Retirement? No, Thank You

A couple of weeks ago at work we had a very nice retirement party for one of my coworkers who had been with our agency for 25 years.  She told us how much she was looking forward to spending more time with her grandchildren.  Most of all, however, she was excited about not having to work.

So many people can’t wait to retire, and I wish them well.  But I have a hard time imagining freely choosing not to go to work anymore.  Having experienced two year-long spates of unemployment, I am not particularly enamored of staying home.  Perhaps this is because I had no income and stood in line for handouts from food banks, some of which was so rotten that we had to throw our gifts away.  Perhaps I’d have a different point of view if I were receiving regular pension checks.  Perhaps I’d see things in another light if I had a reasonable chance of retiring without being utterly destitute.

My sister was a housewife and mother for a couple of decades before she walked out on her husband when her kids were teenagers and suddenly found herself thrust into the world of work.  She was unprepared for any type of career and ended up spending most of her divorce settlement on going back to school.  Like me, she knows that she can never retire.  She says she’s fine with it, however.  “I had 20 years of retirement when I was young,” she tells me.

I don’t know that retirement is a good thing at all.  On one hand, my parents have been retired for nearly 25 years and seem to like it just fine.  On the other hand, I often see articles like this one by one of my favorite bloggers, Michael Lai, that asks the question whether early retirement is equated with early death.  I suppose the jury is still out on that one, as the studies seem to yield conflicting findings.

It is said that a lack of intellectual stimulation can cause brain function to atrophy.  With that in mind, one might say that thriving in retirement is a function of keeping busy with things other than work.  As Michael mentions, many of us have our entire identities tied up with our work, leaving us floating in space once that tether is cut.  This may be one reason that those who have devoted much of their lives to family responsibilities and maintain strong family bonds have an easier time of it in retirement than those who have little in the way of social connection.

At one point during my most recent period of unemployment, I began wondering whether I should just consider myself retired and leave it at that.  We’d be poor, but we’d scrape together enough to subsist somehow.  After all, who wants to hire a fiftysomething with outdated technical skills who hasn’t worked in a year?  It seemed that accepting myself as retired might make me feel less of a loser than I did when I applied for hundreds of job openings and got nowhere fast.

Now that I’m working again, I’m actually glad that I’ll never be able to retire.  If I could, I might be tempted to do so, and I know that it would not be a good thing for me at all.

Yes, I enjoy going to work every day.  It’s not always a bed of roses, but it does give me a sense of purpose.  As I admitted at a recent staff meeting, I am grateful for having a job that allows me to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  Would I be able to achieve the same thing doing volunteer work in retirement?  Perhaps.  But it is a special feeling to know that not only am I a member of a profession that allows me to help others, but that I’m good enough at it to be well-paid for the privilege.

About a year ago, I had a philosophical disagreement with one of my coworkers about retirement.  He insisted that retirement is ideal, because it allows you to pursue personal interests rather than having work sucking up all your time.  I suppose this is true if one’s personal interests are diametrically opposed to what one does for a living.  I once had an employee on my team who was a cage fighter and another who raised geckos.  I must admit that such pursuits are a long way from working in the legal world.  However, a very different picture emerges when one’s vocation and avocation are more closely related.  I have plenty of hobbies that I pursue in the evenings and on weekends.  I build my vacations around them.  And as much as I enjoy them, I don’t think I’d want to work at them “full time.”  It’s good to have some degree of balance in life, and I am fairly sure I wouldn’t have that if I were not steadily employed.

I don’t know whether it’s true that one can expect to die within a few years of retiring, but I’d really rather not find out personally.  Instead, I’d prefer to continue experiencing the joy of working.  And, yes, I do include the endless meetings, the time pressure and deadlines, the bosses and the coworkers, the paperwork and the politics.  This lends a richness to my life that no amount of devotion to my hobbies ever could.  I just hope that I’m able to remain healthy enough to keep getting up in the morning, putting on a tie and doing it again and again.

I guess you could say I’m just an old cowboy who’ll die in the saddle with a smile on his face.

 

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Home(less) for the Holidays

gifts

Christmas Eve seems like a good time for an update on the homeless guys who we’ve been trying to assist here at the parsonage.  I am pleased to say that things are starting to look up.

Homeless Guy #3 surprised us all when he entered a local residential program that focuses on leading a godly life, staying clean of alcohol and drugs, and contributing to support of its mission by performing carpentry, roofing and other types of home improvement work in the community in exchange for donations.  We had been feeding #3 whenever he showed up at our door, despite our awareness of his penchant for fighting off demons with the aid of substances that we’d rather not know about.  We’d see him sleeping on a friend’s porch or out in the open or occasionally sharing a tent with Homeless Guy #1.  Every time we’d give him a couple of sandwiches, a bag of chips and a bottle of water, #3 would tell us stories about how he planned to turn his life around by entering a residential program.  We didn’t believe him for a minute, as his ongoing pattern of behavior led us to believe that he was merely telling us what we wanted to hear.  Praise God for small miracles.  I only hope that he’ll be able to make a decent life for himself once he completes the program.

Homeless Guy #2 is homeless no more, or at least for now.  Befriended by our young nephew, who calls #2 “uncle,” they eventually became housemates.  They share a love for music, both of them being guitar pickers with golden voices.  #2 does odd jobs (painting, carpentry, yard work and the like) and receives Food Stamps (known as CalFresh in our neck of the woods), so is able to contribute to their household.  Other things, I prefer not to think about.  I am all too cognizant of the penchant the two of them share for the toke and the six pack.

