Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Dear Diary

It's Easter Tuesday. And it's my first day off after eight days, most of them long, busy days that stayed busy well into the night. What better day to laze around and do nothing!

Much of my late business was triggered by unemployment. My old career ended on February 28 due to lack of funds to pay my full-time salary. After a two-week vacation devoted to job-seeking (and one day of judging a high school choir contest), I was offered two part-time jobs—unfortunately, by direct competitors, meaning that I couldn't take both jobs. I went to both interviews, signed both conditional job offers, and submitted pee samples for both companies' pre-employment drug tests. Both companies checked my background and called back to say they were go, if I was.

Then I had a decision to make. One competitor was offering more money per hour plus extra pay for working in the wee hours; the other offered more hours and a round-trip commute that was 30 miles shorter. I thought it over for an agonizing weekend, then accepted the latter offer.

Though I prefer not to name the company I now work for, I won't conceal the fact that after 8 years of post-secondary education, three degrees, and several years of professional experience in an 40-hour-per-week, evenings-and-weekends-off office environment, I was now, at age 40, starting a relatively menial hourly job, with some 33 hours per week spread around my availability in a way that somehow seems to leave less free time in my life than I had before. And the time I spent at work seemed more physically and mentally draining, at least starting out.

My orientation at the new workplace started on Tuesday, March 19th, followed by several solid days of training. My first day off was Palm Sunday, March 24. I had made sure to have that day off because of a concert I was supposed to sing in. (While all this was going on, rehearsals had continued for both choruses in which I sing.) By the time I got home from church that Sunday, St. Louis was beginning to disappear under a 10-inch-thick blanket of snow. The concert was canceled. So I stretched out with a good book, hugged my cats, and enjoyed my last day off (minus church) until now.

I had 9:30 to 5:30 shifts the following Monday and Tuesday; a 1 to 6 p.m. shift Wednesday; 8 to 5 shifts Thursday and Friday; and 8:30 to 5 on Saturday. Then 5 to 10 p.m. on Easter Sunday and 9 to 5:30 yesterday, Easter Monday. I volunteered to add one of these days to my written schedule because my supervisor was looking for extra help during the busy time leading up to Easter. All that time spent standing at a cash register during a commercial feeding frenzy, until my feet were killing me and my knees were so stiff that I rather waddled than strode wherever my duties took me.

Meanwhile, carefully blocked out of my work availability, yet by such a slim margin that I never had time to touch down at home between one thing and another, I had choral rehearsals on both Monday nights and also last Tuesday night; church services on Thursday and Friday nights; and (obviously) church again on Sunday. The church services were sited at the limit of the distance I could drive (at legal speeds) between them and my work shift.

I managed most of this while absolutely, positively broke. I had enough bread, lunch meat, and cheese to pack a sack lunch for work each day, and enough loose change to buy a couple of 50-cent sodas out of a vending machine outside the break room, and a 75-cent bag of chips, to add variety to my breaks.

There was one day (the Monday before Easter) when I forgot to bring both my sack lunch and my money with me; so I lived on water from breakfast until a break in that evening's chorus rehearsal around 8:30 p.m., when the refreshments served by volunteers from the chorus became my first meal in 13 strenuous hours.

There was another day (Maundy Thursday, I believe) when someone stole my lunch out of the break room fridge, obliging me to spend on food part of the roll of quarters I had brought along to buy fuel for the trip to church. The fuel light on my dashboard didn't even go out after I pumped in as much as I could afford with the remaining coins. I made it to church on fumes, spent on fuel every dime I was paid for playing the accompaniment for Maundy Thursday worship (less a 99-cent bottle of iced tea), and was riding on fumes again by the time I got back to church on Good Friday. Meanwhile, when I brought my sack lunch to the break room Friday morning, I found that my signed and dated sack from Thursday had been put back in the fridge... with one sandwich missing.

My first paycheck reached me on Maundy Thursday. It came in good time. I desperately needed to buy groceries, after almost a month of not daring to spend a dime more than I had to. The sandwiches I packed for Saturday's lunch featured the last four slices of bread I owned. But I couldn't shop until after work on Saturday, because I wouldn't be going home until after church either Thursday or Friday. So it wasn't until Saturday night that I loaded a cart with enough bread, lunch meat, cheese, and cheapo frozen pizzas (and some other essentials) to survive until my next paycheck.

My pastor and his lovely family, who have too recently been through some employment-related financial straits themselves, gave me an Easter card with a generous cash gift enclosed. God bless them. Even I didn't realize until then what a tight spot I would have been in without that sudden shower of "pennies from heaven." Because this gift reached me early for Easter (on Good Friday, actually), its first benefit was to fill my fuel tank to the brim for the first time since I lost my previous job, and buying a gift card to ensure that "I know where my next tank of gas will come from."

