Friday, April 24, 2009

Portrait: Olympia, Washington

Unemployment has left me with many dark days. Days where my eyes burn from tears, where I ask myself over and over, “What am I doing wrong?” I have moments where I think I might never find a job, where I will be forced to give in and work in fast food to simply pay my bills. I have days where I doubt my skills, and days where I just want to give up. But strangely enough, unemployment has also brought me extreme joy…

After loosing my job, I made the tough choice to leave Seattle, WA, a city I had grown to love over the last five years, to join my boyfriend on his relocation journey to Olympia, WA. I was packing my bags and moving to a city I had never visited, a city that was smaller, less cosmopolitan, away from friends and familiarity, to try to change my luck. I had used up all my savings trying to pay rent, interviews weren’t producing jobs, and I had run out of options. I was scared, and mostly terrified that my life as I knew it was coming to a pitiful end. I couldn’t find another job, and so I was being forced to leave.

Yet here I am. I have been unemployed for 138 days now, at least a hundred more days than I ever imagined I would be unemployed, and I’m still standing.

I no longer have a beautiful apartment on Lake Washington, but now I have a house that I share with my loving, supportive boyfriend. I can no longer afford to buy myself clothes, but instead, what little money I receive from unemployment I use for flowers in my garden, or home cooked meals on my table. I can’t afford to go bar hopping with friends any longer, so instead I sit on my porch with a cheap glass of wine and enjoy the company of people who care. Now that I no longer spend 40 hours a week at work I finally have time to start a blog (The Accidental Olympian), take more pictures, keep in touch with friends, and enjoy nature. The city I loved so much kept me from having the time, or space to get a dog. Now that I am no longer working, I finally adopted a puppy, and can enjoy being a dog owner once again. I might not live in a bustling city any longer, but now I take afternoon walks along the river and find enjoyment being in nature. EVERYTHING in my life is different after loosing my job, and as hard as it was to take in all these changes at once, now that I’m here, accepting my life, things are better than they were pre-unemployment.

I still get down. Only yesterday I found out that both of the jobs I interviewed for, both of the jobs I worked so hard to receive, selected a different candidate for the position. It’s hard to continue to accept second place, it never feels good to know I wasn’t their top choice, but I keep applying, keep searching. Eventually my life will change, either with a new job, a new opportunity, or a new chance. Until then I’ve learned to live with the uncertainty, accept my life as it has become, and keep moving forward.

Olympia, WA

Monday, April 20, 2009

Portrait: Toronto, Ontario

I spent the last 6-½ years working for a small non-profit organization. The money wasn’t great but there were perks in other areas. My business wardrobe was all jeans and Ts, so I never had the expense of pantyhose or dry cleaning. The benefits were beneficial; I rarely paid out of pocket for prescriptions or visits to the dentist. I enjoyed my co-workers and, for the most part, I enjoyed my job.

Earlier this month I was informed that my position had been ‘restructured’; that I did not have the ‘skill set’ for the new position. I was shown the door. There is money to ease this transition. Twelve weeks of pay and the potential to receive an additional eight weeks of pay if I sign a release that will protect the organization’s ass be beneficial for all involved, seeing as they restructured the position of the lone staff member with a child and no partner, who took eight (8) days of paid sick leave in order to deal with mental health issues. I’ve seen the new position and it is well out of my league, since I’m not one for working 60-hour weeks and need the occasional day off to deal with a sick child.

What may save us is that I have always lived cheaply. But, on the flip side, it means that is very hard to scrimp in order to save money. I don’t think I’ve ever read an article about saving money that didn’t highlight how much can be saved by giving up a latte habit. I have no latte habit. What I do have is the habit of making a thermos-full of coffee each morning (the cheap stuff; not the fair trade coffee I’d prefer to be drinking) that would get me through the day. When I had an office to go to.

Living cheaply means that my daughter and I shop at second-hand stores for our clothes and our books. When I left my husband two years ago, I took only what was mine from our pre-marriage days. I furnished the apartment I share with my daughter with items from Craigslist, Goodwill, and Value Village. When I inventory our space, I can find only two items that came to us new and out of boxes – my bed and the bookshelves. I say to friends that if I cannot find it second-hand, then I likely do not need it. My grandparents purchased my favorite pieces –a rocking armchair and a radio cabinet that our TV sits on – new, but almost fifty years ago. The armchair appears in the background of my mother’s wedding photos, circa 1966.

