Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas in Mississippi: Three jobs, can't pay rent.

Yesterday, I just finished a 2-mile run at the city park close to my house, and was waiting in line at the local grocery store. I had all the delicious nutrients of a Naked juice in hand at the cash register. I dug into my shorts pocket and pulled my EBT card from my wallet to pay for it.

Now, I still qualify for food stamps as long as I make under $1100 a month. And believe it or not, working six days a week as a substitute teacher and waiter in the daytime, and my night job as a bouncer at a gay club in a sketchy neighborhood on Friday and Saturday nights don't add up to that. In fact, it just barely adds up to the $550 I pay per month in rent (washer/dryer included, internet, cable, big backyard for the dog). Before I finish this story, let me take you for a walk in my shoes right quick.

A day in the life of a broke Jacksonian

I tell folks I live in "the nice part of the hood." The roughest part of town is just a mile or so away. All that really happens on my street is my neighbor, Phyllis, occasionally coming over at 7 AM to bum a cigarette from my roommate. And sometimes Do-Right (his real name is Dudley) knocks on my window as I'm leaving for work, asking with his noticeable stutter if he can bum a ride to the liquor store. There's bars on some of the windows on my street, but other than that, my neighborhood isn't too bad.

Also, being a bouncer and a waiter at the same time means my weekends are hell.

Last Friday, I subbed a 9th grade AP English class, then worked at the club from 9 PM to 4 AM. After reading the last 30 pages of "To Kill A Mockingbird" and playing djembe for my classes, I stood out in biting cold weather that night. I changed from a suit and tie in the morning to a wool trench coat at night, with a secret service-style radio in my ear, looking intimidating and holding the door for the hundreds of patrons. I'd watch the scene inside periodically to get warm, and then escort them all back to their cars if necessary and chasing off carjackers. I usually get home around 5:30. At 8:30, I came to work at the restaurant and waited tables until 3. After some coffee, I went to a friend's house in the country for a Christmas party at 5, and then came back to the club at 9. I was there until 5, and then slept a few hours before waiting tables again at 10. I'd get off around 4, take my homeboy Steven home (one of our cooks who doesn't have a car) in the hood and hang with him for a bit before heading home.

After all that, I sit down in my chair with a tallboy in hand, a Labrador at my feet, and the Saints on TV. It's a well-deserved break after almost 40 hours of work in a 48-hour time period.

Broke on Christmas

While probably 25% of this country is either unemployed or has eventually just stopped looking for employment. I'm the lucky guy in this economy; I have three jobs. I'm working like a horse. The problem is, waiting tables four days a week at a restaurant that splits tips amongst the waiters and the cooks (we get paid federal minimum wage in return) means a pitiful check at the end of the week. Subbing comes very intermittently, because certified teachers working under Haley Barbour's public sector don't want to take too many sick/vacation days knowing that their jobs may become budget sacrifices in July. Bouncing pays a c-note, straight cash at the end of a Saturday night. but when you factor in the costs of travel, along with daily costs, bills and rent, my three jobs mean I may or may not have the $550 at the end of December.

Life is pretty rough, but life is also dealing me some really interesting cards right now. I still find time to perform slam poetry on the weekends, time to do theatre at night, time to work out in the afternoons, time for the occasional blues jam or drum circle, and even time for every 23 year-old in Mississippi's eternal pursuit of beautiful Southern women. Being young, single, childless and in good health has its advantages. Three jobs and a demanding social life means not much sleep, but I can always do that when I'm dead.

After a run at the park, I'm standing in line at the store. Manheim Steamroller is playing obnoxious hair metal Christmas music over the speakers above us. Nobody is talking to or looking at each other. their looking at phones or grocery lists or shelves, and politely mumbling a stifled and insincere apology if they bump into another person not looking at anyone. We're all ants on a mission. Get up. Drink coffee. Go to work or look for work. Get groceries. Eat food. Go to bed. Lather, rinse, repeat. There's an air of misery throughout the place. You can almost smell the desperation. And this is North Jackson, where folks are generally doing better than folks in South or West Jackson.

The cashier gets to me and swipes my Protein Zone Naked Juice. She's done this a thousand times today. i can tell she just wants her job a little less mundane when she decides to stir the still air with some meaningless conversation with a sweaty stranger clad in shorts and a t-shirt. She and I aren't making eye contact. Her eyes are on the price on the screen, and my eyes are on the console as I swipe my food stamp card. (Yes, I buy my Naked juice on food stamps. It's three servings of fruit in a bottle. Don't judge.)

"Finish your Christmas shopping yet?" She asks as she stifles a yawn.

I look up at her, stunned.

"Christmas presents?!?" I can't help but start laughing. "Who has extra money to spend at Target? I've got three jobs and can't pay my rent!"

The cashier starts laughing too. The other customers in line behind me start to chuckle. The folks in the line next to me and shopping in the aisle behind us all start giggling. We all start exchanging pleasantries about how broke we are. About working multiple jobs and struggling just to pay the bills at the end of the month. About making mix CDs for family members this Christmas. Everyone leaves with a smile on their face; we may be broke, but at least we have money for food, and cars to drive back to the house.

There's no middle class around here. The last of it is dying off. We all may drive cars, homes and regular jobs, but we're holding on to the very last strands of financial stability. We all know those last few strands will be taken from us soon by our corporate owners. But right now, we're living hard and doing whatever it takes to hold on.

I'm just thankful my boss at the restaurant gave me and the other waiter and cook a voucher at Honeybaked Ham for a ham or turkey to take back home. That's my Christmas present to them this year.

No comments:

Post a Comment