Sunday, December 22, 2013

Strangled By Red Tape - Our Journey to Insurance

Permit me to step from behind the notebook  and offer my personal experience. We've been slogging our way through the new health care marketplace, a fetid swamp of rotting bureaucracy populated by malicious trolls and frustrated angels.  The shining goal keeps us dragging ourselves forward. There it is, so bright, so beautiful, just beyond our grasp: health insurance!

I have been uninsured for two years. It was the first time in my life I've had no insurance and it's been scary. I left a state job with a great salary and great benefits to become a freelance writer. It's a long story but bottom line was I had to choose between my wallet and my health. I decided it was better to be poor and not sick. I made the right choice. You won't be surprised to hear that it wasn't long before I had to add another job, but real estate sales doesn't offer insurance either. So here I am, mid-fifties, in great health, but one broken leg or scary diagnosis away from financial disaster.

I looked into insurance. Of course I did - I'm a responsible adult. The cheapest insurance I could find was a terrible plan with high deductibles that was going to cost me a thousand dollars a month. I just didn't have a spare thousand lying around every month. So that meant going without and keeping my fingers crossed that I didn't get sick.

In case you're wondering, no, I couldn't be on my partner's insurance.

My partner is a musician. He's been one all his life. And musicians don't have health insurance unless they buy it themselves.  And the cost was exorbitant.

So the prospect of a government-regulated healthcare marketplace sounded like a great thing to both of us. We got on that website and got ready to enroll.

I actually didn't find the website to be that bad - the federal site directed me to the New York Healthcare Marketplace, where I answered all their questions and got to the point where I could choose a plan. Then I stalled.  I hadn't heard of most of the companies and the options chased each other around in my brain without pausing long enough for me to understand what they were.  So I waited for the smart one in our family to get involved so he could explain it to me.

What followed were two solid weeks of angry howls from his office.  Each day was the same: get on the phone and call the number to which the marketplace directed him. Hold for an hour or more. Finally reach a human and ask simple questions. Get the answers, then call the next number for the next step. Wait another hour or more. Begin the next step, then discover the first answers were wrong. Go back to step one.  Some days, rather than getting the wrong answer, he'd be told that they just didn't know the answer.

He's not a terribly patient man on the best days, but this experience sent him way over the edge. Some of the things he yelled after he hung up the phone were concepts I didn't even know were possible. On the plus side, I've learned a lot of new combinations of colorful exclamations. 

"I'm drained," he told me more than once. "This is the most exhausting thing I've ever done. And I'm getting nowhere."

Chasing your tail will wear you out.

I'd love to conclude this with a happy picture of us both holding our insurance cards. I may yet get to add that to this post. For now, I can tell you that I have been approved, I chose a plan, and I'm waiting to hear about the next step. I'm told that will happen in January. 

The best rate I could find was about $350 for a bronze plan - nothing special, but it's insurance. I just read a New York Times article where they discussed the cost of the health insurance under so-called Obamacare, and they maintained that a silver plan (that's better than bronze, you know) was about $300 or so for the average middle to lower income person. That's not my experience. If you can tell me where that plan is, please let me know.

But I'm not complaining. Bad insurance beats no insurance and $350 is a whole lot better than $1000 a month.

My exhausted partner? He's also supposedly signed up, but he has his doubts. He suspects it's been screwed up.

We're thinking it might be simpler to move to the UK.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sari Botton

Sari Botton October 2013

Ever since I've known Sari, she's had a million jobs, all of them related to writing. She writes for the New York Times. She ghost writes books. She's edited story collections (one of them, “Goodbye To All That,” a collection of writers' essays about loving and leaving New York City, is currently selling briskly). She is a co-founder and editorial director of The TMI Project, a non-profit dedicated to helping people write (and sometimes perform or publish) their stories. But I wondered – were these varied projects hers by choice, or by necessity?

I like being freelance. That's my nature. I like to have a few balls in the air. But I've had to have more balls in the air than I want because of the economy. I'm just going to confess: I just barely get by. And I do so much hard work. I have a two thirds time job as editorial director of The TMI Project. I've edited two anthologies this year and I've done a bunch of ghost writing, too, on top of it. I'm currently deeply editing someone's book, and with all of that, I don't know if I'll ever get in front of the eight ball.

Her husband is self-employed, too, so neither of them has a steady income they can count on.