At the beginning of the winter, I bought a pair of leather boots. New ones. Nice ones. They are likely to last me at least five years and can be worn for three of the four seasons. I see these same boots – smaller versions – on the feet of my daughter’s buddies at daycare. Her same buddies that can grow three inches in all directions, seemingly overnight. The Mook’s boots? $5.99 from LL Bean. Well, via Goodwill. There is enough life in them at the end of this year to be passed onto a friend or a neighbour, most likely a fellow single mom.

We own a car, but it doesn’t get out much. We’re on the transit system for our daily to-and-fro. Although you are supposed to pay 70 cents for a child over the age of two, I’ve not paid once for her, even though it’s been 18 months since we celebrated her 2nd birthday. My brother, who has worked for this same transit commission for nearly a decade tells me that most drivers can’t tell a 2 year old from a 7 year old and that it is not worth their time to request the id of a small child. My transit pass is $100 and allows for unlimited travel, which helps on those days when I was on the streetcar four times daily, doing the shuffle from home to daycare to work to daycare to home. Next month’s pass has arrived in the mail, but I already have a buyer for it and I’ll lose just $10. I am hoping that by the time the April pass arrives in late March I will be back at work someplace that is accessible by our disappointing transit system.

Our daycare costs are equal to rent, but 75% of the cost is covered by the city. This program is in place to enable parents to work and be able to afford childcare and food. Of course, you need to be working in order to receive this subsidy and there is an honor system in place. I’ve left a voice mail message for the case worker that manages our city ward. I need to call her again; I do not want to be accused of fraud. They will allow a twelve-week period of not working before they pull the subsidy. I’m already on week nine and I’ve not received any response to any of the resumes sent.

Of all things, it is the daycare issue that scares me most. Without the subsidy, I would be paying $1150/month instead of $150/month. I can’t afford $1150/month. Five weeks from now, if I am not working, I have to either find the money or pull her out of daycare. Believe me – having a 3 ½ year old at home while I’m job hunting is not ideal. And then, when I’m working again, I have to find a new daycare spot. And re-apply for the subsidy. Both will involve waiting lists of 12-18 months. At which point I would be better off applying for welfare (Ontario Works). And will join the ranks of the other single moms keeping it together – raising happy healthy kids while trying to dig myself out of poverty.

Toronto ON Canada

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Portrait: Attleboro, Massachusetts

I saw a strange man walking up the street Sunday morning. I had already been to Church and back. I was waiting for my boyfriend to call me to breakfast. I heard the strange man before I actually saw him. He was yelling at someone…someone I could not see.

I felt a chill run up my back. I saw my arms break out in goose flesh. This was a big man with very long legs. He was very animated, furiously ranting and waving his arms in the air. He was scary.

He did not belong on my street. We don’t have crazy, yelling men walking on my street. I had never seen him before. He was walking on the ‘wrong’ side. We have no sidewalks and the road twists and turns and cars often drive way too fast on this street. He was actually at risk while he was yelling at his ghost.

Why was he walking on my street? Then it dawned on me. This is a sign of the “economic downturn.” I’m sure he shouldn’t have been out without supervision and at one time he probably would not have been out without supervision. But there are budget cuts everywhere and in my small city there is a hospital that takes care of people like this. My thought is that he came from there, unsupervised, uncared for.

And then two days later, after work, I was driving down my street to go to an afternoon appointment with my doctor. I saw another strange man. He was also tall, with long legs but he was younger. He was walking down the street, with a big long stick in one hand. His jeans were ripped and dirty (not in the stylish way). His hands looked dirty also. He was using the stick to pick out cans from the weeds and the woods. I drove slowly by, watching him scratch the back of his head while he carefully examined a can he dragged out of the long weeds and grass.

And I thought…this is too close to home. This is scary. This is really happening to us.

I am living paycheck to paycheck. I have started a savings plan, and I am praying that it works. I watched my retirement funds plummet while I kept getting my “financial advisor’s” voicemail. I cry when I think about the fact that I will be the Wal-Mart greeter long after age 62, 65 or even 70. Wal-Mart sucks, but it will serve one purpose for me. I will be the greeter, and I will use the discount they offer. Hopefully that will keep me from eating dog food in my golden years.

Last year, in 2008, my 29 year-old, late-to-launch son had surgery on his neck. He is an apprentice in an electrician’s union. He has medical insurance. However, he does not get paid when he doesn’t work. He moved home two weeks before his surgery.

His surgery was done in early February. He returned to work late in the month of November.

