By Piper Bayard
I’m reading The Road. Not only is it making me seriously consider becoming a vegetarian, it’s striking me as an extreme form of the personal apocalypse a lot of folks are facing right now. Unemployment.
Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road. They’re busy avoiding cannibals. Click here for the movie trailer.
Unemployment is a lot like The Road. When you’re cut loose from your source of survival, it’s an apocalyptic event. Sometimes we can see it coming, and sometimes it leaves us like the man and the boy in the book wondering, “Wth?” But even when you do see it coming, there’s this flash, and suddenly the whole world goes to crap, and you’re left not knowing where you’ll live, or where your next meal is coming from.
Yep. It’s happened to me. I’m not sure it was such a mystery, though. That job was kind of ill-fated from the beginning.
During the recession of the late 80s, I had a temp job as a secretary in hospital administration. Here’s a little hospital secret that I learned there. Those $50 aspirins they bring you in your bed? Secretaries have dozens of them in their desks for free. They’re samples from the drug companies that come in single-serving packets. Little white pills wrapped in foil-backed plastic.
So anyway, that temp job led to a permanent job in the hospital as a sort of Julie the Love Boat Cruise Director, setting up educational programs in radiology for visiting doctors. My first day, I had a headache so I opened my drawer at my new desk and saw the friendly white pill I thought I knew from admin. Ok, so maybe it was a little smaller, but what else would be in the desk drawer, right? I took it. . . . I know. Incredibly stupid. Hey, at least I know better now, right? So moving right along. . . . An hour and a half later, I was passed out snoozing in a hard-backed chair in front of my new boss and a visiting doctor. Yes, really. Bad day to discover I was a Benedryl lightweight. It was my turn on The Road.
I learned a lot of invaluable lessons about the people on The Road. This calls for a list or two.
- Some people do all the “right” things and end up on The Road anyway. (I wasn’t one of them.)
- Some really bright people make The Road their way of life because they can’t tolerate the shallow, meaningless existence of thing-based, mindlessly bureaucratic mainstream. They need the struggle to feel alive.
- Some people are there because they are cruel, shifty bottomfeeders by nature.
- Some really good people are too broken to be anywhere else.
- Some live on The Road because they’re too busy taking care of others to get ahead themselves.
- Some are there to learn and move on.
- Some are tourists, slumming it because they have no confidence in their ability to survive without Daddy’s credit card. They want to know they could hang with the have-nots and make it on their own if they had to.
I also learned a lot about myself and human nature.
- Poverty is the father of rationalization. Hey, just because a guy pulls into to a gas station with an untied stack of premium Christmas trees in the back of his ’69 Ford pickup, and he’s selling them for $5 each, but you have to get them right now, and fast, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re hot, right?
- You really don’t know who you are until you’re faced with that lost wallet full of money in your hungry hand.
- Some laws create outlaws, such as mandatory insurance laws. Food is more important than car insurance, and that really is a choice for many of the unemployed.
- There’s a certain level of grubby that makes people lock their car doors when they see you coming, no matter what your race or theirs.
- If you overlap your electric bill and your phone bill just right, you can alternate paying them and never get services shut off.
- You can use “new sale” forms in your back car window when you can’t afford to register it. Warning: Don’t get stopped. Police will have no mercy for this.
- Barter is alive and well, and food is a medium of exchange.
- Poor people have the absolute best parties because they know how to entertain themselves with laughter, song, and dance.
- Government cheese is the best cheese on the planet.
- A Christmas when you have nothing to give is far worse than a Chrismas when you don’t get any presents.
Partly by luck, and partly by perseverence, the ash eventually cleared, the scenery greened, and I found my way back to mainstream civilization. I mean, as much as a writing, belly dancing, recovering attorney, Hospice volunteer who hangs out with spooks can be mainstream.
For those of you on The Road now, I will not insult you with pablum or cliches. But I will keep you in my prayers.
Looking back, The Road was a blessing for me. It broke down my delusions about myself and made me real, because the hard fact is that you don’t know who you are until your ethics are diametrically opposed to your survival. I now know what I am and am not willing to do to survive, and I’m at peace with what I found.
Don’t get me wrong. I really, really don’t want to go there again, but The Road doesn’t scare me any more. . . . Except in the book, The Road. That’s just creepy as hell, though it’s masterfully written. I highly recommend it for anyone who loves literary fiction or who just has too much happiness in their life. You know, maybe I won’t have beef for dinner tonight. . . . Or ever.
All the best to all of you for finding peace on your Road.