Saturday, April 07, 2007

When You're 50 and Out of Work

When you're 50 or so and out of work it's a scary thing. It's not something you think will happen to you, and then, when it does, it's a very difficult thing to get out of.
When I was planning the move--though hastily, since it was for family reasons--from New York to Texas five years ago, I knew I'd be giving up my job as Senior Editor for High Times. But I thought I had a nice deal where I'd still be running the news on the web which was getting a lot of play then for HT. I had a great great stable of Drug War Journalists (Bill Weinberg, Steve Wishnia, Preston Peet, Silja Talvi, Chesley Hicks, Michael Simmons) producing material. So I thought I'd have that going while I reinvented myself as a freelancer. I also thought I'd be able to sell a column to some of the alternatives around the country--something called Drug War Follies--that would bring in regular money and could be written from anywhere. I even had an agent working at selling that for me. I figured those gigs would bring in a couple of thousand a month--enough to pay the mortgage and all bills anyway--so that I'd just have to come up with enough freelance work to buy food and keep my kids in clothes.
I didn't have much savings because that had all been spent on the downpayment on this beautiful $80 grand house and the actual move--a cross country drive in a U-Haul filled to the brim, accompanied by my son Italo and my friend Lynn--and the three thousand dollar pick up truck--a 1994 Ford Ranger, extended cab in bright blue-green--I bought when we got here.
I mean, there was no money for a riding mower so we just bought an electric pushs mower and did the acre and a half every couple of weeks that way. No money for a satellite tv thing so we settled for the two English and two Spanish channels we almost got with regular tv.
And we ate lots of roast chicken and rice or eggs and rice.
No big deal. I worked myself hard the first month, knowing I'd be selling that column and needing some pieces in the bank on that, so to speak. And I worked my fingers off on the High Times web.
Then I sent High Times the bill for the first month: $2200. They didn't respond. I called and was asked who had said I'd still be doing the web news work. I told them the new publisher had said to keep doing what I was doing and that meant the web. I was told that wasn't the case and that I should immediately stop doing what I was doing and "oh, by the way, we'll try to get you $700 on that first bill but forget anything more, okay? We're not paying."
That Stunk with a capital S.
I applied for unemployment and was turned down because I quit voluntarily.
Then the agent called: No interest in the column. Too depressing, even for the alternatives.
That stunk.
And then the story ideas I'd sent out to several magazine editors began coming back: "Not doing this type of story right now, Pete. Sorry." "That editor is no longer with us. Good luck." "Too expensive a concept."
And the jobs I did get weren't great or had bad endings. I sold a story to a men's mag and the editor got fired before it went to print. New editor was changing the format to exclude serious journalism. I sold a story to Parade Magazine about a Tree Swing in the Yard and that editor got fired. No pay.
Money was out. I borrowed from friends who didn't have it. I applied for straight jobs: the Walmart Distribution Center, the Alcon can factory, the Greenbay Packing Company, a sheetrock factory. Some days I applied to 10 places. None of them needed me. They needed men, they just didn't need 50-year-old guys from New York who were journalists and who were going to quit the moment they got a journalism gig.
So I began lying on the forms, claiming I'd been a factory worker my whole life. Barely finished high school.
No go. In those cases where I got to be interviewed, I lost the jobs when I didn't have the truck or heavy machinery licenses, or when they heard the New York accent and knew I hadn't really been working in sweatshops there.
I borrowed more money. I had the mortgage company starting to take the house six months after we moved in.
I caught a break and got a call from the National Inquirer to investigate a missing girl and was desperate enough to ask the editor to pay up front for a couple of weeks work: He had the money in my account in the morning and saved the house. I got three weeks work out of them at a grand a week, and then they paid me an extra grand by mistake and I was so broke I apologized to the heavens and kept the money. Stole it.
I sold my car's title to a loan company for two grand, knowing I'd have to pay back six grand on the loan by the time it was done.
I pawned my guitar and an old pocket watch from my grandpa for $95 bucks to buy food one weekend.
I went to work at the day labor center. Half the guys there--about 70 a day--were in the same boat as me: Factory or job shut down. Still raising kids. How to keep it all together. Some of the others were drunks or delelicts, a few were genuine hobos, some were running from child support and maybe 20 were illegal Mexicans. They always got the work. One guy explained it to me this way: "Man, if you're white or black, these guys figure you got a problem. You messed up or you're a fuck up. But the Mex kids, they're just hard working immigrants who are going to give the best damned work they got for the 5 bucks an hour they're paying."
In 31 days I got to water lawns three days at an apartment complex and earned a total of $161.50. But it put food on the table for a week.
My friend Lynn bailed me out the next time the bank started foreclosing.
And then a trip to Peru came together and I made a few bucks off that. And then the local alternative bought a cover story from me and then began assigning more. And then the tax-credit thing happened and suddenly when I did my taxes for 2003--where I earned 5 grand or something all told--the government gave me a check for 4 grand. I thought there was a mistake but they said no: that was like a one-time a year welfare check for poor people like me raising three kids on five grand a year.
And then Marc Emery at Cannabis Culture called and asked for a cover story, and then Skunk Magazine called and asked if I'd do a regular column for them. And then more trips to the Amazon with larger groups.
And this year, finally, with help from all the work and my guardian angels sending me little chunks of money from nowhere (an aunt we all loved died and left me several thousand; the government needs to widen the road in front of my house and paid a couple of grand for a sliver of my yard). And my little green truck with 270,000 miles still runs good. So suddenly, after four years, we got caught up and if I keep working hard and don't mess up or get cocky, maybe things will keep happening to keep paying the bills till the kids are all grown up.
What a feeling, though, when you can't pay them. Not for yourself. For the family. You feel like such a failure, so freaking impotent. Heck, if they don't even want you for day-fucking-labor crews holding 'slow' signs on the highway, what good are you?
And a friend of mine is now in the same boat. Microbiologist who has been working for a large midwestern city for all his life and two months ago his job disappears. At first he thought it was like a vacation: He had a few bucks saved; his house and car paid for, only one kid. But now it's two months and that money is getting gone fast. And his kid still needs to eat. And the government still wants their taxes on that house. He said he's been applying for factory and guard jobs. No luck. They can tell he's too educated to stay long. He told me yesterday he's begun lying on the resume, claiming he only finished high school. I know from experience that's not going to work for him either.
He's not a quitter and if he can hang on, someone is going to need his skills. But I don't envy him at the moment.
Being 50 and out of work is one scary time.


