Notes from the Scrap Heap: Putting One Foot in Front of the Other

The process of surviving economic dislocation began for me—and my family—on 22 November, 2010, the Monday after the infamous Friday. To be sure, it was a short business week, since Thursday was Thanksgiving Day, the first day of what for most businesses and all schools was a four-day weekend.

There are two sides to surviving in—and let’s call things by their right names—a depression. One side is the collective fightback, and this account that I’m writing for you all is intended as a contribution to that collective fightback. It means organizing people to demonstrate in the streets for jobs, collective bargaining rights, and increased—not decreased—protections for people through the social safety net, which was for the most part enacted as a consequence of the Great Depression of the 1930s. It means advocacy for a public works and jobs program to put people back to work in necessary jobs. It means putting a stop to business practices which cause people to become unemployed and which reduce the standard of living of those who are still working. All that begins with the righteous indignation which arises from knowing the truth—the truth about what is going on in our country. I hope in my own small way that I have inspired some righteous indignation in those who have been reading “Notes from the Scrap Heap.”

The other side of survival is taking concrete measures to protect the individual family’s survival: to bring in whatever money can be brought in from whatever source, to cut out unnecessary expenses and to find ways of reducing the cost of necessities, and to protect the family from the financial predators who, to a great extent, were responsible for putting us in this situation at the outset. That is the process that began on the 22nd of November, which continues to this minute, and which I intend to describe for you here. And the good news is that…there is good news. As this economic depression continues, as I hope it does not but fear that it will, thousands of other people will be facing unemployment, unpayable debt, and rising prices. There are things we can do, which will not necessarily solve the big problem but which will win little victories each day.

One of the byproducts of the Internet revolution is that filing for unemployment insurance benefits has become much easier and less humiliating than it was in 1994. Because it can now be done on an Internet website, maintained by the state’s Division of Labor and Industry, one can file any time of day, any day of the week, without leaving one’s house. In 1994, because I had been laid off from a job in the state of New York, I had to drive nearly an hour to Middletown, NY, to a crowded office, to fill out ridiculous amounts of paperwork. And for that the benefits were remarkably low. New Jersey’s benefits today are higher than New York’s—nearly half what I had been earning while working.

So I didn’t even wait until Monday the 22nd to file for unemployment insurance: I filed first thing in the morning on Saturday the 20th—and arranged to have the money deposited directly into my bank account. That was step one of the journey.

Fortunately, I have had family and friends who have been willing, in their small but significant ways, to step up and help us. My father stepped up in the biggest way, with a cash gift to help cover some big expenses. Even though his life is consumed with caring for my mother, who has vascular dementia as the result of several non-lethal strokes, he came through when it counted. This is what a parent will do.

Another friend Ellie, a local attorney, referred me to a bankruptcy attorney for advice, and asked an associate to revise and optimize my résumé as a favor. Thanks as well to her.

One can hardly work forty years in a trade without making friends and earning some respect from one’s colleagues along the way. That paid off as well, as Richard, a former colleague, working in one of the biggest graphic design firms in New York City, gave me an enthusiastic recommendation to the supervisor of the desktop publishing department. The company has not been able to offer me a full-time job, but I have gotten some small freelance assignments, putting me in a good position when a full-time job becomes available.

Tony, one of my college classmates, stepped up and offered me a chance to put my skills to work to help him build up his law practice’s client base. His work will turn out to be the equivalent of a part-time job.

And then there were all the people who had nothing concrete and practical to offer but who gave me messages of support, of encouragement, even offers to pray for me and my family. Well, it might not add anything to the bank account, but it helps. It really does. Clarence the Guardian Angel wrote to George Bailey at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” the message, “No man is a failure if he has friends.” Well, all the people I’ve mentioned, and there are a bunch, are angels who deserve to be promoted to Angel First Class and earn their wings!

So, on the income side of the ledger: as much as it pained me to acknowledge, I had to face up to the fact that I would never again make a living in the printing trades, at least not at the pay scale to which I had become accustomed. The reality is that there is not one single print publication making a profit in the entire United States—not one. Even billboards have become electronic, those gigantic thirty-foot wide billboards, able to change the image every few seconds and be visible any time day or night. In fact, I had to face the fact that it was possible I might never be employed—by an employer—again. So, what can I do, in the waning years of my working life?

Fortunately, the kind of work I do is not physically demanding. An iron worker building skyscrapers can’t work until he’s in his sixties; a body just isn’t built to last that long under those kinds of stresses. However, using a computer to put words and pictures together on a printed page or a web screen is something a person can do as long as her or his mind and eyes hold up. My plan had always been to continue to do this kind of work on a self-employed basis even after I had formally retired from working. So the first part of the plan was to turn the clock ahead about four years and get it started now. Thanks to my father’s help I was able to invest in a robust new PC, with plenty of memory, a robust graphics card, a big monitor, and a fast microprocessor speed. To make it do what I needed to do, I was able to get the latest (version 5) of the Adobe Creative Suite, which brings together software for page layout, bitmap graphics, vector graphics, website design, and animation. My version also included special “plug-ins” (software enhancements) to enable the software to support Middle Eastern languages, which for the most part read from the right to the left.

When I had been working I put my knowledge of Farsi (Persian), the language of Iran, to work: Farsi is written with the Arabic alphabet (with some modifications), and, as I mentioned in Part 4 of “A Lifetime in the Typographical Trade,” I set the company up with the capability to support Middle Eastern languages and continued to do all of the work in those languages for the rest of my tenure with the company. Just a half an hour’s drive from my front door is the second-largest Middle Eastern immigrant community in the entire United States, in the cities of Paterson, Clifton, and Passaic, New Jersey. When I was working I had done the report card in Arabic for the Clifton public school system. I saw no reason why I could not get other work from clients in that community.

That was step two.

New Jersey’s Division of Labor and Industry offers free tuition to public institutions of higher education to unemployed New Jerseyans. I had taken a two-day course in hypertext markup language (HTML), the code the makes the Worldwide Web happen, in 1999. A lot had changed since then! Enough had changed that I really did not know enough to make use of Adobe Dreamweaver, that program in the Creative Suite that enabled one to create web pages. Furthermore, as I mentioned, I had some knowledge of Farsi, but most of the Middle Eastern immigrants in the Paterson-Clifton-Passaic area are not Iranian.

So I signed up for two night courses: website development—on extended hypertext markup language (XHTML) and cascading style sheets (CSS); and elementary Arabic. Within three weeks of starting the website development course, I was making use of Dreamweaver and getting a portfolio of work together which I could use to demonstrate my ability.

On the first day of Arabic class, I walked into the classroom and did a double-take: the professor looked very familiar. I said to him, “I know you from somewhere.” It turns out that he was (and still is) the imam of the Islamic Center in Boonton, NJ, not far from Paterson, one of the largest mosques in the state. Furthermore, he had participated in Interfaith Dialogue sessions with some of my neighbors and friends. What interested me most was that he was at the center of a congregation of people, a real community, where someone was bound to need my services somewhere along the way. I handed him a business card and said, “If you ever need help with printed or web communication, please call me.”

This was step three.

On the expense side, a big accomplishment was cutting the cost of my blood pressure and cholesterol medications in a fraction. It was a funny thing to me that after I lost my health insurance coverage—which included a prescription drug plan—I found ways to pay about half what I had been paying for my cholesterol medication and less than half what I had been playing for my blood pressure medication. What kind of health insurance is that? And what kind of health system do we have in the United States that it should even be necessary to work around the system in order to survive?

However, the big plan to reduce expenses deserves a post of its own, in which we will talk about our emancipation from debt slavery.

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