“I’ll live ’til I die.”

28 02 2010

“I wish that I would just hurry up and drop dead!” exclaimed  our next-door-neighbor, Carrie. I told her that she had better do no such thing, as we had every intention of celebrating her 88th birthday in April. She chuckled and shuffled back into her trailer as AJ and I continued to repair her HVAC and rake up the leaves in her yard. As she walked away she mumbled “I hate having to depend on others to do things for me.” and with a laugh added “It takes me all night to do what I used to do all night.”

I was feeling a good deal of guilt associated with the discovery of her recent $429.00 electric bill. We had always been impressed with how her power bills never exceeded $25.00. The previous one was only $21.00, and that was for the cold month of December. Now, we were trying to determine what could have caused so much usage in a single month.

In the process, we learned some very disturbing things about the way Carrie has been living.

Carrie is a stubborn and resilient old gal who reminisces about the days when she worked and played hard. her face softens with sadness and guilt as she tells the story of losing her first husband. They were a young, married couple traveling in the mountains, with their daughter and her friend in the back seat. Carrie had offered to drive, but her husband insisted upon taking the wheel. An oncoming car swerved into their lane, hitting them head-on. Carrie and the children survived, but her husband was killed. “It should have been me. I should have died instead.” she repeats, each time she tells the story.

She never remarried, but she did spend 40 years with the person she refers to as “My Man” (her common law husband). They retired and moved to Florida together. Not long afterward she came home from work to find him dead on the couch. For reasons that I’ve yet to unravel, neither his children, nor hers have contact with Carrie. To top it all off, her trailer was damaged by the hurricanes of 2004, which ripped off her front porch and carport and created numerous water leaks. She is completely alone except for her “family” here in the park. Until recently she never failed to bake a cake for everyone’s birthday, which she would always present with a recycled greeting card. No one may stop to sit with her without being offered a can of Natural Light. I suspected that something was wrong when the cakes stopped, but I assumed that it was her memory going, not her stove.

“Don’t take my picture! I look like a witch. I’ve got to go get my hair permed.”

Carrie

I won’t delve too deeply into her financial situation, other than to say that she makes do on nothing more than $600.00 per month. She is fortunate to live in a park where the owner is kind-hearted and hasn’t raised rent in a very long time. It doesn’t take great math skills to determine that Carrie is a master of getting by on very little. The $429.00 electric bill, however, was too much for her to handle. A fortuitous fuel credit (whatever that is) did bring the bill down to $246.00, but that is still ten times her regular bill! Once she showed us the bill, we got busy trying to figure out what could have caused it. This is when we learned the lengths to which Carrie had gone in order to retain her pride and independence.

For over a year she has been without heat or air. At least three months ago, her water heater stopped working. Afterward, she was heating water on the stove; until it also broke. When we went over to investigate, we found that the breakers for all of these things had been switched off, months ago, by a neighbor. We also found out that she really needs help in cleaning (although she adamantly refuses) and that she has been reduced to wearing clothing that is in rags. This is compounded by the fact that her roof and windows leak, and her floors are all dangerously rotted out.

She still insists upon doing her own shopping, and won’t consider the idea of going into assisted living. She never comes back from the store without gifts of food, beer and wine for all of her neighbors. We have come close to fighting more than once, when I refuse to take cash for driving her around or doing her laundry. She can hold a grudge, but only as long as her memory allows. Dependence upon others upsets her more than she can describe. On warm evenings, her laughter echoes throughout the park. Her closest neighbors are always around to check in on her and help out with things like mowing grass, raking leaves, taking out her trash, driving her to the store and doing her laundry. She can’t recall our names, but she goes to great lengths to remember which brands of alcohol we drink and which snacks we like. Anyone who takes the opportunity to sit with Carrie will be treated to one of her many humorous songs or sayings.

I’m a rambler and a gambler and I’m a long way from home. And if you don’t like me, just leave me a lone.

I’ll eat when I’m hungry, I’ll drink when I’m dry. If the whiskey don’t kill me, I’ll live ’till I die.

On Thursday, a delightful man named Yoel from Florida Power & Light came to do an evaluation. His only theory for the astronomical power usage was the leaking water heater. At this point it is FPL’s word against the neighbor’s (who claims to have switched off the breaker so long ago). Regardless, Yoel’s supervisor is unable to do anything about the bill but freeze it until Tuesday, while I try to locate assistance. Although the county funded assistance agencies are out of money, the Salvation Army has alluded to the possibility of finding a way to help her with this bill. I hope to contact the supervisor on Monday and see what she can do.