We're both up in the air. This year his New York City gig ended. We've been in upstate New York for eight years and for most of that time he commuted two days a week to Rockefeller Center and a couple of other locations to do IT for law firms. But it just stopped making sense so it wound down and it's done, and he's now trying to figure out how to make this (his storefront computer repair business) work and support him. At the moment we're just eking by, even though we're so busy. Trying to find that balance of how much you can pay people, how much you can charge people, how many people you can have working at once. It's a real challenge. So both of us at the same time are in a financially challenged place and it's very, very stressful.

We've toyed with renting out a part of our house. I mean, how do you stay afloat in this economy? 

One point this year we almost rented out our whole house, but we weren't ready for that. So what are the other ways you can stay afloat? Plus I think back in 2005 when we bought our house, a lot of people were going with that rule of thumb “Buy the most house you can afford.” And now we're stuck with a lot of house and not a lot of ability to afford it. And I don't think that people are buying the big houses that they were and we're kind of kicking ourselves, wishing we'd bought something that was an income property, or was's a tough time. It's a really tough time.

And it's expensive to live in New York, even upstate.

That's the surprising thing. People come up from NYC to visit and they think it's really cheap here and it's not. We're finding it's not much cheaper: we had low rent in New York and when it got tripled we had to leave. You pay for heating oil which you don't when you rent an apartment in New York City. You need not one car but two – because it's really important to be able to get around. The hidden expenses are just astounding. When we sit down and add it up, we find it's not really much cheaper to live here. And taxes, too – car repairs, house repairs. We have a bunch of credit card debt because we got caught by car repair bills at a time when Brian and I are both struggling.

What about health care?

Oh that, too! We have insurance through the Freelancers Union. But it's not great, though it's good to have. We each have a $3000 deductible and a high prescription deductible. A couple of years ago I was an adjunct at SUNY Albany, mainly so I could get really great insurance. I hada major operation and our bill was only $71! But my entire salary was going to gas and tolls, so no matter how I try to balance I'm always behind the eight ball.

I was also marveling - it's really true that we are the first generation that will have less than our parents. I can't imagine a day when we'll be able to afford to retire. Can you?

No. I've totally given that up.

We're considering liquidating what little IRA's we do have if things don't work out in the next few months. We were feeling ashamed and scared and then we talked to our friends and they're in exactly the same boat. We have friends who have already liquidated our IRAs. We don't have any money in it, anyway. And we don't even have kids! How do people do it if they have kids? I don't know how people do it today.

The cost of living keeps going up and what I do as a writer and editor keeps getting de-valued. The money I am offered for ghostwriting projects gets smaller and smaller because more and more journalists are doing it;  you can't make any money at journalism anymore. 

Has this ever happened in history before? Where the cost of living goes up but not wages? Don't they usually go hand in hand?

Doesn't it feel like we're at this huge shift? And I don't know where it's going.

Unfortunately,it feels like something awful has to happen – where everything breaks down so we have to start over again. Some awful storm so no one can pay their mortgages -it's going to take something that will make the people with the money suffer. They're not going to want anything to change. There are no penalties for the banks because they're too big to fail. Unfortunately, it feels like something that could make them fail has to happen so that they are at the table with us.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Charlie Deitz

Charlie Deitz is not one to conform and his career has taken a number of unusual turns because he refuses to settle for work he doesn't love doing. I met him when we were both working for a National Public Radio affiliate – he covered the news in the Berkshires of Massachusetts and I covered New York's Hudson Valley. We both left for jobs that paid better, and when we reconnected he told me a lot has happened in the past five years or so. The latest news was he's earned his Master's degree from the University of Oregon. And he's at a crossroads again.

“It was a long haul, so thank God it's done. Now I can start the longer haul of PhD work. I do instructing and I'm also taking classes, but I'm still a slave. I don't make any money.”

“I'd like to have a hybrid job – do some reporting in some form and teach some classes. There are little mini-laboratory environments that get created – little projects, experiments – that's where you find the cool output from the professional world and academia when they start talking to each other.”

Deitz said before working as a bureau chief, he'd never been a field reporter. He put together an audition tape from gigs as an overnight radio news anchor.

