This was a thread online. I tried to get in touch with ductapefatwa, but got no answer. I don’t think he’d mind if I share this. it is good to be aware of what is happening on the streets.
Part 1: Some advice for the newly outsourced, downsized, and generally unemployed
First of all, welcome to the nouveaux pauvre (that’s “new poor” to you. Your french phrase days will gently fade into happy memories, like some other things.)
The purpose of this thread is to help you understand some of the changes that accompany this new chapter in your life.
For those of you who still have savings, early withdrawn IRAs, homes or automobiles to sell, or other assets that you have not yet liquidated and spent, you may wish to print this page out and save it. Depending on how hotshit a coder you were, it may be months, for a few of you, either a couple of years, before you need it.
For those of you who have already passed through that “well honey thank goodness we have enough to keep going for a little while” to the “hm, I think we’ve got enough equity that if we sell the house, we can get enough to tide us over” to the “holy shit! We have a total of $700 to our name, no income coming in, and this $1200 apartment I thought we’d be in for a month or 2 is now asking for month 6 of the rent” phase, some of you will now transition to the “I guess we can go back to Peoria to stay with the folks for a while” benchmark.
Print this and save it. You are very fortunate.
Now those of you are left are the ones who have already sold and spent everything you had, you don’t have folks to go stay with for a while, and you have just made a new and important discovery: Your new “survival jobs until..” are not enough to enable you to afford housing. In other words, you are now priced out of the housing market.
If you are lucky, you may find something with a roof that with one more shift you can afford, where you will learn many new things, and so will your kids.
You always knew that there were neighborhoods like this, but you never thought YOU’D be living in one, especially not with kids, who you have had to take out of the progressive alternative school and place into the one with the metal detectors and the very reasonably priced nearly new Glock swap meets in the parking lot, from which they will return every afternoon to discover their new neighborhood while both of you work your second shifts.
There is no one way to explain to them that everything you taught them about calling 911 is no longer applicable, because the only way the police will come here at all is if you yell “officer down!” into the phone, and frankly, nobody at the precinct is buying that any more because they know that no officer goes there. It’s an opportunity to grow in your parenting skills.
There will be some dietary changes. As soon as your car is repossessed or stolen, you will be reliant on your feet and public transportation, and in combination with your new 5 AM to midnight 7 day schedule, you will notice some differences in your food choices. Instead of riding out to the big supermarket with the produce section, grocery shopping will now mean picking up some loaf bread and stale peanut butter at a convenience store for about twice what you paid for it at the supermarket. The plus side is that it is open 24 hours, and you can walk to it!
Hot meals will now be available at McDonald’s. You will soon find that this is both more economical and practical than trying to make a hot meal out of a dusty can of peas and a small $4 pack of beef jerky from the convenience store.
Another big change will be health care. You have probably been accustomed to take the kids to the doctor, even go yourself, in the case of illness, and made a point of making sure that the whole family gets in for regular wellness checks and preventive care, like an annual physical for those of you who are over 35 or so.
While that will no longer be possible, what you can do is discover that while some illnesses and injuries are painful and uncomfortable, they eventually get better and/or heal on their own.
You can also know that you are participating in the free market system, and your education will come in handy to help you realize that neither you nor your children have any value at all on the free market, and it is in fact not in the best interest of the insurance industry or your employer to provide any usable health insurance for you, and that even if one or more of your “survival” jobs comes with a “benefit package,” in most cases, it is far cheaper to pay out your burial policy than your health care claim, and simply replace you, as the amount of “training” your replacement is negligible, as is the new hire paperwork, and for every “survival job” you have, there are dozens if not hundreds of people clamoring for it if you expire.
This is an especially good economic fact to remember if you should ever be tempted to share your opinions on the conditions of your employment with management.
Part 2, How long will your child be held for the first offense seeing you can’t pay bail money?
Well, it happened. You come home at your usual time, a little after midnight, to find one less kid than you had when you left this morning at 5:30.
How long the police will hold your child for a first offense will vary, not only according to the offense itself, but local precinct customs as well as individual officer idiosyncrasies.
When you first arrive at the police station, especially if you are white, expect an assumption on the part of the desk that you will be in a position to part with a sum of money in order to obtain your child’s release. There may even be some scepticism on their part when you inform them that sadly, this is not the case, and here some of you will be fortunate enough to be able to call on a friend or relative to provide some money, which will of course take some time, during which time your child will remain in law enforcement custody.
The conditions of this custody will also vary. Some precincts will, especially if your child is white, has not yet lost his middle class speech patterns, and your hot water has not yet been cut off, permitting him to maintain a grooming standard not too far from what he had been accustomed to, make an effort to keep your child in an isolation cell.
Once it is clear that no funds will be forthcoming, however, your child will in all probability be moved, and how long he (or she) is held may vary from a few days to a few months.
The public defender will be able to discuss with you the legal aspect of your child’s case, pleas, range of sentence, etc, but it will be up to you to help your child adjust to life after some of his incarceration experiences, which will undoubtedly be ones that you would prefer had not happened.
While there are theoretically free or sliding scale mental health clinics, both logistics and the quality of service available will without a doubt seem to you beyond inadequate to the situation, and you will in all probability experience some anger at the reaction of anyone “in authority” you can get to listen to what happened to your kid in there, but on the positive side, you will not have to see this reaction much, as few of those “in authority” see any difference to what happened to your kid and what happens to thousands of them every day, if not in jail, at home or on the street, and statistics that you remember as having found disturbing in the past, when you had time to read about disturbing statistics, will come into a much clearer focus for you.
Once again, your previous education will pay off, as you will already be aware of many of the effects and manifestations of the aftermath of your child’s first encounter with the justice system, and as the sequelae increasingly and negatively continue to impact your other children, your spouse (if applicable) and you, over time you will come to regard his subsequent arrests and eventual subsumption into the justice system as the inevitability it is, and although it is sad to say, probably better for his little sister, as having him out of the picture may give her a few more months, or even years, before she either follows the same steps as her brother, becomes a mother (unless you happen to live in a state that pays for abortions for indigent pre-teens and teens), or contracts her first sexually transmitted disease.
