Friday, September 10, 2010

I'm ready for that change, Mr. President

Editor's Note: A fuller, more recent version of this story was published as the cover article in the October 2010 edition of Cold Type, an online magazine with "Writing worth reading from around the world."

As I write this, a collection agency is leaving another annoying, threatening message on the answering machine.

The voice is petulant, measured and all business.

I’ve just walked back into the house to make a call of my own after starting up my work truck—a 30-year-old beast that backfires and sputters—and finding the gas tank too close to empty to go anywhere but to a gas station.

I’m literally running on empty. Unfortunately, I don’t have any money to buy gas.

Once the publisher of a literary magazine, I now work as a farm laborer and love being outdoors and away from the crowds, but I don’t earn enough money to cover my basic expenses, nothing in my pockets, and nothing in the bank.

So I came back into the house to call my girlfriend. I need at least $10. That will get me enough gas to drive to the farm where I can put in a few hours and earn some much-needed income. I know, it’s pathetic, but what are my options?

I’ve been looking for work since the economy crashed two years ago. I’m one of the “long-termed unemployed,” those who don’t receive welfare payments and who no longer count in official unemployment figures.

I struggle to collect my thoughts but, even with the voice machine turned down, I can still hear the annoying bottom feeder trying to get money out of me.

“I’ll leave my number with you one more time in case it wasn’t clear…”

Oh, it’s clear, all right. They call six times a day. How could it not be clear? Our only recourse, given we can’t afford debt relief services, or even to file for bankruptcy, is to ignore them.

The bottom fell out of the American Dream and all we do now is hope we can pay the rent. We’re cutting way back on everything, even things we need to stay afloat—like gasoline.

Ironic, that gas has become the symbol of my worst poverty ever. Gas has always meant going places, getting things done, getting to work on time. Now, I have barely enough quarters to put a gallon in my tank.

I’ve been poor most of my life, but never like this, not to the point where I can’t buy gas to get to work.

As the nation reels from economic woes unlike anything since the Great Depression, we’re finally beginning to realize that the American empire’s attempt to control the world’s oil reserves has had a devastating impact at home.

Cheap oil isn’t cheap any more.

But neither are cell phones and phone lines, which we canceled. Whittling our expenditures hasn’t hurt so much as the grinding, demoralizing effect of not having enough money to cover our basic needs.

I’m almost certain that my circumstances are caused as much by forces beyond my control as they are by failures of character. Still, it’s hard not to feel like a loser when every day six of the 10 messages on our message machine are from collection agencies.

I heard of one collector who, when informed that his potential victim was already holding down two jobs, barked: “Well, get a third job!”

If only it were that easy.

My only consolation on days like this comes from knowing I’m not alone. I’m not alone in my poverty, my anger over government handouts to corrupt bankers, or my frustration over the lack of jobs.

Few people I know have money to spend, their savings are quickly disappearing, and they’re living on less, much less.

Numbers indicating the bleak outlook on the economy keep appearing in the news but they don’t really mean that much to me. They don’t move me in any particular way other than to say, “See, it’s the economy.” But the numbers don’t tell the real story of how so many millions of Americans are struggling.

“Unemployment rose a fraction last month to 9.6 percent,” says one recent report. Tens of thousand of jobs have been created but not enough to sustain a healthy “recovery.”

Meanwhile, bankruptcies and loan defaults continue to plague us as bankers, recently padded with taxpayer dollars, refuse to renegotiate troubled loans and mortgages.

Some prognosticators say we’ll never be the same; wages will never be as high as they once were, homes never as expensive, and banks never as loose with their money. It will be at least 10 years before we can expect a recovery.

Until then, economists say, we’re in for even leaner times, worse than what has already passed. I shudder to think about it. The unrest at home seems to be mirrored throughout the neighborhood and beyond. So many people appear, like me, unsettled, angry, and financially depleted.

The lack of a vision that upholds the interests of all Americans will do that. So will endless war and a failure of leadership. Our current president won office through the promise of change and a real hope for the future.

Sadly, I find myself echoing Sarah Palin: “How’s that hopey changey stuff workin’ for ya?”

What I’ve seen so far doesn’t inspire much hope: The middle-class in America, what’s left of it, has fallen on hard times, malcontents have hit the streets, complaining of socialists and Muslims, and religious nuts threaten to burn holy books, while the government throws billions of dollars down the drain to fight the longest war in our nation’s history.

All of the precious resources we’ve wasted on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m certain, have contributed to the failure of our economy—the billions of dollars that might have been spent on projects at home have surely depleted the national treasury, as did the massive bailout of the banks.

And what have we gained from it all? Where are the jobs? Where’s the money for small businesses? What’s happened to education and the infrastructures that enable fluid commerce and industry? What, really, were the benefits of two wars and the largest cash delivery in history?

Now, it seems, we stand at a precipice, where we vainly await the long, slow and elusive but hoped-for recovery. After two years, however, I’m tired of living so close to the edge of disaster.

I’m ready for that change, Mr. President.

Like millions of other Americans grappling with the demoralizing impact of poverty, I continue to hope for the best. I hope that, somehow, things will get better. Meanwhile, I’ve set my sights on lesser dreams. I’m scaling back and learning to live with less.

My girlfriend arrives in time to hear the fourth collections call of the day. She hands me $10 and a few dollar bills. “Will that be OK?” she asks.

“Fine,” I say, “I just need enough to get to work.”

As usual, we ignore the petulant caller leaving another annoying message on the machine. The collection agencies, obnoxious as they are, don’t scare us. They’re the least of our worries. §