It all started out so here-we-go-again.
My Florida unemployment compensation was cut by one third, the state gummed up my request for food stamps, my landlady in Tallahassee was about to have her double-wide (my residence, too) repossessed (!!) — and even with her offer to have me hang in there rent-free for the month of April, 2007 (…living exactly where, Dorothy?), I was still unable to remain in that domicile. There were too many personal fires to put out.
I knew I had to move – to “elsewhere.” Had to.
Keep in mind, credit was out of the question in my case. I had none.
(For those of you who face but marginal troubles paying your monthly bills, the following story I’m about to relate is almost sure to strike you as some kind of fable. Alas, all of what follows is true. “Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent,” as the Dragnet TV series’ announcer once used to recite.)
* * * * *
There was one bottom-line financial determinant forcing such a dramatic move on my part:
After receiving my auto title from the State of Texas, where I lived in 2004-2005, I was all ready to march down to Tallahassee’s Florida DMV in late March and get my temporary Florida tag (at that time, still taped inside the driver’s side rear window of my 2000 Plymouth Neon, per requirements) replaced with permanent plates, title and registration, to go along with my three-weeks-old driver’s license.
What could it cost? Forty dollars? Sixty dollars? Either would work. I figured I was ready, even if it were for a rip-off payment of the latter. The actual charge: $180.
That was down from the $430 fee the DNV people at the counter first quoted me.
My every-two-weeks’ Florida unemployment compensation checks totaled $278, while my latest application for food stamps got lost in administrative boondoggle. Regardless – the question that remained was, could I still make it (allowing the powers-that-be in Tallahassee were to permit Dorothy to remain in her trailer)?
No. Here’s the math: $180 for plates, title and registration; $48 for my cell phone monthly charge; $10 in monthly AOL fees (I’m a customer of long standing), and $31 in auto insurance (I’m a really really “safe driver”) — which totals $269 … and had that been it, I might have opted to hang in (like I’d really had a choice) … had Dorothy’s trailer done so. My bounty left after expenses: $278 – $269 = $9. And I might have found some way to make that nine bucks really stretch, had I stayed.
When you have no choice, that’s what you do.
But that wasn’t the extent of my bills. The State of Florida, you see, overpaid me $363 in unemployment compensation back in February — not only their fault, but I pointed out the error to them just as my case went to an adjudicator almost a full month after my initial application. One week later, then, I discovered the first-ever of my once-every-two-weeks payments arrived at their original incorrect high rate – so, what the hell, I ran with it.
(I did all I could do, I’d figured — and I simply couldn’t afford to ride out another month waiting for the State of Florida to pay me … less. To say I couldn’t get arrested employment-wise in Tallahassee, by the way, was utter understatement. I’m 60, single, with a track record that moved me from one hopeful final landing place to another over the years. The reasons I always moved? I couldn’t afford to stay where I was — ever. I was always on the edge of slipping through the cracks due to often severely low salaried jobs. A combination of “loans” and moves kept providing me with new chances that never managed to materialize. I have plenty to say about that philosophically/metaphysically, I might add, only right here, right now, is hardly the time. Survival is, and was then, the top priority at hand.)
Oh, and this: some of you may be puzzled by my circumstances, given I’m well published in several places, with lots of essays on the Internet. Well, here’s how that works: I got paid for my first published online article in February, 2006 — and not one penny after that. That piece, “Mr. Glass Half Empty Pitches a Snit,” recounted my harrowing move from Texas to Florida — and when I found one site that both accepted the article and agreed to pay me for it, I was temporarily delighted. Temporarily, because I discovered my “payment” was for $3 (!) — and I even had to jump through PayPal hoops to bloody well receive that.
Since that time, I decided to just get published first, and worry about turning my avocation into a vocation at some undetermined later date. So, I wrote, and I got published, and my writing drew some intriguing interest … only I never got paid.
* * * * *
In any case, in March, I got a note saying the State of Florida overpaid me $363, and it not only was going to cut my unemployment compensation checks by one-third (about time!), but it wanted me to pay them the money back … right away. You needn’t stretch yourselves really far to imagine my reaction. Yeh — I yelped.
As a qualified receiver of unemployment benefits (I was fired from a year-long part-time job in January), I was now being forced to pay Florida unemployment compensation by sending them a check in the mail, while I remained destitute… Honestly: what’s wrong with this picture?
So yet another state agency, this one based in Tallahassee and tasked with determining how (and when) to collect unemployment compensation overpayments, agreed it wasn’t fair or appropriate to take all but a small fraction of the next month’s worth of unemployment checks from me ($278 + $278 – $363). Now, they still wanted the money back right away — only I could pay them in installments, they decided, beginning with a once-monthly $50 check, paid by me, to them, just after the turn of the month — in this instance, due this early April … which at this sitting is the end of the same month that I’m writing this essay.
