Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Downward Spiral - An Introduction

What follows is a work of fiction. Or is it? I first wrote this piece in the summer of 2010 as a post on the old Life After the Oil Crash forum. From the nearly 5000 times that the post was read and approximately 100 reader comments before that forum was closed, I could tell it struck a nerve.

With this work I have outlined what I believe the future is going to hold for many middle class Americans. In fact, it is all too likely that many former members of the middle class are experiencing some version of this future right now, and my heart goes out to each and every one of them.

Someday, I hope to complete a novelized version of this story. But for now, the short story version will have to suffice. I encourage everyone who reads and is touched by it to pass it along to anyone whom they feel it might provide some enlightenment. If even one formerly unaware reader awakens to the issues of Peak Oil and resource depletion, writing this will have been worth it.

- Bill

The Downward Spiral - A Requiem for the American Dream

You were a good American. Not as good as some, perhaps, but no worse than most. You never served in the military, but then again neither did any of your childhood friends. Military service was for working class kids who either couldn’t afford to go to college or were not book smart enough to do so. That was no problem for you. You always memorized enough of the text to pass your exams and the student loans were enough to close the financial gap your parents were unable to cover. Best part about college was the frat parties. Oh, and meeting your future wife. That was a plus.

After graduation, you catch on with a large company in a big city far from your hometown where you don’t know anybody. Strictly cubicle dweller work, but that’s okay. It pays well and there are good bennies like health insurance. Best of all you have a 401K plan, and this being the go-go 90s your 30% annual returns look to be the path to easy riches. With her education major your wife gets hired as a school teacher. Good for her. She always was the smart one.

Around the turn of the new millennium your son is born. You love that little guy. Too bad you spend so much time working that you don’t see him much except on weekends. That’s okay, though. Your wife cuts back to being a part time substitute. Gives her more time with him and saves on childcare expenses. You run up your first significant credit card balances outfitting the nursery, but that’s all right. You have a good job.

World events pass by like background noise. The president gets impeached over a blowjob. Then a new president gets into office after some kind of dispute down in Florida. There is that terrible day when the buildings collapse in New York. That one actually scares you a little bit. But the new president tells you to go shopping, and your wife happily complies. So your credit card balances get a little bit larger. It’s the very least you can do. And when a team named the Patriots wins the Super Bowl all seems right with the world again.

A couple of years later your daughter is born. Your family is really growing. You need a bigger house but aren’t sure you can afford it. The downturn in the stock market hit your portfolio hard and you don’t have any savings. Also there are those pesky credit card balances.

Your realtor finds you a big house on a half acre lot in a brand new suburban subdivision. The kids can each have their own bedroom. Your wife falls in love with the lawyer foyer, kitchen island and granite countertops. For you there’s a large finished basement for your man cave. The only downside is the hour long commute to work. But hey, sometimes you need to make sacrifices.

Surprisingly, financing turns out to be no problem. The mortgage broker gets you a great deal. No money down and a sweet option ARM that keeps the payments affordable. Once you move in you realize you need lots of new furniture to fill such a large space. No sweat; just put it on the plastic. After all, you work hard. It’s what you deserve.

For a few years, life is good. More world events pass by while you are busy earning a living and raising your family. Your country invades two other Middle Eastern countries as revenge for the attack on the buildings. To show support for the troops you put a yellow ribbon sticker on the back of your car. Otherwise, you don’t think too much about it. You don’t personally know any of the soldiers. The president gets reelected. You are too busy that day to go vote.

Around this time you get passed over for promotion at work. A relative of a corporate vice president gets the job instead. He’s younger than you are. You start to think you’ll have to spend your whole career in a cubicle. You don’t really like what you do and get little satisfaction out of it. Oh well. It beats digging ditches.

You enjoy your family life when you are not working and commuting or running around doing errands. Your kids are growing up fast and you add a sweet-natured yellow lab to the family. He reminds you of the dog you had growing up. You just wish you had more time with your kids. Instead you take lots of pictures of them and place them in a big album.

