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December, 2012 | Occupied Stories

Archive | December, 2012

Don’t Listen to High School Counselors

I graduated from high school in the top 10%. Of course I was going to go to college. I turned down the full scholarship to any of the community colleges in town because I wanted to go to the big university. Maybe that was a mistake. I got the Pell grant and took out loans to go to the university for art. That was my special talent, why wouldn’t I develop it? It was the 80’s and no one advised me except school counselors. They tell everyone with good grades to go to college and they tell you it doesn’t matter what kind of degree you get as long as you get one.

I went for a year and dropped out. Not really sure why now, but I got a job painting tiles with a small family business. I stayed in that job for almost 8 years. I was happy until I realized it wasn’t going anywhere. I wasn’t making enough money to pay the student loan, so I deferred. Maybe I paid on it for a year or so.

After a few more dead end jobs I decided to return to school and finish my degree in art. I had found my love, ceramics. Science and art, awesome! I graduated with honors in 1998. But by then manufacturing jobs, especially anything having to do with ceramics, had been shipped to Korea, Vietnam and China. All the businesses in town that made anything with clay was out of business. The only jobs in ceramics were teaching jobs at community art centers, community colleges and universities. I know everyone who has those jobs and they will die in those jobs, they know how lucky they are.

I was, however, able to get a studio tech job in one of those places. Part time with the city. It even had benefits. After a few years I again, felt like it was going no where. I wasn’t making enough money to pay the student loan and was feeling like I needed to do something drastic. I was also finding the summers in Arizona unbearable. Maybe mistake number 2.

So, I moved to Portland, the opposite of Arizona and went to engineering school, the opposite of my bent. That’s the ticket, I thought. Even with a 2 year degree I could find a better paying job than I had in Arizona. I was going to remake myself.

I hated it, I was miserable. I felt like the people in my classes didn’t understand me. They were so linear and didn’t get my jokes and snickered at me because I asked so many questions. As Barbie said, “math is hard”. My grades were fine, a mixed bag of A’s, B’s and C’s. But, I was not able to find enough financial support to get through without getting a job, and I needed all of my spare time to study. I could do math but it didn’t come easy to me.

So, I dropped out and got a job as a courier. My student loans were probably up to $30,000 or more by this time. The courier job wasn’t even paying enough to pay the interest so, I kept deferring and forbearing. Plus, Portland was not a cheap city to live in like Phoenix was. And I stress the WAS.

I moved back to Phoenix where I had friends and connections. I thought I could get a job at the one and only ceramic supply store in town. Hell, I have a degree in ceramics and I had been shopping there for years and knew most of their products. I asked for $12/hr and was offered $10/hr. This was 2004. Phoenix wasn’t so cheap anymore because of the housing bubble plus, there was that nagging student loan. They wouldn’t budge.

I ended up getting a job with a faux finish painter. She paid me well as an independent contractor but the work wasn’t steady. I still was not able to pay anything on the student loan. When the housing bubble burst in 2008 there was not enough work to keep me employed and I was competing with other faux finish painters for work. I again, had to remake myself. I could see that anything in the arts was not viable anymore.

Somehow, I got into organic farming. “Hey, there you go”, I said to myself. People always need to eat and “green” is up and coming. Seemed like a good direction. I got a job with a small organic farm and became farm manager. I did everything except the tractor work and the computer work. EVERYTHING. I wasn’t getting paid much but it was a bare minimum and I was learning how to farm! And I was able to buy my house at a smokin’ deal because of the burst housing bubble. I was happier than I’d ever been. I was being creative and doing good things for the Earth and people. I loved it even though it was hard work out in the heat.

But, I lost that job this past October, 2012 because the owner had mismanaged the money. We knew he was a screw up but since he didn’t interfere with us we figured we could work around him and build the business ourselves. Since then I have worked for 2 other small organic farms, briefly, and I found both of them to be highly exploitive. Terrible work conditions. I was not willing to sacrifice my body and health at this age for very little money.

And still, that nagging student loan looms and grows. Last time I checked it was over $60,000. That was a few years ago. As of yet, I haven’t had the experiences some others have had of garnished wages or anything like that. I try to keep up on deferring and forbearing. That’s how I was able to get this house, is because I have kept up with that. But I worry that I will lose my lovely house or something worse. I can’t imagine losing my house. It has given me a semblance of stability.

My mother is getting old and will need help very soon. I’m still unemployed. I have a weird work history and it’s difficult to find a job here in Arizona that pays a decent wage (right to work for less, you know). Going back to school is not an option. I just got an email from a grocery store where I applied for a cashiers job and they told me I was “unqualified”. Really? I have a fucking degree and lots of work experience. Couldn’t they have said over qualified? If there is a job that is unskilled out there it is cashier. They don’t even have to count back change anymore.

