Eventually I got enough regular customers that I made my rounds every Saturday and came home with a pocketful of cash to stuff into the bank. I was proud of myself.
After a few weeks I felt certain I had enough to do some shopping, so I went to open my bank. Inside were a mess of quarters and a few scraggly dollar bills.
Where were all those five-dollar bills I had shoved in? I went to ask my mother.
“Oh, honey,” she said, “I had to borrow it so I could buy smokes and pay some bills.”
“Are you going to pay me back?”
“No. You’re a young man now. It’s time for you to pull your weight around here.”
That’s when I realized just how poor my family really was.
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
There’s no food in the house except bouillon cubes and the ends of a loaf of bread.
You eat tuna and noodles for dinner every Friday, made with only one can of tuna to feed a family of six.
Mother forges a medical form for you to attend school, signing it “Dr. John Fogerty.” (You aren’t caught.)
In middle school you finally get glasses. On the drive home from the eye doctor, you stare in amazement at the new world. The concrete has cracks in it?
You switch to soft contact lenses in high school. They are supposed to last a year, but you wear them longer. After one rips, you move the remaining lens from eye to eye every few weeks. When you finally see the eye doctor again, he tells you to tell your mother to bring you more often, and you feel ashamed.
You have only enough money for one new shirt, so you choose a black one, because black is always in fashion. You’d prefer a trendy colorful shirt, but it would be out of style before you could buy another.
Most of your clothes are from the thrift store, which means they smell like somebody else’s sweat. Or you buy clearance items that aren’t your size. You get used to wearing clothes that don’t fit. So what if your stomach aches because your pants are too small? So what if your feet hurt because you wear the wrong-size shoe? You’ll survive.
You have a nagging feeling that you are never good enough. Rich people can practically smell your poverty. So can salespeople. Maybe it’s your crooked teeth, since your parents couldn’t afford braces.
You don’t deserve to have a child. How irresponsible of you! You can’t possibly bring a child into this situation.
Now you are a mom. The kids want berries — so expensive. You eat the cheap banana. They share the berries.
You work two or three jobs at a time. You learn how to get the best shifts and overtime. You manage to make it.
Now you are older and tired but less broke. You have some nice things. People who are broke don’t realize you were once one of them.
Bankruptcy allowed our family to breathe again but took away instant gratification. No more lines of credit or safety nets. If we didn’t have the cash in the bank, we didn’t buy it.
I’d recently promised to make a meal for our family and two others, one having just lost their house in a fire: a total of fifteen people. Pulling this off on our budget would require an act of divine intervention. My husband had five dollars in his wallet, and I had fifty dollars in change.
I told my husband I was not going to buy groceries with change.
“Then I guess you aren’t making the meal,” he responded.
I couldn’t let down the family who’d lost their home. So, my purse heavy with coins, I headed to the discount grocery store to get the ingredients for three casseroles, rolls, and salad. I have to admit, I kind of enjoyed the challenge. I was excited when the total came in at just under fifty dollars.
As I counted out the nickels and pennies, the woman behind me in line said, “It gets tight toward the end of the month, doesn’t it?” She was being kind, I could tell, but her comment made me want to cry.
“I’m making a meal for my friend whose house burned down,” I told her.
“The universe will reward you,” she replied.
I hope so, I thought, my eyes getting wet.
In the parking lot I was putting my key in the car door when tears started to fall. I got in and let the sobs come.
A tap on the window startled me, and I looked up to see the kind woman from the checkout line. I opened my door, and she placed a twenty-dollar bill in my hand and then held it with both of hers. “Thank you,” I managed to say. Then she placed another twenty dollars in my palm. I just kept thanking her.
Insurance companies regularly dropped patients from the eating-disorder program where I was a patient with little explanation and no warning. The insurers’ vague excuses fell somewhere between “ample time to recover” and “restored weight.” Parents would sometimes dig into their retirement funds to keep their child on the unit and alive to see her next birthday.
One of the youngest girls was informed that her insurance would no longer pay for her antidepressants, which had become a vital part of her care. The pills cost hundreds of dollars a bottle — more than her family could afford. Her therapist told her parents that if their daughter died — meaning: took her own life — they could sue the insurer.
The other patients were hardened after years of facing similar situations.