As for Homeless Guy #1, he doesn’t come around to the parsonage since we had it out with him and let him know that he is no longer welcome here.  We still see him wandering around the area, walking on the side of the road, going in and out of the dollar store down the street.  He wears a monitoring ankle bracelet that was a condition of his release from jail.  We’ve had some cold nights recently (at least by California standards), and we’ve noticed extra layers covering his tent.  Off in the distance this morning, we heard him yelling and cussing and throwing a fit, as is his wont.  He must have gotten into it with his mom and sister.  It wasn’t long before the sheriffs showed up.  Later, we saw him walking down the road again.  I guess the cops gave him a pass as a Christmas present.

While substance abuse, mental illness and even personal lifestyle choice are frequently cited as the primary causes of homelessness (particularly among Republican congressmen), I challenge you to take the time to actually talk to a homeless person and learn his or her story.  It won’t take long before you realize that the primary cause of homelessness is poverty.  To state it in the bluntest terms possible:  It takes a certain amount of money to pay rent.  Either you have it or you don’t.  And if most of the little money you have goes toward food, medicine, clothes for your kids and maybe bus fare, you’re probably not going to have enough to pay for rent and utilities as well.  Many get by, at least for a time, by robbing Peter to pay Paul.  We have neighbors in our community who survive dark nights and empty refrigerators because they’re behind on the electric bill and it’s preferable to at least have a roof over your kids’ heads.  There are those who endure freezing nights without heat and scorching summers without air conditioning for the same reason.  Here in California, our summers frequently involve weeks on end of temperatures over 100°F.  Cooling centers open up in public buildings in an effort to minimize the heat-related deaths we experience among the elderly and the young every year.

There is a woman in our neighborhood who resides in heavily subsidized housing.  She pays only $11 per month in rent.  And yet, there have been a couple of times when we learned that she had run out of food.  Life on a fixed income is a special kind of hell.

Many of us live a hand-to-mouth existence, struggling along paycheck to paycheck.  One unanticipated expense, one illness or automotive breakdown, can send us straight over the edge, into the abyss of homelessness.  Writhing on the precipice like a mouse caught in a trap, we are susceptible to those who prey on the poor, such as the payday loan places, the rent-a-centers and the convenience stores that profit off of inflated prices and cater to those who lack a car to drive into town.

Despite the abominable rhetoric of Congress during the unemployment debates of the past year, there are relatively few who fall into unemployment and homelessness as a result of sloth and lethargy.  Most of us go down screaming all the way.  And once we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, it is next to impossible to climb back out.  You can’t find or keep a job if you don’t have a stable address and a place to bathe regularly.  Destroyed credit ratings and lack of first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security deposit may lead to a protracted period of sleeping in a homeless shelter, under a bridge or over a heating grate.  Difficult economic times have always helped to draw families closer together; pooling of resources can make the difference between extended family members having a roof over their heads or becoming homeless.  Too many people, however, have no family who they can rely on when the going gets tough.  Here in America, we live in a culture that celebrates individualism and views the nuclear family as the sitcom ideal.  Anything less reeks of failure.  We all want to do our own thing, unencumbered by aunts or uncles or grandchildren occupying spare bedrooms and sleeping on couches and making messes and not cleaning them up.  If drugs or alcohol or mental illness brought on by a history of abuse is involved, the situation is often rendered impossible, leading to homelessness.

My boss and I have had some really good conversations while standing at the tall picture window situated at the end of our row of cubicles.  (Next week will be his last with our agency and I will miss him.)  Several of those have been about homelessness.  With our office located high above downtown Sacramento, he has been able to point out the spot where his homeless guy usually hangs out.  He tries to stop to talk with his homeless friend for at least a few minutes each day.  This is a man, my boss tells me, who has been sleeping outdoors for 22 years now.  Even so, he recently told my boss that he is hopeful that his time without a home will soon come to an end.  He just has a feeling, he related, that good things are just around the corner and that something will arise that will allow him to finally have a home after nearly a quarter of a century without one.

Indeed, hope is always the last thing to die.  For when even that is gone, when all hope has vanished, we truly have nothing left but the blackness of despair.  I like to think that hope figures somewhere in the lessons of Christmas.  For hope recognizes the possibility of a better tomorrow, whether it be through the fulfillment of ancient prophesy or through taking action in our local communities toward ensuring housing for all.

Hope is sending off a letter to Santa Claus at the North Pole with the conviction that, if I’m very, very good, he might come down the chimney with all the desires of my heart on Christmas Eve.  Hopeless is knowing that, no matter how good you try to be, you will never be deserving of anything but lumps of coal.  And so, on this Christmas Eve, I put it to you that entirely too many of us fall into this latter category.

Yesterday, we had our annual toy giveaway here at the church, courtesy of an area Spanish-speaking congregation.  While carols played through a sound system, hot dogs were cooked and passed out as parents and their children lined up to receive what may be their only Christmas gifts this year.  Each child who showed up received several age-appropriate toys, while food boxes were given out to the parents.  All of the gifts were donated by generous businesses and individuals.

We have the naysayers, sure.  When I point out that families began gathering at 7:30 am for the 11:00 giveaway, leaning against the church façade, bundled up against the cold, someone always points out that most of these families are not impoverished, that they’re just trying to get something for nothing.  That we are suckers whose generosity is being taken advantage of.  As I think about this, I am reminded of a saying that my mother used to throw at us when, as kids, we became unduly cynical:  “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”  I laugh now at how old-fashioned this sounds, but there is a truth to it.  There will always be sharpies out there, fraudsters who care about no one but themselves and who, to paraphrase Billy Joel, will take what they’re given as long as it’s free.  For me at least, this will never be a reason to throw in the towel.  The only control we have is over our own behavior.  We have no control over what anyone else does.  The fact that there is evil in the world is not a valid excuse for refusing to be the good in the world.  And as for those who characterize us as bleeding heart do-gooders, I can only say “why don’t you come join us?”