I am talented, smart and skilled and I have somehow fallen through the cracks. Reading others stories, I don’t feel so alone. How is it that so many useful people have become useless and desperate? I see so many short sighted and stupid people doing so much better than me. I don’t understand.


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Back Taxes, et cetera

I’m college educated, but never felt comfortable applying to the white-collar world.  So, I scuffled by for some years as a cook and then joined the carpenters union–in part, for reasons of “activism”, fight for the labor cause, yada yada–about 13 years ago.  That was pretty good up until latter ’07, when the bottom dropped out real fast.

I have had to go non union since then, but private sector work here in the small towns of New England is sketchy for rank and file tradesmen.  I was on UI for a year or so and otherwise have been able to piece together a couple years worth of work at about 1/3 the pay and no benefits:  it’s all 1099 now, which is technically illegal, and can be likened to a migrant labor mentality: seasonal and serving the extremely rich who, with their huge, relatively uninhabited estates, occupy most the land in a feudalistic way.

Anyway, regarding the debt.  Well, since the decline, I have basically been living paycheck to paycheck for subsistence only, have been homeless a bit and using food pantries here and there.  When work is happening I can get by okay at this level, with pretty much zero “discretionary” money available:  raw survival.

I didn’t file my taxes over some of those years because I knew I didn’t have the cash to pay the government and basically have been in a mode of resistance about it.  Plus, I have some CC and other basic bill type stuff that I basically blew off as well, for lack of funds and need to eat and such.

A couple months ago I was driving home and got randomly scanned by a cop and, long story short, turns out my license had been suspended for “back taxes owed to the state”–unbelievable.  Well, that is, as I’m sure you all can understand, a direct attack on my survival–no car–and, combined with work being cut back to next to nothing, has pretty much shot me out of the water.  Borderline homeless again and some days without eating much.

It takes some up front cash to initiate some sort of deal with the state–to get the process going, lawyer, probably–and, well, I haven’t had that.

I haven’t believed in the “system” for some years and that’s part of my problem I guess, as there is certainly the unavoidable shame and sense of isolation, powerlessness, and for me, a tendency toward some fairly serious depression.

I’m near 53 and am of the harsh realization that perhaps my life is destroyed for the duration.  Maybe it’s the fact that I recognize the system as a farce, that things are therefore not necessarily my fault in the end, and that keeps my head afloat, but at the same time hunger is very real.

This “Strike Debt” thing, well, sounds good–have no idea how and if it is working.  I get tired of listened to the talking heads giving their analyses of the situation.  Most of them seem to be making a living at that.  I am old enough to see that most movements haven’t done much to change anything.


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A Midsummer Night’s Occupation

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared at Occupy LA.

New York, NY–I ran like a fleeting shadow up a dark New York City street. All about me was the occupation.  Not the “take a plane to NY and lounge around Zuccotti Park for the afternoon on the One Year Anniversary of OWS” crowd.  This was the night-time Birthday March to Times Square on the night of September 16th, 2012–a hardcore crowd.  It was unlike any other occupation experience that I’ve ever had.  What is the occupation?  Who are you people?  Tonight those questions would be answered to me in a more profound way.  We’re the glue that holds American society together.  The playful spirits who appear, not with violence nor its threat, but with a vision of how the world could be—and act on it.  But all around us on this march were dozens and dozens of NYPD cops on foot, in cars, in vans, on motorcycles, etc., to keep, in a sense, Queen Hippolyta’s order.  But as Bottom’s head was transformed into an ass—magic was soon to be squeezed into the cops’ and the world’s eyes.

At the head of our column was Puck.  That’s not his real name, of course, but still apropos.  His delight in playing pranks on these foolish mortals no less than the enchanting sprite.  We took off from Zuccotti Park on a trek to Times Square—many, many blocks away—to be there when the figurative ball would drop on our one-year-old world.  Night time, long urban march, lines of riot cops, the press nowhere in sight—this is where things get violent quickly.  But you wouldn’t know it from observing Puck.  It was as if, literally, he was from a different world.  He’d wander this way, that way, ahead of the group, behind the group, but he was leading us.  Not like the NYPD Commander leading his troops a few feet away.  It wasn’t just that the local occupiers would defer to him at key points—an undercover cop could pick up on that—if they could get this close to us.

No, this was different.  We weren’t being sucked up a river like in Apocalypse Now.  We were being compelled forward, by an unseen energy as if from the shadows, much like what compelled us all to show up in the tents last year.  A sense that the order of the world was against the common man and something must be done to change how the people around us see the world.  What would Puck squeeze into their eyes?  We were about to find out.  We were hippies and trouble-makers to many of the cops on this march.  Would we make asses of them?  We are America.  Just as the Tea Party is also, but we’re very proud of our inclusiveness.  The Tea Party panders to peoples’ dark side, their fears, intolerance, selfishness, etc.  Preaching loudly to their flocks, but then shying away when the mainstream media arrives.  At the end, in the glow of Times Square, celebrating the fact that we’re still going strong, even the cops seemed uncomfortable, out of place.

