Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Finding Strength

An Occasional Blogger's Journey
After A Rough Few Years,
Toward Feeling Like a Person Again.
Part Two: The New Religion
(please scroll down for "Part One: The Old Days")

Those were the old days. The days of healthy promise and lifelong dreams that threatened to never come true. Twelve hour shifts of grunt work in a hair net and heavy, non-slip boots. But then, as they often do, things got better.

I earned myself a position as a video editor at a nationwide press-clipping agency in the big city of Boston. It actually paid less money per-hour than the labor gigs, but it was work that was somewhat related to my field (I'd been adept at editing video since my high-school cable-access days) and it was city work. All my life, I'd been attracted to the urban life. Having grown up in a small Massachusetts town -- and on the dirt-driveway-and-swamp end of it, at that -- the concrete canyons and neon-soaked nights were always the spots my heart called home. That's natural, I suppose. They say the dream of Born Metropolitans is often the quiet little house on the tree-lined street in the country. So it seems human to me that where ever we're from and whatever we have, we often want to be somewhere and have something else.

And so it was that at the age of 24, I was going to become a Young Commuter. The lifeblood of the Metro Machine. Taking the train into the city in the morning, coming home late at night. I remember speeding my way into Boston on the commuter rail train every morning in the beginning days, staring out the window with the wonder of a child, watching all the local towns whizzing by, excited, and shocked that none of the people around me seemed interested enough to be doing the same. I'd wonder, "How can they just bury their faces in their newspapers? How does someone ever get used to this?" A year later, some friends and I got found a tiny, cheap apartment in Boston's North End and the dream continued. I was no longer a commuter, but a Young Urbanite. The original Pizzaria Regina was my front yard. Haymarket Square and Government Center were my backyard. Boston Common was my playground. There was a rough patch at the job... Having come from a blue collar background, I was still fairly inexperienced in certain behaviors needed to survive in the office-work world, and they hadn't quite gotten used to my often out-there sense of humor, though we all warmed to each other's ways and everything got very well smoothed out. Having performed one above-and-beyond assignment after another (so conscientious was I), my raises were always top-level... and I was given the title of Evening Shift Supervisor, even though my "staff" was composed of three people, myself included.

I started making what was, to me, real money. I was never late with bills, school loans or rent, spending very little on food and night life. My best friend was a manager at the city's largest cinema at the time, so I was happily awarded free admission to pretty much any movie I liked for the better part of three years. Then I did the next logical thing. I applied for a few extra credit cards and lived the high life for a while. Paying for meals, traveling a little, buying three or four new DVDs every payday at $20.00 a pop, going on the occasional date whenever fortune smiled upon me enough. I wasn't an extreme spender, by any stretch. I didn't buy or lease any new cars. I didn't go to Las Vegas one birthday when I'd hoped to... I always made my minimum payments and on-time, behaving, in short, just like the good little consumer everyone said "kept this world going strong."

And then, one morning in August 2002, the General Manager called two of my three-person department -- that is, my direct boss Mary Anne and myself -- into the break room. With no warning and completely out-of-the-blue, the GM told us we were being laid off. Not next month or next week, either... Right now.

"Sign this form accepting this severance agreement and please be out by noon," was the overall tone. We were stunned. Mary Anne had given this company something in the neighborhood of fifteen years... and I, seven of my own. We'd become very close friends over my time in the office. After my aforementioned rough patch at the start of my employment there, we'd often joke about how many times I'd either nearly been fired or had wanted to quit. And we'd gotten past all that to become each other's friendly shoulder to lean on. There was a recession going on, if you recall, and she had just made the decision to sell her city property and try to find something less pricey. I'd left my North End apartment after a couple of years, myself, for a better but further-away residence just outside the city. Now, both our lives were effectively in limbo. We cleaned out our cubicles, jumped in her Jeep, found a beach-comber seafood tavern somewhere North of Boston and proceeded to get pretty drunk. Toasting one another for our abilities and what would surely be a new freedom of some kind, we ate and laughed until later that night... when the sadness of being chucked aside and effectively being told you weren't as necessary as you thought set in.

