In Taneytown, in the farthest northwestern reaches of Carroll County, there's a convenience store with a couple of gasoline pumps out front and a special deal on submarine sandwiches inside. From 4 p.m. until midnight, you can buy a 12-inch sub for $3.99. If you pace yourself properly, you can make the sandwich last across two days.
"What I do," says an old friend of mine, "is eat half of it for dinner, and the next day I have the other half. Cold cut, cheeseburger, whatever. I figure, I'm getting a couple of meals for about $2 each."
He moved to Taneytown about a month ago, for the same reason he's staggering his $2 meals over two days. Things are still rough along certain edges of American life, including his.
Last weekend, the president talked about the public assistance rolls dropping by a million people since August -- but they're about to go up by one. Unemployment's generally down -- but many of the newly created jobs offer modest wages. The stock market's been going gangbusters for months. But in Maryland, the U.S. bankruptcy courts are so clogged -- filings are running 38 percent ahead of last year's record-setting numbers; 13,340 cases had filed through May this year, and they're anticipating about 30,000 cases by the end of the year -- that they're asking for additional judges to handle the overload.
My friend's in the last group. A Baltimore native, he moved to Taneytown after getting downsized from several sales jobs, after going broke from long months of unemployment, after filing for bankruptcy, after losing his home as part of the deal.
He retains only his car, on whose payments he's now running two months late. It needs a brake job, but he hasn't got the money for it. He has a grown son, from a marriage that ended several years back after more than 25 years. The son lives in a small townhouse in Taneytown. My friend has moved in with his son.
"For a parent to have to move in with a child," my friend says, and then lets the sentence drift away.
He is 51 years old. He's worked for a living since he was 18. The jobs were never easy, years making the rounds in the wholesale liquor business, years more in the food brokerage business, where the daily driving took him to D.C. and Virginia and West Virginia. He came home at the end of the day and wrung himself out.
But five years ago, the food brokerage company was bought out by another firm. He was downsized. Then commenced a pattern that included reading the newspaper want ads, sending out resumes, telephoning prospective employers, while simultaneously filing for unemployment assistance, stalling creditors, beginning to pay his bills with credit cards because he had no other means of payment, hoping for an employment miracle, and finally the credit companies saying, game's over.
He had one job that lasted eight days, checking inventory at a series of stores. He drove about 200 miles each day. On the ninth day, his boss, apologetic, told him he'd been ordered to downsize by seniority. Another job, he worked 60 hours in the first four days. It paid about $10 an hour but ate up most of that in gas.
He has gone to employment agencies for help finding work and been told, "Frankly, they're not looking for 51-year-old men. You're what we call an Arthur Godfrey. They think your time has passed."
There are laws against age discrimination, but we're talking about the real world here. Years ago, my friend managed a fitness club. In Taneytown, he got a phone call from an old contact in the business: Would he be interested in managing a club? Of course he would.
But the club was on the far side of the Bay Bridge, which meant driving from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore. Each workday went from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Not including travel time. It was 93 miles each way. It might as well have been 93 million. The job paid $300 a week before taxes. This meant about $230 a week after deductions, minus gas money, and food, and other expenses. This, for a six-day week. It meant he was working for about $2 an hour. He gave it up after a week.
"It feels," he says, "like this is happening to somebody else. I've worked my whole life, I've hung in on jobs where I took a beating every day. I keep coming close to good jobs and just missing.
"Now I'm out here on the edge of Carroll County, and anywhere in the Baltimore area I look for a job, it's a long distance call. I want to visit old friends, it's half a tank of gas. Only it feels like I don't have any friends. I'm a ghost now.
"I've had nightmares of running down a street with a huge flood after me, and I land in strange neighborhoods where I've never been. I feel like I don't know anybody anywhere. Like I don't belong anywhere."
He's out there on the fringes of the American dream. He lived pieces of it for a time, but now it feels like a rumor. From out there in Taneytown, from the convenience store where he stretches $3.99 subs over two days, he's starting to believe it's not his dream anymore.
Pub Date: 7/08/97