I know they're supposed to be illegal, but society has found some ways around that. The bottom line here is that I may be going to prison not because I've done anything wrong or deliberately committed a crime, but because I've been poor and very, very unlucky... and I know I'm not the only one. I know what kind of scrutiny and harassment writing this may invite, but there is a terrible meme in the nation right now that must be dissected and expunged if we are to move more toward being a more fair and civilized society.
That meme is that 'poverty is a choice'.
After I explain, I know how easy it will be to tell me I 'could have made better choices'. Believe me, I know that. But the choices I made at the time were reasonable choices. Many people have made many of the same choices I have made and managed to do well by them. So the choices I made were reasonable, but things just didn't work out. In retrospect, I could have done things differently of course, but I did not have the luxury of foresight at the time.
As with many forms of injustice, the path to the simple truth is complex. My life has been anything but simple these past few years, so please bear with me.
My wife of 7 years left in late 2008. If I had known why she was leaving, I would never have let her take the children with her. I'd just landed a great job doing home performance auditing. The days were often 12 hours long, so it made sense to let her take the kids with her 'to her parents'. I figured she'd get over whatever it was, we'd talk, and she'd be back on the inside of a month. But she wouldn't talk at all about why she was leaving. I suggested counseling, she refused. I tried to get it out of her, told her there was nothing we couldn't work on or fix. Nothing. I found out the truth later: she met a guy who inherited a VERY lucrative manufacturing business from his famous industrialist father. He promised her everything, and she took him up on it. Right when it looked like I'd finally be able to take care of everything, the floor dropped out from under me. It wasn't the first time, it wouldn't be the last. It might not have been so bad if it weren't for horrible sense of betrayal. The anguish of finding out that every promise to weather hardship, to love forever, and every card and letter iterating devotion and support was a lie was unbearable. The agony was like a scarlet flow of magma filling my head and washing away all comfort and respite from the realization I had been deceived so profoundly and personally and for so many years. I didn't sleep, my job performance suffered, and I lost the job. It was my responsibility to distance myself from my anguish and not let it affect my work, and I failed. In truth, I hadn't been doing that badly on the job, but I think the owner of the business saw my internal conflict and it colored his impression of me for the worse. It's hard to blame him, it was a difficult time. I had been with someone who worked very hard at pretending to be someone they weren't. The real her gladly abandoned the commitment and responsibility of her marriage in order to live without the inconvenience such commitment carried. She couldn't very well tell her new boyfriend it was his money she found most attractive, so the role of scapegoat/bogeyman/deadbeat was superimposed upon me in order to quell reservations he may have had about her motives. Twelve months, one disinterested attorney, and a generous helping of perjury against me later, I was on the bad end of a divorce. I tried to get the kids back, but even though I had a (different) decent job, I also had a penis. In family court in Erie county New York, such a thing counts as two strikes against with no balls. I know that men are partially to blame for the generally anti-male sentiment in family court, and it makes me furious when I hear about men who skip out on their kids and deliberately withhold support. But given my experiences, and there are some stunning examples among them, it's not a far stretch to imagine that the court tends to vent its frustration with them on men who are trying very hard to do the right thing. Which brings me to why I may be going to jail without actually or deliberately having committed any crime other than being broke.
I fell behind. I was ordered to pay child support. I was fine with doing so. Sure, she and the children lived on a half-million dollar piece of property the boyfriend 'bought' from his father (drove a hard bargain, I'm sure), she had a late model Cadillac at her disposal, and a brand new $2000 cat. Yes, that's “two-thousand dollar 'C'-'A'-'T'”, as in fur, claws, nasty temperament and the litter-box scent as delightful as having rancid corn-dogs jammed up your nasal passages by a skilled proctologist (Don't get me wrong, I like cats enough, but the kids tell me this one is a pissant). I also had and continue to have severe reservations about the sorts of activities that she might spend the money on. If the reputation of the boyfriend indicates anything, my reservations are valid. So even though she and the children had everything they needed and then some more, I signed the papers for my job to deduct money out of my pay every week to the tune of $150.