In a desperate plea for assistance, I turned to the internet in hopes of finding a used water heater and some clothing for Carrie. Although I’m still looking for a water heater, I did meet quite a few angels. A woman named Tracy has offered to donate the labor of her and her family to help fix up Carrie’s place. She has also been a wellspring of ideas and supply resources. Today I picked up a huge bag of clothing and some food from a woman named Sandy. Along with the aid from these two great ladies, I have gotten many helpful suggestions from other online strangers. I truly appreciate the support from so many people who don’t know Carrie or me.

I will continue this story as it unfolds.






Life is Good in the Trailer Park

11 04 2009

It’s 10:28 am on Saturday, April 11.  The windows are open. The thermometer says 77 °, yet it feels like the AC is running. The sweet smell of jasmine is wafting in on a gentle west breeze.  As I sit here with my first cup of coffee (slept in until 9:45) I think about my quality of life and can’t help but conclude that life is good.

Coffee

I grew up in trailers. We were usually broke, and I started working at 12 years old to buy my own clothes, much of my own food and any luxuries I wanted, such as record albums and video game tokens.  I always swore that I would escape the stigma of poverty and rise above the “pay as you go” lifestyle in which I was raised. I did this to some degree. I moved to Florida to live with my mother and stepfather when I was 15. They were working hard, had two cars and were buying a house. They also had these magical pieces of plastic in their wallets that bought them things even when they had no cash. Wow, this was the life I wanted to live!

I graduated from high school and started working my way through college. My father and stepmother were hardworking, but they were not wealthy. I found a good-looking man who was in the Air Force, we moved in together,  started a business and we decided to buy a house. In order to get a VA loan we had to be married.  Chugging right on down the rails of the American Dream Express we shrugged our shoulders and said “What the heck”.

Young and cocky I watched the stock market and fancied myself knowledgeable about economics and human nature. Phrases like “A home is the best investment you can make.” and “The market is cyclical and based on speculation.” were prone to pepper my conversations. In truth I really knew nothing about what makes the world go round. Little did I know that my world was about to shift poles.

Within a matter of weeks my business had fizzled, my husband came out of the closet and I could no longer pay my mortgage. Luckily we had worked out an owner finance lease purchase option, so I didn’t have to default on a bank loan.  In shock because of my radical transition I began engaging in risky behavior and ended up letting a sociopath move in with me. We tried to pay the $500.00 mortgage for a short while and I soon realized that I couldn’t do this and support him (which is what it amounted to). I let the house go and moved to a cheaper place. I started delivering pizzas and waiting tables. College was now out of the picture for me, I was busting my ass just to cover my car payment and credit card bills. Due to a mis-communication with the bank my car was repossessed. Fortunately my restaurant job was two blocks away and I could easily walk to work. I picked up another table waiting job half a mile down the road and saved up to buy a bike. Since my father was a cosigner on my auto loan, he rescued the car from the bank and used it for his daily driver.

I spent a good many years partying too much and not taking life seriously. All the while my friends were getting degrees and/or starting families. I paid off thousands of dollars in credit card debt only to get new cards to start the cycle again. I lost count of the jobs I’ve held at somewhere around 30. Most of the time I had two at once and most of them I left out of boredom or frustration, but always on good terms.

Eight years ago I met AJ. We celebrated 5 years of marriage in February. We hopped on his father’s wagon and moved to East central Florida to restart his construction business. Finally, a career where I could make as much money as I liked without having to go to college. AJ and I worked together and his father was ready to sponsor him for his own contractor’s license. We stayed in a small RV while we scoped out the area for a house. I was back in a trailer park, although trailer parks in that area are quite different than the ones where I grew up. The majority of units were RVs and the park was full of transitory residents and part-time snowbirds.

I spoke to my mother and stepfather who had now bought a trailer in their park out in Colorado. Now an “expert” in the booming real-estate and construction market I told them that property values were skyrocketing and that they should buy a house. “I like living in a trailer.” replied my stepfather.  This statement confounded me. Why would anyone like living in a trailer? He elaborated “No mortgage, no property tax, no home owner’s insurance. If a tornado hits you just get another trailer and start over. I don’t owe anybody anything.”

My stepfather, for all of his laid-back tendencies is a hard working, level-headed guy and probably about as sane as anyone you will meet. When the hurricanes hit our area, right after we got the building business started, I learned an important lesson: A person’s home and their sanity are closely tied; and when they lose one, they often lose the other.