While some negative emotional reaction on your part is understandable, especially given the different expectations you had entertained regarding your child’s pre-adolescence, it is important to realize that as inmates, your children are able to make, in their own way, a much greater contribution to the overall economy by helping to keep the corrections industry one of America’s strongest and most growing, than they would working alongside you, for a similar wage.
This is also the time to acknowledge some conflict and remorse you may be having when on occasion you recall yourself saying things like “well when you have parents who are irresponsible enough to have kids they can’t afford to feed and keep out of trouble…,” or “listen, everything I have I worked for, and let me tell you, if you work hard in this country, you CAN succeed!”
The latter is particularly liable to trouble you after your first 2 or 3 per cent raise from one of your survival jobs, as your keen mathematical skills allow you to instantly see that you will now be bringing home a total of $00.14 more every two weeks after taxes, and can be an especially hard memory to banish as you wait for the third bus which will take you to your second full shift, where you are frequently complimented on the assiduousness and rapidity with which you pack the boxes, and in fact, it is your obvious work ethic and desire to succeed which has gotten you that raise.
But banish it you must, for arriving at home at your usual time of 12:20 AM, there is a notice on the door – proof that you DO have rights – the landlord MUST give you 60 days notice that the rent will be raised by $50 a month.
Part III: What does “working homeless” mean?
You should be proud of yourself. And you are. Even you don’t know how you’ve managed to come up with the rent every month, money for the electric bill most months (although to be fair, it helps that you’re not home much and you don’t have an air conditioner or a computer).
It’s been over two years now, and while your rent has gone up almost $300 during that time, the sum of your monthly take-home from all 3 survival jobs has gone up $48.37.
Your kilowatt rate has gone up, too, as has bus fare and the price of everything at the convenience store. You’ve managed to hang on to a prepaid emergency only cell phone, but it is getting hard to justify, as police aren’t going to come to your neighborhood anyway, and the area around your workplaces are although on the other side of town and then some from your apartment, reasonably safe to wait for the bus in.
Even if you cut the phone, though, and swallow your pride and get your meals from the leftovers from the manager’s trays at one of your jobs, you just don’t see how you are going to pay rent, and electricity, and bus fare, and you have discovered that even the finest athletic shoes wear out eventually, and do so pretty fast when purchased used from the gooodwill, and while $8.00 for shoes every couple of months looks a lot different to you now than back in the day when you used to drive over to footlocker and buy 3 or 4 pairs and hand the cashier your VISA card.
Because you can take the progger out of the middle class but you can’t take the middle class out of the progger, you try to talk to your landlord. Maybe you could do some maintenance for part of your rent? You’ve surprised yourself how handy you’ve gotten, fixed the conveyor belt yourself when it glitched up a couple times at the chicken plant..
And to his credit, the landlord listens to your suggestion and explains with what is to him, anyway, courtesy, that the management company does all the hiring of maintenance people, and you are welcome to apply there, although you should know that they, like that security guard job you were looking at a couple of weeks ago, do require you to have private transportation.
Although you’ve made a special effort at all your jobs to try to fit in and not come across as snobbish, when you begin to wonder how the people who work beside you are making it on the same money you get, you realize that you really haven’t gotten to know any of them well enough to know much about how they live.
Once again, you dip into your legacy of education, this time into the rusty old social skills bucket, and start striking up conversations on your breaks – (you had not realized that your state requires two ten minute breaks for every 8 hours worked, and they really come in handy, because as you get older you discover that it isn’t easy to wait 8 hours to pee, and one of the first things you learned at the plant is that while in theory, you CAN go to the bathroom any time, either you call over a supervisor to take your place while you do it, or the whole line shuts down, and with the new production bonus system having the potential to raise your take-home as much as 8 dollars a pay period, nobody had to tell you that indulging your bladder would not make you very popular)
When you find out that Eusebio lives in a one bedroom apartment with 2 brothers and 9 cousins, you almost don’t believe him, but then you remember hearing something about that – that that is how people are able to work these jobs for so little and still send money for a sack of beans or two back home to Mexico every week, and you have to admit that he is doing better than you are, with the different shifts, someone is always there to cook beans, and one of his cousins has the use of his crew boss’s pickup truck to bring home a sack of beans and one of rice for the US based branch of the family.
You don’t know if you could live in one room with 11 other people though, and Eusebio tells you that no, you probably couldn’t, but since back home there were 18 of them living in a house made of leaves and sticks until the first ones came north and sent back enough to make a cement block house..
This puts you in a thoughtful mood. All that education you had, and so many things you never knew.. but you don’t have much time to be thoughtful because break is over, and the belt starts up again.
Implementing your new uptrended socializing strategy at your other jobs, you don’t really know what to say when DeWayne, who is technically your supervisor, and makes at least $2 more an hour than you, tells you matter of factly that he lives with his wife and 3 kids in a 1987 Chevy Blazer that he tries to keep as close to work but out of sight as he can, and you can’t help but be touched and humbled when he asks you to please keep it under your hat, because of course, if it were known that he doesn’t have an address, he’d lose his job.
Waiting for the second leg bus for the ride home, which is always late, especially when it is cold and rainy like it is tonight, you notice two things.
One, you aren’t sure when you began to feel a vague, unreasoning resentment as you stand there, hands aching, ears numb, feet wet, watching the people in their cars go by. Heated cars. On their way to houses in nice neighborhoods, without rats, or roaches, or people selling crack and teen-aged girls in the hallways, going home to eat nutritious, attractive meals and sleep in soft beds without springs coming through the mattress, and Two, DeWayne is in a way, better off than you are, too, because he doesn’t have to pay rent, he can give his kids a little more food…
The rent is due in four days. You are short $50. What can you sell? You tried to pawn your TV once, but they told you you’d only get $18 for it, and then you’d have 30 days to buy it back for $33.86.
You try talking to the landlord again. In his own way, he is understanding. It’s not like he hasn’t heard this before. He tells you how it works. Rent is due on the first. You have one grace day. If the full amount isn’t in by the third, the management company files a notice. Then you’ll have ten days to pay the rent and a $75 late fee. At the end of ten days, you get an order to evacuate. After that, depending on how busy they are, at any time the management company can do what they call “assume occupancy of the premises.” That means they come in and take your stuff out, if it’s still there, and put it on the street.