Over the last few years, things have not been very peachy. While working, I found myself going deeper into debt and poverty. One job I lost through an amazing piece of bad luck where I was let go in such a way I could have sued the bejeebus out of the company but did not realize it until the company ceased to exist. I bounced through a few sales jobs where some weeks would be great while others saw the entirety of my pay going to my ex. I sought stability: the one thing I have striven for over the last several years, and the one thing that has been cruelly snatched from my fingertips time and again by events beyond my control far more often than my own blundering. The events often were of the sort you'd expect to see happening to some tragically unlucky fictional character, but happen they did. I take some small comfort in knowing that I'm not alone in that regard. I'm certain I'm not the only one with aspirations and the desire to improve the lives of others. I have book projects I haven't the stability or guarantee of income to finish, inventions I haven't the money to patent, and business models I haven't the resources to realize. I have very little doubt that escaping the 'broke trap' will give me the opportunity to bring about at least a modicum of prosperity to more people or help improve the disintegrating national discourse, but such stability is being held by a pernicious brunette in a blue dress, and no matter how many times I fall flat on my back, I can't help but get up and take another run at it.
My misfortune created gaps in payments and the debt accrued. The last blow, however, was by far the most heartbreaking and among so many other unfortunate coincidences, it bore the worst possible timing.
In January of last year, I had a sales job that required providing my own transportation. It was very promising, as so many other opportunities seemed to be. Also, I enjoyed it. I was selling a service I personally loved door-to-door. I know that some salespeople can be obnoxious, but I wasn't the stereotypical salesperson. I was never really pushy and I really wanted people to try out the service because it just kicked butt. I did pretty well the first couple weeks. Then, a disaster hit: the timing belt on my car snapped.
Normally that isn't a big deal, unless you're driving a car with what's called an 'interference engine'... as I learned my '00 VW Jetta had. In that case, absent proper timing for a few moments, the valves get banged up by the pistons and you might as well replace the head. I didn't have enough to take it to a garage, so I taught myself how to replace the head on a VW Jetta. The extra money I made from those very few weeks of work was just enough to buy a head and a gamut of tools necessary to swap it out. In one sense, I was pretty lucky; my buddy is a mechanic the way TV's “Monk” is a detective. He can look at a running car at 50 paces and tell you the ratio of lefts to rights you've turned that day and how many milliliters of oil are missing from your engine. He happened to be storing many of his own tools in my garage. He promised that he would help me with the repair. What actually happened was that he'd stop by some 3-4 days after I'd call him with a stop-me-in-my-tracks problem, point, laugh, and make me feel stupid about missing something obvious that would otherwise have reduced a monumental obstacle to a bare nuisance. I don't blame him, really. His job was a 24 hour on-call affair and he really didn't have a lot of time. He actually did help quite a bit, but not terribly often. It took me 3 weeks, a fair deal of sweat, a pint of blood that could have gone to better causes, and some of the most foul admonitions of 'Ze Germans' who I had little doubt designed the car while snickering at all the clever ways they could stymie or otherwise injure an amateur mechanic with the audacity to attempt repairs himself.
Did I say 3 weeks? It was... except that I didn't have a torque wrench. When you tighten head bolts, don't guess at the torque pounds. So one puddle of oil and antifreeze in the driveway and 4 more days later, I had a car again. Until the next problem.
I'm not going to account for every single one, so I'll just say that mostly car trouble made my work routine highly inconsistent. I tried using public transportation to reach the field, but it just didn't turn out to be realistic. Again, looking back, I could have done some things differently I'm sure, but even now I can't think of anything that would have seemed reasonable at the time. Not enough money, in this case, meant 'not able to make enough money'. After a final 2 week hiatus from the field at the end of last summer, I called to let my office know I was available again. They had called a week before, there was some phone tag, and then nothing. I just didn't hear back. I figured that they'd just written me off. So I decided to do something very, very difficult: beg my parents for help.