I kept up with his car payments. I paid his insurance. I paid his union dues. I gave him money for gas. I gave him money to spend on his girl. I was generous and it was hard, but you do for family, right?

In the summer his girl rented a cottage. He was able to drive by then and he wanted to help her, I know he did. He stole money from me. It was around $600 maybe a little more. That was money I planned on using for my vacation later in the summer.

I forgave him. He went back to work. He borrowed money to buy his girl some presents for Christmas.

He did some jobs around the house for me.

He still lives with me. He still borrows money. He is back at work. Last month his transmission died. I paid $1500 to have it fixed.

A week later he borrowed $500 for court costs (long story).

I asked him to build me some shelves in the closet. The job is sitting there, half done. Everything that was in this closet is out of the closet, on the floor, on a desk, piled on a bureau. He started this project 2 weeks ago.

This is strange to me. We have always been close. He knows he is hurting me. He hears me talk about my savings being wiped out, working at Wal-Mart. He seems like a sociopath to me lately. He doesn’t care. I think the “economic downturn” has burnt a hole in his soul. And it is now burning a hole in my heart. In reality, I know he suffers from depression and I know that he knows he is behaving in a very distasteful manner. I love him, but he needs to fix himself. I am very close to asking him to leave.

I want to get married. But I can’t afford to get married. It is important to us to get married in the Church. But that costs money. So we sit in the rear pew every Sunday, knowing we are sinners in the eyes of God and everyone else around us. And we faithfully pray for a break and to retain our good health, and we faithfully pray for my son and my daughter, and all his family and my family. And we dutifully put our envelope in the collection basket. But we can’t get married. Another year. Maybe next year.

I was divorced about 6 years ago and bought the house from my ex. He falsely elevated the value of the house, costing me an extra 30K, but I bought it anyway, rather than give it to the lawyer to fight about it, and figured that I couldn’t lose if I put the sweat equity into it.

I cleaned up the credit card debt HE created. That was to the tune of $25K. I managed to get about $60K into investments. That’s almost gone now of course, because of the “economic downturn.” My ex bought a house, a hot tub, a new motorcycle and managed to give his male lover Burberry purses and manicures.

But, no one ever said life would be fair. I honestly can say, it didn’t take me long to stop thinking about him and move on, even if we had been married over 25 years.

I began to feel excited about life again. The divorce had been good for me!

I painted the old house myself. I put the sweat equity in. I even got stuck on the roof once for several hours until someone came home because I am so terrified of heights. I painted the outside, painted the inside, put in new carpets and floor, new windows, and renovated the kitchen and bath. I did this one project at a time. I used 0% interest deals over and over. Paid off one, and then started a new one. I did a lot of work myself. I am proud to say, I carry no credit card debt even today! The value of the house increased dramatically.

But I’m afraid the value of the house did not weather the storm of the “economic downturn.” It’s not even close to what it was a few short years ago. Fortunately, I can pay the mortgage and the bills. I am not behind, but I am no where near close to being ahead. Occasionally I have to ‘kite’ a check. But that’s only when my son has hit me up hard.

I lay awake at night constantly running numbers in my head. I am living paycheck to paycheck. I have cut back on groceries, on the heat, on the AC. I started coloring my own hair when I got divorced. Now I cut it myself. (At times you can really tell, but for the most part you can’t). I haven’t really bought any new clothes in a while. I will not need new shoes until the autumn. I might ask for them for my birthday in August. If anyone is giving gifts, that is.

I lay awake at night and think about what’s in the attic that I could sell on eBay or Craigslist. I am making myself sick.

I have some meager life insurance. But I really wanted to leave the house to my kids, figuring that would be worth something. I wanted to give them something that would help them in life. I thought the value of the house would do that. I wanted them to smile and think of me because I could help them financially after I was gone. I cry because now I see that leaving them the house is going to be a burden, rather than a gift.

Tonight I have to speak with my son. I have to tell him I can’t pay for his school books anymore and I can’t pay his union dues. I can’t loan him money, and I can’t even abide to use the word loan anymore.

And he will get pissed off and not talk to me for a while. But he will still come home at night, go downstairs without saying a word and come up later when I am sleeping to eat food.

He might finish the closet in another week or so.

The strange men I have seen walking on my street? I sometimes think I have imagined them. They are visions of my son. These men are my 30-year-old, failed-to-launch son when I simply can’t support him anymore.

For me, the “economic downturn” is the equivalent of gnawing fear.

Attleboro, Massachusetts