You got to get ahold of a shopping cart for that stuff, advises Angela, your morning job co-worker. That’s where she keeps her change of clothes, her soap and toothbrush, all in a little plastic shopping bag she changes as often as she can so the gas station people don’t get suspicious when she takes it into the restroom every morning. Angela seems to feel sorry for you, she offers to help you find a cart, and even a bicycle lock for it.
Part 4: This is not the best time for a pregnancy
Why is it, you wonder, that everything you have to do, everywhere you have to go, seems to require a minimum 2 hour trip each way on multiple buses?
One of your jobs, the only one where you’re an employee instead of an independent contractor, (big savings for companies- especially if their benefits package is decent, and if they didn’t restrict employee status to management, they’d never be able to afford it) thankfully gives you 12 sick days and a week of paid vacation a year, so you’re able to visit your son. It breaks your heart that you can’t see him anymore behind those eyes, and if you could see him, what he has become – you can’t really think about it too much, funny you always thought of yourself as a strong person, you never thought you’d be able to survive the kind of things you have learned to live with. Milestones, like applying for food stamps, when you finally realize that no matter how you slice it, you just can’t afford enough luncheon meat, Chef Boy Ar Dee, milk, and much less at convenience store prices.
You’ve also learned that your monthly allotment of stamps will only buy food for about a week, and that you can’t afford to spend all the stamps on food. You have to sell some for 50 cents on the dollar, for the non-food items like toilet paper, soap, aspirin.
You lived through the first time you saw the look in the eyes of the well-dressed woman in the next line, as she ordered her 20 dollars on pump 4 and glanced over at you, using your stamps, and you lived through the pain of your wife’s tooth that went bad, and the humiliation of asking your old dentist for help, or asking his receptionist for help, rather; she gave you the name of an indigent clinic. Sarah really couldn’t stand the pain any more, and you learned that in your state, the only procedure available for adults without funds is extraction.
A milestone. Sarah was lucky, she kept her job, although she was moved to the stock room. With a missing front tooth, she can’t wait on customers any more. It’s a policy you both understand, after all it’s a business. But you had both let yourselves get carried away with this notion that with her exceptional knowledge of electronics and her personality, her smile that would light up the world, maybe one day she’d be made supervisor…
You know you can’t really know what it’s like for her, taking a sick day of her second shift every six months for the ride out to Planned Parenthood, waiting in the auditorium – she says that’s the only thing you can call it, although technically it IS a waiting room, sitting there on an unpadded folding aluminum chair among the teenagers, some with their mothers, almost all with squalling infants and toddlers with runny noses, like all rooms full of poor, and like all rooms full of poor, smelling of urine.
She wouldn’t meet your eyes the day that she took your daughter with her, and if there’s one thing you’re good at, it’s always looking for the best in any situation, as your bus took you to your first shift, you fought back your tears with the thought that neither of you ever got to spend time with Caitlin any more, and at least mother and daughter would get a day together.
A part of you still clings to the thought that all of this is just temporary, although it was a hard thought to cling to that first night that the three of you huddled together around your cart, quite literally having no idea where to go.
Your co-worker Angela may have saved your life. Sure, she said, there are shelters, but you don’t want to go there. For one thing, you’ll have to split up. You’ll go to one, Cat and Sarah will go to one across town. You have to be in line by 6 to have a chance at a cot, so that would mean each of you giving up a shift of work, you can’t take your cart, and whatever you take in a bag you might as well just kiss it good-bye.
Angela showed you which dumpster had the best selection of boxes and packing materials, and walked with you, cart piled high, to the place, behind the fences and pilings of the highway cloverleaf. You are surprised that the newspapers and bubble wrap really do help keep the wind out. Angela tells you you’ll have to find your own place to wash up in the morning, though, she seems ashamed about asking you to please not use hers, the Quik Trip people might start to notice, and you realize that Angela, too, lived differently, once.
Your new neighbors are impressed that both you and Sarah have managed to hang onto your jobs this long, and sympathetic about the loss of food stamps, which while not enough, were still something, but of course, without an address…
And now Sarah is late. Very late. Nauseous in the morning, tender breasts late. No need for you to take a sick shift for the bus out to the strip mall with the drugstore to steal an EPT test. (Yes, you have become a thief. Sometimes it is necessary).
Sarah needs to take a sick shift and go to the indigent clinic, but you both just took one to visit your son last week, and she doesn’t want to risk taking another one so soon. Especaially since something like a routine pre-natal visit is a pink ticket, which can mean coming back every day, for three or four days, before she actually gets seen by anyone.
Her W-2 job does have a catastrophic hospitalization policy, pays 80% of everything beginning on day 7 of consecutive in-patient care, even if it’s a complication of pregnancy. Sarah doesn’t even have to pay for the insurance, it is 100 per cent employer-provided.
This is not a good time for a pregnancy, and although you had both hoped to have more kids one day, you both feel that under the circumstances, the best choice is to terminate. Sarah somehow manages to sneak some phone calls from her job, she knows there are resources for women in this kind of situation, and she soon learns that they do not include free abortions, although if she carries the pregnancy to term, the indigent clinic will provide free pre-natal care (provided she has 3 or 4 free days a month to wait for it), delivery, a 12 hour post-partum observation period, and a 6 week checkup.
You haven’t really seen anyone from your old life since you left the $1200 apartment. It had gotten to be an uncomfortable situation, even before that, and now you rack your brains. It’s not that you didn’t have friends, just that for the ones who didn’t get downsized, once you had been out for a while, it was as embarrassing for them as for you, and those that did have either moved in with relatives out of state, or they could be in the same boat you are, and neither of you has been anxious to see people you used to work out and eat brunch with pushing a shopping cart around and living under the expressway.
Sarah does have a cousin she hasn’t seen since college, a few Christmas cards over the years, she thinks she remembers her getting a pretty good job at a Loral office, and as the days pass, and nobody else comes to mind, she tracks her down and makes the call.
You never forget that you have a lot of advantages that most people in your situation don’t have, like even one relative who is “rich” enough to give Sarah the thousand dollars. A thousand dollars. That used to be your weekly paycheck, gross at least. Today even a hundred dollars might as well be ten billion.
