“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Working Poor, Part One

I am hungry again.

I have two jobs. For two days each month, I work as an event coordinator for a company that hosts seminars at the Grand Hyatt on Union Square. I like the job a lot, and one of the reasons I do is that it allows me to spend time in the world I grew up in, the world of middleclass to upper-middleclass life.

I arrive at 7:00AM, an hour and a half before the seminar begins. I make sure that the hotel staff has set up the room properly. I lay out materials for each participant (a pad of paper in a handsome, padded faux-leather folder, a pen, and a USB memory stick). I set up the projector that the leader of the seminar will use to show his or her PowerPoint slides on the screen at the front of the room. I confirm the food service schedule with hotel staff.*

That done, I register each participant on arrival, give them their name tags, and make sure that the leader has everything she or he needs. Then I sit outside the seminar until the session ends at 5:00PM. On the following morning, I again check that everything needful is in its place, distribute more materials to participants, and again sit outside the room from 7:00AM to 5:00PM.

Like a flight attendant, I am there in case something goes wrong. I know the hotel staff and have their cell numbers so that I can locate whatever is needed in an emergency. Otherwise I am free to read, to write, to catch up on my mail (electronic or real), to make phone calls, et cetera. I am paid $200 per day, and that $400 makes up the only truly predictable half of my monthly income.

I also do house and yard work. I started this job last fall. At the time I was applying for any job I could think of, and I was increasingly frustrated by my failure to land one. So while continuing to look for other work, I posted an ad on Craigslist to do house cleaning, etc., for $15 an hour. Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, right?

I currently work in this capacity for two men, one twice a week and the other twice a month. I usually work for four hours in the afternoon, though at the place where I work only twice a month, I often need an extra hour or hour and a half to get everything done.

Lately, I have had additional hours at my other job too. My employer has been undergoing treatment for lung cancer and has needed my help for an extended period in the days following each chemotherapy infusion. On those occasions I stay at his house from noon Monday through dinnertime on Wednesday. I shop for groceries and prepare meals, as well as cleaning and keeping the yard watered and weeded, typically working five hours a day on each of these three days.

There will not be many of those longer stays however, in part because the number of infusions is limited to only seven or eight in the first place. What is more, my employer is blest with a large and caring family, various members of which have been visiting him from nearby and distant cities for as much as a week at a time. Thus he does not always need my help after every chemo infusion. And because he is responding so well to treatment, he is able to do more around the house during the ordinary days between treatments. So I may be working there even less than the eight hours a week I have been working.

The reader who was good at story problems in elementary school arithmetic has by now figured out that I average $150 a week at these jobs, with an additional $225 possible about once a month. Thus I earn a grand total of $1000 to $1200 a month.

My fixed expenses come to $450 a month: my storage space ($175 a month), my phone ($75 a month), and my rent (50% of my official income, which is the seminar check, so right now $200 a month).

I am left with $550 to $750 a month for everything else. Everything else includes food; transportation (bus fares to work mostly); “sundries”, by which I mean razors; soaps for the body, for the dishes, and for the clothes; the laundromat; replacing a shirt or socks from time to time; and repaying the friends who helped me with bail and other expenses when I was arrested. (In the last twelve months, I have managed to pay them $1000 of the $1300 I owed them.) The “sundries” run $50 to $75 (if I any of my clothes wear out) a month.  Transportation costs $25 to $30. So without paying my debts, I have at most from $450 to $675 a month for food.

I have difficulty getting enough to eat on $15 to $20 a day, particularly considering that I do not have a kitchen and so must pay restaurant prices for anything more than a bowl of cereal or a peanut butter sandwich. A simple breakfast of 2 eggs, bacon, and either potatoes, pancakes, or toast, with a cup of coffee, will set you back $10, including tax and tip, at even the most economical of diners. So will a dinner of two slices of pizza or a Subway sandwich, with something to drink. As a result I eat a lot of Big Carl hamburgers at Carl’s Jr., which with tax come to only $3.25. Unfortunately, one of those sandwiches is not enough to fuel a man my size (six feet tall and a muscular 200 pounds) who does a lot of physical labor, including walking considerable distances to save on bus fares.

I need about 3200 calories a day to maintain my health and strength.**  I buy the Big Carl because it has 930 calories, 520 of them from fat, and so staves off for at least a couple of hours the actual pain (cramps, etc.) that comes with hunger. I do treat myself to the kind of breakfast I described above about once a month, and I eat a lot of pizza slices, for the same reason: fatty foods forestall the discomfort of hunger longer than other, healthier, foods.

I am giving you all these details because I want you to see that I work as much as I can, am very careful with every penny I earn, and that I still suffer from hunger many days a month. Furthermore, what I do eat is not healthy for me, and my diet means that I will be likely to encounter more medical problems and higher medical bills in the years I have left.

I used to get food stamps, and that $200 a month -- $6.00 a day -- helped tremendously. Now, however, my income places me above the ceiling of the current “means tested” system.

I eat a lot of peanut butter sandwiches.  (Safeway sells Pantry Essentials bread for $.99 a loaf, and I search out the cheapest peanut butter and apricot jam I can find, one jar of both usually costing to $5.00 or $6.00 together.  Thus my lunches can cost as little as $2.00 a day.  Daily breakfasts of generic cereal, milk, coffee and sugar also cost about $2.00 a day.)

So I can just make it on what I earn -- as long as I eat an unhealthy diet.

I cut my budget as closely as I can to the bare minimum so that I can repay my friends for their extraordinarily generous help when I was in real trouble.

That means that sometimes I find myself, as I did last Friday, with $18.00 to my name and no income available until Monday evening, when I finish my afternoon at work.  By Sunday I can get pretty hungry.

(To be continued . . . .)

* The morning coffee, bagels, and breads, and the hot lunches, have been stellar. I highly recommend the Grand Hyatt on Union Square, for its newly remodeled interiors, its friendly and unbelievably helpful staff, and its delicious food.

**See the Daily Calorie Calculator to find out your nutritional needs.