On “Could you come up with $400 if disaster struck?”

Original article: http://www.npr.org/2016/04/24/475432149/could-you-come-up-with-400-if-disaster-struck?

Funny you should ask. Six weeks ago, I would have told you no. Then I went back to work for the first time since 2012. I was so elated when I received my first paycheck for $454.00. I had requested my check to be direct deposited, but it didn’t happen. Since I live remotely, I had to drive some distance to deposit my check.

I drove my 1990 Ford Ranger which someone had given me in exchange for some work I had done. I had a flat tire the week before which I had replaced with my spare—a comedy of errors in itself. When I went to change the flat, I discovered that the Ranger had the wrong jack and the wrong lug wrench. I managed to enlist help to get it changed. No matter, I thought. As soon as I had my first paycheck, I would get new tires as well as the right jack and a 4-way lug wrench.

However, as I got onto the Interstate and got up to the 75 mile-per-hour speed limit, I heard a terrible noise. I could tell it was the right front tire, but it didn’t throw me around the road as a blow-out would do. I realized the spare that had come with the truck was a retread.

Here I was, on the side of an Interstate Highway with semi trucks and trailers whizzing around me at dizzying speeds. All I had now was a little donut for a spare. My pickup listed far to the right because of the precarious spot over an arroyo where I was stopped. There was no way I could change the tire myself, even if I had the right jack and lug wrench.

I tried to call a tow-truck, but they had to have the money up front. My money was still in my purse in the form of an uncashed paycheck. After several calls, I finally found a nearby local towing service who was willing to not only wait for the money, but he would pick me up along with the pickup, take me to the bank, wait while I cashed my check, and then drop me at the tire service.

Did I say that at this point I was 45 miles from my bank? Towing fees were $125 for the service call plus $2 a mile. Then I had to buy two tires at $100 apiece. By the time everything was accomplished, I had spent $417 of my $454 check. Did I have the $400 for the disaster? Yes.

The only way I could actually afford the tow and tires without having to plunder from other budgeted items was the fact that I was providing security on a ranch in exchange for rent and utilities. If I had been paying those things, I’m not sure what I would have done. Leave the pickup at the side of the road and start all over? Beg my landlord to allow me to make payments on that month’s rent? Rob Peter to pay Paul? as my grandmother used to say.

Why was I living this way when I have a Master of Arts degree? In 2010 I was an instructor for a city college. But I objected to passing a student who hadn’t done the work in my class. If the student didn’t pass, I was told, she wouldn’t be able to continue, and if she couldn’t continue, the school would lose their portion of her financial aid. I apparently was a bit too vociferous with my objection and was told my services at that school were no longer required. The school was later investigated for defrauding the government.

At 55, I had lost my taste for a dog-eat-dog working world where everybody was trying to screw everybody else for the almighty dollar. I downsized to what I could carry in my car and embarked on an adventure. I started freelance writing to pay my bills and took caretaking jobs where I had a roof over my head and utilities in exchange for ranch work.

I thought I could do that until I filed for Social Security at 62. What I didn’t count on was the depression that set in when the freelance gigs were so up and down and I often had trouble keeping food on the table. Once the depression set in, it was even harder to complete an assignment in order to get paid.

All these things were predicated on personal choices. I understand that. Of course none of this takes into account that I’ve never been able to get ahead since, when leaving a “gaslighting” husband, the court mediator decided my MA in English was comparable to my husband’s degree in Engineering, so I was denied spousal support. Or that despite his six-figure salary, my husband never paid his child support and constantly threatened me that if I balked at that, the courts would happily give him custody of our children for good.

Before age 55, I worked for newspapers and magazines, taught college, worked in technology, and at one point, spent three years as a nursing assistant just to make ends meet. So, no. I disagree in solidarity with Neal Grabler that if you just work hard enough, you can be rich.

You want to talk about the devastation that depression or PTSD or anxiety or Asperger’s or any one of a number of other illnesses has on one’s ability to remain gainfully employed in order to get “rich”? Well…nobody wants to talk about that it seems.



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