Sarah has never been the weepy type, and it’s disorienting to see her after she talks to her cousin. You know that you are a very lucky couple to be able to get out of at least this latest mess, and you are grateful to Sarah’s cousin. She will wire the money to an office where you can pick it up. All you can do is hold Sarah, hope Cat won’t wake up and see her mom like this, and tell your wife over and over again that it is not her fault, and that even with all the problems you have, the cousin is wrong. Making love is not irresponsible behavior.
Part 5: OK if you really can’t get a better job, Why don’t you just get on welfare? Then you’d get a free apartment, wouldn’t you?
When you first became homeless, you refused to see it as anything but a temporary, make that a VERY temporary setback.
Rent and electric were your biggest expenses. If the two you can both hang on to all 6 jobs, it shouldn’t be too hard to save up enough to get another apartment, maybe even one with lower rent than you had before.
That’s what you said to yourself as you closed your bank account, all $31.46 of it, most of which went almost immediately to buy food and water. Bottled water used to be a staple, before. Then it became a luxury, but now that you don’t have running water, it’s become a necessity.
You weren’t sure how you’d handle your paychecks, but Eusebio explained to you about check cashers, and that you’d have to pay a little less than he did, since you have a driver’s license. A driver’s license is ID, and there is an extra $25 fee to cash a check for someone without ID. At least it’s good for something, you thought, as you rummaged around for it in one of the plastic garbage bags that house your newly scaled-down-for-extra-mobility personal effects.
Without a car for so long all this time, you haven’t really needed it, and with all that’s been going on, and the difficulty of going anywhere or doing anything, you should not really have been so surprised to find that it has expired, and so has Sarah’s. Renewing is not an option – where would they send the new licenses?
The unexpected pay cut throws a wrinkle into your plan to save up for an apartment. Homelessness has expenses you had not thought about – like paying people not to take your stuff while you’re at work. For politeness’ sake, you both refer to it as giving them a little something for “watching it for you.”
You give gas station hygiene the good old college try, but you soon find that none of the 3 of you can stand to go very many days without an actual shower, and that means the bus station, and $5 a person for 15 minutes in a rented shower-locker.
Sarah had gotten pretty good at washing clothes by hand to save a few dollars, but without a sink, it’s back to the laundromat, which you discover has raised its prices. At least the 24 hour one has, and that’s the only one you can use, with your schedule, and only then if you skip what you have come to think of as your nightly nap, as opposed to sleep.
Bus fare has gone up again, and you don’t know if you have a secret enemy, or just bad luck, but your W-2 job started a new program of periodic employee record updates, which include both an ID and an address check, so the job you had that paid the most over minimum is gone, and you no longer have the necessary credentials to find a replacement. You use your new free shift to wait for day labor opportunities outside the convenience store, but soon discover that you are out of your league, standing among men and boys who have been doing manual labor since they could walk, and all you get are a few half-days of cleanup work, and even that, you realize, is because the other guys feel sorry for you, and put in a word. It only pays $12 for a whole day, this is off the books, the informal economy, workers who risked their lives to get the $12 a day, because their families were going to lose their lives if they stayed where they were and tried to make it on $12 a month.
Still, that doesn’t stop you, and you still keep an eye out for housing possibilities, even though you have learned that in order to get an apartment you will need not only ID, but a credit check, documented proof of income equal to or greater than 4 times the rent, and two months rent plus a security deposit of $300 to $500 in advance. Because these are low income apartments, the application fees are usually only 40 or 50 dollars.
What does surprise you is how much rents have gone up. Less than 3 years ago, your (what you now know was) spacious luxury apartment in the gated complex with the pool and tennis courts was $1200 a month. Now you are seeing studio and one bedrooms in slum neigborhoods going for over $800. The cheapest you can find is $725, a room barely large enough for the 3 of you to fit in it, a tiny cubicle bathroom, and a hot plate and minifridge in one corner. To move in, even if you had ID and all the rest, you would still need almost $2000 cash.
That’s how it is, says Angela, and your neighbors agree. Once you are out, you aren’t likely to get back in.
You have never been a big fan of government handouts, any kind of handouts. It’s not helping people, you used to say, to just give them everything on a silver platter. Work for what you want. That’s how you were raised. Taking care of your family is YOUR responsibility.
Recently, however, you have had to face the fact that taking care of your family means checking out what public benefits may be available. The little money you had saved up didn’t last long when the three of you got strep throat. The indigent clinic just wasn’t feasible. You couldn’t miss that much work. And you and Sarah had both gotten too sick to even be much use at work, although you went every day anyway. You had to take a sick apiece and go to the pay clinic. Twice. And the new antibiotics are fast acting and effective, but they cost an arm and a leg. So it’s time to start the Saving for an Apartment Fund over. You and Sarah each keep half of the Fund taped underneath your clothing at all times.
Your research into public benefits is a real eye-opener. You soon learn that the only “handout” available would be for Sarah and Cat, and then only if you are ‘not in the home.” Even if there isn’t a home. If you leave Sarah, she will be eligible for a monthly benefit of $327, plus food stamps, after her income is subtracted, of course. Plus, she can get on the waiting list for an apartment in a government housing project. In your city, the list is about 6 years, with priority given to families (as long as the family does not include a father) with children under 6. In 6 years, Cat will be 19, and Sarah and Cat will be removed from the list, since public housing is only available for families with children under 18.
Since Sarah is employed, the Human Services Department will require proof of income. You are unable to find anyone who is aware of a case where someone kept a job after getting a call from the welfare office to confirm income. Without exception, employees whose bosses receive such calls are let go for unrelated reasons.
Trying to take stock, plan for goals, find a way out has become a sick Kafka nightmare.
When Sarah trips on the ice, you know she has twisted her ankle badly. It starts to swell almost immediately, but when she admits that her toes are numb, you know it’s not just a sprain. By the time you get her to the bus stop, you are both crying. After turning most of the Fund over to the pay clinic in advance (since it’s not a compound fracture or bleeding uncontrollably, it’s still a pink ticket at Indigent Care) the doctor gives her strict instructions to keep her weight off it, a prescription for pain medication you can’t afford to pay for, and an order for crutches you can’t afford to fill.