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

While I haven't found myself in the same boat it wouldn't take much to have me land in the same boat. I try to get ahead for this exact reason and I end up faced with things like needing a new roof and a foundation that is sinking.

50 and out of work, when you have a family as I do, sounds friggin' scary. I should spend less and save more.

joe said...

Currently the scary thing I'm dealing with is the slowly increasing groin pain that probably indicates a potential hernia issue- with no health insurance, which puts the salt on what I'll say next.
On the job issue, my fixit type advice -if you are mechanically inclined- is to put out the word to neighbors and network and supermarket bulletin bords that you are available for odd jobs. Start easy with painting and then later buy the do it yourself books at the box stores for more complicated things like tile work or fence building.
I remember stories from my grandparents about depression times when my draftsman grandad had to go out painting fences for friends to make ends meet. This story was presented as tough times for a white collar trained husband. Hey I've done blue collar -hands on- work for nearly forty years, 8 states, with job security.(people always need something doing that's dirty, boring, painstaking or dangerous) You gotta pay attention and not hurry too much to prevent injury but hey, I had enough surplus to fly last year. Also watch out for heavily regulated states that require licensing and bonding for advertising as a tradesman i.e carpenter, plumber etc. Could get you a fine. But man o man is there a huge black market still in these times of Hmlnd. Secur. for -around the house- work. And if you're reading this You speak the Lingua Franca of the land and can take instructions so as not to mow the petunias with the quackgrass. Build your tool library as you need it.

Peter Gorman said...

Good post. Among the details I spared you all was that my son Italo and I began taking out neighbor's trash in my pickup right after day labor, when things were still falling apart. We only had a couple of clients, but where we live you either pay a commercial disposal--$30-70 a month--or bring it to the dump yourself at $15 a pickup load. So we hit people for $20 and could do two loads in the little pickup if we piled it high enough and we'd make 20 a run a few times a week. That would have been a good business if we'd kept at it, I think, but things picked up for me and so we didn't pursue it. But your advise is right on, Joe: ask the neighbors for work.
Thanks. Gorman

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
joe said...


joe said...

First, check out this writer and what he has to say on the working class.

Boy this comment thing is buggy. Last time it let me get in and then edit but not now. Also pete, you might exercise some moderating on that spam you're getting here.

Peter Gorman said...

I looked over your site. Good work. I'll be going back for another dose soon.