They are not rich. They were hit by the economy like everyone else. But they've had enough good fortune that they were willing to put forward a meager investment to help get a business up and running. They made payment directly to a bank and an insurance company to get us started. Even though things didn't work out, I appreciate that they showed some faith in me, and it crushes me that I failed them.
Again, the short version is that I entered into an agreement with my friend the mechanic to run a roadside operation. There were only a few steps to getting things up and running, and getting coordinated with him was quite a challenge. We had a reasonable expectation that we would be up and running within only a few weeks. I expected obstacles, and there were plenty, but more than any reasonable expectations would account for. Between the difficulties of getting him to stop by and sign this or that form or document, his soon-to-be ex hiding the titles to the vehicles and raiding the bank account he set up, a mysteriously duplicated Dunn and Bradstreet number I had a nightmare getting to the bottom of, and a dozen other issues with his employer, weeks became months. From when we started in November '11 to mid-January, the whole thing became a more massive uphill battle than anticipated. Meanwhile, back in the fall of '11, the ex filed a petition for willful violation of a support order because I simply didn't have the money to pay her. I never tried to have my obligation reduced because I was intent on catching up and making payments. My actual income was comprised of HEAP benefits to help with utilities, $60/week I receive in child support for my son from before my marriage, and help from friends and family to cover bare necessities. I scraped like mad to make sure that when the kids were with me, they had everything they needed. Meeting an obligation of $150/week was simply not possible. In December, I remember holding a $10 bill, looking at an empty fridge, and still sending it to her. I had to starve so she could feed her $2000 cat. I reluctantly applied for food stamps after that. The business was the only thing that was going to get me out of the hole. I looked for other sources of income from short-term work. I even considered the ironic notion of doing something illegal in order to avoid jail, but it's just not in me to be deliberately criminal. Instead, I put my faith in getting up and running.
In January, my friend gave me some of the best news possible. He had left his roadside job due to an intractable relationship with his boss (one of the setbacks we experienced) and started working out of a garage being run by an acquaintance. He'd been there a week and managed to negotiate a deal with the shop owner where we put his assets in and would be given a share of the business. Then, at the behest of his wife, the owner decided that he was going to move to South Carolina and let us run the business.
I went to work at the shop. With the insurance paid on his tow truck, all we had to do was wait for a replacement title to get it on the road. Meanwhile, we were running the shop! My friend had single-handedly improved the reputation of the garage in a very short period so business was picking up. He gave me a brief overview of how things ran and I took to it like breathing. I had enough sales and marketing background to draw on and he had enough shop expertise that we were looking at a very good year. The numbers were excellent. Even at the competitive rates we'd set, the shop would take in between $5000 to $10,000 per week with only two extra part-timers. The expenses came nowhere near that. Not bad. We had plans to invest in new lifts and do lucrative performance work. I was looking forward to the trial set in March that would determine whether my inability to pay was 'willful' or not. I knew that by then I would have been able testify that I'd made higher payments and would be able to eliminate the arrears in a relatively short period of time. I was walking on air. That lasted from Tuesday, January 18, to Friday the 21st at about 3pm.
I'm not telepathic, but I wish I was. If I were, I would have known that the lease for the shop was coming up on February 1st. I would have known that the owner had not informed the landlord that we were taking over. I would have been all over that... if I had known sooner than Friday. Apparently, the landlord agreed to lease the shop to another business. I found this out just after I ended a conversation with my mother about how well everything was going and how we planned to come by The Cape in the spring to visit. My friend told me. The owner didn't even try to undo the deal or anything. I don't have many kind things to say about the man, so I won't say anything here.
