The second most important paycheck in my life was the one my husband brought home two weeks after we had moved to Memphis. Seven and a half months after we had lost our home and almost everything in it, we looked at the check and acted like children.
Drunk of joy, ecstatic that we finally had earned money again -at least one of us. $865 for two weeks of labor. It wasn’t a complete check, Monday and Tuesday of the first week were missing, and it wasn’t even close to our old income, but it felt like a million bucks.
Together, we drove to the next bank and cashed the check. “Do you want to open an account with us?” the bank teller asked us. My husband shook his head. We wouldn’t have a bank account for many years. With credit as bad as ours, you are no longer deserving to become a bank customer -we found that out quickly. Back at home, we divided the money carefully.
$450 went back in the envelope the banker had given us, we set it aside for rent. $100 was put aside for gas, dog food, cigarettes, beer, and wine. I can almost hear the readers wonder why we both didn’t stop smoking back then when we needed the money so badly? There is no logical explanation, I wonder about it myself. I think you have to be ready to quit, and you have to want it. We weren’t ready!
We estimated we would need $150 for groceries to fill up the fridge and freezer for the next two weeks until there would be another check. I needed more minutes on my phone, we declared $50 EXTRA SPENDING MONEY for things we needed. Trash bags and a rake, so I could finish cleaning our back yard and offer neighbors to pick up their old leaves as well. Our neighborhood was full of old oak trees. Surely I could make some money.
It left us with about $100 extra and so we went garage selling the next morning. I had made a list with the ones that sounded interesting on Craigslist and the next day we got up early and left the house at 6:30 am. We stopped at McDonald’s, splurged on breakfast, enjoyed each a sausage biscuit, a two-for-two deal, with free strawberry jam.
We found small items for the kitchen, things we would need later on. Mixing bowls, an electric mixer for $3 which I still have -and use- to this day. A soap dish, kitchen towels, a goofy dog bowl we didn’t need at all, a blanket, and a throw pillow. We spent $15.
Then, after a couple of hours on our way back home, we stopped at an estate sale near our house. It was a nice home, someone had lived in it for years and had taken good care of the place. The house was full of treasures. We so often call them vintage these days, which means it’s outdated a bit by color and style, yet still valuable for so many.
Someone had passed away recently or had moved to an assisted living home. I learned a lot about the value of things during the time when we didn’t have much. Estate sales and garage sales are held by family members, who don’t need -or want- what the elder left behind. They all mean so well. The old painting that a couple once bought on their honeymoon, now sixty years later, quite often doesn’t fit in today’s style. And it’s understandable, most of the time children are grown and already have their own families and their own furniture and belongings, and when their parents pass on, they don’t need anything. Most of them keep a few souvenirs and trinkets which will remind them of special events.
The valuable things people possess are given away in the last will, or during a phase of downsizing, the rest, what isn’t sold at a garage sale, ends up in resale shops and eventually homes like ours.
How I missed some of the things I had left behind when we got homeless. To this day I wonder what happened to my crystal butter dish and other things I so adored. They weren’t important or made our life easier, yet so many items had made life more beautiful and meaningful.
“Mom wanted me to have this,” a lady explained when I picked up an older teapot. I didn’t dare ask why it was for sale and fairly priced as well. It wasn’t my place, nor the time. I was a buyer who quickly learned to negotiate the prices everywhere we went.
I saw so many beautiful things I would have loved to have, but I didn’t give in. We just marched through the house, both searching for the one bargain we couldn’t resist.
Back at home, we hit $80 under our dining plates. We had six more weeks until we couldn’t drive our truck anymore, and we wanted to get the rest of my husband’s belongings out of his brother’s house before, now he lived only six hours away.
Shopping at Aldi became our bi-weekly highlight. I was so out of my element and yet so much felt so familiar. Every other week, for one hour I became my grandma, who had been feared by butchers and bakers in every village close to our farm. My grandma was a wonderful woman but also the worst customer a shop owner could wish for. She wanted the best, and she wanted it cheap. She complained about meat cuts and send me back to the same butcher five times until the poor guys finally gave in and let me have the more expensive cut for the price she wanted to pay. The shop owners didn’t know my name, but they knew I was Marie’s grandchild.
Her training paid off, now I became the pest in every store in a 5-mile radius around our new home. “What you mean you don’t have this on sale anymore?” and I waved the flyer in their faces and read the dates to them. I got rainchecks in every store that couldn’t fulfill the sale they had promised, and I became an expert on double coupons. I clipped coupons like our life depended on it, because it did. I also noticed my husband quickly disappeared to pick up something -somewhere in the store- each and every time I started negotiating.
We valued what we had, felt good about ourselves at home, but the world outside didn’t look at us the same way. Inside our home, we treasured each other, outside we got declared NOT VALUABLE.
Once considered valued customers everywhere we went, we now couldn’t get the utility bill transferred in our name.
“You have to make a deposit,” the lady on the phone informed me, and when I asked her why and how much, she told me the truth.