“Before that I bounced around. When I moved out west from Jersey, I started working for AAA and made it to mid-level management, but after a few years I wanted to drift. And taxi driving would fund that project. But I always wanted to get into NPR. And I think it was after we had our first miscarriage was when I really felt like I needed ot make good on this life – go after what I wanted to do. That's when I got into the radio broadcast program outside of Portland, which opened the door to the overnight radio and then the affiliate in New York. The change was massive. Enormous. Earth changing. We were all very excited when the call came that I got the job. But we found out the Berkshires were a lot more expensive than we anticipated. And after we finally got a place, we found we were pregnant. And it was the beginning of the Great Recession. And my wife couldn't find work and we had to live on my salary. Not to badmouth the station, but I wished they'd paid me more. We moved to a smaller place. And after about two years, there wasn't any upward momentum. We'd gotten a raise – and I was like “Oh my God – I'm never going to be able to even buy a dinner. Everything's going to be out of a box.” I was living where the boss told me he wanted to live, and I was getting paid mileage, which I needed to help make ends meet. Then they moved the office and I wasn't in a position to move again. That was another $150 a month hit to our budget and that's what really forced me to start looking. I started sending out my resume – sent it both to colleges and newsrooms and figured I'd let the chips fall where they may. Turns out there's really a glut of talented people in the NPR world, stations weren't getting back to me, and University of Oregon got back to me and put money on the table to get me there.”

They took the Oregon offer, as it also put them back near his wife's family. “She found work after six or seven months, which isn't that long compared to where we'd just been. But to be able to have a house that was nice and clean, I really felt that difference. In the Berkshires, it seemed like every other week something massive would break – like the toilet would drain into the washing machine....”

Most people don't imagine that the reporters they hear on the radio or see on television might not be able to pay their bills. And thirty years ago, it wasn't an issue. But today, producers in a middle market television newsroom work part time in retail to pay their bills. Reporters for an NPR affiliate make thirty thousand or less – after years on the job.

“Reporters struggle. Especially TV reporters – they have to buy suits? I don't even own a suit – I don't know what I'd do. I'd probably look like some seventies sitcom extra.”

So what's he doing next?

“Right now, I'm at the point where I really don't know. I'm going through a divorce – nice little curveball – so I got into the PhD program back in March, then this happened, we each moved into our own places and split our time with Penny (their daughter). If this was chess, Katie definitely check-mated me because I eventually wanted to leave this area and look for jobs in California or back east. Now I'm kind of stuck here. Katie's not moving and I'm not even considering being away from Penny. So the PhD program is kind of a placeholder until I figure out what I can do here in this town to survive – something that's hopefully good for the world and pays me enough to pay for my apartment for say the next fourteen years. I have to play along – throw the designs out the window. But while I'm here, it's pretty fun to be in it for now if I don't think about where it's going. I get a lot of cool opportunities in the program.”

And I noted he'd get to be Doctor Deitz when it was over.

“I get to be Dr. Deitz! And working at some gas station! Dr. Gas!”

What happened, I wondered, to that sense we used to have that if you took a step ahead, you could plan ahead and be pretty sure you'd land on solid ground?

“I think that's what people tell themselves so they can force themselves to take a step. Like some sense that history is trying catch up with you and eat you if you don't move fast enough. I don't know anybody who's just kind of coasted into some luxurious lifestyle. Most of the people, even the professors, they had to go through the fire, too. Just like in news, academia is seeing a shift, towards pulverizing the entry level folks who do most of the work. It used to be you'd get your PhD, you'd work a few years, get your tenure. Now people who are associate professors have second jobs. I just have no intuition for where to go.”

Friday, September 27, 2013

Lisa and John

Sept 27 2013

Lisa and John have what we're told it takes to succeed. They're smart, they're college educated, they're hard workers. They're pleasant and attractive. They excelled in school. They've been together for a couple of years and expect their relationship to last. They worked through college and are consequently older than other recent graduates. They're ready to start their adult lives. And they can't find work. They represent a generation that feels cheated – they've discovered the American Dream is a lie.

I haven't used their real names or pictures so they could speak freely. 

“I've been out of school since December,” John said.

“I've been out of school since May,” Lisa said. “I've had two interviews before I graduated and three since I've graduated and no luck. In school I focused on interior design, both contract and residential. The interviews I got were residential and one was showroom. But there are about five computers it turns out I should know and I don't know. And that's preventing me from getting a job. So I have to figure out how to learn them.”

On her own dime and her own time, despite her degree?

“I have to see if I can download a trial version on my computer so I can get acquainted with them without spending the $500 these computer programs cost, see if I can figure it out on my own.”

Lisa's not the typical design school graduate. She's already been working in the field.

