When I learned to scrape by

Hungry, jobless and pinching pennies to print resumes, I started to lose hope of ever finding a job

Topics: F**ked, Pinched, Life stories, Great Recession,

When I learned to scrape byThe author outside a gas station
A longer version of this piece originally appeared on Tiffany Brubeck's Open Salon blog. Do you have a story about being unemployed during the Great Recession? Blog about it on Open Salon -- and we might publish it on Salon.

Three dollars in the gas tank, 49-cent burrito, a paper cup of water from the bathroom sink; I sit on the curb, eating my breakfast and listening to Javier sing. Every so often a car pulls up; Javier dips his brush in a bucket of suds and then scrubs gluey insects off the windshield before directing the driver’s tires onto the tracks of the auto-wash.

“You should try out for one of those singing shows,” I tell him, swaying to his melodic crooning.

Without looking up, Javier shakes his head, and snorts, “Who’d vote for an ol’ man, eh?” He yanks a hand-towel from his back pocket and coughs hard into it. His somber brown eyes meet mine for a moment.

“Fix your car, yet?” He asks brusquely, clearing his graveled throat.

“Nuh-uh,” I tell him, scraping the last shrivels of burrito cheese from the wrapper’s foil crevices. “It’s making a stinky smell, now.”

“Aye, chica, it’s leaking coolant. You can’t keep driving on a blown head gasket.”

“Fix the car or pay rent,” I shrug. “I like my car, but I don’t wanna sleep in it.” I wad up the foil, and stand. “It’s almost 8. Catch ya later.”

“Good luck today, mija,” Javier calls after me. “I’ll put water in ‘er while you’re gone.”

My hair slaps my face as I walk two miles east towards the library. The wind is freezing, but at least the burrito has dulled the empty, dizzy feeling. I think about Javier, his cough. He’s worked at the gas station for 15 years. Last month the company decided to cut his hours. Working part-time means he’s no longer eligible for benefits. I lower my head to pull my hoodie up over my hair when I spot a nickel sparkling in the street. I stoop down and fish it from the gutter slime. There’d been a time when I would’ve scoffed at the thought of weighted coins scraping against the bottom of my designer purse. But on this day, nine more nickels will score me another burrito.

They did this. Greed did this. I did this.

When I arrive at the library, there’s already a small crowd waiting for the doors to open: schoolkids with backpacks and cellphones; homeless with shopping carts; and others like me who are searching for work. When they let us all inside, I make copies of my résumé (5 cents each), check my email inbox (empty) and scour the Internet for job postings that look legitimate. On my way out, I sign up for another promising job fair (my third in four weeks). I borrow a pen from Kristen, a pretty blonde; she confesses she’s a medical biller who can’t find work because of a 6-year-old alcohol related charge. On the walk back to the service station, the wind tears against my cheeks and lips, and turns dog-eared corners on my freshly copied résumé pages. I cross the street, walking pass the consignment store where I sold my designer purse for money to buy groceries. “2nd chance for your stuff,” reads the sign above the door. I think about Kristen from the library, about a world where shoes and sunglasses get second chances but human beings don’t.

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I’m the face of the recession.

In the gas station bathroom, I change into my suit, transform my hair and makeup, and try to look as professional and confident as possible. Today will be different, I promise my reflection. I climb into my hatchback and pull onto the street. Obsessively checking the car’s thermometer, hoping the water Javier put in will help me get to the other side of town without overheating, I pass through the most expensive neighborhoods in my city. The beautiful homes are all breathtaking, but there’s always one that catches your eye, makes you believe it was crafted just for you. Mine is a two-story Victorian, ivy snaking over granite exterior. I love making up stories about a family living there. I imagine what it would be like to brush my teeth in the gilded sink or to slide on my belly down the massive staircase. But I’ve learned to separate reality from fiction: Whoever lives in that home might not be any luckier, happier or less stressed out than I am. Still, as I sit, stomach growling, in my broken car, it’s hard to imagine that they couldn’t afford another burrito.

The news said it was the country, the world. Sometimes it felt like just me.  

I park the car and walk for miles submitting my information to stores, offices, restaurants — anybody who’ll take it. I spend all day saturating the area. It goes like this:

“Can I fill out an application?” I ask.

“Don’t have any more,” the employee answers. “Apply online or leave a résumé.”

I’ve already applied online. Still, I pass my stats sheet to the employee, hoping the personal effort will earn me points. It gets tossed below a counter without a glance. I just wasted my nickel, I think on my way out.

The sun is setting, I’ve put water in the car three times, eaten only the small burrito this morning, and have blisters burning my feet. But at least it’s supper time. The diner is packed with people. Stephanie spies me from behind the counter. She dashes over and nervously whispers in my ear that her district manager is in the kitchen. I apologize and make for the door. Biting her fingernails and glancing over her shoulder, she tells me to wait in the parking lot, she’ll be out in five minutes. I walk back to the car, pop open the trunk, and pull out the bag with the spoon and Styrofoam cup. Minutes later Stephanie saunters across the parking lot carrying two steaming cups.

“Thanks, Steph,” I say.

“Aww … Girl, don’t even sweat it,” she says, “Makin’ a fresh pot, they throwing that out anyhow. You know I got you.”

“You’re my angel,” I tell her taking a sip of the coffee. Eagerly I rip the paper lid off my styro-cup, and pour hot water over the dry noodles inside. She looks away blushing; I realize, too late, that I’ve done something to make her uncomfortable.

“Want some?” I offer, eager to break the tension. She shakes her head no. I lean on the car slurping my soup and sipping coffee while Steph lights a smoke. We talk about our hopes for the future.

“Not like it used to be,” exhales Stephanie. “When our parents was coming up, you stayed loyal, worked hard — you kept moving higher. But nowadays, people working places 10, maybe 20 years, then corporate goes and hires some kid with a fresh degree on his wall to manage a whole district, when he ain’t even got experience in the field.”

I nod showing Stephanie I’m listening even though juicy noodles are dangling from my lips. After a few minutes, she snuffs her cigarette. “Better get back in there,” she sighs. “Need anything else?”

I assure her I’m good, thank her again for the coffee, water and company. As I watch my friend hurry back towards the restaurant, I know her life will be OK. But, I wonder how much truth is in what she believes. Are hard work and loyalty really not enough to make it anymore? She must be wrong, I tell myself. This is America.

As the weeks turn into months, I slowly begin to lose hope in finding another job. I give in to recession depression and stop searching so eagerly. I’ve applied everywhere and there’s nothing left to do but wait for a road out.

A few months later I’ll find one, and take off on it. But I still thank God every night for my dear friends. I try to convince myself tomorrow will be better for all of us. That life is fair and good souls eventually win. I pray for the hardhearted among us, those who lack compassion, those who feel the downtrodden earn their fates, that everybody gets exactly what they deserve – for their sake I hope that’s not true.

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