Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Boat

The economic situation has made for a crowded boat.

I've basically known I was in the boat, but the other night I realized I am actually on the cruise ship with a lot of other people. We had our electricity shut off a while back and when that happens they put you on a "debit card system". There's a box hooked to your meter and they give you a card. You take the card to a local "filling station" (ours is in a Safeway grocery store parked right inside the main entrance for all the world to see who's an electric company deadbeat). You put cash in and it credits your card, then you take the card home and put it in the cardreader. The kicker is if you're on the program because of past due bills they take half of what you put in until your balance is paid off. It was a brutal "ding" in the middle of summer here in Phoenix when your air conditioning bills even with the thermostat set at 82 can run almost 400.00.

I got paid on a job ran to the bank and then to Safeway to charge up the card because we had about two hour's worth of electricity left in the box. It was payday, a Friday evening, and when I walked in there was a line of about 15 people at the station. There were people from the surrounding trailer parks, seedy apartment complexes and barrios. There were people still in their work uniforms with their names above the pocket, blue shirted maintenance men, stained-white shirted fast food counter help, cashiers with their name tags still dangling. There were people with dirty kids who looked like they just sold someone a load of meth. There were a couple of clean cut uncomfortable folks who looked like they wanted to tell passers-by who looked up and down the line, "I'm not really one of "them"!" I was in my painter's pants and tattered work shirt so I fit right in. I chatted with the Mexican landscape guy and his Indian (casino Indian, not tech support Indian) girlfriend. We were in the same boat. I "own" my house, he rents his (actually I rent mine from the bank...) but we both need electricity and neither of us has enough work to cover all the bills, but both of us will leave the store with beer. But cheaper beer than when we have work.

But the boat isn't just full of minimum wage people. Friends on the blogosphere have lost jobs, members of our Church are facing bankruptcy and working minimum wage jobs just to buy food, I know people who haven't paid their house payments for almost a year and are waiting for the axe to fall, some have been unemployed in their fields for over a year and are looking at losing their houses. I have people ask me all the time if I need help. As much as I'd love to help them out, every hour they work for me is an hour I don't get to work. Its hard to split ten hours a week with someone else and make ends meet for my own family.

I've been self employed for over 27 years in construction in Phoenix and have worked through two major recessions and the rollercoaster economy of a sunbelt city. I've never advertised and have always had an unlisted phone number. My referral network is literally thousands of clients so I have never lacked a day of work... until this past year. I've had weeks that I've had ten hours, or less. We've had our electricity shut off, negotiated with the city to keep our water turned on, paid minimum past due balances on just about everything that we have to have (like my work cell phone number and my work truck payment), we dumped TV completely last year, and sometimes we just don't pay whatever isn't critical path for the month even if it means a penalty down the line.

Its a tough spot for me. I'd get a "real job" but there just aren't any in my field. Even if I could get an hourly job at a restaurant (my last "experience" 35 years ago) that pays 8-10.00 and hour, it makes me unavailable for my business. My work calls are always short notice and range from an hour's work to 4-5 day projects. When I get work, I can charge anywhere from 35-55.00 an hour. I realize I am in an enviable situation that I can make more in two hours than someone else makes in a whole day. The reality is, even with my business dropped in half, I make more half-time than I would working two full time jobs at a retail or restaurant job. But the reality is still, neither scenario pays our bills. And our lifestyle isn't extravagant by a long shot (but yes, still good enough for latent "evangelical liberal guilt" for being relatively rich compared to 85% of the world, OK, there, I said it).

We've thought about downsizing. It would have made sense three years ago when our house was worth almost twice what it is now. But our house payment is literally the same as a cheap crap three bedroom apartment (or a decent two bedroom). We owe about what the house is worth right now so there's no profit to be had by selling it. If we moved to an apartment, I'd have to rent a large storage room for all my construction equipment, which would amount to more than the difference in utilities. If we move to a rental house with a garage, we'd be paying more for rent than we are for our house payment. We could dump a car and a payment, but then my wife would have to quit her job to get our teenager to and from her two schools she attends (the bus won't work, not enough time to get to classes between campuses) and we lose our health insurance (which we have for the first time and need it for a lot of family health issues right now), and what is left over after they take out the insurance premiums almost pays the extra car payment.

