Stepping into the Crack (Debbie’s Story Continued)
It’s easy to read Debbie’s story and a) doubt its truth by suspecting she is lying or exaggerating; b) chalk it up to ignorance and stupidity. (Sadly, there are a lot of people out there who even after being told what to do and how to help themselves choose self-sabotage instead); c) write her off as hopeless, a victim of a series of ill-informed, bad decisions which have snowballed one after the next; d) give quick-fix advice, hoping your kernel of wisdom will be the magic pill to solve all her ills; and/or e) walk away.
I know because I at least temporarily did all of these things. None of those scenarios about Debbie are true, nor were any of the actions enough to help. The reality is, the more you know about Debbie, the harder it is to rationalize her problems away.
As Debbie’s story continued to unfold, I both verified it and secured her agreement to share it. During this process, I was often impressed and ashamed. Impressed by her ability to persist when I have often given up over far, far less; ashamed by how visibly and courageously a woman of humble means had lived her convictions while I, of considerably more resources, had usually hidden behind mine.
To understand my reaction it helps to know more about Debbie. I invite you to step further into the crack with me that is currently her life, as told in her own words:
“I know it’s hard to believe so many things. I twice gave to the (Obama) campaign myself back before my husband was laid off in January. When my husband was working, we were not upper middle class nor was we middle class according to movement standards. I guess one would say we were at the edge of lower middle class—borderline poverty—because between my husband and I we earned around $45,000 a year. But it paid our bills and enabled us to at least have a taste of the American dream, and we sure didn’t have to worry about the basic human needs being cut off.
I remember last November I was at the store and a lady walked up to me all dirty and homeless. She had cards in a bundle that she picked out of the dumpster, where the party store tossed them. She was going up to people looking for help. Most turned her away and kept walking. Before I got out of my car I sat and watched a bit, thinking back to some of my hard times during my life—and boy I had a few—but never at this poor lady’s level. I thought, heck we bring home $700 a week and we live from paycheck to paycheck, but we are lucky to have that check. I got out of my car and she came over to me. I gave her $100. She started to cry and she handed me the cards and said, “Please, I don’t like taking anything for nothing.” I often think of that lady and today I find myself about as close to how that lady lives then I have ever been in my life. I wish I could have done more for her, but rest assured, when I get back on my feet I will go back to that area and try to look her up and forward what was given to me.
I am Precinct Captain, sworn into office with the Democratic Party on behalf of Obama. Back in January, even after my husband first got laid off, it was horrible but not totally horrible because we had a little bit saved and I was lucky to have picked up a babysitting job for awhile until the mom lost her job. My husband put an ad on Craigslist to be a day laborer even though most of his life he worked in an office doing office work. Of course, just being an office tech, you don’t make a huge amount of money, but he made $18.50 per hour. Now people look at his resume (Note from author: I have it.) for his type of work and say he is over quantified. No one is willing to pay that per hour, but he is willing to work for $10 per hour and still no one will consider him. He tells me they want someone young, someone that looks good. That may be true, but what are people supposed to do?
They go to school to learn a trade, work it for twenty years, then get laid off at fifty and say too bad, so sad. Anyway, he was able to go around and do some odd jobs, which kept us afloat, but they all come to a stop. And slowly we saw our lives going down the drain. We first lost our car—we just couldn’t make the payments anymore. I cried the day my car was taken. We paid on that for three years and it cost me $545 a month for three years. I had one year left to ownership. We knew then it was just a matter of time before the rug was pulled out from under us.
Just before all that I hosted a house meeting for Obama and forty-eight people showed up, including someone from the Obama campaign. I was part of the Obama campaign phone bank, making calls from home to other states like New Hampshire and Iowa for Obama in the primaries, since I have a fixed-price per month national calling plan with my phone.
I started my own home business when we first moved here to Florida; I make homemade soap from goat’s milk. I use to go to craft shows, but since the layoff I just don’t have the money to do it and I had high hopes for that business; that was my American dream. But like all dreams, you have to start off small and work your way up. I made soap everyday. I collected natural rainwater from my yard in barrels. I went to a local farm and bought my goat’s milk. I grew a lot of my own herbs. I bought a table and tent and took my soaps on the road. I did pretty good and I wanted to turn my tent into a barn-like setting and get little milk cans to place my soap in them. But here I sit with box after box of soap—hard work put into it and it all come to a stop.
So I took out some of my soaps and put new labels on them to raise some money for the campaign at my house meeting. Everyone bought, even the guy from the Obama campaign bought six of them to send to his family. He said Obama would love what I did with those.
My husband and I have only been married for four years. My former husband, god rest his soul, died from cancer twelve years ago, leaving me with small children and a home mortgage. In my last marriage I was owner of a small movie theater in a small town (in Connecticut) for twenty years, serving the people who could not afford the movies. For those who could, I ran top movies for $2 and keep candy and popcorn prices to a minimum so everyone could buy it. The town was a very poor town.”
The extent of what I’d been spared in this life was hitting home; the depth of my safe, comfortable, if not cocooned existence I still cannot fully appreciate, may never fully appreciate. What suffering I have borne in my life could not even be called suffering in Debbie’s life. What work I have done would barely qualify as such. Even as I vowed I would never complain again, I knew with pathetic self-loathing that I would fail to keep that promise.
Yet, what I knew more was that I had to go above and beyond trying to help Debbie with a check in the mail. The idea for a social experiment was brewing, an experiment that I prayed would bring her the relief she so desperately needed and me the action I so desperately craved. So with Debbie’s permission, we began.
Next: My Brother’s Keeper(Part V)