Wednesday, December 26, 2012

End of the Line

     The Fiscal Cliff is looming. Not the one in D.C. No, I'm talking about the real one that so many of us are currently facing. It doesn't really matter how you juggle the numbers or how you define unemployment, there are a lot of us wasting away and watching our futures dwindling.

     Officially, my unemployment benefits end in three days. That's the current deadline for the federal extension.  I was laid off in March. Now, reaching the end of the money that was doing nothing more than keeping me afloat, I'm faced with the real fiscal cliff. What do you do when you have no more money? None. No savings, no checking, no job, nothing.

     I've gone through all of the stages. When you first get laid off you prioritize your spending, cutting out all the unnecessary stuff. You re-work your resume. You contact friends and colleagues and get the word out that you're looking.

     Later, you realize you've slipped into stage two. You aren't just looking for equivalent or better jobs than the one you had. You're willing to take a pay cut, lose benefits, drive farther in your commute, go a few rungs down the ladder. Hey, these are tough times and we all have to make cuts.

     You get a few phone calls, even a couple of interviews. For the most part though it's a long series of auto-replies from companies saying they've received your application. If you're lucky you get a rejection later letting you know that they'll keep your application on file. Don't worry, you'll never hear from them again.

     Eventually, you reach the first emergency stage.  For me, it was when I realized that even with my money management, I could no longer afford my apartment.  I held a woefully unsuccessful garage sale, got rid of everything outside of a laptop, a few irreplaceable's and my clothes. I moved in with my girlfriend. 

     Comparatively flush with cash and stripped of literal and metaphorical baggage I bought myself a new camera, determined to keep myself solvent with various freelance gigs until fate brought me together with my eventual new job.

    Time passed, applications were sent, a few pictures were taken. The holidays came along and the second emergency slowly revealed itself along the horizon.  The end of the benefits means the end of being able to pay my bills. It's not like I have kids or a mortgage, so I'm among the lucky. But as many of us already know, it only takes being one dollar in debt to be bankrupt.

    Starting Wednesday, I'll begin applying to retail and service industry jobs that are either within walking distance or busing distance. Next month will be the last that I can afford my car insurance.  I'll sell my car in order to keep from defaulting on my student loans and credit card debt.

    I'm writing this because, while I've been broke before, I'm a little baffled and slightly amazed at how far off and removed some people seem to be from the effects of the unemployment around them. Most of them here in Seattle are middle to upper-middle class. I think that some of my friends and acquaintances think that because I show up at a party with my girlfriend and a bottle of wine, that I have money to spend on gas or booze. 

     I have friends who fret over what dates they can fly across country or season tickets for sports teams. They have to budget their home renovations or make choices about which vacations they can take this year because they can only do two. I don't think they realize what a short slide it is from them telling me about all of this over a glass of pinot and them ignoring me on the street, walking by them, homeless.

    Some people reading this might scoff, but I've been poor before, I'm poor now and I'll be poor again. There's no scapegoating here, there's no single root cause to all of this. It just is what it is. Of course, it's magnified by the current state of the economy, but make no mistake that the mechanisms of misfortune have been grinding along for ages.

     I have a great deal of confidence in myself. I've always been a fighter, a smart one too. I'm creative, dogged, kind, and am deeply sure that I have a lot to offer this world. My fear isn't in my own failings, I know I'll triumph or go down swinging.  My fear is that I'll go down swinging with nothing to swing at. That my opponents, unemployment, lack of money, lack of an ability to care for myself, are opponents that I cannot hit. They're smoke, illusive and ephemeral and they kill with a thousand tiny cuts.

     I don't want to go out like that.

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