'Crestfallen' carries barely a shadow of the meaning and volume of what I felt. I couldn't cry, I couldn't even laugh as I've become accustomed to at such turns of events. I focused. He and I talked about another garage that was being leased. It was a good one, but we didn't have the money. I put my poor Jetta up on Craigslist in the hope that we could get the money together. I had many calls, but no offers close to what we needed. For two weeks, I tried to light a fire under him to pool what limited resources we had and get that space. But he was dealing with his own divorce and his soon-to-be ex was taking the advice of her mother to be as unreasonable as possible no matter how much harm it caused everyone, including herself and their children. Then, in early February, he gave up. He did partly on the advice of his attorney not to 'create' new assets to name in the divorce, but also because he became daunted by the risk a new location carried. It didn't help that another buddy of his was closing a shop due to losses either.
Another dream curb-stomped.
In the few weeks before the trial, I put out resumes and applications to a couple dozen places, attended a job fair, and tried to find work. The phone only rang once. Interestingly, it was during the trial. I didn't answer, but when I called back I found that out of the many businesses I submitted to for work, the only one to call me was a fast-food chain restaurant. I went to an interview, I liked them and they liked me, and now I work the graveyard shift for minimum wage. Given my background and experience, I'm pretty sure they got a bargain. There are many bright people there and everyone is very friendly. I really didn't expect to be working in such a place while looking toward my 41st birthday, but I can say that the bad rap these places get tends to be misplaced.
After working there for a couple of weeks and starting to send higher payments, I received the court's decision in the mail. I was found in 'willful violation' of the court order of support with a recommendation of 6 months incarceration. Sentencing will be on May 8, this Tuesday.
When she received the same letter I did on the same day, she posted to her Facebook page that she “Just got the best news ever in the mail!”
Not because it will get her the money, not because I 'deserve' it, but because it will help support the false narrative she has had to propagate in order to hide her true motives. The 'he's a bad man' theme is bolstered by my going to jail, why wouldn't she be happy? I'll never make a claim to be perfect, and I've made bad decisions like anyone, but the lies I've suffered reflect someone so very different than who and what I really am that I almost feel physical pain because of it.
There is a very bright point, however. My kids. They really shocked me.
Through all of the perjury she committed (you can bet your life I can prove it), I never decided to have it brought up. In NY, perjury in a written instrument is a class 'E' felony. That means possible jail time. I could not bring myself to put up a fight against the sometimes insane accusations and claims she made against me because under no circumstances did I want our children to know their mother went to jail. That would not be good for them at all, and I put them first.
She has no such compunction. I was livid when I found out that she was all too happy to tell the children I was going to go to jail. My little dolly, 9 years old, told me 'mom gave us the news'. So, the gate was opened and they had questions. I didn't want them to know about ANY of this until they were much older, at least in their teens. But she just couldn't help herself. So they asked me why, and I asked them, “Do you know why your mom left?”
I was dreading this. I was ready to do my best to 'nerf' my explanation as best as I could and tell them that she loved them and wasn't trying to hurt them and all my strategies for satisfying their questions were going through my head when my 10 year-old said matter-of-factly, “Because (He) has nice things.”
It was like a glass of warm water was tossed in my face, shocking, but not entirely unpleasant. So we talked for a while, and it dawned on me that they knew almost everything. They told me they knew I was trying very hard and that they didn't want me to go to jail. It was all I could do not to turn into a sobbing mess. I had to turn away and wipe my eyes several times. I told them that so long as they knew I wasn't a criminal and that I cared about them and would always do my very best to take care of them, then it didn't matter if everyone else in the world thought I was a bad person so long as they knew the truth. Despite everything I've had to deal with and the crazy bad luck I've had, those kids make me one of the luckiest dads alive.
