The Descent into Poverty

SHARI BESHORE

April 01, 1992|By SHARI BESHORE

Like most people, he never dreamed it would happen to him. But failure to anticipate the problem has not kept him from suffering its effects.

John and his son, Mark, lived with Grandma. John had been at Westinghouse for 13 years when he opted to be laid off rather than take a lower-paying position. ''I have a year's salary coming from my union benefits,'' he reasoned. He spent a year on ''vacation;'' time flew.

When his union benefits ran out, he casually began to look for a job. After earning $18 an hour, he didn't expect to work for less. The next few months were a rude awakening -- applicants swamped personnel offices, many employment services charged interview fees, people more qualified than he sought work. With his savings depleted John was unable to find work.

Grandma died. The family, knowing he couldn't afford to move, let him remain in her house. Other embarrassments occurred. Arriving home one afternoon, he found a cable-TV man cutting the wire. A neighbor was watching, so John mumbled, ''We don't need cable while Mark has schoolwork to concentrate on.''

Next, his phone was ''temporarily disconnected.'' Although the neighbor didn't see this, he would occasionally be called by John's family to relay messages.

Then John was late with another car payment. Ford Motor Credit, unable to contact him by phone, made the first of what became monthly calls to his family. Living in a house owned by Mom, who paid his electric and heating bills, was difficult. He was obligated to listen to her unsolicited advice on what he ''ought to be doing.''

A string of low-paying jobs ensued. There was assembly-line work at Noxell for $4.75 an hour. John spent each day putting cosmetics into packages and setting them on a moving belt to be carried into a shrink wrapper. The fumes of Cover Girl foundations and plastic shrink wrappers burned his eyes.

An ad for cable-TV installers in the city caught his eye. The idea of working outside seemed better than Noxell's tedium and fumes. The cable company hired independent contractors; there were no benefits, but plenty of openings. The company preyed upon people in dire need of work. John had to buy tools and a heavy fiberglass ladder for $500, which was deducted in increments from weekly checks that averaged $160.

John spent the summer lugging his ladder past gun-toting drug dealers and crack smokers in Baltimore's Murphy's Homes Projects. He was threatened daily: ''Whaa yo' think yo' doin' here?'' ''Get da hell outta here, this be my elevator.'' ''Get outta my alley, 'fore I cap you off.'' By summer's end, he decided that the risks weren't worth the low pay and long hours, from 7 each morning until 9 many nights. He quit, losing money.

Mark, who had moved in with grandparents, returned. John found work conducting phone surveys for Consumer Pulse from 5 to 9 p.m., earning $5 an hour. the job was safe and easy; but he couldn't survive on $100 a week and didn't like leaving Mark alone each night after school.

Then John ''got lucky'' and found a part-time day job at a local recycling center. Making $4.25 an hour, he works beside an ever-changing crew of ''volunteers'' who have been ordered by the court to perform community service for doing drugs or drunk driving. Many of the volunteers use the street talk he was around all summer. He works outside, sorting bottles, cans and papers, and driving a fork-lift, no matter what the weather. He keeps track of how much gas is in his car to be sure to get to work each day until the next payday. He earns barely enough to buy gas and food and is often forced to choose between the two.

John struggles to maintain a normal life for himself and Mark, but their food, clothes and medical care are inadequate. Mark has always bought lunch at school and is now eligible for free lunches, but John won't apply. He gives Mark $1.45 for a hot lunch every day. Often the only groceries in the house are peanut butter, bread and milk.

He feeds Mark and starves himself, fasting for two or three days on coffee and sugar, then dropping in to visit relatives at dinner time. Worn clothes hang on his frame; he belts baggy work jeans with a cord. When he fell recently and tore both knees out of his last good pair of jeans he joked that ''now I'm right in style.'' His family sends used clothes for Mark, as there was no trip to the mall before school started. They both catch whatever illness is going around, and there is no money for medicine, let alone for a trip to the doctor.

John's car, though needed, is his albatross: running ''on fumes,'' recharging the dying battery, making temporary repairs, refilling bald tires, struggling to pay insurance and borrowing money to keep it from being repossessed drain his wallet and emotions.

John's self-respect and privacy are lost. He finds a bag with canned goods and a few dollars for gas on the porch once a month. Without quarters for a pay phone he makes calls from his sister's phone, where she can hear him begging creditors for another week to come up with the money. And like so many others in America today, his story is not yet over. . . .

Shari Beshore writes from Kingsville.

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