“I have three years of design experience, which is more than any of my classmates had. I graduated top of the class but there's not a lot out there for me. Everyone told me I was going to have a job without a problem, but I know there's no jobs out there. With all the design graduates coming into the field, I'm not surprised that there's slim pickings. I didn't know it would be as hard as it is and that there'd just be nothing out there.”

John and Lisa have been living in an apartment behind John's dad's house. Their situation has deteriorated to the point where they can't pay rent and they have to move back home.

“I'm working part time in a furniture store,” Lisa said. She laughed but it's clearly not funny. “For ten dollars an hour.”

John was recently hired by an Internet startup, also as a contract employee at ten dollars an hour.

“Prior to that I was finishing up my degree at night and working at a sports network on a part time basis. They call it a project employee – it's thirty hours a week, twelve dollars an hour. I was an editor so what I wrote went directly to six million subscribers nationwide. It was a position with a fixed duration and I knew the end was coming. My job ended in April of 2013, so in December 2012 I started sending out applications. I tried to send out five a week, ten a week. Between December 2012 and April 2013 I would say I'd sent out two hundred job applications, at least, to various places nationwide. Out of those two hundred applications I got one phone interview and one in-person interview. Finally in mid-August I applied at an Internet startup in New York. They hired me at ten dollars an hour for up to forty hours a week. After a week and a half they had promoted me to manager. After another half a week they decided that the position they'd promoted me to had to be based in New York City, which I couldn't afford to do. It had the promise of a reasonable salary in the future and some stock options in this new company, and it didn't work out so I'm back to square one.”

So how many hours a day does he spend looking for work?

“Probably three or four. But here's the thing – there are only so many jobs boards and so many jobs. Weekend days in particular are very slow for Craigslist, Indeed, Monster, whatever. You see a lot of the same jobs over and over. I've got experience that you'd think would help with sports teams, colleges, leagues, and I peruse those, too, but nothing. Before we met you today, I was on the computer for about an hour while my girlfriend was getting ready. I'll probably look some more tonight.”

I wondered if their friends are having similar struggles to find work.

“A lot of my girlfriends are still in school,” Lisa said. “They went back for their Masters. One of my friends is working in New York City, killing herself for no money, but she's able to live there with her boyfriend.”

“One of my friends was an accounting major and went for his MBA,” John said. “He ended up getting fired from his accounting job because he didn't really know how to do the job. This was a kid with a 3.9 GPA in college. You have to wonder how well the accounting program at our school prepared him for the real world.”

I speculated that both of them would probably prefer to start their own businesses at this point, as the job market isn't opening at all.

“You kind of become fed up with everything. Maybe if you take matters into your own hands you'll do better than trying to rely on other people. You've definitely thought of that,” Lisa said to John. “For me, as far as residential design goes, that's the only way to really do design work. You can find clients who are willing to spend money more easily than you can find businesses willing to spend money by hiring someone. One of the firms I interviewed with have cut their employees in half since the economic crisis started. Business has started to come back but they're not hiring new people. They're just having the people they have take on the extra work. I'm thinking maybe if I can find clients willing to spend money, that's the way to start. But that's tough as well because it seems like in the past couple of weeks spending has just stopped – no jobs posting the past few weeks, nothing really new to apply for since mid-August. I don't know if it's the government shutdown talk but the entire industry has just seemed to slow down.”

John has an idea for a business startup, but he's hit a different kind of wall. He has no capital.

“Good luck walking into a bank and asking for $500 thousand in seed money with $100 thousand in student debt hanging over your head and no work history to speak of. I have no illusions about it. That's life. You can't be self reliant because you can't get started being self reliant.”

John continued, “It is my opinion that a college education these days is the biggest scam in this country.”

“It's the most fiscally irresponsible thing you can do at this point, at our age,” Lisa agreed.

“Unless your parents can pay for it,” John continued, “you're crippling yourself for at least two decades. That's what I'm looking at, regardless of whether I get a job or not. Unless I magically get a job that pays six figures, there's no reasonable way I can expect to pay this down, so any idea I have to start out on my own just isn't feasible. Unless you get some kind of angel investor, and then it's like 'Okay, hope you know somebody.' “

“One of my other friends ended up leaving college,” John said. “He's managing a Domino's Pizza, making almost fifty thousand dollars a year. He's paying off his student loan and will completely debt free in the next three to four years. He makes more than most teachers in this country who have five times the education he does. It's not for everybody. I mean, I need my brain to be engaged. But he doesn't care what kind of work he does and once he's debt free he'll be able to do pretty much whatever he wants.”

