What started as an awareness raising and ethnographic styled walk through Sierra Leone, this site now details the encounters of a not so academic academic who spends more time occupying Wall Street and squats than a university...

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Poverty's Snowball

So yesterday I had the chance to go to an event that would have been not only been a wonderful event, but a really good thing for me to do in terms of my career and in support of two great friends and supporters of mine.  The event, Reels for Rights was a small screening of several films advocating for human rights.  It was open bar and going to be packed with the whole of the NYC human rights community.  As my friend said: there will be countless important people there, and I need to come schmooze them, and get myself into job consideration.  I RSVPed weeks ago and was looking forward to it that whole time.  But when the day came I didn't get to go.  I was dealing with the trail of bread crumbs of my own poverty, the repercussions of a life as a poor person.

A year and a half ago I was unemployed, sleeping in a tent, and clutching at straws.  When I was finally offered a job I had no choice but to take it.  It didn't pay me enough to live on my own, and wasn't career oriented at all, but it was work.  There was one catch though, I had to have a car.  I of course didn't have the money to buy one though.  I had $500 to my name at the time, and a hundred dollars a week from unemployment.  I was forced to go into debt to get a car and of course got the absolute cheapest car I could get financed for.  $7,200 for 2001 Honda Accord.  It was nice enough, leather seats, good gas mileage, nice sound system... I really liked it, still do.  But it had few unknown issues at the time.  Like that the transmission was slipping, and it cost $3000 to replace it.

The job itself wore on the car too.  In 6 months at that job I put 22,000 miles on the car driving all over Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts.  I stopped working for that company last November and moved to NYC, but I am stuck with the car.  It is worth $5000 now - if it didn't need a new transmission, shocks, and have its dents - yet, I still owe $4500 on it.  Even if I could sell it, I am not going to get enough to pay back the loan.  I'm underwater on it and I'm stuck with it. 

It's a $300 a month burden that I obviously can't afford still being unemployed, so I've been doing a car share with a friend.  But is has put a lot of wear and tear on the car - a thousand miles on the car in the first three weeks of November, and Brooklyn miles.  The transmission is night and day worse and all of a sudden needs new shocks.  You give it to someone and three weeks later its rattling away....  They've gotten in two fender benders in three months, one that left a dent on the door.  Needless to say, the car's been beaten up.  It is not their car, it is like a rental.  And while I love this person like a sister, it has really been a horrible thing for me and my longer term fortunes, even if a necessary evil for my short term survival.

But I have had no choice.  I was poor. I'd finally found a job, and had to have the car.  I couldn't afford to buy or lease a good car, so I got the cheapest I could.  It was bound to have problems, just like anything you buy cheap.  Just like the two can openers I've bought at the dollar store during the last two months, both broke within weeks.  The cheap things poor people are forced to buy break much more easily than quality goods that those with money can afford.  So for a year and a half now I've been stuck with this car and its problems in New York City - the unfriendliest place in America for cars! 

So last May the car inspection was up.  I hadn't paid attention to when it was up - I was busy trying to find food and not paying attention.  When do you think about those little things when spending all of your time trying to survive?  Needless to say, I got a ticket for an expired inspection and made an appointment to get it done, but I got two more tickets in the four days I had to wait for the appointment to get it inspected.  $180.  I didn't have the money.  So I just didn't pay it.  I kept thinking about it.  Can I now?  Nope.  Food, rent, whatever.  The tickets went up to $75 each, but that was still under the $350 threshold before they tow you.  At least that was a month ago when I last checked.  I came to find out Thursday when my car was gone that they went up again. 