Of course, we are not the only bastions of generosity in our little town.  Far from it.  There’s the Salvation Army, for example.  The Sally had collected hundreds of toys to give away to local kids right before Christmas.  Unfortunately, they stored those toys in a vacant storefront next to a supermarket.  Some malefactors discovered this fact, broke in and cleaned them out on Sunday night.

But for several hundred kids in our community, Santa arrived a day early.  They provided the hope; generous donors provided its fulfillment.  If we are to banish homelessness for good, we must rely on a similar model:  The hopes of the have-nots fulfilled by the largesse of the generous.

So where do we start?  Whose responsibility is it to ensure that each of us has a home?  I submit to you that it is everyone’s responsibility.  In Yolo County, just down the road from here, the local government implemented a ten-year plan to end homelessness in the county.  They report that they are well on the way to achieving this goal.  Other localities insist that they haven’t the resources to devote to a project of such dimensions and must rely on the federal and state governments and the generosity of private donors.  Meanwhile, Congress cites finite resources and too many hands clambering for a handout.  The churches, they say, will have to take up the slack.

Now that I have lived at a church for a year, I am able to appreciate how this zeitgeist trickles down to the immediate needs of the community.  As a local church, there is seldom a time when we are not virtually broke.  We are a tiny church, and despite generous donations on Sundays and at other times, there is never enough available to do all the work we’d like to do here in the community, much less to make contributions to worthy causes elsewhere.  With the help of other churches, we are able to do things like hold an annual toy giveaway or run a weekly food distribution.

What it comes down to, of course, is that no man is an island.  We are all in this together, popular ideas about individualism notwithstanding.  We are our brother’s keepers, whether we choose to ignore this responsibility or respect it.  We have to do it together, though.  Yes, we need the support of Congress.  Yes, we need the contributions of the state and county governments, the tireless efforts of our elected representatives who create programs that provide the neediest among us with housing and food.  And, yes, we need the churches and the generosity of businesses and individuals who provide us with turkeys and canned goods and gift certificates.

None of us can do this alone, but together, and with the blessings of God, anything is possible.  We can bring hope to the hopeless and the homeless.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  May your days be merry and bright.

High on the Hog

piggy bank

One of the trickiest parts of the job application process is broaching the matter of salary.  As money has a nasty little tendency to bring out the worst in all parties involved, we often try to hold off mentioning compensation until the last possible moment.  As we glide back and forth through the steps of the interview dance, we pointedly seek to avoid prematurely stepping on that sensitive dollar spot.  Instead, the prospective employee pretends that money is not an issue and that, in fact, it would be a privilege and an honor to work for this employer under any terms.  Often, the employer does nothing to counter this notion, making the most of its superior bargaining power in a job market in which employers can have their pick of applicants.

Some employers use “salary requirements” as a means of unceremoniously culling the daunting stack of applications down to a manageable level.  This part of the application form is often specifically labeled as required to avoid having applicants dodge the issue.  Ask for too much and your application goes in “the pile or the file” (the reject pile or the circular file, that is).

When I first graduated from college, I would ask my father for advice on how to fill in the spot on the application form where the employer would ask how much money I want.  He would tell me to just write “Scale,” an indicator of submissiveness that rises to the level of utter capitulation.  Some aver that this tactic is a clever way of saying “pay me whatever you think I’m worth,” but really it’s just a statement that the applicant needs this job and is willing to roll over and accept whatever paltry sum is offered.

I have read articles suggesting that an applicant that always negotiates his or her salary will, over a working lifetime, earn much more than those of us who simply accept whatever is served up by the employer.  The idea is that an employer has more respect for those applicants who are willing to ask for and justify the compensation that they feel they deserve.  The hidden implication, of course, is that the applicant must be willing to walk away from employers who will have none of it.  This may be possible in an economy that is close to full employment, something we haven’t seen in the United States for quite a while now.

Of course, applicants with sought-after skills will have more bargaining power than those with, say, a liberal arts degree and no job experience beyond fast food and babysitting.  The problem is that it can be hard to know what skills are valued by this particular employer.  I once worked for a small business for more than a year when the owner admitted that she had been so desperate for someone who knew how to work her finicky computers that I could have asked for much more money and she would have gladly paid it.

The fact remains, however, that applicants for many positions have absolutely no ability to haggle over their compensation.  Salaries are often set in stone, either by union contract, corporate policy or employer stubbornness.  Many employers treat applying for job like purchasing a gallon of milk:  The price on the sticker is non-negotiable.

And there will always be employers who take offense at the mere mention of pay.  I recall one phone interview that went swimmingly right up until the very end.  I had answered all of the interviewer’s questions to his satisfaction and he asked me whether I had any of my own.  That’s when I took the opportunity to ask about compensation.  It’s not as if I demanded a particular figure; I simply asked what the salary was.  The employer made it abundantly clear that I had a hell of a nerve to even bring up such a topic.  Obviously, I was more interested in money than in working for the company.  I was shocked, and of course I never heard from them again.

Another land mine that applicants can step on is the “salary range.”  Some employers advertise a range of compensation that leads applicants to believe that the starting salary may be anywhere in that range.  So, if I have a great deal of relevant experience and education, I could potentially start near the top of the range, right?  Wrong.  Most employers hire at the bottom of the salary range as a matter of course; the top number is the compensation to which an employee may work up to over a period of years.

These days, I am employed in government work, where salary ranges for most positions are matters of public record.  It is, at least theoretically, possible to start at a salary above the bottom of the range if you have particular skills that are needed and can’t be easily found.  I didn’t immediately understand how this works, but it didn’t take me too long to figure it out.

