On Pennilessness

Rendered penniless! Perish the thought. There was a time several years ago when we were on vacation in Vermont. There were so many bottles of maple syrup to buy and so many quaint little train rides to take where we could witness a fabulous Vermont Fall. But all of these things required cash.

We felt quite confident when we inserted our ATM card into the machine and asked for $100 or so in “fast cash”. But soon enough it was abundantly clear that even slow cash wouldn’t be forthcoming! It’s a wonder our ATM card didn’t get shredded by the machine: our account showed us heavily overdrawn and in the red.

We were effectively penniless in Vermont. It was a sinking feeling. We had credit cards but many years of our misspent youth well defined the words “credit abuse” so we were trying to reform and weren’t up for mortgaging our future any more than it already was.

There was nothing we could do except get sullen, sulk, bicker and point fingers; we were a bipartisan household after all. I was certain I could blame our financial crisis on him and he was certain he could blame it on my shoe-lined closet.

We spent a miserable day or two walking around Burlington, VT and Lake Champlain and then came home to earn some more and get the checking account in the black again.

That wasn’t the only time we experienced poverty, however. During another financial meltdown we found ourselves in dire straits but thankfully not penniless. In our infinite penny wise and pound foolish wisdom we had stashed away several penny jars around the house. We spent many hours checking under sofa cushions, drawers, coat pockets and at the end of our labors emerged with $15 so we could head off to the grocery store for some bare essentials.

We’ve been rendered not penniless (thank god) but certainly nickel, dime, quarters and dollar less for days, weeks and months at a time. We let our credit bubbles get too big, we were out of jobs, we almost always spent as if we had an infinite, albeit imaginary source of money; we almost always had a very myopic stance toward money. Age has taught us some caution but hasn’t obliterated the spending impulse that won’t be quelled and won’t take no for an answer. The only thing that makes sense in those impulsive moments is Scarlett’s, “Tomorrow is another day”.

We know these things are cyclical. If you’re a country perhaps they hit once every seventy-nine years but if you’re a person perhaps the cycles have a higher frequency. So if we are riding a boom today, chances are that the next penurious moment is just around the corner.

We were younger and more agile in our previous troughs. We knew we would land the jobs we wanted, we knew our entire lives were ahead of us. In our weakest moments we even thought that the cushiony familial net would save us, be our own personal “bailout” if we were ever beyond help. Now, after all these years, we are at the age where whether we like it or not subtle and very effectively concealed age related job discrimination starts rearing its ugly head. Our safety nets are also much older themselves and with very specific health care needs and other concerns which are inevitable and only a couple of decades away for us.

So what would we do indeed? What could we do if it happened now?

These days the scene from the movie –Bicycle Thief – comes to mind. In a brilliantly nuanced bit of filmmaking, when the wife of the protagonist goes to the pawn shop to pawn her bed sheets to raise some money for her husband, she notices rows upon rows and shelves upon shelves of bed linen bundles at the shop. In one deft move of the camera we get a very real sense of the condition of the economy.

For similar visual impact one can glance at the boarded up stores, the empty parking lots with tufts of grass and weeds peeking through the cracks of what used to be busy and active manufacturing plants and thriving businesses, boarded up homes, foreclosure signs, signs that indicate that a business is going out of business or liquidating.

In the industry that helps me earn my keep I am starting to read about job eliminations, cost-cutting, streamlining, restructuring. Every day thousands of former colleagues and acquaintances find themselves jobless. Just like a friend from my Yoga class informed us today that she had lost her job last week but is continuing with Yoga since it helps.

I’ve lived through this before. The day I was laid off, several years ago, I felt as if I had fallen down a deep and dark well. I felt helpless and more frightened than I had ever been before. I remember cleaning out my office space then and collecting all the pennies that tend to accumulate in desk drawers and idle coffee mugs. However, I didn’t take these pennies with me. I left them in a quaint little jar and then took some pains to print out a neat little label to stick on it. The label said, “For help toward the cost-cutting efforts of Co. XYZ”. I left that jar on my ex-desk. At that moment my response to the situation was bitter sarcasm.

But what would it be now? No matter how hard I think about it I am not sure how I will react. These days I pass by the hobbling bag ladies and cart-men wheeling their way through the streets of Manhattan as the weather gets colder and colder…and the people who sit around with their head down and a cardboard sign detailing how they lost everything and just need some money for food, I curse myself whenever I have been lazy enough to not break my stride and drop some change in their cups, and the thought that trails me and starts to rise up through some corner of my brain says, “There but for the grace of God, goes Pragya Thakur”.

1 Comment

  1. Pragya, these are sad, desperate times. Yes, all of us have teetered on the edge of pennilessness at some time or the other. You have powerfully connected your individual state with the country's.

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