I have been at loose ends now for two, could it be going on three years? Without a phone or an address to call my own, I have access to these things but they aren’t mine. For the last six months I have been staying like Dick Cheney, in an undisclosed location. I wonder now, if I’ve become a gentleman of the road? I’ve been placing an ad in Craigslist offering to do day labor, I’ve built fences, stained decks, built brick retaining walls. No job application, credit check or testing needed. We talk, we meet, I do the job, I get paid and I go on my way.
I no longer have a sense of normality, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. None of my employers have tried to cheat me out of my time; no one has made the type of demands on me that conventional employers have made. No one has been disappointed in my work or made any complaints about either the caliber or quality. I could not have done this when I was living in Atlanta because in Atlanta, the economy there was prostrate. My ad offering labor for $12.00 an hour would have been ignored. It is only because I am in this enclave that there is work for me.
It is in a beautiful river valley, in a historic little town where the antique and boutique homes have been meticulously restored to an amazing degree. This is due to both the character of the people and the prosperity of the little town. It is both a bedroom community and tourist destination and as I jog through its tree lined streets I feel as if I am in Disney Land, it has a feeling of the unreal. It is all too perfect, my senses still can’t accept what my eyes see as normal because it’s not normal. It is an enclave and as I traveled out to meet another respondent to my ad I was reminded that it is an enclave. I saw in a little town just a few miles down the highway, the signs of which I was all too familiar with in Atlanta.
Empty buildings, for signs and for rent signs and then something which I saw almost two years ago in Atlanta. The people are selling off their toys, in the front lawns along the side of the highway are the littered remnants of their prosperity, boats, motorcycles and expensive riding lawnmowers . Like Dante’s vision of hell it re-awoke in me and reminded me not only how unreal my little enclave was but also how this economic plague continues on unabated. Seeing all the signs which I had lived with before was like the return of a recurring nightmare. Like a cloud of locusts or a tidal wave, of that feeling of knowing what was going to come next, but unable to do anything about it other than to just duck.
So I met with my customer, a divorced woman with three small children. Her husband’s business had failed, put out by Chinese labor and they had divorced. I could see the parallels in her story to my own story. She was down sizing, she had bought a foreclosed house out in the country and wanted to sell her house in town so as to live mortgage free. She had all the accoutrements of wealth around her but then, a few years ago so did I. There was a boat and a camper, but this house? This house was going to be a project and it contained all the signs of a Hail Mary pass. Of someone trying to hold on to what they have left, for me this looked like a perfect situation because my day labor comes and goes. Two days here, one day there and recently no days anywhere and cash is growing tight.
As I was returning to the enclave, there was a man at the highway exit begging. He held a handmade sign that read, “Lost my job, two kids, can’t pay my rent, family in crisis.” There was a time when I was a different person, when I was cynical and sanguine about the well being of others. Oh, I was introspective enough in the abstract, back when my lawn had a sprinkler system and my garage held a classic sports car. This is why I say that losing normality is not necessarily a bad thing.
My cynicism for government has never ebbed but my cynicism for people in trouble has all but evaporated. I understand intrinsically the mental machinations that it takes for a man to stand on a roadside and beg for money. The inability of a man to be able to support himself and his family after years of having doing so successfully. I have wondered if I could do it? In the abstract the cynic might say, “he’s conning you man!” But that was in the old America wasn’t it? In this America, who could doubt that an honest man had lost his job? In this America, who could doubt that he lost it through no fault of his own? In this America, who could doubt that he could not find another?
In this America, ask yourself just how hard on your self esteem it becomes to beg money from strangers on a roadside. This was no wino or crack head, this was a middle aged man sliding down Dante’s slope. As I look back over my own times on Dante’s slope I began to see all of the people that I have met and spent time with and how similar all of their stories are to each other. I gave the man $2.00 as we passed and was reminded of what Woody Guthrie had once said, “I ain’t never seen a poor man that wouldn’t share what he’s got and I never seen a rich man who wasn’t afraid someone would take something from him.”
