You know how when a person files bankruptcy there's a public notice? It used to be a shameful thing to do. People filing bankruptcy would try to leave town under the cover of darkness before the public announcement hit the local newspaper. If the shamed bankrupty-ee didn't get out of town in time the local villagers didn't show up with pitchforks and torches, but...the gossip, contempt and judgment was impossible to live down.
In small towns it's still kind of that way, I think. Though not in the past few years attitudes about financial struggles have changed.
At least that's what people told me. That's what I hoped.
And then one of my neighbors, a woman who lives down the hall from me, confronted me in our hallway with a pitchfork and a torch. A verbal pitchfork and torch.
She's angry that our condos have fallen in value. She needs to assign blame and I'm conveniently unemployed and three doors down from where she lives.
Miraculously I have not gone into foreclosure. Yet. I keep hanging on, every month it's a nailbiter to the mortgage payment deadline finish line. I've robbed Peter and paid Paul, I've drained every penny of my 401K, I sold everything I had of any value. I've pawned things that have deep sentimental value. I do every odd job, every teeny tiny freelance job I can find, anything to make money.
The "real" job hunt? Sigh. On it goes.
I've begged for jobs that pay less than minimum wage. I've applied to night-shift 7-11, gas station and janitorial jobs. I've offered to work for free, literally FREElance my services in hopes of impressing employers enough to eventually hire me. I volunteer. I network. I call and email HR people, CEOs, managers of every description. I go on interviews...and get the, "it's down to you and one other candidate, we like you but s/he has more this/that/other experience" rejection. And if one more potential employer tells me I'm overqualified...I dunno. I mean, half the time I'm already lying about my education and work experience. Lies by omission, that is. I dumb down my credentials so I'm not as "impressive." When did education, experience and singular career dedication to a profession become such a liability?
No, I haven't worked retail or waited tables. Ever. Why? Not because I'm spoiled and didn't "have" to do those jobs. It's because I worked really hard to land jobs, any job, in a field related to what I wanted to do for a living. In high school I bugged the ad manager of the local newspaper to hire me to let me do anything - anything in the ad department (that consisted of three people). In college I worked the overnight shift at printing companies and learned a lot about the production aspects of advertising, and a lot about cost factors which, to this day, helps me accurately estimate budgets. I worked in galleries, often for free, so I could meet artists and photographers and learn that side of advertising. I mean, I was on a mission to learn everything possible about all the aspects, I wanted to be a professionally viable, well versed job candidate when I came out of college. And now that professional motivation and career drive is working against me.
"So, you've never actually stocked a shelf/folded sweaters/worked for tips?" is the first question I'm asked when I apply for retail jobs.
"Well, no, but, I have designed and produced retail store signage and advertising."
"We get all that from corporate. I need someone with floor experience. Retail sales."
"I understand. And my experiences from the merchandising and advertising side will give me a unique perspective on the floor. I see the bigger picture. It's not just about selling a sweater, that sweater is the end result of a highly sophisticated merchandising and advertising campaign that was well over a year in the making. It would be an honor for me to be a physical part of the end result of that effort. It all comes down to exchanging goods for money, and to be there, be part of the exchange, what all that merchandising is about, the culmination of a long cycle of marketing, I mean, it's like being there at the birth of a child." (Too much? Such is my desperation to persuade assistant store managers to give me a chance at a minimum wage job.)
"Sorry, I need someone with actual retail sales experience."
"I can stock shelves or do in-store displays...I'm a hard worker, I like to be busy, I'm friendly and I have a fantastic customer service attitude!"
A few days ago that can-do attitude garnered this response from the afternoon assistant manager at a local DIY store:
"Sorry, I feel for you, I really do. My brother has a bio-chemistry PhD and 12 years experience at a pharmaceutical company. He's been unemployed for two years. I can't hire him, either, he doesn't have retail experience. Corporate pushes us to hire either young high school or college kids with little or no experience, or, retail professionals with lots of retail experience. We don't have good longevity stats with other types of employees. I have applications from people who have worked retail and they're more right-qualified for the job than you are. You seem friendly and eager and I'm sure you can do this job in your sleep, but on paper you're not qualified. The side-by-side comparison to other candidates might seem odd, but I have to choose someone with actual retail experience over someone like you."
I appreciate his insight and candor. It's more feedback and insight than most retail employers have bothered to give me. But the end result is that I'm still unemployed.
Here's how bad it is: I've sold plasma. Okay? I used to donate blood at every blood drive at work. Now I sell it. I'm not proud of this. And I am surprised at how little cash plasma gets on the open market. I've done it twice and live in fear of what I might have contracted in the process but that's a blog best left unwritten. (The take-away: Don't do it. Selling blood is nothing like donating it and you don't "earn" enough money to make it worth the effort and potential disease.) I've tried to sell eggs (mine; human), I offered my services as a surrogate mother; it's illegal, but I'll sell a kidney if someone will pay the medical expenses and give me cash up front.