I next used part of the gift to supplement my first week's meager paycheck when I filled that shopping cart with groceries on Saturday evening. It's amazing how many staple items one runs short of when one has been living on less than one needs to pay the bills for even a short while. I was totally out of toilet paper. My cats' litter box desperately needed a bucketful of crushed clay. I didn't have a slice of either bread or cheese to make a sandwich (though I had plenty of lunch meat), a cracker to spread peanut butter on, or anything besides tap water to drink. I had nothing in my freezer except a half-dozen Italian ices and some dodgy vegetables of such a vintage that I worried about having to eat them. I had some rice and pasta but nothing to go with them. I had fixings (such as a few cans of Ro-Tel and a cream-of-chicken soup) but nothing to fix with them.

On Monday I bought a few more grocery items I had forgotten on Saturday. Nothing big. I replenished my supply of ramen—which was all I had been eating for a couple of days, and ought to be kept around for the next tight spot. I drank a pint of milk, whose outrageous price is the reason those 50-cent cans of pop will be the death of me one of these days. I tried a Yakisoba ramen entree, which proved much tastier than my usual brand, but even while its 98-cent price tag makes it a very cheap meal, it wasn't so much better as to be worth paying five times the price.

But the gift from Pastor's family really came in handy today... on my first day off since Palm Sunday. Here's how I used this blessed and much needed day of rest...

First, I breakfasted on bacon and eggs, made by my own hands. These were probably the most self-indulgent items in my grocery purchase on Saturday night; but I found good deals on both, and I reasoned that by not eating my usual toast, I would save bread for future sack lunches. Then I cleaned up and got dressed, and shoveled garbage out of my car to make it marginally presentable. Then I went to a certain discount store and bought a new pair of shoes because my previous decrepit pair were plotting to murder my feet during an impending series of work-days spent standing and walking on a concrete floor. I bought some insoles to put in the new shoes, as soon as the cushiony stuff in them breaks down enough to let my feet slide around. And I bought windshield wipers to replace the ones on my car, which had devolved into a display of rubbery strips flopping around on the rain-blurred, persistently grimy windshield. Then I returned the wipers for a refund, because they didn't include an attachment needed to install them on my car.

After that partly wasted trip, I went where I should have gone in the first place: to Dobbs, where I've been getting tire rotations gratis since I bought my tires there. I was overdue for a tire rotation and oil change. They also supplied my new wipers and did the safety and emissions inspections my city requires each vehicle to pass before its license tags can be renewed—and my old tags expire this month. While Dobbs was lubing, rotating, and inspecting my car, I crossed the street to Great Clips and purchased a long-overdue haircut. Then I marched a block down the street to a branch of the public library, where I had a book on hold, waiting to be checked out. I sat in a sunny corner of the library and read for a few minutes, until Dobbs rang me to say my car was ready. Happily, it had passed both inspections on the first go.

After driving home to fetch some documents I had forgotten to carry with me, I next drove to the license bureau and renewed my tags for two years. For once I had everything I needed (including the cash) to get this done in one trip. This enabled me to shake my head compassionately at the woman next to me in line, who had forgotten every single item she was required to present at the counter. I might have called her a twit, if I hadn't been through exactly what she was about to go through.

Next, I got a little lost looking for the AT&T store. When I found it, I switched my cell-phone from monthly billing (bundled with my home phone) to a pay-as-you-go plan. The store had just gotten a new computer system this morning, and hadn't yet gotten set up to the extent that they could sell me airtime, so I then drove to a Quik Trip convenience store and bought an activation pin, entitling me to 250 minutes of talk between now and July 1. I loaded these minutes onto my phone, used an ATM to transfer funds from my savings account into checking, and went home.

But my fun and relaxation wasn't over just yet. Once at home, I checked the rent bill which was technically due yesterday, but which I couldn't possibly have paid until today due to the way my last paycheck from the old job gets direct-deposited. I was expecting to confirm the usual amount on the bill, so that I could decide how much of my remaining cash I would need to deposit in checking before paying the rent. But instead, I got a nasty surprise, which needed to be straightened out with a trip to my apartment complex's management office. Not only did I get the nasty surprise taken off the amount I must pay, but I also found out that today was the last day I could use $200 in rent coupons that I had earned when I renewed my lease.