I saw the empty spot in front of my house at noon.  And I had a 2pm job interview to get to.  Sigh....  How can I concentrate on the interview when I'm screwed.  It now costs $700 to get it out of impound.  I don't have that kind of money.  I can't even pay rent right now, nevermind have extra cash for that.  So here I am, scratching to make ends meet, I have to triage money every day and didn't pay the tickets because food and shelter were more important.  I literally just made a decision two weeks ago.  I had $650 from working, what do I do with it?  I gave $500 for rent and kept the rest for food, phone, insurance, car payment, etc.  $650 isn't enough to live on.  I just didn't have the money to pay for the tickets, for the car that I had to get, so that I could get myself out of poverty.  And now - without that job - couldn't get rid of the car, because the only car I could afford when I was in poverty (and had to have one) has no resale value because it has too many problems.  My poverty is snowballing upon me, and driving up the costs of my poverty just because I can't afford things that will last.  And now here I am on the Friday I am supposed to be going to this career benefiting event, and instead I am dealing with the car I's rather get rid of but can't. 

I had a decision to make, do I just leave it and walk away from it?  If I do, the impound lot auctions it and covers their costs and my tickets first.  But if the the sale isn't enough I'm still saddled with that, and regardless I would never cover the value of the car and would default on my loan.  But where do I get $700 from?  If I can't I'm out of the car, the credit, and all the value included in the vehicle.  Enter the white knight...  yeah, my friend offered to pay for it.  She has really sound logic in it all.  If I go to school next year outside of NYC I'll have to have a car.  But how do I buy one with what would then be bad credit, and little money?  And what kind of car do I buy for $1000?  What's to say it won't have all the same problems this one does?  The only difference then is that I've lost every penny I put into this other one and have crappy credit.  If I can come up with the $700 I keep going, keep trying to make ends meet. 

I accept her offer.  But these kinds of things don't always come free and clear of repercussions.  Yes, I don't see this as an issue for she and I.  But it still is a burden within yourself no matter.  Taking money like that from someone else, hat in hand, desperation as your sole motivation.  More importantly though for the plight of the poor is how many people in poverty have that type of resource?  How many poor people have friends with cash like that?  And if they do, at what cost?  Someone does you a favor, gives you a loan.... what is the social cost of this exchange between friends, families?  Loan sharks, what have you.  It is a tough one to navigate.  Poverty drowns itself in its own minescule capacity. 

For me though, this decision wasn't about the car, my credit, favors, or friends, it was about  my security.  My life is very insecure.  I am living in a wholly precarious housing situation that could end at any minute.  My car has been the only steady thing I've had over the last year and a half.  I have lived in it, used it as a closet, moved with it, and escaped in it.  Without it I am truly at the mercy of my poverty.  So I took the favor, and went to get my car out of impound.  But I had PhD applications due that day, so I couldn't leave right away.  Then I rode 8.5 miles to the place to pay, then back past my house another 12 miles to the impound lot where I proceeded to stand outside (yes, there was no indoor waiting area) for almost two hours in a windbreaker and sweaty clothes.  It was dark by now and with a temperature in the 30's I was shivering and worrying about catching hypothermia while I waited.  I finally got my car, but I was deliriously cold.  I rushed in got the heat on, and left.  I get home to realize I left my bike there, so I drove back, got it and then back to Bed-Stuy again.  Twenty plus minutes each way.  I'm at least warmish by now though.  But I haven't eaten much of anything all day as I've been running around and my housing situation doesn't afford me the power to be able to cook whatever I want.  Normally I'd have a crock pot going to just be able to eat and go.  I'm famished, so I grab some pizza (which of course costs more than a home cooked meal), and need to get in the shower to warm up. 

But its 8:30 by now.  The event was from six to ten in Manhattan.  I've missed it.  Missed a chance to better myself for the simple fact that I am not already better.  My poverty has snowballed upon me, an avalanche of debt, worries, bills, and stress that consumes me to the point of near ineptitude.  Poverty sucks, is systemic, and endemic here.   But at least, despite the calamitous pressures surrounding me, I nailed the interview.  I will be taking my almost two masters degrees and eight some-odd years of international business experience, to a gourmet super market where I will be a delivery boy - yes, the same job I had while I was in High School!  I've come full circle!  But at least I'll have food and shelter... and a platform to keep fighting from!


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