99 + 1

What a perfect prologue to the thoughts on my mind this cold fall morning. I have made 99 posts in my growing blog to date, and this is the 100th. A personal milestone for me today, a symbolic equation for many these days.

As I watch folks around the country take their protests of the disproportionately rich 1% to the streets, bravely weathering the elements, my awareness and concern for the truth of their message begins to sink in. I feel the chill of my own reality as I dash for the bathroom in the middle of the night, the cold of my under-heated house reaching me as soon as I leave the covers and remaining with me long after I’m safely tucked back in. (My not-yet-ex remarked on his last visit that the temperature here in the house was ‘sort of like camping’. Great.) I cannot afford to heat my house, and that’s not right. I am out of milk and will need to find spare change to buy some, and that’s not right. Yes, I do have a house, and internet too, but I am hard-pressed to maintain these, let alone begin to figure out a way to buy Christmas presents for my 8 year old son. I can’t say this is directly related to all that’s gone on in the financial and banking  worlds, yet somehow it is linked. The distribution of the world’s wealth is simply wrong.

That debt can be forgiven of a huge, impersonal entity yet it can be held over the head of a suddenly-single mother who cannot feed her child is immoral. It is wrong that while some fret over which $500 handbag to wear, small children on the same planet fret over going another day with nothing to eat. I believe that one who has wealth should enjoy it, and perhaps even boast a closet full of $500 handbags, yet at the same time I believe everyone here should be eating and heating their house, secure in the knowledge that the rest of their human family has their back.

I’m lucky, for the US government has had my back to a degree; in the wake of my husband’s financial desertion I have been able to feed my son and myself as well as keep my pipes from freezing. If it weren’t for welfare, I know my situation would be dire. The credit card debt I carry from our marriage hangs over me still. The purchases were made for our business (mistake, I know), our home, for medicines and doctor visits for our child. And since it was my name alone on the dotted line it is me alone who is responsible for paying it back. Never mind that my husband has historically made 10x the income I’ve ever made, never mind that now I must buy food and basics on a wage far under the national poverty line – that debt will not be forgiven. Not unless I locate another grand I don’t have to hire someone to file bankruptcy. (Bless my mother, she’s the one who’s bankrolled my bankruptcy.) Inequity reigns supreme.

Last night, as we drove home from a session with Elihu’s mobility coach at the local mall, the topic of this 99/1 inequity began rather naturally. I had just bought us dinner at the Famous Cajun Grill – a shared plate which set me back a modest but meaningful $7. I expressed my concern that since I’d had to buy some gas today which I hadn’t planned on, I didn’t have currently have that much in my checking account; I ran the risk of incurring a $35 overdraft fee, which worried me.  (Plus we’d attended his school’s book fair that day, and while I pleaded with him to remember our beloved library, he in turn pleaded for books which he’d had on his list all month in anticipation of the fair. Bird books, of course. How could I deny him these? Perhaps I should have, but I didn’t. The book fair is also something of a social event and as his peers were buying books with no constraints I just couldn’t say no. I ended up writing a check for a purchase that I didn’t currently have the money for. As many of us do, I wrote the check knowing it wouldn’t be cashed for a few days – and that by Monday I’d have another small deposit from teaching that would cover it.) Remembering the bag of coins I’d gathered earlier that day I told him not to worry – I’d pay a visit to the Coinstar machine first thing tomorrow and we’d get enough from that to tide us over for now.  This is a frustrating situation to be in. Very disheartening to say the least.

A few minutes passed silently as we drove through the night. “It’s not fair” Elihu said from the backseat. “It’s not fair that we have so little money. It makes me mad.” I paused, considering how to explain the situation without it becoming a lecture. “No, it isn’t.” I agreed. “That’s kinda what this whole ‘occupy’ thing is about. You’re right. For now we have to deal with it, but I really think it won’t always be like this. For us – or the other, really poor people. It can’t stay like this because people are getting mad, just like you are. Sometimes it takes a serious situation to get things to change. Sometimes things don’t change until someone gets mad”. Elihu needed more information.”Are all the regular people getting poorer?” he asked. I thought for a minute, then I answered him.

