When my wife and I retired we moved across the street from a young couple. We quickly became friends and shared stories of the ups and downs of life. For six years as neighbor and friend I witnessed the couple struggling to survive. Searching for an outlet for his troubles Joe confided in me. His story inspired me to record their dilemma. To maintain their identity I use Joe and Mary, two common names dealing with common problems in today’s economy.
We first met Joe and Mary when they welcomed us to the neighborhood, a tight knit community of homeowners huddled in a dead-end street. The street is unique in the sense every July fourth neighbors get together and hold a picnic under a huge tree at the end of the block. Each homeowner brings food, soft drinks, chairs and tables.
I soon learned his wife Mary works and Joe’s an unemployed computer technician living off unemployment benefits. After years with a large corporation, management decided to dismiss over a hundred men and women. Joe, member of a computer support group, knew what was about to occur before anyone else. Once the data started coming in he was the only low-level employee aware of the monumental cutbacks soon to shock co-workers. The saddest part was seeing his department marked for termination, disturbing news for a man with a pregnant wife and stack of bills. Continuing in a somber tone he described the last day and how co-workers gathered in the parking lot consoling each other. He included the resulting spectacle of men and women crying and screaming with anger. Souls suddenly transformed into statistics of today’s manipulated job market.
Whenever we met on the sidewalk or in his driveway, Joe always talked about his concerns. To prompt him all I had to say was, “How you doing guy?” I guess I was the only one willing to listen and capable of alleviating stress. He described the attitude of creditors and utility companies. Persistently harassing him, creditors often tricked him into paying additional funds. Joe took time to detail one scheme. A creditor calls, announces his check has not been received and requests another payment. Assuming the check’s lost in the mail, Joe writes another check. Later he’s made aware they now have two monthly payments. When he requests applying the extra check to the following month, he’s advised it was applied towards the balance and the next month’s payment is due. He fared no better with water and electric companies notorious for accepting no excuses. They quickly disconnect service when told they have to wait for an unemployment check. The scenario causes additional hardship due to connection fees and late charges.
I guess the old adage “When down everybody wants to walk over you” still applies.
Afterwards I learned bad fortune isn’t completely satisfied. Mary’s employer orders her to take maternity leave with no return job guarantee. Business jargon for “You’re pregnant, you’re fired.” The last form of income disappears.
Late one night I watched helplessly as his car was repossessed. After the tow truck disappeared down the street a Volkswagen bug stood alone, representing their only mode of transportation and debt which so far is up to date.
Every other month a utility vehicle arrives to turn his electricity or water off. At night I could tell the use of electricity was kept to a minimum, the normally bright home with outdoor lighting was pitch black. I shuddered thinking how long it would take to see his belongings lying on the street with a sheriff’s deputy serving a vacate notice.
Another event shook Joe’s unsteady existence. His pregnant wife is found to be carrying triplets. With mixed feelings he wanted to celebrate but reality nudged him to cry. He confided this and things kept secret from neighbors. Pride kept him from seeking aid from government agencies. When he could find it, he did odd jobs for meager salaries. The money earned was never enough to interrupt unemployment benefits which together with help from relatives kept them from going over the brink. That and Mary’s pregnancy kept him from losing it, as he often remarked.
Month’s later bad fortune decides to back off, for a while at least. Joe finds a job as a field technician servicing commercial accounts. With benefits approaching expiration, the look on his face resembles that of a kid on Christmas morning. Everyone cheered and patted him on the back. The position however requires the use of the Volkswagen, not a good choice for carrying bulky equipment. His salary is less than his previous employment but more than unemployment. I believe if it paid the same as unemployment, Joe would have accepted it to keep his self-esteem intact.
The triplets, two boys and a girl are born prematurely on April first 2003, yes April fool’s day. Each baby weighs mere ounces over a pound, a situation requiring lengthy hospital care. As a result he tries to figure out how, when the time comes, to transport the triplets plus themselves in a VW bug. There’s also another question of logistics, how is she to travel to and from doctor’s appointments while he’s using the bug for work. But for the time being the triplets are in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Broward General Hospital. The hospital informs them the triplets qualify for SSI or Supplemental Security Income from the government, a welcome handout for a family on the brink of disaster.
Out of curiosity I asked Joe when he was born. Laughing, he informed me it was on the 13th day of June. I’m not superstitious but beginning to wonder.
Another problem Joe hasn’t given much thought to is his deteriorating credit. He tried many times to trade in the bug for a larger vehicle without success. His latest try with a new car dealership was a disaster. The salesman built up his hopes, even took the bug, gave him the keys to a van and prepared the paperwork. Joe proudly showed off the van to me and everyone on the block. But after a week, a phone call from the dealer orders him to return the van. The bank turned him down. Embarrassed, Joe was equally devastated.