Are they angry?

“Furious. Absolutely furious,” John said. “Because you're told your entire life, 'Go get that college degree and you'll be set up for the rest of your life.'”

“You'll be living the American Dream,” Lisa added. “And here we are.”

“It's a farce,” John concluded.

I wondered if they'd considered getting involved in politics or policy, to try to change a broken system.

“I was hoping when Obama got elected that things would get better,” Lisa said. “But I've so lost hope. I don't think one person can change it. I don't think it's a person in office, I think it's the entire system and I don't know how it can be fixed.”

“I would love to get involved in politics,” John said. “I've applied for jobs with policymakers. But again, how many applications can you send and how many non-responses can you get? And even if I could get a job working on policy, if it only pays twenty thousand a year I can't afford to live. I'm 26 years old and I've never actually had my own apartment away from a parent. Money is simultaneously the best and worst thing every conceived by man. It's great if you have it and it ruins your life if you don't.”

How far do they think they could go if they could just get started?

John looked thoughtful. “When I was in school I read this paper, sort of a socio-economic experiment. They went into a rural school, a suburban school and an urban school and asked the kids 'What do you want to be when you grow up?'” The answers were an indication of how much support they were getting at home, their confidence, their self-esteem, the effect of their environment. The inner city kids wanted to be a subway driver or something like that. The suburban kids wanted to be CEO of their own companies, a movie star, something like that. In the inner city it's either 'I want to be a star athlete and if not that, I just want to be able to pay the bills because my parents can't.' I'm from suburbia and I have those high aspirations, but I think those urban kids were more spot on, honestly. Their aspirations are way more realistic than anything I have. Do I believe that I could be a high powered CEO or President of the United States? Absolutely. Do I believe realistically that it's ever going to happen? Absolutely not.”

“That's the hardest part of this situation,” Lisa said. “You have to reconcile what you dreamt of when you were growing up to what can actually happen. It's hard not to get depressed by it. You have to completely re-evaluate the trajectory of your life, what you thought it was going to be, because it's not.”

Do their parents and other Baby Boomers understand?

“My mother showed me her tax information from when she was twenty,” said Lisa. “I was twenty, too, at the time and making three times what she was making while I was in school. She had a brand new car, no credit card debt, no student loan. She was fully self-supportive on six thousand dollars a year. I was making eighteen, but I was living at home, I could not even afford car repairs. With inflation and student loan debt, it's a completely different world. I try to talk to my dad about it and he doesn't get it.”

“He's helpful at least,” John added.

“Yes, but he just can't grasp what this reality is like for us.”

Simplistic thinking is this generation's enemy.

“I think the biggest misconception among the older generation is that we just have to get a job,” John said.

“Yeah, you're not working hard enough, stop whining,” Lisa said.

“It's just not that easy,” John continued. “I've applied to probably five hundred jobs in the past ten months. The number of actual interviews, traditional job interviews, I can count on one hand. I've had one job offer. And that blew up after two weeks. It's not a matter of working hard, not wanting it enough. I want to be doing more. I'm 26 years old. My parents had full time jobs and were married by the time they were 26 years old. It's a hard thing for me to stomach because I want that and I can't have that.”

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Jeffrey Dean

Jeffrey Dean

September 2013

Walking Across America

The last time I saw Jeff Dean, he was saying goodbye as my daughter moved out of the Brooklyn apartment they shared. She was moving back to the country and he was staying in the city.

They were schoolfriends, two sweet kids who were part of a crowd at the arts charter school they attended in Hartford. They drifted apart, as high school friends often do. But Jeff suddenly reappeared. He'd left New York, he'd been staying with his parents, but he was now preparing to walk across the country. At first, he was going to be accompanied by another one of their mutual friends. But she's always been a volatile person, and she tried to blow up their plan just two days before their departure.

Jeff decided to go on alone.

The night I spoke with him, he'd been in Lambertville, NJ for four nights. He hadn't meant to go there, but someone told him he should.

“It's right on the Delaware River...and New Hope, Pennsylvania is right across the bridge. They're very interconnected. Everybody here has been so amazing. I was actually taken in by a group of girls who work at a place called Zanya Spa. They saw me on the street and one of them asked me what I was doing with the stick – I have this giant walking stick – and when I told her, she brought me over to meet the rest of her friends. So this will be my fourth night here.”