And now I sit here, examining the implications of the court's decision to recommend jail. There was no proof or even evidence of earnings or income beyond the subsistence that came nowhere near the obligation to pay. Yet I have been told, in no uncertain terms, that my failure to have sufficient income to pay is 'deliberate'. Worse, I have been told that because I earned a higher income in the past, I therefore have an obligation to make that same income. The exact wording is: “Child support is based on a parent's ability to earn, not what their actual income may be.”. In other words, 'if you're not making what you can earn then you are failing deliberately'. Hardship, and even reality itself have no bearing on the court's opinion. Because I did not document my efforts thoroughly enough, it doesn't matter to the court how hard and earnestly I tried. It doesn't help that I've been without a medication that helps me stay organized for the last several months either. When you're drowning, you're not necessarily concerned with documenting just how you're trying to save yourself. You just try to stay above water. That's the position I have been put in, and it's now very likely to get much worse. I have been desperately trying to hold a life and home together for my children and myself. Jail would mean losing the only job I could find and having to find another while likely living out of my car. That's if New York doesn't take the car to make a dent in my arrears.
It is maddening, and can only be described as insane that the state will punish a person struggling to make payments by taking away or otherwise diminishing their ability to earn. But that is exactly the approach the state uses. 'Broken' would be another way to describe a system meant for deliberate deadbeats but wielded more often against well-meaning, struggling dads and moms who want to do right by their children.
I can hardly describe the angst, agony, and sickness I feel at being told that I've chosen to live in poverty. So many people put barely half the effort into finding gainful work that I have and are doing just fine. There's no way to describe how awful this feels. Yet, in this country, we are afflicted with that poisonous meme that tells us people are poor because they somehow deserve it, and that the rich deserve to be richer. It is not just a meme, it is a sickness that pervades and infects the minds of people who might otherwise have been kinder and more understanding of their neighbor's plights, but instead visit scorn upon those who might have so much more to offer if not for their struggle. Sure, not everyone in poverty is fighting so hard to get out, but after so many efforts prove utterly futile is it any wonder that people might just give up?
I have considered doing just that in a number of different ways. But I made a promise that I would never stop trying to win... so I cannot quit. Ever.
I've written this knowing that nothing may come of it at all, but I'd like people to know that the people struggling around them, the poor, the disadvantaged, the homeless are not necessarily bad people. I understand that once we realize that their circumstances are not the result of some character flaw or deliberate ignorance (if it were, then Bill O'Reilly would be living under a bridge), then we might start to feel responsible for one another and make more of an effort to help lift others up who want to do and be more in their lives. Goodness... can you imagine if everyone believed in helping even people they didn't know? But as a society, we shield ourselves from that sort of social responsibility by stigmatizing poverty. We do this because we are afraid of what it might 'cost' us without ever actually taking the extra steps to consider just how much we would get back if we lifted as many people who could do more to a platform from which they could do it. Instead, with bad credit, no resources, and any meaningful assistance out of reach, millions of Americans have no choice but to rely on the disintegrating 'social safety net'. We are, right now, the nation that holds the ignominious distinction of incarcerating the highest percentage of its population than any other on Earth. That's right, Iran, N. Korea, Russia, every other nation on Earth has a lower percentage of its population in jail than the USA. That is in part because we have gone so far in stigmatizing poverty as to make it a criminal offense. There are many other ways than my unfortunate circumstances through which we as a nation have done so, but what is happening to me is exactly that. The message to me from the state is very, very clear: “You must be in poverty because you have chosen to be in poverty.”, and nothing, not a single fact, piece of logic, or chain of reason can change that one utter truth that has been dropped on me like a million golf-ball sized ball bearings.
I do not 'choose' to be in poverty. Which is why no matter what happens, whether the sentencing judge understands the issue and gives me probation, or whether the judge chooses to see a deliberate deadbeat standing in my place and gives me 6 months, I will try again, and again, and again. I will not ever stop trying to make a better life for my children and to help improve the world around me. They won't be living at the boyfriend's forever. For their sake, and for the sake of helping others in what is looking ever more like an uncertain and dismal future, I will Never Give Up.
Wish me luck, and may you be Blessed for having made it through this piece of my story.