We had filled out the questionnaire and of course, we had written down the name of our old utility provider, who then notified the company in Memphis that we had an open bill with them. The circumstances don’t matter, when you are down and out of luck, you get judged by numbers. When the credit is shot, you are looked at as a risk and no matter how unfair it might be, there is no incident-forgiveness. One slip-up brand marked us as troublemakers, low-lives who don’t pay their bills. It didn’t matter that we had paid all our bills on time over 20 years, all that mattered now was that we had defaulted on some of our bills recently.
The utility company asked for a $400 deposit which we didn’t have. The same answer came from various TV companies. All the advertisements and the special rates they bombard us with were only available to valued customers, the small-print makes sure of it. WE were mentioned in the small print. This offer does not apply to all consumers! They wanted a $300 deposit. All together we had to come up with $700 we didn’t have. $700 dollars we would lose for one year, that’s the time they gave us until we would get the money back -considering we paid all our bills on time. When I asked if they would give us our money back with interest they thought it was meant to be funny.
No matter what they proposed in their advertisements. The internet, phone, TV only or bundles, we could not apply for any of it. We needed to pay a deposit and afterward our rates were higher still higher because of it.
I said it before, and I say it again. When you are down, they will kick you and they will not stop until you lay motionless facedown in the dirt.
Life is not fair and I don’t expect it to be fair, but I didn’t know how cruel it can be until I lived it.
But there was as good news as well. My phone rang. A young man had read my ad, and he asked if I could sew, which I can, but didn’t offer. Sewing is part of the furniture restoration process when fabric is involved, but that’s about it. “Can you make two twin bed covers out of a kingsize bedspread he asked? Could I? I had no idea. He came by and I decided to tackle the project, which was a bit of a problem because I didn’t have a cutting table.
I put the dogs outside, swept and mopped the old wood floor in the living room three times until I was certain there was not a kernel of dust or hair anywhere. I cut and pinned sitting on the floor, sewed and hemmed with decorative stitching on our small fold-out table.
I charged him $80. Another gentleman had read my Craigslist ad, he wanted me to fix and reupholster an old family heirloom, a wingback chair, and a matching stool. I didn’t know what to quote, didn’t even know if I had all the supplies I needed, but I told him to come by. After all, I had $80 extra in case the project required more supplies.
I asked for $175, and he accepted without hesitation. (How could he not.) I knew I would work at least one week on it, I was aware that I could have asked for much more, but I wanted the job. We needed the money and I had to get a reputation in a city where I knew nobody -and nobody knew me.
Quickly, another week passed by, a week which I in retrospect would like to name “Ham-week” because that’s all we ate. Ham from morning to evening. The lady at Aldi hadn’t been lying to me. We bought two Easter hams marked down for $5 each and we ate so much ham, we both to this day don’t have a taste for it anymore.
Biscuits with ham and cheese in the morning, or scrambled eggs with ham, a ham-sandwich with a fried egg for lunch. Ham salad, ham steaks, ham-noodles, noodle salad with ham, country potatoes with ham, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, chef salad, ham quiche, bean soup with ham, split pea, and ham soup. We were both ham-ed out quickly but it kept our bellies full and it saved us an l lot of money for about four weeks.
Six weeks after Easter, there were still some hams left and when I looked at them, my husband shook his head. I had mercy with him.
I talked with my best friend at least three times a week in the evening when Kurt was out to have a drink with neighbors or other people she didn’t know. Our conversation now solely was about her and her relationship with Kurt. I only gave her a short update on our living situation at the beginning of each call, but often felt that she didn’t care too much about it, or perhaps I couldn’t show my joy on the phone as much as I did in real life.
My friend’s mood was all over the place. She enjoyed the intimacy and the fact that she had a ring on her finger, but she wasn’t too pleased with Kurt anymore.
“He expects me to cook dinner every night,” she complained, and I chuckled. Her first husband had cooked a lot, so she had never felt the pressure of cooking a quick meal every night after work. When we lived with her, I had been the cook, had done the cleaning, after our departure, everything had fallen back to her.
Which, let’s be honest, is no big deal. Millions of women do the same thing every night. We worry about what we feed our loved ones, we stand in the kitchen when we would rather kick our feet up, and we clean the mess we made afterward, to do the same thing all over the next day.
Her frustration humored me, her disinterest in everything that was going on in our life disappointed me a little bit.
I told her about Susan and Ron. Listed all that they had gotten for us, shared with her the happiness I had felt when I could hand the young man his two twin bedcovers. I didn’t mention my ongoing health issues, didn’t share the bad news about the deposits either.
The relationship between my best friend and Kurt was a messy one. They fought a lot, drank more than they should have, they made up and battled more the next day.
The Cajun Sausage Kitchen was closed. Kurt, with nothing to do and no transportation, sat at home all day l long until my friend came home early in the afternoon. One side of me hoped they would work it out, the other wished for a painless ending.
I hated to see her unhappy and often wondered about it. My friend who had everything was so miserable, we, who had almost nothing, were happy.