She can’t walk. All your good manners, all your pride goes out the window, and your voice breaking, you ask the clerk at the desk if you can please keep enough of what’s left of the Fund to get a taxi. She explains that the full amount must be paid. You turn around, and half carry Sarah to the street. The taxi driver doesn’t understand at first when you ask him to take you to the underpass, but he does, and as you pay him, and drag Sarah out, he counts the money and rolls his eyes at you, shaking his head, something about how you folks beat all and drives away to tell his next fare that the fact is, most of these homeless folks have plenty of money, they are just crazy people, who ought to be locked up.
You soon learn that the taxi driver speaks for the city government, at least as regards locking up as a solution. A neurosurgeon’s convention is coming to town, and the police will be “cleaning up” the area under the expressway. You and everyone else will have to “move” or risk going to jail. Your neighbors help you lift Sarah and put her on top of all the bags and cardboard in the cart.
Your new home, a wooded area behind the convenience store, will be very temporary. The police regularly visit and round up anyone found here, but for the next few days they will be concentrating on the part of town where the big hotels and their service alleys are. You get Sarah “settled,” and use the rest of your “day labor” shift to get the bus to the strip mall, where you use the rest of the Fund to buy the pain pills, and steal some Aleve and Motrin to supplement them.
Things will be rough now. Sarah won’t be able to put weight on her foot for several weeks. She will lose all three jobs. Now the family’s only income will come from your shift at the chicken plant, and your weekend job at the warehouse.
On the plus side, Sarah will be able to “watch your stuff,” although how effective a security force a non-ambulatory woman with a cast on her foot will be is debatable.
The neighbors are impressed with Sarah’s cast. Some nod to each other, they knew you were different from them, had some money. A woman tells Sarah she is lucky, having a doctor set the foot will probably keep it from healing crooked, like her own, which she shows the group. Everyone agrees that it is the truth. Bones will heal crooked almost every time, unless you can get a doctor to fix it. You don’t like the way some of them look at Sarah when they talk about people who have money for doctors. You tell Caitlin you want her to stay with her mom tomorrow. You will write her a note for school. Someone chuckles and gestures at the cart, he’s got pens in there, the man says, a notebook full of paper. Everyone thinks that is amusing, in a quaint sort of way. What’s he going to do with pens and paper?
Eusebio at the chicken plant is sympathetic. He nods approvingly when you tell him about walking out and getting a taxi. You’re a good man, he says, a good man takes care of his family. Family comes first. His cousin almost cut his finger off the other day, but same as you, no time for indigent care and a pink ticket, he had to get back to work and finish the job before the end of the day so he went to the pay clinic. He wondered how come they had started requiring people to show proof of address for treatment there. Luckily his cousin had a light bill in the truck. If he hadn’t, Eusebio would not be chuckling at you, he would be angry. Family comes first.
Even the cousin gets a kick out of the story, when he comes to pick Eusebio up. Get in, he tells you, I’ll give you a ride. Then get your stuff together and I’ll show you a better place.
Besides you and Sarah and Cat, the only other people in the wooded area behind the Red Lobster dumpster are an extended family from Guatemala. They are not urban sophisticates like him and his family, Eusebio tells you, but they are good people. Through gestures and Eusebio’s translation, you learn that this family really is homeless by choice. They don’t think of it as homeless, though, and they show you the hut they have built from branches and scraps of metal and plastic. Inside it is carpeted. Remnants, one of the men tells you. He and his brother are carpet installers. Free-lance. They didn’t have electricity in Guatemala, or a plastic roof. They have not had any trouble with this roof since they put it up. His brother makes you an offer. If they help you build a hut, will you teach one of the family to read? He thinks it will be good for business, maybe not so much now, but in the future. Cat volunteers. She has learned enough Spanish in school to do it.
As Sarah’s foot slowly heals, helped along (you hope) by some foul-smelling boiled plant mess that her self-appointed clinician Concepcion insists on pouring down into the cast, you discover that carpet installation is a better way to spend your free shift than trying to get day labor. You suck less at it, and the pay is better. Although you can’t say that you like the hut, you are grateful for it, and are amazed to discover that your daughter has become a young woman, and a bilingual one at that, and sadder than you have words for that for the last three years, you have hardly seen her.
When she brings you the note from school, you feel guilty. You’ve never been to her school, never met her teachers. Neither has Sarah. You tell Lalo that you won’t be able to roll carpet tomorrow. Cat insists she isn’t in any trouble, she hasn’t done anything, she’s made good grades. More guilt. You have always been too tired to even look at her grades, just signed them…
Part 6: It is an unfortunate situation, in cases like this it’s tragic.
She was friendly, she was smiling, held out her hand to shake yours, but you could tell she was sizing you up, taking it all in, the dusty vintage jacket, the stained abused Adidas. Sorry we have to talk here, conference room was booked, another smile, she knows parents don’t like sitting in the desks.
She knows you’re busy, and gets right to it. No, there is no problem with Cat. In fact, it’s the opposite. Cat is a very special girl. Gifted. Extremely gifted.
There is a special program, exam for the diploma, early admission. Because of her age, Cat would be enrolled in separate honors level University classes, other kids like her, her same age, sure there’d be some courses where she’d be in with the regular student body, but the kids in the program love it, no one’s had a problem… Her test scores already qualify her for a full academic scholarship, all tuition, all books, 100% paid, you take the folder, brochures, information sheets, checklists. You try not to just smile, express the appropriate amount of pleasure, but you know your smile is too wide. You always knew Cat was an extraordinary child, taught herself to read, really, almost before she could walk.
It is after 1 AM before Cat is asleep, in the spot in the hut closest to the fire, when you and Sarah finally have a chance to look over the brochures, spending precious battery from the flashlight, straining to read the small print. When did they start printing everything in such tiny letters? You rub your eyes. The University is a good one, one of the best in the country, only an couple of hours drive from here, the counselor reassured you. You could see her every weekend. A couple of hours away might as well be the South Pacific. You don’t have a car. All you would have to pay is her room and board, and they have made some very affordable arrangements, less than the price of an apartment…
You couldn’t find the words to tell the counselor if you had the price of an apartment you’d be living in one. Maybe if we could get more work, Sarah wonders, she has an in with a night cleaning crew that doesn’t ask for ID or address, pays cash, informal. $165 a week. You don’t remind her that a day only has 24 hours, and that $165 a week is a long way from the price of an apartment. Could Cat herself work? Not legally for another year, and not with the course load she’d have, and not more than part time, and not for the price of an apartment.