I'd never been let go before. Never been fired, laid off, or even reprimanded for anything very serious. Ever been laid off? If not, I don't recommend the sensation. In my case, I became sort of defiant. I knew I had to find work but I felt I wouldn't be out of work for long. Not someone of my stature and ability. A local television station or something would come along and snatch me right up, tout de suite! I signed up for unemployment right away at pretty much everyone's direction. That allotment, added to my savings (a few thousand) and so-called severance package (another couple of thousand) would be plenty to keep my bills paid and living well for the short time it would take me to find work. Like the Tom Waits song said, I was "sleepin' 'til the crack of noon, midnight howlin' at the moon." And I'd often joke that I was living the life of "Kramer" on TV's Seinfeld -- I'd just wake up and take the day's adventures however they rolled in, catching a lot of movies, not writing as often as I should have... Pretty much just being lazy. I'd never really had any kind of extended holiday as a kid or working adult, having gone from high school straight into college and working full time. I was 32 and thought I'd take it easy for a while. A few weeks, maybe. Enjoy myself.

My few months of unemployment stretched out to eighteen months. That's one and a half years of being told "thanks for stopping by" and "we'll be in-touch" by pretty much every television, radio and print organization in Boston. The recession had begun hitting everyone and nationwide hiring began to fall off.

And it's true... Rejection is a hard thing to deal with if it's all you hear. You begin to feel worthless and unnecessary... and you start to believe it. You spend your money far less freely (which is something we've all come to understand, lately). You spend a lot of time alone. You feel isolated. You spend more time in bed in the winter months, because you figure it's cold outside so why bother even getting up today? You start putting on weight again, as a body with no daily purpose simply eats and sleeps and starts caring less about itself, since nobody who's hiring seems very keen to see it, anyway. There's nobody out there who wants to see you, it feels... Nobody out there who cares. Sure you've got family, some friends, but you don't want to trouble them with what's going on, don't want anyone to know the toll this whole thing's taking upon you. You smile and say "everything's fine," hoping people don't suspect what you're really feeling... Fear and loneliness.

Then the money starts to vanish. What savings you had start to dry up. You've gone through your allowance of unemployment benefit. All the time you're out of work, you're able to keep up with bills and loans... but now it's all run out. You start looking around your room, wondering how much you could get for your personal possessions. How many CDs or books it might take for you to buy some food this week (maybe something extravagant, like hamburgers!) or cover some of the month's gas bill or rent.

Then one day you're offered a job, the only job you can get, it seems. The only job that will have you. It's at the local video store. It's for half the money you were making before, and your pay is sporadic at best since you just started and they're trying you out as a part-timer to see if you're worth keeping around in this market. The Store Manager seems a decent guy, having offered you the job sensing that you'd be a good fit there, being educated and knowledgeable. In fact, nobody there even knows a third of what you know about the business, having followed it as a hobby for the previous ten years or more, just for fun. So you're hired, for better or worse. And the real chaos begins almost immediately.

The Bill Collectors start calling. There is a special circle in hell set aside for Bill Collectors, I hope. For they are the most ruthless and despicable people I've ever had the misfortune to run across. Having had next-to-no-money for the previous two months before being hired at the Video Store, I missed two months' worth payments on each of my credit cards. Some one the minimums were only $30.00 a month, where others had skyrocketed up to $230.00 per month, which was now completely impossible amount to reach. Never mind that you've never had a problem making payments until this point. Never mind that you've been able to keep paying, mostly on-time, even though you've been out of work for nearly two years. "We don't care," is their apparent motto.

Collection agencies, I'd read somewhere during my experiences, often intentionally hire ex-convicts to work their phones, since these men have rougher, more threatening voices and can just skirt the edge of being threatening by reading from a prepared script laying out your problems and their plans for you but doing it in a scary-sounding way, as if you'd better listen up here, Charlie, or something bad might happen.

One phone call from a Collection Agency had said to me, "If you don't pay up soon, you'll have to face the Man in the Black Robe." Fearful in my naivete, I blurted out, "Who? Death ?!" The Collector quickly corrected me with, "No, stupid!! The judge!!" It may be the the only time I've ever been relieved to be called stupid.