Three weeks after the triplet’s birth Joe and Mary follow a daily schedule. He arrives from work, picks up Mary and drives to Broward General Medical Center to check on the triplets. During one of the visits they learn the babies are experiencing difficulties, one in particular exhibits symptoms of failing health. Distraught, they listen to a doctor suggesting the triplets must remain in intensive care until at least the end of June. The news creates a sobering effect on Joe and Mary. As they weep together their financial situation seems unimportant. When they described the circumstances to me, we cried and prayed together.
I decided to delve deeper into the state of our economy and discovered some disturbing facts. There are thousands of men and women losing long held jobs, especially in the technology industry. The morphing economy has been particularly cruel to young couples. I tried to imagine the frustration of selecting a career, working hard to reach a specific goal and after investing in the luxuries of the American dream, having the proverbial rug suddenly yanked away. I guess the hardest part to swallow is the reason given for the loss of employment. American jobs are being exported to other countries without regard to local economic consequence or humans involved.
My young friend put it simply “It doesn’t seem fair to take jobs away from well trained citizens and then export the jobs overseas. Its one thing to export goods but exporting our way of making a living stinks.” Soon after hearing this, I read an article on unemployed well educated men doing odd jobs to maintain a family. A systems analyst was reportedly painting homes and considered one of the lucky ones.
A new year includes bad news and good news. The bad news is they are now both unemployed. Due to a company take over Joe lost his job while the triplets were still in the hospital. The good news is the triplets, outfitted with monitors, have been home since June 2003 and doing well. They’ll be celebrating their first birthday next April.
Joe ultimately bought a van using a relative as co-maker and in the process forced to return the VW to the dealer.
After learning of their nightly routine with two boys and a girl, I don’t see how they could work at all. The triplet’s monitors require constant vigilance. When a high pitched alarm sounds they have to respond immediately. Although many of the alarms are caused by the baby’s moments or loose connections, fear of apnea is always present. In the morning they’re exhausted and when grandparents arrive, nap during the day. An unexpected crisis erupted one day when FPL threatened to suspend service. The reason given was they required a larger deposit to cover their repeated late payments. I was there when Joe pleaded on the phone and explained the monitors. At one point he yelled and cursed before slamming the phone down. It took a lot of phone calls before FPL agreed on a compromise. It’s a sad state of affairs when a person’s humiliated and tagged a dead-beat. Creditors offer no flexibility to those suddenly facing difficult times. On the contrary they squeeze and harass until a person’s left with only one option, default.
With the loss of unemployment benefits, SSI checks and relative’s assistance is the only thing keeping them afloat. Mary began attending classes to complete some needed credits for her degree and hopefully a better job in a field immune to globalization. While she’s in school, Joe baby-sits with the help of grandparents and when not napping sends out resumes over the internet. The routine hasn’t broken Joe’s spirit. The triplets represent a safeguard whenever he leans towards depression.
The passing of time doesn’t change Joe and Mary’s situation. But sad as it may seem it’s a blessing. They adapted to the existence of balancing on the edge of ruin and if they maintain that balance without falling that alone is success.
The triplet’s birth considered a blessed event is just that. I often saw Joe and Mary’s parents carrying among other things packages of baby food and diapers. Similar to a roulette wheel, the world seems to have stopped on a lucky number for Mary and Joe.
No big prize, just a mundane existence after years of bouncing from one wrong number to another.
The rambunctious four year old triplets are presently attending pre-school. Needing more space, Joe and Mary move into a house owned by a relative. An independent contractor, Joe earns a small salary installing computer systems. His wife graduated in 2006. Skilled in Occupational Therapy, Mary becomes sole breadwinner until Joe’s business grows. But, the never ending tremors of the economy include negative news from the real estate market. An alarming trend is preparing to disturb what little stability they gained
The roulette wheel begins to spin. The ball stops and dark clouds appear over the couple’s homestead. The property they occupy is hit with higher taxes and increase in mortgage payments. The owner, an in-law with a temporary low interest mortgage cannot afford the higher payments and up front escrow total. The owner isn’t about to ask the couple to pay the over thirteen hundred dollar increase. In an instant they join thousands of victims of the deteriorating real estate market. Having to move again disrupts what little peace they enjoyed. Joe and Mary, after years of repeated encounters with misfortune are back to square one, a place in time that doesn’t look any better today than it did years ago. With credit trashed long ago, the misadventures turn full circle with only one thing on their side, the ability to survive.
I’m tempted to continue following their journey until something positive occurs but the way the economy is going it looks as if this story has no end. I often invest a dollar in the Lotto hoping to one day knock on their door and announce plans of sharing my winnings but dreams are no match for reality. I’m not good at gambling but do consider myself lucky to have retired when I did. My wife and I wish luck to them and all who suffer due to no fault of their own. Those in power have an obligation and shouldn’t turn their backs on the Joe’s and Mary’s enduring the backlash of corporate greed.
There must be a moral to this story but all I can come up with is;
“In today’s economy you have to keep punching, never give up and don’t forget to duck once in awhile.”