You don’t have a choice. You miss another day of work, and learn a new level of shame as you sit in the awkward school desk, unable to look at the counselor, and you tell her the truth. You can’t pay for Cat’s room and board at the University, in fact, you have all you can do just to pay for her food, such as it is, here. There isn’t any board, none of you has any board. You are living – you can’t tell her you are living in the best homeless housing you’ve ever had – a hut made of branches and trash, with a plastic tarp for a roof and a smoke hole for a fire so you don’t freeze. It’s hard enough to just say the word “homeless.” You realize this is the first time you’ve said it to one of Them. They have become Them now, the people in the cars, with the warm, lighted houses, the soft beds.
The counselor bites her lip, she doesn’t want to look at you either. She is supposed to report this, a homeless child. They have to be reported to the state, a new thing, they put them in foster care. You can feel her decide not to, you understand she won’t, and you thank her as silently as she has reassured you.
I wish, she says, I mean there should be some provision, It is an unfortunate situation, in cases like this it’s tragic. In fact, there was another similar case, a little boy, he plays the piano, maybe you saw him on – she stops, realizing that you don’t see anybody on any show any more. A professor at the University was determined that he get the training he needed, a wrenching decision for the parents, impossible mixture of pride, joy, and devastation, she finally says the word – adoption. She can’t look at your face. Sarah won’t look at it either, even though you can’t even finish the idea. You don’t have to. Sarah has not given you the silent treatment like this since when you were first married, back in another world, another life, you can’t remember what the fight was about. You told the counselor you would come back, and you do. There is a family, both faculty members, who met Cat back when they were doing all those tests and interviews that no one told you about. Would you, would your wife, do you think, consider a trial? There’s a between semester orientation, they would love to have her stay with them, they’ll pick her up, bring her back, oh yes, they will certainly bring her back, only 3 weeks, just to see…
Sarah is speaking to you again, finally. For 3 weeks, she’ll sleep indoors, in a house, in a bed, eat real food. That’s more than either of you have been able to give her, and you don’t want her to forget – there’s a little horror rush, as you realize that she may already have forgotten – She was ten the last time she slept in a bed, took a shower in a bathroom.
You skip a few meals and buy a phone card to call her, just hear her voice. The halfway point, just ten more days and she’ll be back. She sounds distant, uncomfortable, maybe she was studying, but when she comes back you know it is more than that. You barely recognize her. New clothes, hair shining, styled like the cover of a magazine, makeup. She says good-bye and walks slowly, reluctantly toward you, carrying her new travel bag. You are not prepared, could not have prepared, for the shock of seeing yourself, seeing Sarah, with her eyes, her eyes after only 3 weeks, just to see…
She doesn’t say much the first few days, not to you, not to Sarah, not even to Concepcion, who misses her reading classes, and says so, not to Juan, the newest member of your little community, Juan whose real name is Ahmed but at least for now, it is better that he is Juan. Only you and Sarah seem aware of anything more than a superficial change, different hairstyle, clothes, Lalo and the rest tease her, they missed her too, but every emotional resource she has is working overtime to pretend that she is not ashamed. Of you.
Now you are living in a bad TV movie. Now you are the illiterate backwoods hillbilly who is refusing his child a chance to have a better life. That’s how you and Sarah see it, anyway. Lalo and company are baffled. Better life? How? No rich couple can love her more than you do, shy suggestions that probably not more than they do, either. She is your blood. What future is better for her than that, than this? You work for yourself now, everyone here does. Lalo’s nephew – don’t you have eyes? This is your daughter, don’t you see how he looks at her? Family, love, beans, a good man – have you not noticed that Chucho says the rosary every day, how he takes care of his mother? That, Concepcion tells you, with a sidelong glance at Cat, mercifully out of earshot of this intense conversation, half English, half Spanish, the product of some superhuman immersion on everybody’s part the last few months, that is how you can tell if a man is good. Does he say the rosary, and does he take care of his mother. Shy smile at Lalo, who apparently does both, he looks down, shyer smile. Cat is fourteen already. Don’t you want grandchildren?
Part 7: Who’s life is it, anyway?
What you have done, what you and Sarah have done, is incredible. You know the statistics, one of which is a screaming wound in your heart where your son was, where your son is.
You still go, every month, the long bus ride out to the “facility,” They will let you bring him food, if it is inspected and consumed there in the visitor’s room.
You wish you had more food to bring him, something more than a few candy bars from the convenience store or the vending machine at the chicken plant.
He doesn’t know.
He thinks you still live in the apartment, the crummy place with mildewed walls you came home to that night, to find him gone. Gone on a journey to hell, where he still is. He doesn’t say much on these visits, and neither do you. He eats the candy bars, though. You wonder sometimes if he really wants you there, and selfishly decide that you don’t care if he does or not. You will come, every month, and sit with him, mostly in silence, for the two hours you’re allowed to, because he is your son.
By mutual and unspoken agreement, sometime over the last few years, you stopped talking about Before. Stopped referring to it, and you do your best to stop thinking about it. It is gone. It is Before, and you are slowly coming to grips with the fact that it is not coming back.
The school needs to know what you have decided to do about Cat. She can stay there of course, finish high school with the rest of her class, although they have told you that she is not really getting anything out of it.
And after that, what? The chicken plant? The night cleaning crew? The “sales assistant” job at the electronics store that Sarah lost when she lost the front tooth? Those are the best, the cleanest jobs. On your feet all day, but you stay pretty clean, you meet the public, you have contact with Them. Something in you still clings to that old notion, that contact with Them is somehow desirable.
Sometimes, late at night, the only time you have together, the unspoken agreement is put aside, because it is impossible not to look at her and not remember Cat Before. Precocious, hilarious little Cat, how you talked about her future. College. A Wedding. She would wear Sarah’s dress. Neither of you knows what happened to that dress, the album with the pictures either. The album you may have thrown away, accidentally on purpose, one night under the expressway, because you just couldn’t look at it any more.