One thing getting you down is how lonely you feel sometimes. Your wife is always busy with the kids and you rarely speak to the neighbors. There are some guys at the office you go out with for a beer once in awhile, but none of your conversations ever evolve beyond what’s on ESPN and the hotness of certain female coworkers. It would be nice to have a real friend, like the ones you had growing up. Instead you tell your doctor about your anxieties. He prescribes Zoloft.

The first sign of trouble comes when gasoline prices skyrocket. All of the sudden it costs $80 to fill up your SUV. With your long commute one tank hardly lasts a week. You realize you can’t really afford it anymore, so even though you are still paying it off you trade it in for a used commuter car. The next morning you drive the car to the office and one of your coworkers sees it. He makes a derisive wisecrack about it being the same model he drove when he was in college. At least you still have the minivan so your wife can transport the kids around.

Around the neighborhood there are signs of distress everywhere. Each month it seems like another house gets foreclosed on. Yards become overgrown with weeds and backyard pools havens for clouds of mosquitoes. The homeowners’ association is strapped from residents not paying dues and can no longer afford to maintain the landscaping in the common areas. Gradually, more unrepaired potholes appear in the streets that your town cannot afford to fix. Grass grows high and unkempt on medians of the main roads where it used to be finely manicured.

Your new tax assessment arrives and you realize you’re underwater on your mortgage. You wonder if you’ll be able to refinance when your option comes due. Didn’t your realtor promise that home prices only go up?

That autumn things get worse. The stock market crashes again, knocking down your 401K balance again. What happened to all those 10% annual returns your financial advisor promised if you just buy and hold? Your company is having big financial problems. First they announce there will be no pay raises this year. Then they stop making matching retirement contributions. They even stop providing free coffee in the break rooms.

But you still have hope. You are excited about the newly elected president, especially since you actually bothered to vote this time. He’s black, but hey, so was the President on that 24 TV show. He promises to fix the economy. Most importantly, he is intelligent and can speak well. Not like that last guy. He was an idiot.

The first week of the New Year brings rumors of layoffs. You and your coworkers spend as much time calculating who might get the axe as you do doing your jobs. The bosses become insufferable. They load up the tasks, requiring you to work longer hours for no additional pay. It seems you are hardly ever home anymore. You miss your kids. You would try to find another job, but you know there’s nothing out there.

Cruelly, you get your pink slip on the first day of spring. They call you into the conference room. Some guy you’ve never met before hands you information about your severance package. You don’t yell or cry like some of your coworkers. Instead, you go back and clean out your cubicle as others who haven’t yet been summoned try to avoid eye contact.

Your wife is devastated. You tell her it will be all right. She still has her substitute teaching job and at least you’ll be getting unemployment benefits. You give her a big hug and try not to think about your empty savings account and numerous outstanding bills.

Unemployment doesn’t seem so bad at first. You get to spend a lot more time with your kids and they seem happy to have daddy around the house. Then you begin your job search and start to realize what you’re up against. There are no jobs anywhere in your field and more people with your skill set are getting laid off every day. You send out hundreds of applications without ever getting a response.

The first call from a collection agency comes as a shock. You knew you had missed several payments on your new entertainment system with the HDTV and surround sound. It was the present you and your wife bought for each other last Christmas. You try explaining to the caller that you have lost your job but have every intention of paying off the debt. What you don’t expect is how rude he is to you. You hang up the phone but he keeps calling back. Eventually, you learn to not answer when that number pops up on your caller ID.

A few weeks later you get a call from one of your credit card companies. The young woman from India politely informs you that they are raising your interest rate to 29%. You ask her why they are doing that when you have been making your minimum payments. She doesn’t know. She is halfway around the world and is just the messenger. You tell her you can’t afford to make the new larger minimum payments because you are unemployed. She says she’s sorry, but doesn’t sound like she means it.