And not long after, I got the Summons. I was being hauled into Court for refusal to live up to my credit agreement. Even though I'd worked things out with four of my five credit card companies, and even though I'd, once, again, showed my desire to keep current by keeping up with all my bills while being unemployed, I was being "brought to justice" by the powerful and the elite. Me. Someone who'd never had so much as a parking ticket as an adult. I was now The Defendant. The Criminal. This, added to the depression of feeling like a useless citizen, a lonely and undesirable male
with no financial stability and unable to find romance, was beginning to really take it's toll. I went in and the court clerks and such could see almost immediately that I didn't belong there, as if they were looking at a lost child or foreign vacationer who didn't quite grasp the language or enormity of the situation. One thing lead to another and an agreement was struck... one that I stuck to, to the letter, happily paying things off as I was able. It's not that I'd ever claimed to not owe anyone any money. I did owe. And I acknowledged that. I just needed a proper schedule with which to set things right. Try telling that to a multinational organization who wants it all up front, right now. But things went as well as could be expected and were settled. Until that Collection Agency sold my case off to yet another Collection Agency, who then summoned me to court... again.

There were days when I would have to force myself out of bed and leave my room, just to feel as if I were alive. And on those days, as there was nothing else to do, I'd think. A mind with nothing to occupy it but introspection can be a dangerous thing.

How alone have you ever really felt? How long could you say it lasted? Have you ever spent a Saturday afternoon aimlessly walking though your town and the surrounding ones, hour after hour, with no destination in mind? I'd walk through neighborhoods of wealth and privilege, past million dollar homes, seeing people younger than I with families and children and wealth and privilege. I'd look at these people... and I'd seethe with jealousy. I'd see them through their windows as I shuffled down their sidewalks, seeing them have their parties with their cultured, wealthy, good-looking friends. I'd actually begrudge them their success. "Must be family money," I'd rationalize. "They look so stupid and soulless and without a single creative thought, no way they earned any of that good life on their own." And I'd realize that the last few dates I'd had were decent, but they never led to second or third dates... I'd rarely get the invite back to their place... Maybe because I was too boring for someone, since I only have a few dollars and can't afford to take anyone out to more than a film and maybe, if fate smiled upon my paycheck that week, a coffee afterwards. I'd realize I couldn't go on vacations with someone if I'd like to, or to rent a car and go out for a drive anywhere... I couldn't even visit my college friends without having one of them meet my lame ass at a train station halfway there. I'd become very solitary over this time. I'd even skipped family holidays because I'd had no ability to buy any of my nieces or nephew any presents.

I thought to myself almost daily, for nearly four years, "You're a god damn loser."

And on a few particular nights, when the moon was high and the wind was cold, I'd be walking along, alone... and I'd be crying, quietly. Not out loud, as I wouldn't want to be noticed, but on those here-and-there empty streets, it would come out. My breathing would get heavier, I'd feel my blood pressure rising, heart pounding... These are the moments it takes years to tell people about. These are the moments of feelings of worthlessness so deep and of loneliness so complete, my spirit would break down completely. There comes a point where you can't hide from it anymore. And it just takes you. Maybe for a few minutes, maybe the whole afternoon. And every sad moment that you felt before feels as if it were nothing more than a preparatory session, a dry run, for the darkness you feel now.

But then...

Something... I didn't know what. But something... kept me going.

Maybe it was that same blind, stupid hope that I felt back in the factories in The Old Days, that thing that kept me from going out on that icy lake or standing too long on the train tracks in the winter snow. That thing, that hope, that doesn't quite let you give up. And only recently did I figure out what that thing was. That thing that kills the anger, the sorrow, the depression and the hate of everything in one's dark world.

It is... yes... love. The love of friends. The love of family. The love of strangers. The fact that in these times of need, people can step up. They do step up. They do come out in force.

When I was at the Video Store, the chain itself was folding up for good. You probably read about it. We weren't a Blockbuster, but were were a close second. And every day we wondered if it would be the last. We really expected to be closed up at any time. And when it finally came down and my sadness was at a fever pitch, an all-time high... Someone came out of nowhere and offered me a new job. A customer whom I'd connected with on personal level. Someone who appreciated me at the right place and the right time. He offered me a job in another store, this time a store of wonder and intelligence and warmth and of family. And in his kindness, he helped lead the way to another person of warmth, and another, and before I knew it, my financial issues were on the turnaround back to recovery (that's a whole other story for another time). And I no longer felt like quite the loser I had been, for so very long. And at about the same time, more things in this life began coming into focus for me. I'd begun experiencing things on a whole new level again.

