Notes from the Scrap Heap: Comments to an Informational Picket outside Senator Menendez’s Office

Good afternoon. I’ll not take up too much time here, but there’s a few things I think need to be said.

I’m nobody special. There are a lot of people worse off than I am, and a lot of people who have been elected to leadership positions in unions and who have organized people in all kinds of struggles. I’m just one guy who’s worked for thirty-nine years in the printing trades, and for most of those years I made a good living. I never got rich. I never took a vacation on an island. I never bought an SUV. I never bought a big house with more than one bathroom. I just bought the one little house in Sparta, out in Sussex County, and never had any desire to live anywhere else. I never bought a 42-inch television. But my family and I never lacked for what we needed. We always had a roof over our heads, though a couple of times I had to have it rebuilt. We always managed to stay warm in the winter. My daughter earned a college degree and graduated without any debt. She’s now out in Ohio working on a Master’s Degree, and I’m really proud of her.

But we never had any extra money. We always managed to keep just a few weeks ahead of our debts, and sometimes we were able to get ahead of them by refinancing our house and cashing out the equity that had built up over years of market increases. If I had known then what I know now I might have done things differently, but I always thought that my skills and abilities would keep me working until the time came for me to retire.

That all came crashing down on me on the Friday before Thanksgiving last year, when my boss waited until I had finished a very tedious project and then called me into his office to fire me. He said, “It’s not personal. It’s just business,” just like Michael Corleone said in The Godfather when he was getting ready to put bullets through Virgil Solozzo’s and Captain McClusky’s heads. He admitting that he was dumping a “ton of bricks” on me and my family. Here he was, laying me off right before the holidays, from a trade that is in decline and hemorrhaging jobs, and five years before I’m old enough to collect full Social Security benefits. I guess that’s his idea of loyalty. Well, it’s not mine.

Informational Picket at Senator Menendez's Office

My first thought was, “My God, I’m going to lose my house.” Well, last week I got notice of intent to foreclose from Bank of America, the bank that holds my mortgage. I had told them back in November that I had lost my job and that I would need a loan modification in order to keep paying the mortgage; they promised to send me the papers to apply for it, but they never did. I retained a lawyer to protect my interests in all of this wrangling over debts, but he hasn’t come up with a way that I’m going to be able to hold on to the house where I raised a daughter from infancy to adulthood, made some good friends, shoveled a lot of snow, grilled a lot of burgers, cut a lot of grass, and lived over half of my life. There’s an oak tree in our front yard that’s over forty feet high. It grew from an acorn that we planted in 1981, my wife and my older daughter, who is now at rest in the Sparta cemetery. Maybe it’s too much to ask to keep that little house in our family. Maybe I should be realistic and recognize that I’m too old to maintain it. Maybe I should just let it go. But do you know what? It’s going to break my heart when I leave that house behind. I love living in Sussex County, and when we have to leave, I’ll be leaving behind a lot of what has made me who I am over the years. But it may have to be. I’ve been applying for jobs as far away as Seattle, Washington, and God only knows who’s going to want to hire me.

My second thought was, “How can I possibly pay for health insurance?” When the bookkeeper handed me the paper that told me what I would have to pay—$1,400 a month, for insurance that didn’t even pay for care when I had a life-threatening asthma attack two weeks previously—I just decided that I would have to take my chances. And so far, thank God, I’ve been healthy and haven’t gotten hurt.

What I want you all in public office to understand is that we’re not just numbers on a balance sheet. Every one of us who has lost a job and is facing foreclosure has his or her own story. It’s about our lives, about the fabric of our communities. We’re the people who sing in the church choirs, who coach the Little League teams, who play tennis and golf in the local clubs, who shop in the supermarkets and department stores. We’re the people who volunteer to put out fires and drive the ambulances when people just like me need their lives saved. And these are the people that are getting hurt in this economy. I’m just one of several million. But each of us is a flesh-and-blood person, and what’s happening to each of us affects everyone in our communities. And understand something, Senators, Congress people, Assembly people: our country is in trouble. If you can’t fix it, then we the people will have to. That’s not a threat. That’s a promise.

You all are reading the newspapers and watching the reports on television about Wisconsin. I don’t have to tell you what’s going on there. But make no mistake. This is just the beginning. This fight has started in Wisconsin, but it won’t stay there. It’s already spread to Ohio, and it’s coming here to New Jersey. Tomorrow a lot of us are gathering at the State House in Trenton to tell Governor Christie that his budget proposals are unacceptable, and that we’re ready to follow Wisconsin’s example.

I just want to make one more comment. We’re here today calling for a crash program to put people back to work, along the lines of the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s. And if the President brings our troops home from Afghanistan and if Congress rescinds the $800 billion in tax cuts for the richest two percent of Americans, there will be plenty of money to pay for it. Those are ideas that make a lot of sense to me, and I think they’ll make a lot of sense to other Americans, too. Paying a little more in taxes won’t devastate the people who earn over a quarter of a million dollars a year. But my family has already been devastated, and a lot of families have been hurt worse than mine. This is the United States of America. We can do better than that. Thank you all.

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