After two interviews with my current employer, I noticed that I had a missed call from Human Resources.  When I called back, I was told that they had started to call me but then realized that they would have to do further research and call me back because I had requested ham.

Excuse me?  Now, I am a Jewish boy from New York, and a vegan to boot, and I have never eaten ham in all my life.  Why would I ask for ham?

Well, what a doofus I was.  It turns out that HAM stands for “hiring above minimum.”  And it’s true:  Based on my years of experience, I had asked to be hired at a salary above the bottom of the range.  I ended up getting turned down for HAM, because they don’t offer HAM to unemployed people.  To get HAM, you must have a job which you may or may not leave for new employment depending on whether the compensation offered makes it worth your while.

Instead of HAM, I would have to be satisfied with BACON:  The Basic Agreement on Compensation Of New-Hires.  Oh my goodness, I had totally forgotten!  This is a union job!

Okay, it is what it is.  I very much need this job.  But that doesn’t mean that I have no negotiating power whatsoever.  I knew I had to stand up for myself and get everything I possibly could.  So I demanded the California Retroactive Income Supplement to Paychecks.  That’s right, if I’m going to bring home the BACON, I’m at least going to make sure it’s nice and CRISP.

Oh, and I wasn’t done yet.  I am no dummy.  I know all about the various programs for which state employees are eligible.  The legislature has been good to us and I plan to take full advantage of that.  So for my next move, I insisted upon being signed up for Salary Augmentation Under Senate/Assembly Grant to Employees.  You read that right, folks.  I demanded my SAUSAGE rights.

The poor HR lady sighed.  I could tell she hates dealing with know-it-alls like me.  Well, she informed me that, in that case, I’m going to have to choose one of the two SAUSAGE options.  If I have dependents, she told me, I should select a Partial Adjustment to Taxable Income for Employees of the State (PATTIES).  Otherwise, I’d be stuck with the Low Income/No Kids Subsidy (LINKS).  I ordered up PATTIES and thought that I was finally done with this whole unappetizing mess.

But, as it turned out, HR still had one more course to pile on my plate.  It was my own fault, really.  I stupidly admitted that we provide day care for our two-year old grandniece, and wouldn’t you know, that changed the picture entirely.  I was forced to take an additional payroll deduction for a savings plan based on the state’s acknowledgment of the effects that the Price Of Raising Kids Can Have On Personal Savings.

You guessed it, folks.  I’m stuck with PORK CHOPS.

Employed!

It happened about a week ago.

While I was concentrating intently on something else entirely, I suddenly thought I felt a tickle in my pocket.  Sure enough, my trusty iPhone was vibrating.  I wasn’t expecting a call from anyone and I didn’t recognize the number on the screen.

As it turned out, it was an employer to which I had applied sometime in the past few months.  They would like to invite me to travel hundreds of miles to their out-of-state location on Friday to sit for testing.

Hmm, I know how this song goes.  The angst-ridden lyrics include a mention of “I’ve been down this road a time or two,” perhaps as a rhyme for “and this is not the job for you.”  Let’s see:  First, you spend hundreds of dollars in gas, restaurant and hotel money to sit in a training room with 20 or 30 other wannabes in various stages of unemployment discomfort.  I went through this twice down in Orange County this past spring.  Either you type insipid essays in Microsoft Word or you bubble in your multiple guess answers with a Number 2 pencil.  Then you go home and a couple of months later you receive a congratulatory email along with notification that you have now been added to the list of candidates for any management position for which the organization should happen to open recruitment within the next year.  About a month after that, you receive another email inviting you for an interview.  You make more hotel reservations, take gas money out of savings, drive hundreds of miles again to get dressed up, shake hands and tell a lot of stories about your management style and a time when you disagreed with your employer’s decision and how you implemented it effectively among your subordinates anyway.  After that, who knows?  You might receive a call inviting you back to a second interview (now that you’ve already blown through $1,500 in travel expenses) or you might receive a form letter informing you that a better qualified candidate was selected and better luck next time.

All of this flashed through my mind in the ten seconds I had to respond to the employer on the phone.  My answer tasted delicious on my tongue.  “Oh, I’m so sorry,” I burbled in my most sympathetic voice, “but I’ve already accepted another position.”

You read that right, folks.  After nearly a year of unemployment, Uncle Guacamole is once again gainfully employed in a full-time job.

It gave me great pleasure to be able to turn down this offer to spend a lot of money on nothing.  This pleasure was enhanced immeasurably by uttering it from my own cubicle at my new job on a very quiet floor of an office building from which several dozen of my nearby coworkers could hear my heartfelt rejection.

About six months ago, one of my readers asked that I be sure to inform her when I finally find a job by uttering “Hooray!” and “Yeehaw!” in this space.

Hooray!  Yeehaw!

Never say that I’m not a man of my word.

I have now been on the job for one week and, I’ve got to tell you folks, I am loving it.  I was a supervisor for years until I made my way up to manager.  This job is neither of those and thus represents a significant demotion.  Also I had to take a big salary cut from my last position.  But then again, it’s a big raise from the zero dollars and zero cents I was earning as an unemployed person.  And I will unequivocally assert that it is a heck of a lot better than standing in line for three hours waiting for a food handout.

I am also now a commuter.  My job (ooh, it sounds so lovely to say my job) is in downtown Sacramento, which is 36 miles away, nearly an hour’s drive in rush hour traffic.  Also, there is no parking to be had without paying a monthly fee to a garage and then hiking from there to the office tower in which I work.  Thus, my wonderful wife drives me to work each morning, then returns at 5 p.m. to pick me up.  At two round-trips daily, that’s about 144 miles, which works out to well over $150 in gas.  And we will certainly have to purchase another vehicle sooner rather than later.  Our old trusty isn’t going to last long at this rate.