With that far-from-nasty surprise added to what I then had in checking, I didn't need to make a trip to the bank—so I wrote a check for the rent and stuck it in the night-deposit slot. The check, that is. I gather that I won't be writing many more checks this month. But that's no big surprise. I haven't written checks for much other than my rent in the last couple of months. My checking account has been, over the past several months, a sucking black hole of negative dollars that eats my paychecks nearly whole—and that's with me turning back-flips to avoid spending money out of that account, except to pay my rent. This would seem, on the face of it, to be a ridiculous situation, considering that I was getting paid considerably more each month than my rent costs. And yet at one point, I was so deeply overdrawn that the bank had to decline to allow me to cash a check so I could pay a bill or two—not only because it wouldn't have paid off my overdraft, but because the penalties waiting to be applied automatically the moment I made any deposit would have exceeded the amount of the check by more than the maximum amount I was permitted to be overdrawn.

This had been going on for months, and getting worse and worse, even though I was making more than enough money to my debts and hardly spending anything else. It's not the type of hole you can dig yourself out of. You make a few anxiously awaited purchases or bill-payments on payday, forgetting that the direct-deposited funds from your paycheck do not become available until 24 hours later, and suddenly you have an overdraft. You put in enough money to clear the overdraft, but then the penalties from the previous overdraft cause you to be overdrawn again—with penalties of their own in train. Penalties on penalties! The next month or two, paying the same bills (which, again, add up to less than your take-home salary), the same thing happens again and again, pulling you deeper into the hole until your attempts to pay crucial bills (phone bill one month, then car payment, then rent) begin to bounce. And this after you have lived on ramen and water for a whole month while waiting for not one but two paychecks to clear the bank. You drop in at the nearest branch and ask, "What the hell happened to my paycheck?" And they explain to you that it isn't so much that you've been living outside your means, as that their penalties are costing more than you make in a given pay period, before you even think about paying the bills.

The point of this long and depressing story is: As of today, my rent is paid, my tags are renewed, my car has oil and fuel in it, my fridge and freezer have enough food to get me through the next little while, and I still have a few dollars to my name—the cash in my wallet, after today's expenses, being just a bit less than the funds in my checking account, after my last paycheck from the old job cleared and after today's ATM fund transfer that effectively closed my savings account. I won't owe the insurance company anything for a couple months. My educational loans are in forbearance until August, at which point I can reapply for a forbearance of up to 12 months if needed. I am expecting a small stipend for the concert I almost sang in on Palm Sunday; and a week from this coming Thursday, I should get my first "full-size" paycheck on my new job. Between those windfalls, I expect to be able to pay a tax preparer (TurboTax, at least) to file my federal, state, and city tax returns—praying that I don't somehow owe more taxes than I paid last year. Then I can worry about my electric bill, my gas bill, my car payment, and whether or not I need to port my home phone number to a prepaid cell phone (and that's only if my landlord will allow me to disconnect my phone line). My bank account is out of the hole. If I can keep it that way without falling behind on any of the above bills, I might make it—even earning less than half of what I was earning a month ago.

The loser, however, will most likely be this blog, and everything else I do on the internet. It's a pity, because I was just starting over after being disconnected for several months. I had been using the computer at work for essential online activities (such as renewing library loans, posting book reviews, and checking my email), until that job ended. My new job doesn't offer the facilities to do that. The remarkable way it snugly fills the time available between my other commitments, also gets in the way. Certainly the decrease in my income won't tend to encourage the addition of an extra bill, which I wouldn't have taken on myself if some friends hadn't offered to underwrite my home internet service. And now these friends have received a financial setback of their own, and are begging off after only one month. It isn't their fault. It's simply discouraging to note that the very day I heard this news from them, the bill for the second month's internet service also arrived. At this moment I can pay it. My only worry is whether I should—or whether I should rather plan to make sure I've got what's really needful (for bodily survival) covered.

I think I'm going to give it a try and see how things go for the next month. I've got so much to say (as this blog at least somewhat bears witness). I find it spiritually and mentally nourishing to say it, to work out my ideas in writing. I feel less lonely when I think other people may be reading what I write, as though I had someone to talk to and who might, perhaps, answer back. I don't know how I could live if this vent for my thoughts got plugged up, if this window on the world closed—I simply don't know, even after the past year and more, when that vent and that window have been forced into a narrower channel by circumstances out of my control. Maybe, when cash flow permits, I will scrounge up a wireless notebook computer and begin haunting a cafe with free WiFi. Bottom line: If I do go dark, as I may in the near future, don't give up on me. God permitting, I shall return.

Meanwhile, I'm remembering what I said while parting ways with one of my coworkers on my last day at the old job: "Have fun working tomorrow. I'll be at home with my hair in curlers, painting my toenails and eating chocolates." Well, obviously, it hasn't turned out that way... even on my day off!

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