“Only a couple of miles is where George Washington crossed the Delaware River in that famous painting on Christmas Eve just before the Battle of Trenton. There are so many art galleries – and the people have made me feel so welcome. Two days ago the creative director at the salon invited me in and even gave me a hair cut.”

I asked him what had happened in his working life since I'd last seen him.

“The thing about waiting tables and tending bar in New York City, it's a cycle that sucks you in and it's hard to get out. You're making good money, making cash every night. You work til two or three ayem, go to get a couple of drinks after crazy twelve to fourteen hour shifts, and you get up and just do it again. And one day you wake up and realize you're not doing what you set out to do at all. And you're not getting any younger. So I made the decision to cut it off – just cut it off. I knew if I didn't do it very dramatically, it would be harder for me. So I left, went home to Connecticut for about seven months, regrouped, and I made the decision to go to California.”

But why walk there? What does he hope to find along the way?

“That's something I tried to figure out before I left, and I realized if I waited for the answer I would be waiting forever. So I decided to leave and let my thoughts sort themselves out while I'm walking. Let me tell you about this – I met a guy in Trenton who is an immigrants rights activist. He asked me why I didn't walk for a cause, that it would help people better identify with this walk. But here's what I came to after I thought about that for a couple of days – this walk is not for other people, this walk is for myself. I don't want this walk to have some kind of agenda. That would mean I couldn't focus on what I want to focus on. And I want to be very inclusive. And that's what's happening so far. A couple from Raleigh offered their couch when I come through North Carolina. A couple from Phoenix that I met offered the same thing. I'm getting so much positive feedback. And as I go farther into the South and the Midwest, I'll be meeting people with different beliefs, different viewpoints from the ones I grew up with. I want people to see that just because we may differ on political views or religious views or philosophical views, that doesn't mean that we don't have so much in common, because we do. I want to meet people and focus on the common ground that we share and what we do agree on.”

“I lost my optimism working in New York. The biggest reason was my own complacency. If you don't nurture your self, your soul, that promise that life gives you – if you don't nurture it every day, it dissipates, it fades away. You're working to survive. That's not a healthy way to live out your life. I left there feeling like I needed to not be stagnant anymore. I needed to find that optimism that high schoolers have – there's so much before you, it's stretching out before you. But as you get older you can forget that it's there. But I know that as long as you're alive, no matter how old you are, there's always promise. You just have to seek it.”

“I've heard about farms you can work on in exchange for shelter and food. I have my guitar with me. If I'm in a place where I can't walk because of weather and I have to stay for a few weeks, I'd do it. Everything is so open ended, I have no expectations. I mean, New Hope and Lambertville wasn't even on my itinerary. I backtracked north because someone said I should see it. It was a big decision, but I told myself to take the time to let it happen. The cool thing about walking is things aren't planned and anything can happen.”

I wondered about his safety.

“I stupidly put myself in a situation early in this walk. But it's a learning experience. I was walking through Newark from midnight to three ayem with my whistle in my mouth, bear mace in my hand and this enormous, Gandalf-stick. I was ready to fight for my life. It was a huge mistake and I will, in future, plan out things like that better.”

“Right now I'm having new experiences day after day and it's very early in this walk. I'm still organizing my thoughts. Even my itinerary is still changing. I know at some points I'll be in the desert – it'll just be me and my books and my journal and my guitar. It's hard to say how it's going to affect me. I've been touched by people's kindness. I mean not everybody has been kind – I've been accused of looking for handouts. I've made it clear I'm not looking for contributions. But some people have given me food, or water, or a place to sleep. I've been very touched by everything. Hopefully in the end I can get in touch with that optimistic spirit I once had.”

Once he reaches the West Coast, Jeff is meeting a friend and making a serious effort to be a full time musician.

“I want to dive into my music in a way I never did in New York. I never gave my music the respect that it deserves, that I could have. Toward my latter years in New York I had stopped playing and lost touch with music – and it's my heart and soul. Since then, I've been writing and writing and writing. And when I first started, in New Haven, this little girl was dancing to my music. I noted in my journal that children are the best critics. They are unabashed. They'll tell you if it's good or if they don't like it. When I get to LA, I want to put my music out there. I want people to hear my music.