The march came to a pause by Macy’s.  “We have to keep moving!”  It was Puck’s voice.  Suddenly, very much in this world.  Our “escort” of motorcycle cops slowed also, sheepishly staring at us from their bikes.  BEEP, CRACKLE, WAIL.  The strangest sounds will pop out of some of these police vehicles.  Occupation marches are like snakes.  They coil and contract.  Punkish girls with red, white and blue spiked hair, teens with backpacks pockmarked with political and social buttons, glistening young eyes above bandit-strewn bandanas.  But NY is very different from LA.  Where are the U-Streamers?  I could swear that I’m one of the only people taking photos while the group’s moving—still and video.  The group “coiled” forward.  A chant began: “We are unstoppable!  Another world is possible!”  Over and over, echoing throughout the Manhattan canyons.  And then–and then–there it was.  Glowing in the distance.  Times Square.  The pace of the march picked up.  The cycles dropped off and lines of cops on foot would take over.  STOMP, STOMP, STOMP.  Puck would be here, then there, then disappear.  Closer.  Wow!  Talk about lights.  Story after story of commercial ads packed with models up into the dark sky.  It was then that the real symbolism of this march became clear to me.  Yes, be where the ball drops at our midnight, but also be at the center of the over-commercialization of American society.  We flooded into the center of the square as if from another world, and we are, aren’t we?  We speak the truth when your normal world of TV channels and news rags seem morally empty.

A cake appeared, as if by magic.  Occupiers delighted in taking a bite, though there were no forks.  The police formed rings around us.  We ignored them.  Our eyes were on the figurative ball in the sky Puck had brought us here to imagine.  10, 9, 8, 7, 6, Puck sat down.  Others joined him.  5, 4, 3, 2, and then Puck spoke.  It wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard from an occupier before.  Why we were still here after a year…  What we’d accomplished…  But in my mind’s eye I heard: Why the potion had worked that we’d all squeezed into society’s eyes.  How people stopped focusing on distractions such as whether or not to raise the debt-ceiling limit, but on the reality of the plight of our very real fellow Americans whom we care about deeply—who have been deceived by the serpent’s tongue of the ultra-rich.  After Puck’s speech, the crowd dissipated and even the cops fell away—as if the occupation had been a dream.  Puck from NYC, Nowhere Man from Hollywood, all of us “meddling fairies” vanished back into the semi-darkness of Manhattan like shadows who’d overstayed their welcome in the mortal world of driven, but dishonest men.  But all of us, Puck included, had one phrase on our minds.  “We’ll be back.”  We are the pressure in society to make amends.

I’ll let Shakespeare’s Puck (a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow) have the last word:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding, but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend;
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck,
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long:
Else the Puck a liar call.
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.


-Nowhere Man-

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Heartbroken and Defeated

By trade, I’m a high school teacher and had, since 2009, been working in some schools that would scare the slacks off Tom Berenger in The Substitute.

I’ve been laid off for over six months and have not been able to find work anywhere; I literally can’t even get a call back from Wal-Mart or Best Buy.  I’ve exhausted my UI benefits and just received a 14 week extension and that’s only if Congress approves the funding by Dec. 31.

I’ve done everything I can to cut expenses.  I gave up my new car for a 15 year-old car with more than 200k miles and a lot more problems, reduced my cell phone plan to the cheapest available, moved into a studio apartment that offers week-to-week rent, been rolling my own cigarettes and getting many food from food pantries.

I’m so depressed and Sallie Mae is relentless.  They won’t stop calling and, despite what they say, they’re completely unwilling to work with me at all.

My debt is preventing me from so many things I want to do in my life, and my girlfriend of two years won’t marry me because of my student loan debt and I don’t blame her.  I’m 27 and I’m worse off now than when I was 17 and that is not hyperbole.  At least at 17 I was working and had no debt.  The right-wing Oligarchs or Plutocrats (six one, half dozen the other in this country anymore) who keep spouting off about low marriage rates among young people and the high marriage failure rate need to re-examine the leading causes of both these phenomenon: IT’S DEBT!

Next time I hear someone say something cliché like “tighten your belt strap,” “pull on your boots,” or “just get a job,” I’m going to kick their teeth in.

Things just keep compounding, pun definitely intended–if you catch my drift.  I can’t cut any more from my budget between rent, gas, and the groceries I need to purchase because they aren’t at the food pantry and I have no money.

So, I’ve lost my job, and instead of flexibility or compassion the vulture capitalists line up at my door trying to get as much out of me is possible before the next one can push through.

I’m at my end.  My student loan is crushing.  It is literally stripping my life away. I can’t get ahead because of it and it is preventing me from ever achieving any sort of economic security.

-Andrew Breen-

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