It is truly a blessing from God that my wife is willing to do all the driving.  The rush hour traffic as one approaches downtown on Interstate 5 reminds this New York boy of his romps of yesteryear on the Long Island Expressway.  It is enough to fray the nerves of one stronger than I.  My wife, however, has it down to a science.  She has memorized every lane change from Arco Arena to Q Street and manages to execute this automotive dance with balletic aplomb.  I’ll say it again:  God has been very good to me.

As if that weren’t enough, I have a boss who is an answer to prayer.  His kindness and patience humbles me.  And if, someday, I make it back into management, I want to be like him.

On Student Loans and Dreams Deferred

Most of us who attend college these days have to take out student loans and then spend years mired in debt, trying to pay off the costs of their education.  I am no exception.

The ironic thing is that I nearly escaped this trap.  I was this close when I blew it.

You could say that I had it made.  My parents were teachers and school administrators for years, were frugal and saved their money, and made it clear that they would pay my college expenses and those of my two sisters.

As you may imagine, education was near and dear to my parents’ hearts.  From earliest age, they planted the seed in our brains that all of us were going directly from high school to college, no two ways about it.  We lived in a solidly middle class enclave, and nearly all the kids with whom we associated at school had similar college plans.  Not college dreams, mind you.  College plans.  We vaguely heard about kids who went to work straight out of high school or who went into the Armed Forces.  For us, however, there was a direct college preparatory path into the halls of academia.

In the case of my sisters and myself, college was far more than an abstract idea or a simple expectation.  From our elementary school days on, we understood what college was all about because we lived it.  My parents were always going to school.  At the age of four, my father bought me a toy typewriter because I wanted to be just like Dad, whom I observed, day after day, typing his master’s thesis on a battered manual typewriter in the corner of our New York City apartment.  When I was in fourth grade (and my sisters were in second grade and kindergarten, respectively), we had a babysitter one night a week so that my parents could run out of their jobs and straight to class.  Now that we lived in the suburbs, the drive to the college was two and a half hours round trip.

Then there were the summer classes.  By the time I was in junior high, my mother was working on her master’s degree and my father was on his way to a sixth year certificate in educational administration.  All of us would wake up at the crack of dawn to head up north to the college.  My sisters and I would amuse ourselves on campus while my parents were in class.  We’d walk the tree-lined paths, chill out in the library, play board games in the student lounges, beg my father for quarters to raid the vending machines.  I would pretend I was a college student by researching topics in history and geography and writing papers on what I had learned.  I thought it was the coolest thing to stretch out beneath a tree with a book.  No one bothered the three of us, and many of the professors recognized us.  “There go the Smith kids.”

One summer, my mother had to take a class in entomology at the college’s field campus in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.  This was an even longer drive, but at least it was only one day per week.  My father didn’t have a class there, so he would take my sisters swimming in the pond while I, a fat klutz and certified water hater, holed up somewhere with a book.  Back at home, we’d help my mother get a good grade by catching butterflies, grasshoppers and beetles for her to preserve and mount on pins in her insect collection.

I would burst with pride when my mother was doing research in the college library and asked me to find a particular book for her.  Familiar with the Dewey decimal system from our public library, I quickly learned to navigate the college’s Library of Congress cataloguing system.  We watched my mother tip-tap her papers, and eventually her doctoral dissertation, on her Smith-Corona electric typewriter.

College was in my blood.

All three of us ended up attending the State University of New York, paid for in full by mother. (By this time, my parents had begun managing their finances separately — and they’ve now been married for nearly 62 years!)  As my wife frequently reminds me, I had the kind of advantages that many others do not.

After college, I worked for almost seven years before deciding to attend graduate school full-time.  Once again, my mother fully encouraged me in my plans, agreeing to pay for me to attend the best graduate school that I could get into.  Sounds like a dream, right?

For a while, it was.  I embarked on a three-year course of study at a small private college in New England.  There was the tuition, obscenely expensive textbooks, rent, food and the costs of maintaining my car.  My mother paid for all of it.

When I had one year left to go before obtaining my degree, it all fell apart.  A situation developed that I handled badly and from which I have never been able to financially recover.

Here’s how it all went down:  Just after I completed my first year of grad school, my mother accepted a position as superintendent of schools in a tiny school district in upstate New York.  She rented an apartment there and made the eight hour round trip to visit her house near New York City on the weekends.  By the time I finished my second year of grad school, my mother decided that she would like to buy a house in upstate New York and, eventually, retire there.  (She never did, instead retiring to California to be near her grandchildren.)  She planned to purchase a large house that had plenty of room for me to move in with her and that had a separate office wing for me to set up my own business.  Talk about having everything handed to me on a silver platter!

There were just a couple of small problems.  For one thing, I was thirty years old and didn’t want to live with my mother.  And for another, I didn’t want to set up my own business.

Well, you can figure out how this ended up.  I broke the news to my mother that I had other plans, to which she reacted by withdrawing all financial support.  But I still had one year of school left before graduation.  What to do?

The most sensible course of action, I decided, was to quit school, get a job and move on.  This, however, proved to be problematic.  Without the graduate degree, there would be no professional job for me.  I thought I’d go back to working as a typesetter or proofreader, but the economy had tanked and there were no jobs in that field to be found.  I answered every ad in the newspaper for clerical positions, anything on which I could support myself.  I had no luck whatsoever.  The only job I was offered was in fast food at a subminimum wage that would not pay my rent.  And so, as much to avoid homelessness as anything else, I took out student loans to get me through my final year of school.  All these years later, I can still see myself sitting alone in the grad school lobby, agonizing over this decision.