If you want to follow Jeff Dean's walk, visit

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Malissa Post

Malissa Post Prattsville NY

I first saw Prattsville in 2012 – a year after Hurricane Irene nearly swept it down the Schoharie Creek. The main street was one shuttered house after another, one boarded up window after another, a series of X's indicating a house that was abandoned, waiting for demolition.

Sprinkled in between the desolation were signs of life – a bar, a diner, a man sitting on his porch.

I met Larry that day, a lonely elderly expat French Canadian watching the cars go by. Larry's house was immaculate.

“My family helped me rebuild,” he told me. “But all my neighbors are gone.”

A year later, I stopped at the Prattsville Diner and asked the lone waitress if she knew Larry and could tell me what had happened to him.

“It's kind of sad,” she told me. “Larry's such a sweetheart. He's moved to an assisted living center a ways from here but no one ever goes to see him. Most people didn't get to know him because they had trouble understanding his accent.”

It was a sunny late summer day. The annual Mudfest, the community event commemorating the floods that nearly destroyed their town, were over.

“Not many people came this year,” the waitress, Malissa Post, told me. “I think a lot of the crowd last year was from New York City, and this year they're still cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy.”

I had a cup of coffee and watched Malissa work. There were just a couple of tables to handle, a group of elderly ladies meeting for lunch, a man in a blue workshirt sitting by himself, a regular stopping in for “just a coffee, honey.”

One of the older ladies left her styrofoam container of leftovers on the counter.

“I'm visiting the little girls room,” she told Malissa. “Don't let me forget this!”

Sure enough, she came back out and shuffled deliberately out the door without it. Malissa went running after her, waving the styrofoam over her head.

“Martha my dear, did you forget something?”

“I love my locals,” Malissa told me. “I'm here Monday, Thursday and Sunday and they know my schedule. If they don't show up, I worry.”

Malissa grew up in Prattsville. She's worked at the diner for ten years.

“I was a CNA (certified nurses' assistant), got my certificate and worked for just four months. They paired me with a girl who was a lot smaller than me. We were lifting a 195 pound man and I asked her if she was ready. She said she was but she couldn't hold the weight. And you know you can't drop him to the floor – you have take yourself to the floor with them and take the patient's weight on you, break their fall. I messed my back up and I can't do it anymore. Being a CNA was my plan for life. With them, I was making $15 an hour. Per diems it meant I could pick my hours. I did not plan on working in a diner the rest of my life. Nope.”

“This job pays $240 a week. But now I've got no arm strength. None. I have a hard time lifting these buckets. If we had to carry trays here like you do in most restaurants, I couldn't work here. I'm so grateful we have a dishwasher on the weekends, cause those buckets fill up so quick and I can't lift 'em. When I got hurt I weighed like one fifty, now I weigh one thirty, but I have no muscles. I'm forty and I already have back issues. I've lost all this weight walking for six months straight. I finally just now got my car back on the road. I've been walking back and forth to work. If I had to go to the doctor's, God forbid I had to find a taxi. We don't have those.”

“I work three jobs. I babysit for my cousin in the morning, she has two little boys. I work from six in the morning to fifteen minutes to twelve. And, uh, I try to get ready while I'm babysitting. You know, get dressed, do my hair, my makeup, so when she walks in the door I'm ready to go. She's my cousin and it's hard to find a babysitter around here. She pays me twenty dollars a day. So if I work five days, that sets the salary, what 20-40-60-80, I only usually work four days a week, that's $80 on top of $240. Well, I say $240 but by the time the taxes come out, I end up with like $150. So $150 plus $80.”

“Then I clean for my aunt who has handicapped children. She went through knee surgery last year and her knee is worse now than it was before the surgery. Her surgeon says it will never be any better. So I clean one day a week for her, she pays me $75 a week. But she doesn't pay me on the day I clean – because she gets Social Security disability, I get paid the beginning of every month for the work I did the month before.”

“I have to basically live off this job and babysitting. I don't touch that other money – I live on my tips and my salary here and $60 from babysitting. I live alone. I am moving into a very small studio. My children are both grown and out of the house this year. It was easier when they were with me, 'cause they both had jobs. I said, look, you're this age and this is Mommy's job and you've got a little summer job and you're going to contribute. And I made them put the extra away, so in the winter they'd have their little jobs at the ski mountain and I have my little job here, but when you need extra money it's there.”

