The comments on this recent piece I wrote (http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/09/30/im-a-college-graduate-and-a-business-owner-and-im-about-to-be-homeless/) raise some really good issues, and also include several assumptions not based in fact, which will happen when word count precludes a full chronology of events. It’s always gratifying when people respond to something you wrote (except when they threaten to kill you which, thankfully, has not been the case thus far for me), though how much in the way of further response is required can be a bit murky. I thought I’d offer this post as both a ‘thank you’ to everyone who weighed in (even you, guy who thought a copywriter just copied other people’s writing and got paid for it, as you gave me a hearty chuckle) and to explain a few of the things left unsaid in the piece. OK, these ancient scrolls aren’t going to reproduce themselves—to the Scriptorium!
I’ve never owned a car or had a driver’s license. You can read more about that here (http://the-toast.net/2014/05/05/memoir-mirrored/) if you are so inclined. At the time my job was imperiled by my ride falling through I lived ten miles from a bus stop in unincorporated Sonoma County, and I ended up making more doing PR for the same business I’d been a cashier at, which enabled me to come in when I could find a ride and work largely from home. But my friendships faltered because I wasn’t there regularly for in-jokes and rounds of, “Good Lord, our bosses are insane!” I still miss that, but please note the ca-ching!-y way I turned a bad situation in my favor.
2013 was the first year I freelanced full time. I’ve written and had work published for more than half my life, but as people recommended, I treated it as a sideline, working as many as three minimum-wage retail jobs to keep afloat. In 2009 I was working in a shoe store and at the public library, but I qualified for public assistance because both jobs kept me stretched so thin in terms of hours (and offered zero benefits of their own). I didn’t apply for or accept any governmental mother’s milk then, instead choosing to bootstrap it by freelancing in the odd hours remaining to me when I could sit up and not fall asleep mid-conversation. Both of those jobs laid me off within a matter of two months, and unemployment was beyond useless at helping me get back to work (actual quote: “Just think of this as a vacation and enjoy it.”). Then my dad got sick and needed a lot of assistance, which I balanced with job hunting, and freelancing, and getting kicked off of unemployment because they insist you only search for a full time job even though I never had one to begin with. Fun all around.
Then my dad inconveniently died. You can read about some of that here if you like (http://the-toast.net/2013/12/18/christmas-story/). And I moved into a place that was beyond skeevy. Unemployment from assisting with my father’s care came to a princely $63 a week, but they would cut me off when I reported $40 income for a book review, and I’d have to undergo a phone hearing and prove that I was seeking full-time work (I was), then wait for them to reinstate my benefits. My local one-stop employment office was again full of contradictory advice designed to get me dumped from the rolls (there are people at the EDD whose job it is to cull recipients), with very little in the way of job leads—when they suggested them I always followed up and certainly busted my tail independent of their flakery, but never got so much as an interview.
By the end of 2012 I was opening new doors with my writing, but being sidelined by all this make-work from unemployment added a layer of distraction and stress to my life that I decided would be better spent building up my contacts and relationships to try and find more lucrative work. So on January 1, 2013, I informed the Employment Development Department that they could keep the $1500 in insurance benefits that remained to me (and also choke on a bag of…well, I’ll leave it to your imagination). I was going to formally strike out on my own as a freelancer.
And I made a great go of it! Found some new work, learned a ton, and while I wasn’t rich my earnings were heading in the right direction. However. The place I lived had a few problems. (Want to read about them? I thought you might: http://the-toast.net/2014/09/04/handy-men-misandry-home-repair/ ) In addition to my landlord being a lecherous Gropey McFeelerson scumbag, there were his handy henchmen, who couldn’t grasp the concept of a home office. Or why I was upset that mine was now flooded. And why, later, I was upset that the kitchen area I’d relocated it to was ALSO flooded. Or why having them come by at 7 am, 8 pm, weekends, or whenever the spirit moved them, might be hard on a person working with deadlines, interviews, you know, the work of being a writer. Have you ever tried to have a business conversation while someone, who sees you are on the phone as it’s a trailer and you’re ten feet apart, runs a Sawzall? Let me tell you: Your professionalism suffers.
One thing worth noting that was cut from the WaPo piece is that during this time I volunteered as much as my time would allow, but more than once went through rather involved vetting and training only to be shunted off to a task with no social contact whatsoever. And I went to regular “socials” with a group I met through the community radio station, but only when I could afford $8 for a glass of grape juice with seltzer in it, so, not often. I put myself out there and kept at it, and was continually building contacts while in Ukiah.
The final straw for that location was my landlord and two of his buddies who were also handymen trumping up a story about how one of them found evidence of an attempted arson on the roof of my trailer. Nobody in the park would advocate for me with the manager or law enforcement, and the stress was eating my stomach lining. So I moved in with my aunt (and the handyman who “found” the melted pool of wax on my roof moved into what was once my trailer). I grew up in Sonoma County and this is where my father and I lost our place and couldn’t find a way back indoors for over a year. As a result I was only coming to stay for the summer and look for a permanent home with a very clear understanding that it would not be here. This was never anything but a temporary stay, and it has already gone on longer than my aunt or I had planned because I simply haven’t found anything, and I’m searching from Southern Cal up to Washington State.
I have been looking for work consistently during my time here as well, but continue to not hear back when I apply. In the past few weeks, as my aunt’s move date grows nearer, it has made more sense to me to prioritize finding a secure place to live, after which I will do three things: 1. Sleep for a week and eat ice cream and watch all the 30 Rock seasons I can lay my hands on on my laptop (this counts as one thing because as a freelancer I am all about the multitasking). 2. Make a brutally honest assessment as to whether it’s worth it for me to continue writing and try again to make it a stable source of income. 3. Regardless of the answer to #2, I will bust ass harder than I’ve ever busted ass before to find a subsistence job, though the reality right now is that it takes two and a half subsistence incomes to pay for one apartment (http://www.populist.com/20.18.seggel.html).
The title given to this piece was melodramatic, and I think it misdirected readers somewhat; yeah, I wrote it about my own experience, but it’s about a situation many people are facing. It took my aunt three years to get near the top of a waiting list for affordable housing—in the meantime she’s odd-jobbing and gutting her savings to rent a house she can’t afford because it was the only thing she could find. I also have absolute faith that I’ll find a place; it’s just stressful to send out so many inquiries, call and post fliers and basically beg and hear nothing in return. I agree with comments that suggest I’ve made one disastrous decision after another. Often when you’re faced with systemic poverty you reach for the only branch that’s offered or, as I once did, chase a dollar bill being pulled on a string by two teenage boys(http://the-toast.net/2013/12/03/class-navigation-on-being-poor/). But they have each been mistakes I’ve learned from (including coming to stay here at all, though I couldn’t find anywhere else to go and really didn’t want to be burned to death in my sleep). So maybe the melodrama was warranted after all. It was pretty dramatic living through it.
I am not out of touch, or a prima donna, and I’m more than willing to get my hands dirty. But I do have a sense of entitlement: If I work full time (which means three jobs when one won’t give you the hours) I want a dry bed to sleep in at the end of the day. And I feel comfortable in the belief that this is not too much to ask.
One more link, because why the hell not? Material here overlaps with the Progressive Populist piece, just so you know. (http://www.bohemian.com/northbay/through-the-cracks/Content?oid=2609599)