Every month I think, "well, old girl, this is it, this is the month I can't pay the mortgage." So far I've scraped by, if I'm lucky with a couple bucks to spare. A few friends and my mother are extremely generous in helping me - giving me extras of their staples, sending me care packages of toothpaste and toilet paper, taking me to lunch, letting me borrow their cars, paying me for odd jobs like babysitting or housesitting or converting their cds and dvds to digital files. Pride goeth before a fall, and I fell far, fast and hard so humiliation isn't an issue. Shame goes straight out the window when you're desperate.
When my neighbor from down the hall saw me returning from the mailbox and said, full of snark, looking accusingly over her glasses, "Still unemployed, I see." Then, (making a theatrical look at the mail in my hand) "Is it Welfare check day?"
"Yes, clearly since it's 1:00 on a Wednesday afternoon and I'm home I have not found a job. But no, I don't collect Welfare and my unemployment benefits ended in October. None of your tax dollars are supporting me."
"Then how do you pay your mortgage?"
Okay. I've been friendly with this woman. But we're not close. She has a daughter around my age and I like the daughter. So I tolerate my neighbor's sometimes abrasive and judgmental attitude. She's of the "I'm right and I'm going to tell you I'm right" school.
I knew what was fueling her verbal pitchfork and torch. There have been several foreclosures and property auctions in our building. Consequently the condo values have plummeted. The average auction price is less than half the price I paid for mine three years ago - and I bought at a good time, my condo was a bargain when I bought. People were impressed with the amount of space and neighborhood I snagged at such a reasonable price.
What a difference three years makes. Even if I had a job and needed to sell for a job transfer I'd be in serious trouble. It's bad everywhere, of course, but buildings like mine have taken serious hits: The condos are mainly smaller - great for singles, young couples or seniors - so our building's main owner demographic is younger and mid-career professionals on the low to middle range of the income scale. Singles living on one modest income. And when a younger single person with a modest income loses their job...there's no backup. There's no spouse to help earn money. There's not a lot in the savings account. If that person remains unemployed for more than a few months there aren't many options other than a short sale or foreclosure. Either way, the rest of the owners in the building take a home value hit as a result of a foreclosure.
I know this. I know all of this. I am well aware. But do I blame my former neighbors who, like me, were doing okay until they lost their job and couldn't pay the mortgage? Of course not.
And word of yet another auction on one of the larger units in the building spread like the black plague. The auction price was...disturbingly low. I've seen used cars priced higher than the final auction price on that condo. Nice used cars, but still, used cars listed at prices higher than the auction price for a nice condo in a good neighborhood with views of Lake Michigan? Wow.
Naturally owner residents are upset. Down, down, down go all the investments in real estate. That whooshing sound you hear are the broken dreams of owners hoping to sell in the next year or two flying out the windows and doors.
Do I feel bad, guilty, ashamed and otherwise embarrassed that it's likely I'll be contributing to my neighbors' plummeting decline of listing value? Of course.
So what do I do? Do I slide a letter of apology under my neighbors' doors? Do I post a notice in the laundry room? Do I hold an open house and serve cookies and punch and let my neighbors take shots at me while I apologize?
I understand they're angry. I understand people "like me" are ruining "it" for people "like them." But this wasn't an intentional move on my part. I didn't buy a home I couldn't afford. I didn't have a stupid balloon mortgage. I didn't even have a zero down mortgage. If I hadn't been laid off everything would be fine. In fact, because I was so conservative in my purchase I've been able to hang onto it (barely) through 16 months of unemployment. And I'm fairly certain the other foreclosures in our building were the result of circumstances exactly like mine. But the end result is the same: Foreclosure, bank auction or short sales bringing the value of the other units in the building down. Way down.
So. How do I respond to the angry villagers who come at me with pitchforks and torches? "I'm sorry" is obviously inadequate. Do I take out a classified ad or billboard, a la bankruptcy notices, issuing a public blanket apology?
I just stood there listening to my neighbor vent her anger and frustration at me. Unfortunately I was wearing a frayed t-shirt, sweats and worn out slippers I threw on for the two minute round-trip trek to the mailbox. I looked very stereotypical unemployed. Of course she didn't nab me when I was going to or returning from one of my many job hunt treks or interviews. That would require the Universe to throw me a karma bone and that doesn't happen to me.
Ultimately I think it was "good" for her to take out her frustrations on me. And better me than the really mean guy who has been trying to sell his place since I moved in and is about to go into foreclosure. He would not stand there taking the verbal pitchforks and torches from my neighbor. I'm pretty sure it would get pretty ugly. So, better me than him. But what I'm wondering is: What, beyond, "I'm sorry," do I say to my neighbors about my inability to find a job that will pay my mortgage? Do I tell them I've sold everything I possibly can, including blood, to try to stay out of foreclosure? Do I tell them I'm even lying about my education and experience in order to not seem overqualified for jobs? Or do I just leave quietly under the cover of darkness, letting my silence say everything because there's really nothing to say?
Labels: foreclosure, job hunting, Unemployment