Sorrow and depression can filter the way one experiences their world in a huge way, and once that black curtain of fear is lifted, especially after years of that fear, it's like seeing the sun again, for the first time in forever. You smile more. You can actually feel yourself smiling more. The little things bounce off you, they don't even register. You hear music differently, suddenly for the first time really talking in the nuances of artists you took for granted. People like David Bowie and the Beatles, Miles Davis and John Coltrane... who's work has been around for decades, but you now don't simply hear it, you feel it. You walk through those neighborhoods with the million dollar homes no longer filled with hate, but with happiness.

This is not an exaggeration. As I passed down one familiar street last spring, I actually stopped for a moment in my tracks, smiled and nearly wept for a short second. It occurred to me that... the hate was gone. For everything. And for myself. That feeling I'd had almost every day for the last few years was lifted. Vanished. And I was feeling like "me" again. I'm not sure how many of you out there follow this particular statement. But I sincerely hope that none of you... and all of you... can feel it someday -- none of you, in that I wouldn't wish such a path of sorrow on anyone... and all of you, in that we should all feel this sense of the purest happiness washing over you like a warm, soothing breeze atop a high, grassy hill under the summer sun.

Driving with a close college friend one afternoon earlier this year, I remarked, "You know what? This moment, in this car, in this blue sky, on this road, on this day, driving around with you like this, dude... I'm pretty happy." He laughed it off, maybe a little uncomfortable with the emotional honesty of that moment. I helped him out and laughed a little, too. But it was real. And I think maybe he could sort of sense that. I won't say who it was, but I want to thank him for that moment.

We go through our lives in these times of sorrow, of uncertainty. We don't know if we're safe, or how long we'll be healthy, or capable of supporting ourselves. We don't tell people how we feel, We're all guilty of it, every day. Life is too short, too fragile, too precious to let fall away in silence. It's come to my attention, more and more, that there are others in my life who might be going through a similar process. Loneliness and sadness are terrible killers of the spirit. And maybe your first instinct is to keep it all down, to bury it deep inside you. But that's a mistake. You need to open up, to share it, no matter how painful it might seem. There's strength in sharing, in finding out you're not alone. I have a few friends and they're going through, or seem to be going through, their own hard times. I've been there and I can see the signs. And if there comes a time when they need to talk, to be heard, I just hope I can do for someone what some have been able to do for me. To help, to heal...

And I want to take the time to thank the following people out there in my life, all through the years, who have helped make life worth living. In no particular order: Anne, Christopher, Chris, Shawn, Maggie, Jeannie, Mark, Cricket, Tim, Tom, Barbara, Melinda, Peter, Steven, Stephen, Marg, Meagan, Mary Anne, Michael, Alvaro, Mike, Jess, Maureen, Ailis, Martin, Lara, Peter, Ellie, Lily, Scott, Amy, Rick, Lis, Michelle, Matty, David, Deborah, Brittany, Christine, Mark, Becca, Akiko, Milo, Kristin, Fok, Jess, Joan, Danielle, Andrea, Jennifer, Stacey... If I forgot your name, I'm sorry... It's 2:45 am and I've been sitting here for hours... but be assured... If, when we see each other, I smile and seem genuinely happy to see you, you're up there, too.

You are all my friends. Thanksgiving is tomorrow. When I sit and think about all the things I am thankful for, you people top the list.

Thank you for being my friends.

Thank you for saving my life.

Thank you for helping me find strength.

--Matt

4 comments:

millionsuns said...

Your spirit, your positivity, your humor, your knowledge and your passion -- everything about you is inspiring.

You're a good man. There simply aren't enough people like you around.

--mcc said...

Thanks, brother...
With friends like you,
the journey is always easier. :)

escapevelocity said...

This was beautiful, man. I mean that. You're a damn fine human being. Looking forward to the next time we hang!

--mcc said...

Shucks, thanks Timmz!
Much appreciated! :)