I got the job and worked for a couple of hours and will begin work in earnest at the end of the week. The woman described me as “laid back” and she is the second person to describe me that way. If you had known me a few years ago you would laugh, Dave? Laid back? I had things to do back then, I had to cut the grass or wax my car. I had to preside as the President of my home owners association or I had to go to my job where I made my employer tens of thousands of dollars but he still treated me like I was stealing a paycheck. I had a form to sign that said that I had received my new company handbook and that I understood its covenants and conditions of employment.
That was my normality back in the day, back when I had things. I still had a house, cars, tools and lawn furniture but no real care or concern for my fellow man. “Tough break” or “That’s too bad” when really, all I meant was, tough break for you and too bad for you but I’ve still got mine! Oh, I cared in the abstract but not in the specific, I cared about the poor and the unemployed in a way which cannot ever be explained. On an emotional and intellectual level I cared, but those things I owned, they held me in their grip and my fear of losing them frightened me so into an emotional paralysis. I was tense all of the time and afraid all of the time. What if I lost my job? What if I lost all of these things? What if I lost my nice big house and my big screen TV with 200 channels?
Now I have lost all of those things and I haven’t been able to find stable employment for two, going on three years despite a good work record. Millions of you already understand what I’m saying, a gap in your work history? A poor credit score is seen as much the same light as having a criminal record. Recently, a friend of mine applied for an eight dollar an hour job at a convenience store, she was disqualified from this dream job by a credit card default. This is a very kind and sweet person but here, Equifax is allowed to do the hiring. Really? How are people ever supposed to recover? The bad debts and soured loans of the banks are covered and it’s business as usual, but for the American people it’s an economic debtor’s prison.
I’ve been through the first seven circles of hell and I’m not afraid anymore. I’m no longer intimidated by wealth or status or power. I still fear the police of course, because the less money you have the more likely you are to be jailed. That man begging for money would probably get more time than a drunk driver. You can go on TV and cry for the poor children in the name of Jebus but when you try to take care of your own children then it’s, “Book em Dano.” It makes you scratch your head in wonder. The ex-President of the United States creates phony wars of aggression and kills tens of thousands of innocents and the current President cancels the investigations into the criminal wrong doing.
Despite the obvious economic effects, both political parties plan to take a butcher’s knife to this country’s badly needed social programs. The party that feared death panels now wants to cut Grandma’s Medicaid and Mr. Hope and Change says, Ok, good idea.
I have been so changed by this experience, I have gone from a liberal Democrat to a revolutionary Sot. I think there is something cancerous and deadly wrong going on here. Beggars in the streets, millions made homeless, millions more made unemployed and the only answer from government is to cut even more still. To make more beggars, to make more homeless, to destabilize families with children, to shatter them and break them apart. To destroy the honor and self esteem of the honest and hard working by forcing them to beg in the streets.
I have come to understand that this is not a plague which is just affecting you or me. It is affecting us all at different levels, we are all at different rings of Dante’s Inferno and each day some rise and some fall. We are all in this torment together, young and old, white and black and brown. Christian, Muslim, Jew or Atheist, it no longer matters on which circle of hell you dwell because hell is hell. Each day more join us in their poverty and loss and each day the scales begin to tip as more as more Americans begin to understand that government is about protecting the people and not about protecting things. That the people of this country have value and that things do not, and when that becomes the consensus, the world will change, because the people will no longer be afraid of their government.
About the Author:
Born at the pinnacle of American prosperity to parents raised during the last great depression. I was the youngest child of the youngest children born almost between the generations and that in fact clouds and obss who it is that I am really.
Given a front row seat for the generation of the 1960’s I lived in Chicago in 1960. My father was a Democratic precinct captain, my mother an election judge. His father had been a Union organizer and had been beaten and jailed for his efforts. His first time in jail was for punching a Ku Klux Klansman during a parade in the 1930’s. I never felt as if I was raised in a family of activists but seeing it print makes me think, yes. That is a part of who I am.
We find ourselves today living in a world treed by the hounds of madness, a complicit media covering contrite parties. Multilevel media, giving more access to communication yet stunting actual communication. More noise, less voice, more sound less music, more law less justice, more less life.