Yes, it is incredible what you and Sarah have done. All the statistics say that Cat should be pregnant by now, at least, probably a drug addict, renting out her body to feed her habit, or just to get some food that isn’t beans, some clothes that don’t come from Goodwill. How DID you do it? Gone from early morning to late at night, you have hardly seen her more than a few minutes a day since she was ten years old. But there she is, whole, drug-free, disease free, and so full of promise that They are begging you to please let Them spend almost a million dollars preparing her for the kind of life you couldn’t have offered her, even Before.
The school needs an answer, and as you wrestle with the impossible inhumanity of deciding what that answer will be, something slams both of you at once – you didn’t do it.
You make it out of the hut in time before the sobs hit, just hang onto each other, try not to make noise, wake the others.
There are some cultural gaps that have no bridges, and some places that have no gaps, and you are now in the no man’s land of their convergence.
Your little tribe, as you’ve come to think of these people who have become your family, will never be able to see why you are so certain that it is “better” for Cat to stop being your daughter, at least in practice, so she can become one of Them. Being one of Them doesn’t seem to have served either of you very well, with what authority can you state that Themhood is superior to the kind of unconditional support and acceptance, and utter material poverty in which you now live?
At the same time, there is no parent on earth who does not know the awe and profound humility of looking upon a person that they brought into the world and seeing a human being who is more than his parents can ever be.
It is a brutal choice, a choice beyond unfair, a horrendous slimy viper-spitting demon of a choice, unthinkable to ask a child, even an extremely gifted child, to make.
But who’s life is it, anyway?
Before, you would have said that as her parents, it is up to you to make the right decisions for her until she is old enough. But that was Before.
You don’t want her to regret, Lalo and Concepcion are reaching hard. They don’t understand about Before, they know, but you do understand about Now. How can you be sure that she will not regret giving up her parents, her little tribe more than she would regret not being one of Them?
Finally, you talk to Cat. She says she wants Both. She is, after all, still a child, and it is the hardest thing either of you has ever done, to tell her that she cannot have Both, that there is no Both. You could come visit, she says. You push the image from your mind. Shining, designer-everything Cat, surrounded by her equally shining designer tribe of Them, welcoming her ragged father, prematurely stoop-shouldered from chicken plant and carpet, her snaggletoothed rough-complectioned mother in the faded flannel shirt with frayed cuffs, you guys want some sushi?
She doesn’t even try to wipe the tears, just lets them fall, they say two years and she’ll have an undergrad degree, it’s that accelerated. A job then, a good one, buy you a house. All of you, she holds out a hand. All.
Lalo looks blank. We all have a house. Buy us something we need. If we still don’t have one by then, buy us a plow. We can plant beans.
Lalo also wants there to be a Both. Concepcion takes his hand. Come on, leave them alone, let them talk.
You don’t, though. You pull her over between you and let her cry. Neither you or Sarah has any more tears. Tonight, you both put your arms around her at once and try to hold her tight enough to let her go.
Part 8: Somebody must have seen the fire
It’s funny how your concept of “home” changes, and the things that change it.
This time yesterday, if anyone had asked, you’d have said, inwardly, anyway, whatever words your mouth let the questioner hear, that you didn’t have a home.
Asked about luck, you probably would have said that yours has been somewhat bad recently.
Today, you are thanking whatever spirit or being led you to insist that everybody, well, Sarah and Cat, take the day off and go have a shower.
While the others really prefer the nearby creek, you have been unable to wean yourself from the lure of standing under a spray of hot water.
Your absence slowed the carpet team down, or at least you like to think that’s what it was, although you realize that your greatest contribution to “real work” will probably always be as the provider of comic relief.
The luck part is that no one was there, at least no one was visible to the police when they went back behind the Red Lobster to “clean up” the wooded area.
Someone must have seen the fire. Anyway, it’s all gone. Huts, stuff, Concepcion’s little herb patch. the oven Chucho made from scrap bricks, all of it. They destroyed your home. You have never seen Sarah look this tired. Cat has withdrawn into herself, while the three of you are taking it pretty hard, no one else seems to be very upset. Used to happen to us every few months in Guatemala, says Lalo, he winks at you. CIA. Everyone thinks this is uproariously funny, and every few minutes someone pokes you, laughs, and calls you CIA as you walk (no one has bus fare) to a new place he heard about, more secluded.
Come on, Concepcion tells Sarah. We’re all here, no one’s hurt. What did we have there that we won’t find in the dumpster when we get to the new place? It’s good to move once in a while. Trees, Lalo tells her, and they laugh, and you have another one of those major duh moments.
Home is not a building, or part of one, or even a hut. Home is people, and none of you is homeless.
The new place is closer to a creek, too. Location, location, location, you think as you understand for the first time why Lalo and Chucho keep machetes strapped to their legs. Always. As your concept of “home” is evolving, so is your concept of “skilled.” Lalo’s mom, Luz Maria, pulls a little cloth patch from somewhere in her uniquely multicultural, century-spanning ensemble and gives it to Concepcion, who tells Lalo to take a break and chops up the ground with his machete, lines it off, and sprinkles her seeds in.
Sarah is exhausted, collapses on a tree trunk and fishes around in her pocket. Matches. Make a fire, she frowns at you, Cat’s cold, and all you can do is look at her, jaw on the ground. You are not the only one whose idea of what “home” means is changing. Juan is back from the dumpster, plastic, an old 5 gallon drum. He grins, and fumbles under the lining of his jacket. Beans. his emergency stash. In a few hours, there are huts, there are beans, and you and your wife are back to your normal occupation of staring at your daughter, the elephant in the living room. But Cat is not thinking about herself tonight. She wants to talk about someone else’s future. A Them girl at school, well, Very Recently Them. This girl needs help, Cat says, it’s like, you, know, what happened with Kevin, you see your son’s eyes, flinch. They aren’t doing the foster care thing any more, not because of too many situations like that, that’s just something that happens to kids, but there aren’t enough foster homes. Very Recently Them is a rapidly growing demographic. Predictably, you are the only one whose mind is even crossed by the thought that you will be harboring a runaway minor, and you are strangely comforted that no one pays the slightest bit of attention to you, of course she is welcome, Cat’s friend.
