I’m 36 today, my best friend is dead, I am underemployed, broke, living paycheck to paycheck, borrowing money from family to make ends meet.
Sunday at a wedding I was sitting with two other friends of mine. One friend was describing her recent good fortune. “Good things seem to keep happening to me. I just wonder when it’s all going to stop.”
The other friend said, “Oh, come on. You’re a good person, and you deserve to be happy! You’ve got good karma. Good for you.”
I sat in silence, thinking, so I’m a bad person who doesn’t deserve to be happy? That’s why bad things keep happening to me?
Most of my friends are doing pretty well financially. They own houses and cars and have children and go on vacations both here and abroad. They buy things. I’m happy for them; they are, to borrow a phrase, good people who deserve to be happy. But sometimes I feel like if I hear another one of them say that something “only” costs $500, “only” costs $100, “only” costs $20, I will scream and throw something.
They do things together that cost too much money for me to be able to do. I am torn: do I want them to invite me so I can feel included and have the opportunity to say no? Or do I want them to not mention it at all so I don’t feel bad? Sometimes I still hear about it later.
I have my own jewelry business, but until I can make ends meet I can’t afford to market it properly, so there it sits, semi-dormant for now. I am mostly okay with this. I have other things to worry about, like paying as much of the electricity bill as it takes to keep the lights on.
I apply for jobs. I hear from interviewers, I dress in my job interview pants and blouse and go get interviewed. I send my usual “thank you for the interview” email, to which I never get a response.
To apply for jobs is to live a thousand different lives in one’s head. I interview for a job at a financial company in Northwest Austin, and I picture myself driving there, parking, working at one of the desks in their cubicle farm. I interview for a job downtown and imagine myself taking the bus so I don’t have to park. I interview for a job at the University of Texas, and picture myself working in one of the red-roofed stucco buildings near the tower. But those lives never happen.
I am broke; I have no savings or assets or prospects, but I am not poor. Poverty is not what this is. Poverty means not having family support. It means not having a college education or marketable job skills. It means not having friends who would intervene if I were unable to get food, or if I were to become homeless. It means not being able to apply for jobs or dress in job interview pants or go to interviews or send thank-you emails. It means having my depression go untreated, which luckily it doesn’t. And I know I am lucky to have the skills and support and tools I need to get by, however marginal my “getting by” is.
But if this isn’t poverty, what is it? I think I’m a victim of the eroding middle class, of income inequality, of job scarcity, of the trimming away of workers’ rights, of living in a growing tech city with low unemployment, high competition for jobs, and skyrocketing costs. I could move, but that would be much more complicated than it sounds.
So I am your anecdote. When you are with your friends or family and the economy comes up, you can say, “I have a friend who can’t find a job…” You can explain my situation and make your point that the economy still has a long way to go. You can make your point that sometimes even a college education and 15 years of work experience isn’t enough. Or you can joke about how an English degree isn’t good for anything. It’s up to you.
Maude died on April 15, nearly ten years to the day since I brought her home for the first time. It was recent enough that when it’s time to give Moki a treat, I still grab two treats from the canister without thinking. I can still remember what the fur felt like under Maude’s chin. I can still feel her wiggle her little head back and forth as she buried her face in my hair to sleep at night. I can still hear the little barks she made in her sleep sometimes. I can still picture the way she bounced around the room whenever I came home, so happy to see me.
I wrote those last four sentences in the present tense, and I had to go back and correct them.
So I’m 36 today, but you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I don’t feel like celebrating.