“It’s screwed up,” the oldest said in a weary voice. “You come into treatment sick, and you leave broke.”
As a real-estate agent I was never rich, but I worked and socialized with wealthy investors and raised my kids in an upscale neighborhood.
I had bought some run-down apartment buildings as an investment, and I’d become good friends with a couple of the tenants, Jack and José. Jack, who struggled with addiction, had knocked on my door one day after getting out of jail and asked to do some snow shoveling. José was an elderly Cuban refugee who lived on disability and food stamps. He often invited me in for Cuban coffee or a light lunch and told me stories about his adventures in Cuba.
When the market crashed in 2008, my income dried up, and plummeting real-estate prices left me with no equity. A single dad with three teenage kids, I was broke and depressed. My friends and neighbors avoided me. Only Jack and José offered to help. José gave me half his groceries on several occasions. Jack, who had relapsed and done another stint in jail, came to see me after he was released. I was completely out of cash and needed to buy some milk, bread, and eggs. Jack looked in his wallet and said, “I’ve got forty dollars. Why don’t you take twenty and get some food?” He gave me half of all the money he had.
Saint Paul, Minnesota
It was December 8, 1980, the day John Lennon was killed. I woke up in a French boardinghouse and saw the news on the tiny television in the front room. “C’est dommage” — It’s too bad — said the middle-aged proprietress as I laid the last of my francs on her dining table. I wanted to stay and learn more about what had happened, but I needed to get on the road. If I could just get to Paris, everything would be fine. The problem was I didn’t have enough money for a train ticket.
Four months earlier my best friend and I had arrived in London for a post-college, rite-of-passage European tour. We’d brought enough money to keep us going until Christmas, but we’d soon succumbed to the wiles of a German con man, who’d made off with about half our cash. While I’d headed to Italy for the warmer clime and cheaper accommodations, my friend had gone on to Paris to start a previously arranged nanny job. Now she had earned enough to buy me a plane ticket home. I just had to get there.
My friend and I had hitchhiked a few times, but I had never done it on my own. It seemed the only choice. Shouldering my pack covered in patches, I walked to the edge of town, where the road merged onto a highway.
Only a handful of vehicles drove past over the next hour. I was about to give up when a small white car stopped, and a pale man with thin black hair and glasses offered me a ride. I got in.
After he’d been driving for a few minutes, he asked why I was hitchhiking.
“Because I don’t have any money.”
“Why don’t you have any money?”
In broken French I told the story of the friendly German who had offered to exchange our dollars for deutsche marks at an extraordinarily good rate — too good. I struggled to communicate the details, but the driver got the picture. I asked where he was going, and he named a town we had already passed. My heart began to pound. What had I done? I’d heard of terrible things happening to young women who hitchhiked alone in the U.S., but I didn’t think those things happened in Europe. In a melodramatic moment I thought that I might die on the same day as John Lennon.
Just then the driver exited the highway to get coffee. I let out a breath: if he were a psycho, I reasoned, he wouldn’t pull off at a public place before murdering me.
At a fancy hotel cafe he ordered coffee and pastries for both of us. When the food came, I gobbled mine down. The man sipped his coffee and watched me eat, then slid his plate across to me. I ate that pastry just as quickly.
As we pulled out of the parking lot, he turned away from the highway. He was taking me to the train station, he said.
He could take me wherever he wanted, I thought; it wouldn’t change the fact that I didn’t have money for the train.
At the station the man bought my ticket to Paris. I should have thanked him, but I was so puzzled I just stared.
“My daughter is your age,” he said. “She is traveling in America.”
After graduating from college in 1975, I became a reporter at my hometown newspaper in Iowa. I owed five thousand dollars in college loans and made barely a hundred dollars a week, after taxes. I lived in my parents’ basement, chipped away at my debt, and continued to drink as if I were still in college.
Mom waited up for me one night when I’d had a few too many beers. She smelled alcohol on my breath and said, “If you can afford to drink, you can afford to pay rent.”
We agreed on twenty-five dollars a week. Every Friday I’d write her a check. She also insisted that I come home at a reasonable hour, not two in the morning. One time I arrived home at three, and she threatened to raise the rent to thirty-five dollars a week. How I longed to escape the prison of my parents’ house.
I eventually got better newspaper jobs and moved out.