In retrospect, I should have told my mother what she wanted to hear; later, I could have reneged on my promise and there wouldn’t have been much she could have done about it.  But I’ve never operated that way.  I have a thing for honesty that has screwed me over royally more than once.

There were other factors involved as well.  I felt terrible about wasting two years of hard work.  I knew it was now or never, that I’d never be able to cobble together enough courses at night to earn my degree.  Additionally, I was invested in the school’s culture, stupidly being unwilling to leave behind trappings that, in the long run, did not matter at all.  It didn’t help that, at the time, I had a girlfriend who threw histrionic fits at the thought of me living with my mother forever.  If only I’d had half a brain, I would have gotten in my car and driven to Alaska.

In the intervening decades, I have never ceased to regret my decision to take out those student loans.  In the end, I graduated but was never able to find a position in my field anyway.  Eventually, I was able to make my way back to working as a desktop publisher.

I will be paying on those loans for the rest of my life.  My experience has included defaulting on my student loans, having them reinstated at lower interest rates, obtaining forbearance during two periods of unemployment, combining loans, being mercilessly dunned by telephone collectors and having my wages garnished.

Unlike other types of consumer credit, student loans have the distinction of being non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.  If this were not so, it would be easy to attend college for free by taking out large student loans and then declaring bankruptcy upon graduation.  If you are a low-wage worker, you can have your monthly payments lowered (or even temporarily reduced to zero if you become unemployed), but the interest on the amount owed continues to accumulate.  After a while, the compound interest becomes so huge that, short of winning the lottery, most of us can never hope to repay the debt.

One good thing about student loan debt is that it does discharge at the end of the life of the debtor.  The idea, I’ve been told, is that no education is ever wasted and that it is useful in any type of job, even if the student never works in the field in which the degree was conferred.  Because education is not transferable to another, however, the benefit obtained by the money borrowed ends with the death of the borrower.  As I took out my student loans many years before I was married, I alone am responsible for my debt.  It is comforting to know that the debt will be forgiven when I die, and that my wife will not continue to be saddled with payments after my demise.

Considering my difficult experiences with repaying student loans for a single year of education, I can’t imagine what hopelessness must descend upon those who took out loans to finance four to eight years of college.

But I have learned one thing in the process.  Regardless of the mistakes of one’s youth, we must go on.  Sure, we’ve made other financial mistakes over the years.  My wife and I have had our little dances with credit cards.  With the aid of her superb money management skills, however, we have managed to become nearly debt-free without declaring bankruptcy.  I say “nearly,” because those student loans remain.  They will never go away.

It makes me rather sad to hear people say “I can’t do this, I can’t do that…I have student loans, you know.”  One of my favorite bloggers has posted that she is planning to defer or renounce an opportunity to pursue a dream because she would need to stop working for a while and can’t do that with $50,000 of student loans.  I have unsuccessfully urged her to reconsider this decision, reminding her that loan payments can be reduced or suspended.  And when she achieves her dream, those good old loan payments will still be there for her to begin making again.

After all, student loans eventually go away when you die.  And you only live once.

The Underground Economy

If you’re interested in the effects of long-term unemployment and the ways that out-of-work people manage to get by, I highly recommend the Longreads selection that was Freshly Pressed this past week:  “Mango, Mango! A Family, a Fruit Stand and Survival on $4.50 a Day.”  Douglas Haynes, whose piece was originally published in Orion magazine, takes us through a day in the life of families who eke out a living by selling snacks in the squalor of Managua, Nicaragua’s sprawling Mercado Oriental.  While some of the tiny businesses that set up folding tables are licensed, most are not.  With so many thousands of stands cropping up and disappearing daily, selling everything imaginable, the government can’t even begin to keep track.  For most of these mom and pop entrepreneurs, the profits are barely enough to feed their families.

In Nicaragua, as in the United States, working “under the table” means that nothing is put into the government’s established economic institutions and nothing is taken out of them.  These are people who work without paying taxes into the public coffers and without the ability to draw social security benefits once they are no longer able to work.  And, as Haynes point out, they suffer all the disadvantages of the self-employed — no paid vacation, no sick leave, no health insurance.  Still, in societies in which there are tens of thousands of people out of work, it is a way to survive.

Several years ago, I read an excellent book about residents of the South Side of Chicago who provide goods and services to the community on street corners, in alleyways, out of parking lots and abandoned buildings.  In Off the Books, author Sudhir Venkatesh refers to this phenomenon as “the underground economy.”  Operating in the shadows, these informal businesses fill a void in that they provide a way to obtain desired goods and services in areas that may be underserved due to a deteriorating economic establishment in the wake of poverty, crime and the participation of “legitimate” business owners in white flight.

In the public eye, the underground economy is often associated with illegal activity.  Indeed, criminal enterprises, such as prostitution or the sale of drugs, necessarily remain outside of the mainstream.  But the fact that they’re not counted by the government doesn’t make them any less a part of our economy.  As long as there are those willing to pay cash or barter for these goods and services, there will be enterprising folks willing to evade the law to sell them.  I think of when I lived on Broad Street in downtown Hartford, where cars would slowly approach each other from opposite directions and stop for just a moment, in broad daylight right in front of the brownstone I called home, to make their exchanges through open windows.

However, a significant part of the underground economy consists of legal activity, such as the sale of sliced watermelon, bottles of Coke and fried platanos in Managua or the automotive repair and oil change businesses that operate out of back alleys in Chicago.  In an economy in which there aren’t enough jobs to go around, the point of such efforts is to earn a dollar or two in profit to allow one to get through another day — to put some kind of food on the table for the family, even if it’s just rice and beans in Nicaragua or peanut butter and jelly in the United States.