I explained that there have usually been three main types of people in our country: poor, middle class and rich. We’re kinda in the middle class, I explained; we don’t worry about going hungry, we can drive a car, use the internet and do some fun extra things too. But the truly poor people don’t have those things. They really do worry about eating. They can’t go to the Famous Cajun Grill for supper like we can. And the rich, they don’t have to worry about anything. They can enjoy the things that their money gets for them. And good for them – we’d want to live like that too if we could, right? I go on to explain that the new, big problem is that it’s getting harder to be in the middle. “Like us, for example. We’d be considered ‘middle class’ –  yet really and truly sweetie, we’re not.” I let a moment pass. “We have a lot of the things that middle class people usually have – good education, a car, beautiful things in our home, the ability to travel sometimes – yet we almost never have more than a couple hundred dollars in the bank and I can’t afford to buy heating oil for the house. I guess you could say that we act like middle class people, but we live like poor people. We’re kinda both.” Elihu began to list his friends, and then families we knew who lived in large houses and regularly went on vacations and skiing trips. He wanted to know if they were middle class too. I could feel him measuring himself against the world in which he lived, trying to figure out how he fit in. “I guess you’d call them upper middle class, honey.” He’s a smart enough boy to know that his life is not terribly lacking – of that I’ve made sure – so I hoped this new information wouldn’t dampen his spirits too much. A few minutes pass in the dark. “It’s ok, Mommy, we have a good life”. I smile. ‘Attaboy’, I think to myself, then I add “I think so too”.

The conversation then turned to how we might improve our situation. I told him that most folks would tell me to get a ‘real ‘ job. (The judge in our divorce case cites this point too.) However, if I did get a ‘regular’ job as folks would suggest, it would be a babysitter who met him at the bus after school, got him his supper and put him to bed. It would be a babysitter who’d pass the weekend afternoons with him instead of me. I explained that any of the jobs I might get – at Walmart, Target, Kohl’s – they’d all require me to work nights and weekends. And while that wouldn’t necessarily mean all nights and weekends, it would mean many of them. And if I can’t be here, someone else needs to be. “Now”, I go on, digging to the bottom line, “if I take home $9 an hour, and I pay a sitter $7 an hour, how much money do I really end up making?” “Two dollars.” “Yes. So now let’s say I work for 6 hours at $2 an hour, then how much would I make?” I wait for his answer, wondering if he’s hanging with me on the math…”You’d make $12.” “Yes, right. Now I need to take out $4 for the gas to and from the mall… How much do I end up making for my day of work?” He doesn’t miss a beat. “Eight dollars. Mommy, you’d just make $8 for a day of work?” he asks, really wondering where the benefit is. “Yes, sweetie. That’s my point. I could take a ‘real’ job, I could work – but that would mean someone else would be with you most of the time. I’d just be there to get you up in the morning. That would basically be our time together. All so I could make $2 an hour. How does that sound to you?” He tells me it doesn’t sound so good. “So you can see that I make more money teaching piano lessons than I could with a ‘real’ job. Plus you can be here, at home, with me. For now, it’s the best I can do. When you’re older and you can be home alone, then I’ll be able to take a job of some kind. But for now, this is how it is.” I don’t want to sound ominous, so I try to lighten the message. “I feel, sweetie, that the quality of our life is the most important thing. You won’t be a little kid for much longer; I think it’s really important that we’re together as much as we can be.” Again, I let a moment pass before I ask him how he feels. “Yes!” he shouts, “you should teach piano!” Then he becomes quiet, thoughtful. “Mommy, I want you here. I want to do things with you.” So at least he now knows the deal. I’m doing the best I can in our situation.

For us it’s one percent about money, ninety-nine percent about living. I just wish living didn’t cost so much money.

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