“My daughter moved to Florida and my son moved to Ashland and it's just Mommy now. I moving out of the four bedroom house I had just a month ago. I'm leaving a lot of my furniture behind and moving into a tiny little studio. All I need is my bed, I have an overstuffed chair, a coffee table, two little end tables, that's all I need. I'm good. It's $500 a month, everything included. You gotta do what you gotta do sometimes.”

I noted there weren't many options for living or working in such a small community.

“There's nothing in this town. Yeah, I love the owner of the local grocery store to death, but all he hires is little schoolgirls and college girls. I've put in applications three times in the past six years. Every time, I say, 'Jim, are you doing any hiring?' and he says, 'I will be in a week. Fill this out and come back and see me in a week.' And I go back and in that time he's hired four new girls.”

“We've got that, we've got the liquor store, Agway and one bar in this town is about it. My cousin actually works in the grocery store. I may end up taking a fourth job cleaning houses on the days I'm not working here.”

I asked if she considered moving to a bigger community.

“My father lives here and he's in hospice, dying. I lost my mom two years ago. Actually, July 24, right before the flood I lost my mother and then we had the flood. No way am I going anywhere right now. But I tell my friends and even my sisters, the day he closes his eyes and don't wake up, once everything's settled that's the day you see me saying, 'Call me. See ya!' I'm going back to Tennessee.
I actually lived there for two years before my dad got sick and I loved it there. It's so much cheaper to live and that's what I'm going back to!”

“I'm not involved with anyone right now – I had a boyfriend for five years and we broke up a few months ago. So I'm free. I have kids but they've moved on with their lives. So the only thing stopping me is my father. And I know it's just a matter of time.”

“I can't believe he's hung on so long. He's got something called myesthenia gravis. It's almost like multiple sclerosis, but instead of paralyzing you, it shuts down all your major organs. My dad's had surgery three times on his eyes – he can't have surgery anymore. Now it's started to affect his heart and his lungs. Hospice came in and he's on morphine. He weighs like seventy pounds. So it's just a matter of time before he lies down and that oxygen just won't be enough. And I'm okay with that. I have three younger sisters and the one he lives with isn't – she thinks it's horrible. I try to tell her, do you want to see him keep suffering or do you want him to be free? After the last time in the hospital he looked at me and told me, 'No more. You tell them no more, I want to go home to my bedroom to die.' And since I'm his health proxy, there's nobody can do a damned thing about it. I love my dad to death. I loved my mom to death, too, but I always had a closer bond with my dad. When I was growing up, I was working with my dad. I was hanging sheetrock on walls. I was taping, I was painting. I was working on cars because my father had two older boys, and they moved away and then he had me. So I was his tomgirl. My sisters had no desire to get dirty or greasy, but as long as I was with my dad I was happy.”

Thursday, August 29, 2013

We're Still Here - But We Don't Feel Well

I started this blog back in 2008. I was frightened by what I saw happening in my country.  The American Dream, that belief that hard work, intelligence and ambition could take you anywhere you desired, died.  It was a slow, sad, painful death and some of us still can't believe it's gone.

It is.

I have gone through all the stages of grief and have finally accepted that the world I grew up in no longer exists. The brave new world is not better. And we need to speak up about it.

I want to do something. I am not a policy maker (nor do I want to be), I am not a radical (except in my imagination), but I know something has gone terribly wrong and we all need to stop denying it.

There is not one simple fix for an incredibly complex web of issues. But fixes have to begin somewhere. So I'm focusing on work.We are working harder and longer than ever before, yet the middle class is heading for extinction. When it's gone, so is the society we say we live in.

I write.  I believe that this little corner of the blog universe is my place to shine a spotlight on individual stories, true stories that will illustrate what life is like in what we're told is post-recession America.

I have begun interviewing people from all walks of life, asking them about what it's like to try to stay afloat in the treacherous seas that are America after the economic meltdown.

 Some of them are working multiple jobs. Some are trying to find one. Some of them are at the top of their professions. Some thought they'd be retired by now.

They're young, they're old, they're saddled with college debt or never finished high school. They are us. And their stories are the real stories of what it's like in this country today.

There are other projects out there with similar (or even the same) names. It doesn't matter to me. What I'm doing is not the same as what they're doing, and we're all contributing to what I believe is a vital conversation.  I hope you'll look at all of them.  They matter. These people matter. We matter. All of us.

Like most of us, I work several jobs. Time is my challenge. But my intention is to post one story a week here, and I hope you'll read, comment and share. Welcome to Everyday People. Join in - share your story.

Thursday, February 28, 2013