Indeed, it’s sad to say that unemployment is starting to make the United States look more and more like Latin America or Africa.  With a large segment of our population descending into third world conditions, it’s no wonder that the Occupy movement railed so mightily against the “one percent” just a few years ago.

In most other parts of the world, the “underground economy” goes by the name “System D.”  The “D” stands for the French term la débrouillardisme, which is most often translated as “resourcefulness,” although that word fails to capture the true nuance of the French.  The original phrase embodies some combination of “schemes to get by,” “living by one’s wits,” “knowing how to get around the system” and one of my favorite terms from back in the 1970s, “gettin’ over on the man.”  In France, to say that someone is très débrouillard is an expression of high admiration.  It means that you are able to figure out a way to get what you need, even when the odds are stacked against you, wink, wink.

I have come to realize that, here in the United States, System D takes on numerous forms, including learning how to work the system and learning how to live outside it.  Some combination of these is what enables the unemployed to keep going without a steady paycheck.  For example, it is perfectly legal for a person to earn a certain amount of money while drawing Food Stamps.  Your EBT card will rarely feed the family until the end of the month; even if you can supplement it with some canned goods from the local food bank or the occasional dumpster dive, that isn’t going to help if your kid needs a pair of shoes.  So the unemployed frequently supplement whatever kind of benefits they are receiving by selling goods or services on the side.  This could mean anything from setting up a table at a swap meet to babysitting to fixing things as a handyman.  Haynes describes bus drivers who pay a man a few cents to shout out the bus route number in the crowded marketplace.  Such informally obtained income is generally taxable, but of course, most people don’t bother declaring it.

Further strengthening the underground economy, those who find themselves in poverty often exchange good will by patronizing each other.  “I know a guy who knows a guy” is what everyone wants to hear.  And when there’s not enough money to pay the guy, there’s always barter.  Change the oil in my car and I’ll bake you some pies.  Venkatesh mentions Chicago shop owners who can’t afford a security guard and instead “hire” a homeless person to sleep in their tiny storefronts at night.

Understanding how the underground economy works in one’s community often makes it possible for the poor to get hold of the things they need.  The main thing, of course, is that you don’t ask too many questions.  Back in New York, I remember that there were always guys who knew how to get stuff that “fell off a truck.”  The retired guy who might be willing to fix your leak or the out-of-work teacher who can tutor your kid probably doesn’t have ads in the Yellow Pages (although, these days, they might have one on Craigslist).  It’s very much a word of mouth thing.  Here in our little relatively rural community, many people have little gardens where they grow various things — could be cucumbers or cantaloupes or cannabis, you never know.

I think of the three homeless guys who we’ve tried to help out here at the church.  Homeless Guy #1 is in jail, awaiting trial.  His needs are being provided for by the judicial system.  Homeless Guy #2 has done a lot of couch surfing and has now found a place to stay for a month or so.  Sometimes he works as a day laborer or fix-it guy or painter.  Other times, he doesn’t, particularly if there’s alcohol to be had.  He figures out ways to trade his services for whatever he needs.  Homeless Guy #3 sleeps on someone’s porch or under a tree, and begs sandwiches at the door of the parsonage when his Food Stamps run out.

His EBT was replenished yesterday, so we weren’t surprised to see him walking along the road with a full plastic bag from the local dollar store this afternoon.  When he passed by the panhandler who stands at the freeway entrance with the “homeless and hungry” sign, we saw him give the guy some money.

It’s funny how those of us who have the least are often the most generous.

 

The Employment Paradigm: A Labor Day Story

I used to think that the scariest thing about unemployment was the obvious, the lack of an income.  But I soon came to realize that there is something else:  The fear of the unknown.  Will I find anything before my unemployment checks run out?  Will I have to take a job that pays a lot less than what I have been earning? Will I have to change careers, give up my home, move to a distant state?  The one question I never asked, however, was whether it might be possible to have a good life as an unemployed person.

Just as I wrote the above, Homeless Guy #3 appeared at the door of the parsonage, asking for food.  He said that he’d run out of Food Stamps for the month and that his EBT card wouldn’t be filled up until tomorrow.  I went in the kitchen and made him a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  He began to chow down the moment I handed him the paper plate with the PB&Js, right there in the doorway.  That guy was hungry.

Although our friend has mental issues, substance abuse problems and has been in trouble with the law, it’s hard to avoid thinking “this is what long-term unemployment can do to you.”  It’s a vicious circle, of course; no one wants to employ people with those types of problems, but it’s hard to surmount those issues without a paycheck to purchase things like food, clothing and shelter.

When I received my layoff notice about a year ago, my coworkers and subordinates all asked me “What will you do now?”  Um, look for another job, maybe?  What do you think I’m going to do, dorkus mallorcus?

Biting my tongue to avoid blurting out a facile answer (“I’m going to Disneyland!”), I would tell them that we were headed up north to live in a church parsonage with my mother-in-law and that I hoped to contribute my efforts to the church ministries.  When they’d press me for details, I’d talk about starting a food bank, collecting coats for kids and helping the homeless.  I had no idea whether I’d actually end up doing any of these things, but I did have a dream about some of these possibilities and, well, I felt as if I needed a more intelligent answer than “I don’t know.”

But I didn’t know.

I got tired of answering the same questions over and over, but I had to remind myself that at least some of it was the product of genuine concern.  A few would sweep aside formalities and ask what was really on their minds:  “What will you do for money?”  I really wanted to answer by whispering confidentially “Well, you know, we have savings.  You don’t have any, now do you?”