My efforts to remain “light on my feet” then came into play, full-bore. For with my having to pay Florida $50 back for their overpayment (double) error, my total fees due in early April came to $319 – or $41 more than I would receive by way of my about-to-be-called-in two weeks’ worth of unemployment benefits on March 27.
It was official: I was facing homelessness (in my cramped little Plymouth Neon). There was no way I could wait around to see what would or wouldn’t become of Dorothy’s trailer, either, you have to realize: for if she lost it, we were both out of a residence — and in Tallahassee, as with so many small cities just like it across America, once you slip through the cracks, you don’t bob back up for air.
You don’t. Dorothy, at least, had a well-paying job. Me — I didn’t have squat.
* * * * *
An online acquaintance, with whom I’d been exchanging emails, offered a highly limited alternative — still, an alternative, it was. There was even the offer of an apparent $8/hour job awaiting me there if I opted to move to the location he suggested: a small desert border town in way-southwestern New Mexico called Columbus.
There was no promise of housing there, although I could live out of my car on this individual’s property if I had to. So, I decided with a probable job working its way into his offer, this was a gamble worth taking. In any case, there were no other offers on the table. It was either falling through the cracks in Tallahassee — or the chance of pulling my life back together somehow in the high plains … in a location that appeared on my map to be halfway between El Paso, Texas and the way-southeastern Arizona border, as the buzzards fly. And this acquaintance’s mother already had a rented house just outside of Columbus, as it turned out — so if I moved there, I might have a place to stay overnight a night or two after my arrival. (Which, in fact, is exactly what happened — although the job evaporated.)
Still — can’t beat that.
It was not as tough a call as it might have seemed. I had never been homeless, in my life — and now in my advancing years, I wasn’t prepared to begin.
It was then I realized I was less than a week away from moving to New Mexico.
* * * * *
The new math and game plan went like this: on Tuesday, March 27, I called in my two weeks’ worth of unemployment hours, as I would have done regardless. I knew that on Thursday, March 29, that $278 would be direct-deposited into my Tallahassee checking account. And I also keenly knew the clock was ticking on my temporary Florida tags, which officially ceased to be legal on midnight of the last day in March: Saturday, the 31st. Having lived in Texas, too, I knew I might have my car confiscated had I driven through that state and been pulled over with expired tags (and maybe expired auto insurance, as well). I needed to leave – and right away, just in order to make it to the relative rural safety of New Mexico while I still had a legally operating vehicle.
Never mind ever paying $180 for new tags, title and registration in my home state: Florida was officially chasing me away. As for my cell phone, I hoped I might be able to talk my provider into allowing me to pay for two months a month late. But as for making payments either to the State of Florida ($50) or my Florida insurer ($31) — well, the latter could be (at the very least) “late” — and the former could, you know, throw mud at my Neon’s taillights as I made my escape.
So, shortly after 9 a.m. on Thursday morning, March 29, I emptied “all” of my money from my checking account except for the $10 for AOL (which would be an automatic deduction — and I had to maintain my personal email address). I then headed off on I-10, in the way-westbound lanes. I had two plus days on the road before I’d have to face my having an expired (never mind temporary paper) tag.
By midnight Saturday, I hoped to arrive safely in Columbus, New Mexico.
* * * * *
As things happened, I realized during the trip (on day two) that I only had enough money (what with the stupendous 32-cent/gallon increases in the cost of gasoline the further west I drove) to spend but one night at a motel while out on the road.
So on day two, I left Orange, Texas, and drove straight through to Columbus — 960 miles. (Tallahassee to Orange was 600 miles, so the entire trip was 1,560.)
I was guided into Columbus out of El Paso — it had turned dark only about a half hour earlier — on New Mexico Highway 11, by an individual at my acquaintance’s mother’s house. I didn’t know these people, and they didn’t know me — but here they were, guiding me in.
Westbound Highway 11 isn’t marked by a road number (I think it’s an illegal immigrant thing, even now as I write this, as that road parallels the Mexican border three miles to the north the entire 65 mile trip from El Paso to Columbus, which has U.S. Border Patrol stations at either end. Were one to find one’s self on that road, and one had sneaked across the American border from Mexico, he wasn’t about to have the U.S. government provide him with reference points).
So, it was really dark, and I was really tired – never mind really 60 years of age.