Soon the same thing happens with all your credit cards. They get cut off and you are reduced to writing checks or paying cash. One night you and your wife have a big fight. She wants to buy a new dress for her cousin’s wedding and now she can’t. You yell at each other for a long time until your daughter appears in the doorway, tears streaming down her cheeks. That night, you sleep in separate beds.

You keep trying to find a job, but all that is available is short term temp work. You’ve never felt so alone. Your wife is always upset. Your former work friends don’t want to associate with failure. Your remaining neighbors are nothing but distant shapes who may or may not even wave while heading out to their mailboxes.

Slowly but surely you lose the things that define your middle class life. You never eat at restaurants anymore, except maybe the occasional fast food trip for the kids. You disconnect the cell phones. The service is just too costly. Next you cancel the satellite TV service. Your kids are really upset about that. You try to read them stories instead, but your kids don’t have the attention span for books. You do keep the Internet connection for the time being. It is the only way you can look for jobs these days.

One day you get a certified letter. The option on your mortgage has come due and your monthly payment is doubling. You call the mortgage company to try to work something out. They are the fourth company to hold your note. It takes forever to get through to a live person. When you do they explain that there is nothing they can do since you haven’t been paying down your principle. You decide to stop paying your mortgage. At least you’ll have more money for household expenses for awhile.

It has been a year and a half and the new president’s promises to fix the economy have been empty as far as you can tell. The stock market has had a nice run from its previous lows, but you had to cash out of your 401K; eating the tax penalty so you could afford to pay bills. The big banks get bailed out and Wall Street pays out record bonuses. You figure that some jobs in your field have to open up soon. But none do.

Your unemployment benefits run out. You tell your wife that the family will have to move. Rather than anger, she is resigned. This past year has been very rough on her. Her hair has turned prematurely gray and worry lines crevice her face. Overnight it seems she has gone from being the radiant beauty you married to a haggard middle aged woman.

You find an apartment three suburbs closer to the city. The building is old. There are water stains in the ceiling and an in-window air conditioner rather than central air. The kitchen is tiny and there are only two bedrooms. Gang graffiti is splashed on some of the building’s exterior walls. But the rent is cheap. About a third of your old mortgage payment.

The hardest part is getting rid of the dog. The kids cry all night after you take him to the animal shelter. It breaks your heart when he licks your hand right before you give the leash to the attendant. Don’t worry, the young lady assures you. He’s a popular breed and he’ll easily get adopted before…well, you know. As you drive home there are tears in your eyes. Too bad you lost your health insurance when you got laid off and can’t afford the Zoloft anymore.

Once you settle in to the apartment you start working for one of the temp agencies. They send you to an office many miles from home. Even in the commuter car the gas money eats up a lot of your crappy earnings. The boss treats you like a gopher, even having the gall to ask you to get his coffee. Most of the regular employees won’t talk to you. The work is even less satisfying that what you were doing before. One day in a meeting the boss makes a joke about unemployed Liberal Arts majors. The regular employees laugh. You try not to take it personally.

That evening you come home from work to find your wife crying. The school district had to cut its budget and she got laid off. What are we going to do? For the first time you find yourself unable to say something comforting. That night you and your family eat generic Spaghettios for dinner.

In the middle of the night there is a loud banging noise from somewhere outside. Could be a car backfiring. Or a gunshot. You risk peeking out your bedroom window, but can’t see anything. The streetlight nearest your building was turned off by the city to save money. No police car arrives to investigate. Their budgets have been cut back, too.

The next morning as you are driving to work your car hits a deep hole in the road. Something breaks underneath. You pull over to the shoulder and end up walking a half mile to a gas station. You call the temp office to report what happened. They tell you they guess you won’t be getting paid today. The towing company won’t come get your car without a cash payment or a credit card. You have neither. Then you realize that you don’t have enough money to fix a broken axle anyway.

That night back at the apartment you and your wife discuss your options. Your parents are deceased and you are estranged from your brother, so there is no help there. Your in-laws live a thousand miles away in the small house where your wife grew up. They never really liked you much and the idea of relying on their charity is repugnant. Your wife says she doesn’t care. Anything is better than staying in this awful city.