As annoyed as I’d be with the question about money, I came to realize that this is part and parcel of the paradigm of employment:  You need money for the necessities of life, and you have to be employed to get that money.

Later, however, sociologist and fellow blogger Alex Barnard of Ox the Punx helped to introduce me to alternate economic paradigms.  There is an interesting school of thought that holds that most of us waste our lives in meaningless employment that is mind-numbing, contributes to the destruction of the earth and makes us sick — all in order to earn money to purchase consumer goods that we don’t need and that don’t make us happy in any event.  Okay… So is it possible to have a happy life of unemployment without sleeping out in the open and starving to death?  Without ending up like Homeless Guy #3?  It turns out that it is.

I have been learning about a movement known as freeganism.  The word freegan is derived from a combination of the words “free” and “vegan” (although many practitioners are not vegans).  The crux of the idea is to reduce waste via the four Rs:  reducing, reusing, recycling and repurposing.  Specifically, make use of perfectly good items that others throw away.  This can take a huge variety of forms, but it essentially assumes that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  This week, for example, our elderly neighbor was thrilled to find, discarded on the roadside, a pair of pants that fit her perfectly.  In our relatively rural area, we have county and state food distributions, free bread pickups on Fridays and churches hosting food banks and free lunches and dinners.

But it is the practice of “dumpster diving” that has caused the freegan movement to attain a negative image in the press.  The truth of the matter is that restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores throw out perfectly good unsold baked goods at the end of the day and unopened cans and boxes of food when they approach their expiration dates.  Those who reclaim this discarded food not only use it for themselves but also share with others in need.  Nevertheless, instead of lauding the efforts of freegans to reduce unnecessary waste, the media have characterized freegans as a disgusting class of untouchables.  The economists and sociologists have suggested that the anti-capitalist nature of eschewing money in favor of making use of the castoffs of others is at least one reason for the denouncement of freegans in the media.

When it comes to housing, the joint efforts of government agencies and volunteers in places like New York and Detroit have created safe housing for those who would otherwise be homeless.  We constantly hear about homeless camps under freeway ramps, people sleeping on heating grates (or here in California, on the beach) and beggars panhandling on corners.  Although those are some ways of surviving for free, they are often unsafe and frequently made impossible by law enforcement.  What we rarely hear about, however, are efforts such as the conversion of in rem buildings (apartments seized for nonpayment of taxes) into housing for the homeless in my native New York City, or the use of adverse possession and other laws to allow volunteers (neighbors helping neighbors) to convert abandoned homes into family housing in Detroit.  The latter practice is often denigrated in the media as “squatters’ rights” or “squat-to-own” — which conveniently forgets that this is similar to the way that the American frontier was settled in the nineteenth century.  I am proud to be from New York, where the state constitution has codified that housing is a right, not a privilege.

Whether we are talking about food or clothing or shelter, there are those of us who believe that we can make the world a better place for ourselves and others by minimizing our possessions and maximizing our use of what others have thrown away.

But it is the freegan position on employment that really makes me sit up and notice.  Too many of us work, directly or indirectly, for corporations that rape our natural resources and seek to sell us garbage that we don’t need.  Meanwhile, the stress and unhealthy working conditions of our jobs are killing us.  Wouldn’t it be better to spend our time with our families, helping others and enjoying the one life that God has given us?  And indeed, by reducing our consumption and becoming aware that most of our “needs” are false idols created by Madison Avenue, we can reduce or eliminate our need for work.

This point of view runs contrary to society’s (and, I might add, Congress’s) disdain for the unemployed as “slackers” and “bums,” lazy, worthless people who leech off the generosity of others.  But now that we’ve reached a point in our economy at which technological obsolescence has become a runaway train, and where there aren’t enough jobs to go around for those who want them, perhaps we need to take another look at the viability of remaining permanently unemployed.

The suffering of the unemployed goes beyond the uncertainty of providing for our needs when we have no money.  This is because we have built our entire identities around work.  The very words we use when we talk about employment give us away.  We don’t say that we are employed as a secretary, waitress or computer programmer; a person says that he or she is a secretary, waitress or computer programmer.  Becoming unemployed takes that identity away so that our financial struggles are compounded by feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, leading to family problems, depression and even suicide.  While the employed waste their lives on the job, the unemployed waste their lives by destroying themselves from the inside out.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Instead of allowing ourselves to be occupationally pigeonholed, we can reclaim our identities as individuals.

And so, as we celebrate Labor Day here in the United States, I call upon each of my valued readers to keep an open mind and to rethink what it means to be employed, what employment is taking away from us, and to what extent employment does or does not remain a valid paradigm in the 21st century.  Unlike some, I’m not saying that being employed is a bad way to live; I’m just saying that it’s not the only way to live.

I can tell you from personal experience that unemployment is not for sissies.  But I can also confidently state that we can vastly improve our world and our lives if we make it a point to help each other rather than burying our heads in the sand, to make use of perfectly good items that others throw away, and to value each other for our unique personalities rather than merely for our ability to contribute to the economy.

References

Freegan.info, “Free Your Life from Work”

Goodwin, Jan, “She Lives Off What We Throw Away,” Marie Claire (March 11, 2009).

Halpern, Jake, “The Freegan Establishment,” The New York Times Magazine (June 4, 2010).

Kurutz, Steven, “Not Buying It,” The New York Times (Home and Garden, June 21, 2007).

Spencer, David, “Why Work More?  We Should be Working Less for a Better Quality of Life,” The Guardian (Feb. 4, 2014).

Swanson, D. Joanne, “The Cult of the Job,” http://www.whywork.org (2004).