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.”