So, what to do? Pray, but beside that, not much, really. If I'm not working, I look for work. I talk to people at Home Depot that look like they might need help. I talk to people in grocery store lines, Circle K, Taco Bell parking lots, hand out business cards to strangers. People ask what I do, I tell them anything that pays money. I do all that and then wait for my phone to ring. Sometimes it does, most of the time it doesn't right now. If it doesn't ring, I do charity work if someone needs it, or play with my turtle.

For some reason I've never really worried about money (sometimes I think it is a spiritual virtue, but it could be a delusion too). In the past 30 years, I've had lots and I've been bankrupt. Aside from the hassles that come with either riches or bankruptcy, I was pretty content. Either way I didn't really flinch. I realized long ago that no matter how much I made I was just squeaking by. But, if I'm squeaking by, I got by. If I fall behind, its really "behind WHAT?" If I can't make a payment, I can't. If they take my stuff, I did without it before. If they call because I'm late, its just a phone call not a beating. If they sue me, stand in line with your hand out. And a bad credit rating isn't a mortal sin, it just means I can't buy stuff on credit that would probably send me to hell faster. In the grand scheme of the universe, its just not all that big of a deal, really.

But even with all that, I haven't lost any weight. Obviously my internet is still on. I can afford lettuce for my turtle. A glass of cheap boxed wine at supper still "makes glad the heart of man who went forth to his work until the evening..." My wife and kids and their friends and ours still gather at our table and eat and laugh together, even if it is around hot dogs or SOS on canned biscuits.

So, life is still good. If I lose everything, it will still be good. "A man's life consists not of the things which he possesses..." I know this because I possess the love of a good family. And just like electricity is electricity in a mansion or a rented trailer, love is love in both places but I think it is a bit sweeter when shared in bitter times and surroundings.


elizabeth said...

Not easy though.

I have often thought of the ones in my city who I see asking for money and that they are surviving somehow year after year...

St. Nicholas' prayers have helped me a lot when I am in need.

I struggle with that sense of guilt too.

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

DH's job contract is due for renewal (or not!) soon, and he has been warned his company may have to lay him off.

At least the house is already paid for, so we are truly fortunate.

Prayers for you and your family,

Clint said...

I have also been right on the edge of financial ruin and I have had times of plenty.

I just try to follow St. Paul's example and be content either way.

It looks like you do better at that than I do...

at least when the chips are down.

I will pray that things ease up for you.

Kirk said...

I desperately need to start a home renovation project. I was going to talk to a contractor on Monday. Any chance you want to drive the work truck to East Texas? You could podcast and drive at the same time.

s-p said...

Hi Kirk, Seriously, email me off the blog. stevenpaul4@cox.net

Kirk said...

I'll drop you an email in the morning.

John said...

A year and a half ago, we had 24 employees, and more work than we could handle. Now we have 13 and not really enough work for everybody who is left. At one point, I had 3 months of paychecks in my desk drawer, meaning that I was trying to cover everyone else on payroll, but didn't have enough to pay myself. Obviously, I can't do that forever! Like you, I've never worried that much about money, but in my case it might be more of an Alfred E. Neuman-ish "What, me worry?" type of thing than any sort of spiritual maturity. So, we'll see.

S-P and Kirk,
Let me know if anything comes of the East Texas project, as that is my neck of the woods too.

thegeekywife said...

Many prayers, s-p.

In May the water at my church was turned off for about 2 weeks.t

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

What a great attitude! In my experience, attitude takes one a lot farther than money! May God watch over you -- it sounds like He does!

el cuerpo negro said...

Boxed wine still makes glad the heart of man, and God gave us Pabst Blue Ribbon for when we can't afford Fat Tire :)

"casino Indian, not tech support Indian" - This made my day, Steve :)

If you ever want to sell out and take up coal mining or prison guarding in southern Illinois, about half my congregation are miners and the other half are prison guards so I could get you connected. And there's an OCA parish just down the road.

I'm praying for your work this morning

The Ochlophobist said...

A beautiful post. Thanks.

s-p said...

Thanks all for the thoughts and prayers. El Cuerpo, if they have Fat Tire in Illinois I could move there. The ascending order around here is MGD, Fat Tire then the micro-brews. I think the last time I had a Pabst was when I went hunting with my dad about 30 years ago ...or maybe that was Schlitz. I hope God honors brewksi-ascesis.