Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Triad, Part II: A Tank of Gas, A Pack of Smokes, and Thou

This is the Triad of American living: house, job, car. To prosper in modern America, you need these three things. If you lose one, you will shortly lose the others. If you lack even one, the other two will be impossible to acquire.

Imagine hanging up your phone and realizing that you suddenly have nothing. You have no job, no money, nowhere to go and no way to get there.

When I hung up my phone, there was still a six-pack of Heineken sitting in the fridge. I also had a half-pack of cigarettes. I went to the refrigerator and grabbed a beer, after which I grabbed my smokes and went outside to sit on my porch. It was a bright, cool day in September. There was a stiff breeze blowing in from the Yellow Dog Plain, and on the branches of cedar and tamarack the afternoon light seemed alkaline. I opened my beer, took out a smoke, lit up, and exhaled, sighing. I closed my eyes as the taste of the smoke mixed with my beer.

"Well, shit," I remember saying.

What else can one really say in such a situation. I thought about calling my parents. I thought about moving back home--would it be so bad? No, I told myself. You can't. I have a great relationship with my family, but they only recently became landowners. Even today, they struggle to keep up on their mortgage. To have returned back home would have been to returned to an area where my employment options were virtually nil. I couldn't afford to move back home, and they couldn't afford me. I struck that option almost immediately.

I moved in with a friend. I crashed at her place, on a futon pad in the middle of a bare hardwood floor. I struggled to get my car fixed. I struggled to get my identity back. I failed. In times of hardship, we often fall back on faith. So it was with me. I shaved my head. I ate a bowl of ramen a day. I meditated. I practiced katas. I became an ascetic.

After a time, though, the burdens became too great, even for me. I called a friend, and begged him to drive me down to Escanaba. I just need some time away, I told him. I need to fall back and regroup. I need to be with Anne. Take me down and spend the weekend with us, I coaxed him. We'll cook you dinner, can't argue with free food, right? My friend acquiesced, though I suppose more out of pity than for the sake of my wife's bear steak.

I went to Escanaba. Fortune smiled here. A friend knew of a call-center job--they always needed people--and my fiancee put me in touch with a social services group. They got me a dingy apartment--rent-free--for which all I had to do in exchange was attend weekly life-skills meetings with a caseworker. A few days later, I went back to my friend Emma's in Marquette, with whom I'd been staying. I picked up my few possessions--I was packed in under 15 minutes, even with the futon roll--and was back in Esky later that day. My job was across the street from Anne, and my place just ten minutes away, in Gladstone. After nearly a month of destitution, progress was made. I at least had a chance to start climbing out of the hole.

Things were still hard, though. My hours at the call-center were variable--some weeks I took home $400, other weeks $50. I still couldn't buy my own groceries. I lived for months off of care packages from the local St. Vincent de Paul. I learned to make two weeks' worth of food last for a month. I made meals out of peanut butter. I got occasional meals from Anne. But I still smoked, scrounging my apartment for change enough to buy a cheap bag of rolling tobacco, and I wasted away to less than 120 pounds. My teeth grew loose in my head, and I developed a fungal rash over my upper-body that I couldn't afford to treat. My cheeks and eyes grew sunken. I developed nasty dandruff. I began to look like an AIDS patient.

At times, I grew desperate. I struggled to find a second job, but as my appearance deteriorated, and with no car, my searches often came up fruitless. My fiancee did my laundry for me. I was transferred to another temporary apartment in Escanaba proper. To cope with stress, I resumed using marijuana heavily--Anne lived in a community-college dorm, and free or cheap weed was always readily available. Because I smoked, I couldn't apply for jobs even at Wal-Mart. They, like many other employers, required drug-tests.

This continued for nine months. I began depending on Anne almost exclusively, and attempted to save up enough money for a cheap car. I made friends, and attempted to curb my smoking habit. I began looking at other jobs, and finally scored an interview with a local shoe-store. I cleaned myself up, and listed my caseworker, Ginger, as one of my references. I begged her to not tell the store-owner I was homeless. I unpacked and cleaned my only suit--black vintage pinstripe, and bought from the Salvation Army for $10. I landed the interview, and began working as a salesman at Tradehome Shoes. My financial prospects, while still meager, brightened a bit. It looked like I would be able to afford an apartment by summer. I got together with a friend of mine, and together we conspired to live as roommates.

Things would have continued to improve as they were, if not for a pesky identity crisis I'd been having.

To be continued...

9 Comments:

Blogger NeverEnough said...

Wow - this is written beautifully. I want to hear the rest of it...

5:54 PM  
Blogger cinnabari said...

*whistles* Dude. Harsh. I cringed when I read about the 120 lbs, and the malnutrition, and the bowl of ramen a day. Your story reminds me of my husband's own issues with poverty and unemployment in Sturgeon Bay (he, however, could and did move back home. They had a vegetable garden, if nothing else, so there was something to eat). I can see all too clearly how gaunt you must've been (having seen my guy at 130, and he's 5'10"). Oy. Just... oy.

I like the way in which you relate this story with no drama. It happened. It was this way, and that. You give us just enough detail that we can see that afternoon on the porch, with your beer and smokes... feel the wind... even smell it. But you don't let us in, not really. This is your story, but you're not about to pull us into your skin with you. It's an interesting effect... we get a sense of the desperation, but no sense of manipulation from the words themselves.

(Shut up, Cinnabari, and go drink your coffee.)

6:18 PM  
Blogger cameo said...

keep going........

7:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not pity, bordom. Be thankful I had nothing to do that day. :D

7:03 PM  
Blogger Let said...

What a fantastic story... can't wait to read the rest.

10:42 PM  
Blogger mollymcmommy said...

i'm here too, waiting for the rest.

Wow, is all i can say.

m

6:38 AM  
Blogger cameo said...

where you be milo?

11:01 PM  
Blogger Spc. Freeman said...

It be my weekend, and I have more material than I know what to do with. Ill, baby, ill. :-P

5:57 AM  
Anonymous S. R. said...

This is why I joined the army in the first place haha. Too damn poor, too damn desperate, and feeling like a schmuck.

7:13 PM  

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