The next day she packs up the van with clothes and some toys. Your daughter asks, where are we going, mommy? To visit grandma and grandpa. Your son asks, isn’t daddy coming? No, your father is staying here. They both hug you tightly right before your wife straps them into the back seat. We’ll miss you daddy. Which is more than your wife says before she gets behind the wheel. I’ll get a good job, you’ll see; are your last words to her. Yeah right, she replies.

The next day you call the temp agency, but they have no work for you. You look on Craigslist at the library, but there are very few listings. The economy has gone into what they call a double-dip. Many more people are being laid off. Even store clerk jobs are impossible to find.

There is a bus stop about a mile from your apartment. You walk in the rain to catch the bus. Then you walk another half mile to the office where you apply for food stamps. Except they don’t call them food stamps anymore. Instead you get a plastic card like your old credit cards. It takes a whole day of waiting around the office to get approved. There are lots of other people also waiting. Some of them are sick; coughing and sneezing. All of them look as if they have lost hope.

Walking home from the bus stop after dark you get mugged by three skinheads. You try to tell them you have no money, but that just makes them madder. They knock you to the ground and begin kicking you. One of them takes your food stamp card and your drivers’ license. Another one spits on you for good measure.

After a few minutes you are able to stand, but your insides feel like they are on fire. You have to walk three miles to the nearest emergency room. There you wait for many hours while they treat people who are more seriously hurt than you. When the doctor finally sees you he sets your broken ribs and gives you a subscription for painkillers. You ask how you will be able to afford the pills. He says that isn’t his problem.

When you walk outside it is already daylight. By the time you get to the apartment you are exhausted and starving, but there is no food in the refrigerator so instead you drop right into bed. Your sleep is restless, marred by dreams of being trapped in a room with the walls closing in.

You spend the next day at the welfare office getting a replacement food stamp card. There’s lots more paperwork because your card was stolen. When you finally get your new card, it is hardly the end of your worries. The discount supermarket is a long walk from your apartment. You can only bring home what you can carry, which is even less than normal because of your cracked ribs. You can’t afford fresh produce, just cheap processed food like generic mac and cheese and wonder bread.

During your supper you feel pain in one of your molars when you bite down. It’s been nearly two years since your last dental checkup and now the tooth is decaying and feels loose. Your new diet won’t help it any. That night you pull out the big family photo album. Gazing at pictures of your former life in the big house with the pretty wife, two kids, two cars and a dog you wonder if that really could have been you once. You spend your days pawning your few remaining personal possessions and desperately searching for a job. On those rare occasions when there’s an opening, hundreds of people line up hoping for an interview. The park near the bus stop is filling up with the homeless. Their hollow eyes follow you as you hurriedly pass by.

You spend your nights watching television, even though it is not hooked up to cable. The screen is snowy and sometimes the signal blinks out altogether. From what you can tell on the news there has been another major market crash, far worse than any one before. Wall Street is in a full panic, but the government has no bailout money this time. Tensions are also said to be reaching the boiling point in the Middle East. There is talk of another war.

One day you call your wife using a cheap phone card. She tells you her parents were barely getting by on their social security checks even before she and the kids showed up on their doorstep. The minivan broke down and now she is stuck where she is. She applied for welfare, but there is a long waiting list for benefits. You ask to speak to the kids, but she says they are sleeping. You tell her that you love her, but her reply is noncommittal. Then the time on the card expires and the line goes dead.

A week later you come home from job searching to find the apartment padlocked and your remaining meager possessions lying in the street. What do you expect? You haven’t been paying the rent. Lying in a crumpled pile is all that remains of your life. Your television, which was the last thing you owned of any value, is nowhere to be seen.

And then it finally hits you. There will be no job. There will be no future. Your wife and kids won’t be coming back. Your hair is long and unkempt and there is already three days’ stubble on your chin. Your bad tooth is looser and draining pus from infection. Your ribs are still sore from the beating. There is nothing left you can do.