Suddenly, we saw the value in inexpensive, portable housing. For the next few years we moved around rebuilding storm damaged houses. We dealt with a number of people who appeared to have lost their marbles when their houses were damaged. Because a number of contractors engaged in criminal behavior we were suddenly the bad guys, despite the fact that all we did was help them get their insurance settlements and rebuild their homes to the highest of standards. We had to deal with people who threatened to sue us because they didn’t like the color of carpet they selected or because we discovered pre-existing conditions not covered by their insurance policy. Being treated like a crook really took its toll on my psyche and I soon began to wonder if the money made in construction was worth the stress. This dilemma quickly became a non-issue as the building bubble burst with a deafening “Pop!”.

We had lived off of savings and credit cards when we first moved down here. The money we made in construction afforded us to finance a large, used Travel Supreme fifth-wheel, a Dodge 35oo dually to pull it, an old Volvo sedan, a small Boston Whaler boat and a couple of kayaks. AJ is adamant about getting bills paid and we had the credit cards down to a manageable level. When our last rebuild customer turned out to be insane (partially due to toxic mold exposure) we spent a year trying to get her to co-operate and let us finish her house. She held our last payment and we had to initiate legal action to get a few thousand dollars. In the meantime we ended up living off of our credit cards again while we started up another business.

We saw the writing on the wall and got out of our truck payment. We actually sold the truck for a profit and paid cash for a smaller, less expensive truck.  This was a lucky break, because within a few months the roadsides were lined with trucks and humvees that the contractors had bought and could no longer afford. We sold the kayaks and kept the boat and car, since they were paid for. We have found a new, recession-resistant career and are again making a decent income.

My paradigm has shifted gradually over the past few years. Although I have never had an interest in the trappings of wealth I had always imagined that there was an “Arrival Point” at which one becomes safe and comfortable with no more financial worries. This was my ultimate goal and I bought into the lie that it is a fact of life for any smart person who works hard and makes the right decisions. In a short span we have all watched the mythical ball of yarn unravel. And at the center of that ball is reality. Through my journey of understanding and acceptance I have been called such things as a “Conspiracy Theorist” and a “Survivalist”, as though these are derogatory titles. I find it interesting to watch those, who so carelessly threw these terms around, slowly come into the realization that reality is much different than they once believed.

Your home is not necessarily your greatest investment. The government does not have your best interest in mind. There is no such thing as “guaranteed retirement”. The list goes on.

The Jasmine. Our bedroom window is visible in the background.
Jasmine

I wish I could say that I have come to my reality through wise practices and good judgment. Unfortunately, that was not the case. When all of my friends hopped into the economic hamster wheel and started running I found the latch to the cage and wandered around the house. I don’t especially recommend this. There is a big mean cat out there! But now I have returned to the cage with an understanding of what the greater environment holds while many of my peers are exhausted and still running towards that invisible goal. The difference is that that living the way we do can be frightening to so many people. They can’t imagine life without having things and giving things to their children. Many of them are dependent upon their high paying jobs while the “Layoff Monster” lurks just beyond the doors of their heavily mortgaged homes.

How can I live in a trailer? Well, it’s not even a trailer really, it’s a fifth-wheel; and it’s designed for economical comfort and utilizes every inch of space for storage and function. It is energy efficient and uses a fraction of the water wasted in most homes. It is also portable and when a hurricane looms we can pull out within an hour or two and carry ourselves and our meager belongings to safety.

No, we don’t own it outright. We are on a 15 year payment plan, but our payments are less than the taxes and insurance on an average home. Our entire income is less than most of my friends pay for their mortgage! Now that housing prices are adjusting they all realize that they are losing equity in their homes. “Equity” there’s another big lie for you. File that one right next to “Job Security”.

Over the past few years I have slowly come to realize that we can safely assume nothing about our world. We cannot trust the leaders we believe we have “put in place”. We cannot depend upon our homes, jobs or even our food to be there when we need them.

When a survival situation arrives all that anyone really needs is their health, survival skills and a community of like-minded people. Houses, cars and all the other trappings of “success” suddenly become a non-issue, if not a liability.

Speaking of community. As I was writing this post a neighbor deposited this gift in our yard. He picks up free paints and chemicals from the dump transfer station and brought us things we might use for our upcoming projects.
Gift

Wealth is nothing but an illusion. It falls into the lap of some, and they die never knowing how fortunate they were. For too many people it is a carrot that remains just out of reach. For the remainder it is something they work hard to acquire, so that they may retire to a trailer park in Florida where they can sleep until mid-morning, awaken to drink fresh ground coffee and enjoy the sweet scent of jasmine blowing through the open windows on a cool April breeze.

This is the illusion I choose until extreme survival mode sets in.