It's only 7:30 p.m. and already it's dusk. The night air is a little crisper than it has been. I drive with the windows down, burning gas I can't afford to waste.
The neon sign on the storefront says, "Checks cashed." Its red light illuminates the inside of my car as I sit and stare at it, trying to will myself to go inside. The Ohio Lottery sign in the window seems stereotypical -- why not ask those who are down on their luck to gamble? As if we haven't obviously gambled enough.
Going inside is not an option today -- I know it has to be done. The mortgage is due and the phone has been shut off. I try not to feel bitter about my circumstance. I do not succeed.
The woman at the counter is on the phone, talking to someone about the situation in New Orleans.
"I see all of that going on down there and I say to myself, 'God just looked at that evil place and made some changes' ... mmm hmm, just touched his hand to it ..."
I stare at her dumbfounded. Apparently in this room, victims deserve what they get and God causes natural disasters to reign down on the least fortunate. It reminds me of the Islamic radicals who say the same things about us. The thought of borrowing money from this place makes me feel sick.
After succumbing to the lengthy application process, I am granted a "short term" loan from the teller. I take what's left of my pride and settle back into my car, still illuminated by the red neon sign. For the prices they're charging to loan money, the red sign should be flashing "Loan Shark" instead. I amuse myself with thoughts of a flickering neon sign of a shark swallowing a man with his pockets turned inside out. For the first time all day, I smile. It's all so ridiculous.
Actually, it's more tragic than ridiculous.
I shouldn't complain. Borrowing the money at 400% interest is better than losing the house, but it's still a shitty alternative. I don't know who to be pissed at -- the loan place, the government, my husband, myself? Why am I here?
I drive around for a while, unwilling to face the bleak reality at home. There's a dark cloud hanging over us; the stress hangs in the air like a thick fog. It has a crushing weight that brings us all down. So for now I drive around, prolonging the inevitable, being selfish.
I drive past a gas station where the attendant is changing the prices on the sign from $3.09 a gallon to $2.99 a gallon. What a big fucking difference that will make.
I am reminded of President Bush's urging that Americans conserve gas, that we not use any more than necessary. At the moment I asked, "Exactly what extra trips can I cut out? That frivolous drive to work?"
Filling up my gas tank is only part of the dilemma I'm facing. On the news tonight, there was speculation about the cost of natural gas and heating oil going up right before the coldest winter months. I fear what that might mean to my family and how we're going to make it through. I wonder what I'm going to have to sacrifice to keep the house warm this winter. I wonder how many other families like mine will be struggling.
We've had a hard year. My husband became a statistic, unemployed for more than six months. He's working again, firing staple guns all day in a factory now. He's grateful to have the job, although the initial shock of learning just how invaluable his college degree is in this economy was depressing. After holding out for months, looking only in his field, he sold his soul to the factory.
"There aren't many job opportunities for people with degrees in 'creative' fields," a staffing agent informed him.
"Why did I bust my ass all those years to get this degree?" my husband demanded to know.
I wanted to give him a real answer, to say anything to him other than "I know, it's not fair." I tried to sugarcoat the whole thing, tell him it will be good for him to be back out in the working world again. I didn't let him see how sad I am for him and how hard it is to watch him abandon his dreams, if only for the time being, to keep our family afloat.
We're both hard-working people. We pay our taxes. We pay our bills. We provide for our child. It doesn't seem fair that we have to make choices like, "Do we buy gas or milk today? Do we buy diapers or pay the phone bill?"
I remind myself I have to be thankful for what I have. I remind myself that my house is still mine, that it's not drowning in hurricane floodwaters. Regardless, it still sucks to be in this place.
I know in times like these I am a minority voice. Although the rising cost of gas and the sad state of the job market dictate my life right now, most middle class Americans find it an annoyance at best. One of my co-workers said it best when she said, "I don't get what the big deal is with people whining about the price of gas. They could raise gas to $10 a gallon and I'd still pay it. I mean, come on, we all have to go to work." Hearing that gave me a hint of what living beneath the poverty line must feel like, to feel helpless and be given absolutely no compassion.
I turn around and drive back toward home. I'm wasting gas. The president wouldn't approve.