You pick up the blanket that used to cover your bed and wrap it around your shoulders. The big photo album lies face down on the grass; your life’s memories carelessly tossed aside by the men who evicted you. You pull out a picture of your children and put it in your pocket. It is from the last Halloween in the big house. That was always your favorite. Then you begin slowly shuffling towards the park.

Winter is coming and that night a cold rain soaks you, chilling you to the bone. You wake up with a deep cough that seems to penetrate down to your diaphragm. During a particularly violent bout of hacking, your diseased tooth separates from your lower gum and you spit it out on the ground.

You go to the discount supermarket, but suddenly food prices have skyrocketed. Your food stamp card does not have enough credit for you to buy anything. After two days of not eating, you begin scrounging in dumpsters near the park. Most of what was still edible has already been scavenged. The other homeless people eye you warily as the newcomer to their world. Perhaps they recognize that you lack the survival skills to last for long on the streets. Or maybe they just see that you have nothing worth stealing.

With your cough getting worse and a fever setting in, it takes all of your strength to return to the emergency room. The nurse who eventually sees you says you have pneumonia. She ruefully explains that because of budget cuts she cannot treat you. The state is millions of dollars in arrears paying for services and the hospital may have to close its doors soon. Her words barely register. Nevertheless, she takes pity and gives you a couple of pills and a food credit slip from her own pocket so you can go to the cafeteria for a meal.

When you get to the dining room all eyes are transfixed on the television screen hanging on the far wall. Words scrolled across the bottom of the screen in huge letters tell the story. PRESIDENT ASSASSINATED IN COUP ATTEMPT. On the screen is the Vice President giving a televised speech appealing for calm. His words are meant to be reassuring but he looks pale and scared. The perspiration on his brow is plainly visible.

Back in the park that night you see the horizon glowing red and hear a cacophony of sirens in the distance. In the big city where most of the poorer black people live they are rioting for the dead president. That part of the city is now burning. There is almost no traffic on the streets as a strict curfew has been announced. The curfew does not apply to the homeless, however.

You wake up freezing the next morning, feeling a cold deeper than you have ever known. A thick frost coats the ground. You cough loudly, which brings up phlegm and blood. As you stand up you look towards the horizon that was aglow the night before. Thick columns of dark smoke rise to the sky in the early morning sunlight.

Later that morning you are digging through a dumpster behind a convenience store. You hear a rumbling noise in the distance coming closer. Heading back to the park you see soldiers advancing slowly along the main thoroughfare. They wear riot gear and are holding their rifles at the ready. Behind them are a row of trucks painted camouflage and marked National Guard.

They reach the park and fan out, moving immediately towards the homeless people. An officer with a bullhorn announces that all citizens within the park are to be relocated to a federal government camp. There they will be given food and shelter. He repeats these words over and over.

Some of the homeless people closest to the soldiers submit meekly and are herded towards the trucks. You are thinking that’s what you will do. After all, anything beats how you have been living. Maybe they will even treat your pneumonia.

One of the stronger homeless men resists and a soldier attempts to grab him. The homeless man wrestles free just as another soldier swings the butt of his rifle down on side of his head. He drops to the pavement from the force of the blow and lies motionless.

The other homeless people begin to move away. Instinctively, you do the same. The officer shouts frantically for everyone to remain where they are. This only causes the people to move away faster.

You turn your back on the soldiers and begin to run. You only go a few steps, diseased lungs already burning, when you hear the first shots. Before you can even think to duck a sledgehammer blow hits you in the back, knocking the wind out of you. Your body is sent sprawling to the pavement.

You lie there, your life’s blood seeping from the gaping wound in your abdomen where the rifle round exited. With your last strength you reach into your pocket and pull out the Halloween picture of your children. They are all dressed up in their costumes and are grinning at the camera. You stare at their happy young faces. A tear rolls down your cheek, landing on your daughter’s image. Hands roughly grab your shoulders to turn your body over as your vision fades to black.