In the mid-1980s I quit my job to write the Great American Novel. By the time I’d finished, I’d exhausted my retirement fund. The novel didn’t sell, so I borrowed two thousand dollars from my parents and took a public-relations position in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nine months later I bought a red Porsche 911. I paid my parents back early.
On February 10, 1989, Mom died of colon cancer. Shortly after that my department at work was eliminated. I’d recently turned thirty-six and had no job and no bank account. I was still paying $380 a month on the bright red Porsche. I parked it two blocks from the unemployment office when I picked up my check.
Then a package arrived from my father. Inside were some mementos of Mom and an old bankbook for a savings account registered in my name. I opened it and saw that she had deposited those twenty-five-dollar checks I had written her for room and board — every single one of them.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
It took me a while to realize that we’d become poor — not just hovering at the poverty line, but living well below it. My husband and I had done everything “right.” We’d had a decent income, impeccable credit, and retirement investments. Then he developed a life-threatening medical condition that our health insurance wouldn’t cover. We had no choice but to go deep into credit-card debt to pay for treatment. When the 2008 economic recession hit, his twenty-year career in high tech evaporated overnight. Bankruptcy was inevitable, but we delayed it, mostly because we couldn’t afford an attorney.
We drove used-but-adequate cars, cut our own firewood for heat, and grew our own vegetables. Now our modest lifestyle became even leaner. We scrambled to find whatever work we could: painting houses, fixing plumbing, helping people move, caring for animals, digging ditches — all while driving children to and from school and attending community-college classes. We worked long hours, no days off, to just get by. There wasn’t much time for cooking, laundry, or household maintenance, never mind rest. Life was chaotic and overwhelming.
I taught part time and switched between classroom attire and grubby clothes for labor. Unable to afford professional memberships or attend conferences, I fell out of touch with colleagues. I quit attending local businesswomen’s meetings because I got tired of just having tea while everyone else ate nice meals.
Invitations to social gatherings dwindled. Friends dropped away as if being broke were contagious. One said he was “right there with us,” despite the fact that he owned multiple properties, vacationed regularly in Europe, and drove an eighty-thousand-dollar car. Others helped us out with food and money that was hard to accept, but we did.
We’re still struggling, but I look for a bright side wherever I can. Hoisting heavy equipment out of our aging truck, I’ll think that at least I don’t have to pay for a gym membership. Before heading over to feed the neighbor’s horse each morning, I’ll make a point of noticing the sunrise and taking in the quiet. We’re digging ourselves out with a teaspoon, but I’m grateful for another day.
Grass Valley, California
In 2016 I retired from the Bay Area to Paradise, California. One of the first things I did there was start a writing group. Four women joined, and we wrote regularly together in my living room, right up to the wildfire on November 8, 2018, which took all of our homes but one.
Sun reader Jeff Vaughn writes in your March 2020 Correspondence of being moved to tears by a young woman, E.D., who wrote a piece in the Readers Write on “Being Broke” [May 2018]. E.D. was my neighbor and one of the friends in my writing group. I introduced her to The Sun and encouraged her to write in response to Readers Write prompts. We all celebrated when E.D.’s piece was published.
The Paradise fire scattered us, but we stay in touch. Last year E.D. and another Paradise friend visited me here in Baja, Mexico. We have landed on our feet.
I’m grateful to Vaughn for his tears. We are all connected.
After finishing your current issue, I grabbed another from my stack of older ones still waiting to be read. In the Readers Write on “Being Broke,” I came across E.D.’s entry about buying groceries to make dinner for friends, and having to pay with nickels and pennies. A stranger in the checkout line said something nice to the author, and after E.D. returned to her car, she sat sobbing. The stranger approached, took E.D.’s hand, and pressed a twenty-dollar bill into it, and then another. I was almost in tears. The location listed under E.D.’s signature was Paradise, California. The issue was dated May 2018, five months before the wildfire there. Now my tears weren’t “almost.”
With a job and two small children demanding most of my time, I often get around to reading only one thing in The Sun: Readers Write. Despite how I look forward to those pieces, I let our subscription expire because we’re digging out from under a significant amount of debt.
How apropos that the May 2018 topic was “Being Broke.” More than one entry had me in tears or nodding in solidarity. After I was done, it took me about a minute to renew.