* * * * *
It’s now almost a full month later as I publish this essay (in various online locales, for no payment whatsoever). Here are just a smattering of details I’ll share with you before closing out this “diary:”
I arrived with only $40 cash, and that sailed away pretty quickly. I misplaced my car keys, and had to have a new set made for, like, $38 (I was let off the hook for some $10 because I didn’t have it to pay). Ten days later I found the original set.
I have New Mexico tags on my car, and I’ve now got my own very nice and large studio apartment just within the Columbus city limits. I’ve also had my new New Mexico registration and vehicle title, along with my never-used U.S. passport either lost, or stolen (now increasingly becoming more evident it was the latter).
I only spent one night sleeping in my car (again, a first-ever difficult event for me, but not nearly as terrifying or heartbreaking as I expected it to be, even though I managed only three hours of sleep). I spent three days living (and eating) at a Christian fellowship in Deming, NM, the only sizable community near Columbus, 35 miles to the north, which sits isolated all by itself along I-10. I told those folks I wasn’t Christian, but they let me sleep there, and eat there, anyway.
I tried to find work in Deming all three days. I failed – so I returned to Columbus.
Ever heard the snide remark how there’s no such thing as a “free lunch” in America? Well, if you’re over 60 (I just made it), there is one in Columbus, a great weekday meal made by a former restaurant owner in Chicago — by way of financing through the Salvation Army … who, if you didn’t already know, happen to be Christians. (And there’s also one at the Seniors Center in Deming, as well.)
I left Florida (and even Texas, as far as that goes) detesting Christian churches. But here in New Mexico, Christians actually embrace their fellow human beings for the most part — and that’s induced me into joining a local church, whose minister’s (and congregation’s) beliefs are very often incompatible with my own. Still, it’s no big deal for me so far — here, in my new existence, in this new town, in a new world, on a new desert-landscaped planet — because I decided it was time for me to reach across the isle — in this instance, literally. We’ll see how that goes. But I’m not preaching to anyone. And if they preach to me, that’s okay.
One thing I’ve come to learn, of late: he who has friends, does not go homeless.
That should be some kind of Commandment … or, say, something equanimitically Biblical.
So, it’s time to establish new friendships. It’s time to plant real roots. And it’s time to take back my life — however that new life opts to dress and manicure itself.
Now, the winds have been gusting up to 50 mph the last few days. I ridded my first temporary residence here (in an old RV) of dead mice and mouse droppings, and I’ve bumped off occasional cockroaches – just a few, so far — in my nifty new digs.
Nifty, even by Tallahassee standards, yes — its cockroaches notwithstanding.
There are free movies every Sunday in the state-of-the-art Columbus Library, two of which were recent Academy Award winners, “The Departed,” and a charmingly silly and tender, “Little Miss Sunshine.” You feel like you’re in an actual theater, too, except you’re surrounded by new computers while sitting in desk chairs with your feet propped up.
Wednesday night is spaghetti dinner night at a local restaurant, whose owners break out their instruments and sing shortly thereafter, on their open mic stage.
Three miles away is a 24/seven Border Patrol facility, which separates Columbus from its Mexican counterpart, Palomas. Parking near there, one can simply walk across the border and eat at a bona fide Mexican restaurant (replete with live mariachi music), or have really good dental work done down the block or across the street — no small benefit, given the cost of dentistry now here in the U.S.
* * * * *
As for my essay writing, I expect to initiate a new turn. My world view is unlikely to be altered at this stage of the game (and I only recently discovered it’s held its own over the last 15 years or so … and quite well, thank you very much) — but the tone, and even the focus of that writing is going to be altered appreciably. I can just feel it inside of me. There will be changes.
My favorite pop band from my young adulthood was The Association, a group that penned the title song (and a couple of others) for a Richard Benjamin-Ali MacGraw movie entitled, “Goodbye, Columbus” (set at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio). Its refrain began, “Hello, life, goodbye, Columbus,” and so on.
Here I find myself reversing those lyrics — as sub-headed, above.
Funny thing is, the rest of the song (all about establishing a new life, with hope and optimism) pretty well reflects much of what one discovers here in Columbus, NM.
Oh, yes — some folks appear to have moved here to at least figuratively die. And perhaps that’s a story for another time (or not). Certainly, folks didn’t move here to watch much TV or talk on the phone — way less than half the population have access to either.
(It’s also Mountain Time, and who knows what comes on TV there, in any event.)
Yet, despite this being a very unforgiving environment at times, even year-round, I find myself “awakening” and, maybe more importantly, oh-so-slowly recovering.
That, after what has only been a month. And maybe I’ll have misinterpreted all of this initial freewheeling, and discover that I, too, came here to die, as well.
You never know. It could happen.
Only I’d bet the farm (ranch, rather, as its called here) that that result won’t occur.
Not anytime soon.
Time will tell.
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