Lalo and Juan are making a truck. That’s the only way you can explain what they are doing. For weeks they have been “finding” stray parts of vehicles, or maybe refrigerators, you can’t really tell, and every night they tinker away at it. Lalo uses the time to teach Juan Quiche. You hadn’t realized it, but Spanish is the family’s second language. Someone looked a little too hard at Juan on a carpet job, so Lalo thinks it would be a good idea if he learns a little Quiche, just to be on the safe side.
Cat. Your eyes follow her, you look for clues in every thing she does, everything she says. You have told the school that it is up to Cat, her life, her decision. You hope you sounded sincere. Sarah is learning carpet now, Lalo is amused, Luz Maria seems mildly scandalized, Concepcion seems a little preoccupied lately, focused on a cloud of her own. It is a busy time, lots of carpet work, you are not really sure when you realized that Cat has stopped going to school.
Part 9: Hanging on by a thread
She says she’s too tired to wait for the bus. Sarah doesn’t think she has a fever, Luz Maria says she just needs to rest. You finally finish laying the carpet for the office park in the satellite county where it took you a couple of days to notice what was different. Chucho figured it out. No buses.
The county had a referendum, opted out of the MetroWideRide, security concerns, property values, just better for everybody, the fast food restaurants leased their own buses, they bring the workers in, take them out, some businesses went in together on a bus, most just contracted out for their cleaners and coffee servers, entry level clerical, pay the agency $12 an hour, agency pays the worker $6, worth the difference to the companies, fewer problems that way, they do all the background, credit checks,psychological testing. Chucho shakes his head, what a country, gotta pass a credit check to mop floors now.
Cat’s name gets called on the second Indigent Care pink ticket day. Mono. Rest. Luz Maria graciously says nothing. Cat won’t be going anywhere until next semester, anyway. You are a monster, you are glad your daughter has mono.
One by one, your ties to Them fall away. The chicken plant jumps on the “records update” bandwagon, and has to cut back a shift, so many “invalid addresses,” start checking social security numbers, says Eusebio, and they’ll have to close the whole plant down.
There won’t be any more showers. The bus station has changed it’s shower-locker use policy, now you have to have a ticket, and to get a ticket, you have to have ID.
Juan tries to make you one, like he saw in a movie once, a bucket and string tied to a tree. Another lesson in humility, a well-timed one, too.
The last time you saw Jason, he was in his Beemer, Game-Boy-anesthetized kids in the back, fresh from soccer, passenger seat full of balls, smelly little shoes, I’m soccer dad today, he yelled, come swim this weekend, watch the game by the pool.
Today he is crouched on the sidewalk, a few blocks from the shelter Angela said stay away from, vomiting, bad batch of something, he just needs to get back on his feet, has some ideas for a new start-up, problem is, investors, these days, Michele took the kids back to her dad’s hardware store, guess I’m like you now, wife makes more money than me. He used to tease you about Sarah’s salary, she deserves it, you told him, woman can code without a monitor. Once you watched her make Windows run on an XT. Now, Jason tells you that Michele never did get it, hardware store hell, wants more for his kids than that. Should you ask him if he’d like to come live in a hut and have a bucket shower? Instead, you take bus fare from the money you have in your pocket ($9.47) and give him the rest, for his start-up.
Randy looks relieved when you tell him not to worry, you don’t want to go in, just thought that was him, Sarah, the kids are fine, you tell him, no need to go into details, fine has come to mean still alive, Randy is a smart guy, got the security guard job while he still had a car, while you were still drycleaning suits and going for interviews in office parks with people who had no intention of giving you a job, and no budget to give you one either, people who had themselves already very quietly let the au pair go. Security guards are everywhere now, supermarkets, discount pharmacies, everywhere the poor might try to pee. You know Don got on at Lockheed? just in time, too, bank was after his house, Randy shouldn’ve listened to him on that one, but can’t complain, didn’t need that much room anyway, just the 4 of us, not like we spend so much time there anyway, you know how that is, Carpet? well now that’s something, working with Mexicans, I bet, yeah some of them do better than – scuse me – Sir! Excuse me, Sir, can I help you? No, sir, I’m, sorry, not for public use, customers only, have a good day, Sir.
Before, you might have thought it was rude to just walk away without saying good-bye to Randy, really, you had already said good-bye to everybody and everything from Before, don’t know what got into you today, maybe the chicken plant closing, the thing with the bus station, an increasing awareness of how little now connects you to Them, not much left but buses, Indigent Care, Planned Parenthood for Sarah and Cat, steal things like aleve, sinus pills, toothbrushes, hanging on by a thread to a society to which you used to be bound with knots and whorls of thick rope, and you are surprised to find that lately, you seem to focus more on how to break that thread than re-attach the ropes.
A woman passes you, two dirty children in tow, all laden with plastic bags. The stores put chips on the shopping carts now, beep if you take them out of the parking lot, you don’t hear the beep, but the security guard does.
The line is long at the check casher’s. Will this be your last visit, you wonder? Probably not, people occasionally cut checks for the carpet jobs, whoa, chicken plant close down or somepm? the girl at the window is friendly, not much older than Cat, I ain’t had nothin but crying chicken cutters today, she counts out bills into the young man’s hand, flirting with her eyes. Where will they all go, you wonder, will Eusebio be bringing any of them out to the – you still don’t have a name for it – place where the huts are. Why name a place that can be destroyed in an hour, in fact, you don’t know if it will be there today. Suddenly, you are anxious, annoyed at the girl, hurry up, you think, give him your number if you want, just keep the line moving.
But tonight, at least, it is there, like a post-apocalyptic scene in a bad movie with a very low budget, smoke rising from the fires, the scrap brick oven, plastic tarps gold in the sunset, Sarah braiding Cat’s hair, from one hut the soft sound of Luz Maria and Concepcion singing, reminding you how absent music has been from your life, except for their singing, Chucho is making a hammock for Cat, In the distance, Juan is trying to fit what looks like bagpipes, minus the bag, somewhere under the alleged future truck, Cat’s friend, a tiny, strange little girl named Sierra, crawls out from under the truck, yells at Juan, throws the bagpipes at his feet, and climbing on the bumper, almost disappears under the hood, muffled shouts to Juan, hops down, pushes Juan into the driver’s seat, still scolding. There is a horrible ripping sound, a small explosion, and the truck belches, coughs, and rolls out toward the road.
Another strand of thread has broken.