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Urban Exile: A View From the Bottom

by B. Mann

It’s morning.  I think of what day it is.  God, please let it not be the 15th.  I don’t have the money for the payroll taxes.  Oh wait… did I pay the truck? Shit!  I didn’t pay the truck.   I hope that check comes today.  It’s Wednesday and we need it for payroll.   And it’s mortgage week.  Oh God, if we don’t make payroll, then we won’t be able to pay our mortgage.  Where am I going to get the money for the mortgage? That check has got to come today.

I make my way downstairs and to my first cup of coffee, still thinking about the day ahead.  If I ask my son to not cash his paycheck from last week, I might have enough to pay the truck.  Oh wait.  The payment is due to our window supplier.  They’ll be calling if they don’t receive it and that woman is a persistent bitch.  The truck will have to wait, but I’ll still have to ask my son to not cash his paycheck. I don’t want to bounce anything. Now that our bank has been taken over by a new one, they’ve changed some of their practices. That check had better come today or we will be so screwed.

There are messages on our business line answering machine, but not the kind we need.  Instead of messages from customers needing work done on their homes, they’re messages from out of work contractors looking for jobs.  You can always tell when the economy is bad.  The customer calls stop and calls from people looking for work begin.

I pack lunches for the day and talk to my husband.  I remind him that we need to get some money in even though he’s well aware of our situation.  We used to have employees, but now there’s just my son and him to do the same amount of work that used to be done by four people.  We can’t afford to hire more people because the only work that we manage to sell these days is being sold at 1982 prices.  Unfortunately, 1982 prices cannot support the payment of 2009 materials, 2009 subcontractors, 2009 insurance and 2009 payroll taxes. We’re still in business, but sinking.  Rather than a fast drown, it’s a slow, sinking descent into financial quicksand.  Either way, we will soon be swallowed up completely.

Shit.  The kids need their field trip money. I look in my wallet.  $3.00.  I’m way short.  Maybe I can make up the difference with change from the jar that we were using to save up for vacation.  I might as well.  We’re not going to be able to take that vacation this year, either. I count out the change and put it in an envelope along with a short apology for the coins.

Everyone is finally off to work and school and I sit down at the computer to begin the work I do from home.  I’m still considering how I’m going to pay these bills, the mortgage, and the payroll taxes with no money.  Just calm down.  It will be OK.  If we can’t pay them, we can’t pay them.

I can feel the blood pulsing through the arteries on the side of my neck.  I think my blood pressure is high.  I should probably have that looked at.  Oh wait. I’m not sure the health insurance is still in force.  I paid that last premium way too late.  Beyond the grace period. That’s been happening a lot lately.  We really can’t afford our insurance; $1200 per month for health insurance is outrageous. But the pre-existing conditions…we have to keep it.  We’re trapped.

I check my email to see if there are any work assignments in there.  There aren’t. I open an email from my boss:  she’s very sorry…business has been bad…she needs to cut my hours…the first time she’s had to do anything like this in 20 years in business…one girl in the office had her hours cut by two-thirds…she hopes it’s only temporary.

I feel my heart sink and the panic rise.  We were struggling to make it before. What’s it going to be like with my hours cut?  I know I should be grateful that I still have a job, but it’s hard to find my gratitude when things are so worrisome for us financially.  With this news, I have no hope of being able to put in extra hours for some extra money to help us catch up.  We’re going to sink faster in that quicksand now.

I hear the mail truck pull up outside and I go out to get the mail.  Maybe the check came today. I sort through the mail:  bill, bill, junk mail, credit card letter.  No check.  Now what are we going to do?

I open the letter from the credit card company.  Apparently the credit card that we use to purchase materials for our business has been sold to another company.  That company has opted to close all of the accounts.  We won’t be able to use the card to purchase business materials after the end of March.  It’s the only one we have and we depend upon it for cash flow.  How are we going to get around this?  Now we’ve lost our credit.  This must be what they talk about on the news:  credit drying up for small businesses.  It feels different, though, when it actually happens to you.

One of our subcontractors calls, asking if we have any work.  He hasn’t had any work since October.  He’s willing to do whatever is needed even though he’s a painter by trade.  Another one calls asking if pleasepleaseplease can we pay him right away for that job he did last week.  But we haven’t been paid by the customer yet. He’s totally out of money and begging.  Well, if I hold off on paying the window supplier, I can pay him instead. In this business, you always take care of your subs first.  We’re all in this together.

I’ve got to pay the mortgage and we’re not going to be able to make payroll this week.  I need cash quick.  I saw in the paper that a local jeweler is buying gold. Instant cash, exactly what I need right now.

I gather up some of my jewelry into a box.  A ring from my grandmother. She gave it to me when we met for the first time when I was 19.  I hope she doesn’t find out about this.  Here’s a necklace my mom bought for me.  I can part with this bracelet; I never get a chance to wear it.  I like this piece, but it’s a heavy one that will bring more money.  Into the box it goes.  Can’t I find a few more pieces? I reluctantly choose a couple more rings, a few more earrings, another necklace.  I look at the empty spaces in my jewelry box but then quickly close the lid.  Having a home is more important than jewelry. 

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