Late Thursday morning, still in my pyjamas, I was just crawling into bed for a small nap (a new slovenly habit) when I heard a great commotion from the dogs. The virulence and urgency of their barking told me that someone was at the ghetto gate downstairs. Afraid that whoever was at the gate might be stupid enough to enter it against the gnashing teeth, I hurried downstairs and out to the gate where I found a man from the power company heading back to his truck. Seeing me (and what a sight that was) he came back to the gate and asked if the dogs were put away. I said not really, what did he want? I have come to treat people at my gate with suspicion. There are only three reasons someone is at the gate, friends (which we welcome warmly and the dogs immediately turn to puddles of love), delivery people which is sometimes nice when fun things come in the mail but just as often they’re delivering foreclosure packages for the other house, or it’s some official who is there to tell us any number of foul tidings.
It was the power man there to shut off our power. We’re behind. I knew we were one payment behind but I didn’t know we were two payments behind and I most certainly didn’t know that we had received a five day warning for cut off. Why didn’t I know this? Because the envelope they use to send your dire cut off warning looks exactly like the regular bill envelopes. We knew we were behind and knew we’d be paying them next Tuesday to catch up. Next Tuesday was Philip’s next paycheck. The shut-off man didn’t care about any of that. He looked uncomfortable as the reality of the situation, and the gravity, raced across my unmade up horrified face. I asked him if I could make a partial payment.
The amount we owed was for two months and a cut-off fee. No negotiations allowed. One of those months we hadn’t yet paid also happened to be $100 more than the same bill last year. No negotiations allowed. The shut-of man would either leave with the full $565 or he would leave without it and shut our power off until we could pay. I almost choked on my own horror and incredulity that the power company would not take a partial payment to keep our power on. I felt very ugly in my bare feet, standing out there in my raggy pyjamas looking like a rotund mental patient, trying desperately not to cry in front of shut-off man.
This is winter. We have no alternative heat. I rely on power to work because I work online. My mom is prone to getting pneumonia. We wouldn’t be able to come up with the money for five days. Five days of no power in the middle of the winter and the power company won’t fucking take a partial payment to keep it on?
I heard myself telling him that if he turned off my power I couldn’t work, if I can’t work I can’t get paid and lose my job. He stared at me in my disheveled shock and I could see he felt sorry for me and that he hated this part of his job. He shrugged. I stood there begging him not to turn it off because five days without power is outrageous! He told me that they wouldn’t deposit my check until the next day “if that helps”. So I grabbed my thin checkbook and scrawled out a bad check. My heart was pounding and my chest was heaving in an oncoming panic attack and I hated the power company with every fiber of my being. Every fiber, people. I could barely write that check because my hands were shaking and my eyes were filling and my head was exploding with the outrage that I, a hard working honest person, had unwittingly chosen to have dental work done for my kid and Christmas instead of choosing power. And when offered a partial payment, the power company didn’t give a fuck if we froze to death. Business as usual. Nothing personal, I’m sure they tell themselves and everyone who ever has trouble paying their damn power bills.
That’s the moment I truly realized my position in the world. I have become the working poor. I’ve been the working poor for a few years now but while negotiating our loan with our bank we had a reprieve. There’s no reprieve now. The price of keeping our house and not moving into a cramped small apartment is that we will live on the edge of life. I stood there as that man drove away and realized I’d become white trash. Truly white trash. Living in my pyjamas until at least noon every day. Reduced to begging people not to turn off our services. Having to leave my groceries at the grocery store a couple weeks ago because I didn’t have the funds to cover them. Having to call the garbage people to return our trashcans because their check was sent but they didn’t get it in time.
It’s a filthy feeling. To be an honest, respectable person with skills, talent even, and two working people in our house, and still become the working poor. How did this happen? How did we get reduced to this when just a few years ago Philip had such a good job I got to stay home with my kid and use my time to grow our food and sew things for our house and not worry about every damn penny. How did this happen?
But forget about it. I got my tears out. I cried in the quiet of my office and I ranted on Facebook and commiserated with friends and then I let it be what it is. So many of my friends are in similar situations. People with more education than me, people with incredible work histories and talents, people who have already done incredible things and achieved so much and are now reduced to begging their own power people to accept partial payments. Friends who are trying to figure out how to make a meager living feel respectable. Trying to figure out how come bread, this most basic of groceries, can cost so much. Trying to figure out how it is that when they have the least amount of money they’ve ever had all the most basic groceries and services are going steadily up in price. It weeds us out into different classes than we’re used to.
I’m not alone in this fucked up economy. Not being alone with any kind of struggle is vital to maintaining morale. I bounced back from this awful moment of realization because as I shared my story I heard friends tell similar stories. More than that, commiserating can bring out generosity, kindness, and support. It’s easy to think you don’t need any of that to survive when you’re doing well, when the coffers are plentiful and you can eat whatever you want and never worry about how expensive your necessities are. But when you become the working poor, it becomes everything. That’s what I’m learning.
Believe it or not, my morale was restored. I’m still hopeful. I’m still thrilled that we got health insurance coverage for Max (and boy did that become important yesterday when he had his therapy and it cost only $10 instead of the usual $130 we’re used to paying out of pocket) and I’m still really happy that I get to keep my house. I am still angry with the power company and I think it’s pretty fucked up that a service most people depend on on the most basic level are at the mercy of a business plan and rising prices.
We were bailed out this week by Philip’s bosses giving him an advance on his pay. Our check won’t bounce, we’re caught up for the moment. But that was a close call with an untenable situation. And that’s what it’s going to look like for the foreseeable future. My job doesn’t come with raises. Philip’s job doesn’t come with many of those either. So this situation is not temporary.
I am still grateful for what I have. What I have is more than what many have. We are actually employed when so many worthy people are not, and that counts for a lot. I accept that I have gone from a middle class youth and early adulthood to a working class pay-scale and lifestyle and have now reached middle age in a whole new economic low as I join the ranks of the working poor.
I have started the new year with a determination to not be bitter and not be crushed.
Today we evaluate how we can fix energy leaks in our house, because action, solutions, and hope are the only way to move forward.