Thursday, December 6, 2012

Check Engine

Some people might call this a sob story.  I don’t care what you call it.  It is my story, and at least it now feels like the sum total of my life now.

A slip-and-fall lawsuit from one of my employees really hit us hard.  Marcus Jackson didn’t just get rich through a legal raid on my coffers, he also got rich at the expense of four people whom I had to let go to pay for the court costs and insurance hikes resulting from the payout.  Business wasn’t great before the lawsuit and I hardly had time to improve in the areas where it was needed while trying to defend against Jackson’s lawsuit.  The economy was steadily getting worse too.  I started to just hand his lawyers the keys to the place and walk away at one point.  But I still had over two dozen people working for me so I hung on for them. 

My wife didn’t like the cutbacks we had to make.  She demanded that we sell the business and I “get a regular job.”  She was from money and didn’t understand how much my employees depended on me.  My people never let me down and I couldn’t let them down for an opportunity to save my own hide.  The arguments at home got worse and more frequent.
Two of my closest employees had gotten into some trouble a few years back.  But I knew they were good people who had just made some mistakes.  After they’d got out of prison, I gave them their jobs back.  If I shut down, they wouldn’t be able to find anything else.  Several people I had hired were very specialized techs and finding another job in their field would me a move to another city. 

Then came the Obama administrations new plans for my business.  Obamacare wiped me out.  There was no way I could stay afloat after it hit.  Between the already high taxes, regulations and assorted red tape, I could no longer operate.  Maybe if we hadn’t been nearly cleaned out by the slip and fall lawsuit a few months before, maybe then we could have still made it.  If the economy was stable, maybe we could have held on. 

I put the company up for sale with the stipulation that anyone who purchased it, would have to keep the employees.  To make a long story short, no one even bit at it.  I lowered the price as much as I legally could and still no one bought me out.  I finally had to just shut the doors and let the bank have it. 

It was during this time or maybe a little before that my wife left me.  She made up a good excuse that sounded better than “his money ran out.”  She claimed I’d said mean things to her, from which she’d never recover.  Sure, I did.  I said mean things to her after she called me every name in the book and told me what a loser I was for disrupting her cushy lifestyle.  She got half of everything except the house and got to keep her victim-status around town.  I was the bad guy for yelling at her while she sat right there and watched me lose everything without lifting a finger to help.  In fact, if she hadn’t blown through our savings, we might have kept our heads above water.  Of everything I lost, I’m last sadden about losing her, at least now. 

The housing market was pathetic.  There was no way I was going to possibly get enough from it to even coming close to paying off the note.  Months went by and I was unable to pay my mortgage.  I just couldn’t sell my possessions fast enough. The bank got it too.  Anything with money owed on it went to the bank.  I made a smart comment to the bank official about how they must be really cleaning house thanks to the Obama administration.  He snapped back and said that in a lot of cases, it was costing more for them to repossess and attempt to resell property than it would have been to just let the people keep it and pay what they could.  That sure made me feel better as I was packing up my memories and walking out the front door of what used to be my home. 

I was thousands of miles away from any relative and besides, I didn’t want to go back to my family.  If I had fallen on my own knife, my dad was the type who would run up and twist it.  Anything bad that happened to me was because I did something different from the way he did things and therefore wrong.  Besides, he had been retired for a long time and like most old people I knew, offered simple advice to complex and overwhelming problems.  The business is failing?  Just sell it!  The house won’t sell?  Lower the price!  The bank is unhappy?  Just talk to them! 

So a former business associate offered me a part time job, which was a lot considering the fact that his business was in bad shape too.  All I still owned of any value was my car, which was luckily paid for.  With my last few hundred dollars, I bought a gym membership so I’d have a place to shower and clean up each day.  I also purchased a deep-cycle battery and rigged my car engine to charge it and my car battery each time I drove somewhere.  With gas at close to $4 a gallon, I didn’t drive far. 

Each day after work, on the days I did work, I drove to where I could hit an open Wi-Fi signal.  I’d surf the internet looking for new jobs but there wasn’t much out there.  The deep-cycle battery powered my laptop and a lamp I got for reading.  I spent a lot of time in the library on my days off. 

On day in the library, I looked around and saw several guys sleeping here and there.  They were always there but I took extra notice of them that day.  I was one of them.  I was homeless.  Even with a part time job and a place to sleep, I was homeless.  I didn’t go back to that library, not for a long time.

One night a cop came and tapped on my window.  I rolled it down and he asked me what I was doing.  I usually tried to keep anyone from knowing that I lived in my car.  I told a half-truth.  I said that my wife and I had a fight and I had to get out of the house.  He told me that I wasn’t allowed to just camp out in a parking lot like I was doing and that if he saw me again, I was going to jail. 

I drove to a coffee shop and went inside.  I more or less stayed up all night.  The cops gave you less trouble if slept during the day in parking lots anyway and I was only working for a few hours that following morning.  If you were sleeping in a parking lot during the day, you were just a tired consumer, catching a nap after a busy day of spending shopping.  Or maybe you were a husband who was sleeping dozing in the car while your wife was inside whatever store, running up charges on your 20% interest credit cards.  Carry on, sir!

Even that wouldn’t work each day because of my work schedule and the fact that the noise of the day kept waking me up most of the time.  This is when I discovered that camping out at truck stops up and down the interstate was easy.  I’d move to another one each night and between four, the night clerks and attendants rarely ever saw me twice.  If I didn’t have the gas to drive back to the gym, I could always shower in one of the large travel centers.  When I was too far from one of those, I learned to bath using a single occupancy bathroom sink.  Hygiene was must to me. 

Walmart and a few other big box stores don’t mind you sleeping their parking lots at night or at least didn’t back then.  Once in a while, I’d stop in and spend the night there.  My money supply was getting to the point where I would soon be able to rent a room somewhere.  Getting out of my car and into a bed a night was my new financial goal.

 I was also finding new ways to make money such as flipping small items on e-bay.  I’d go into a Goodwill or other thrift shop and see something interesting.  I’d use my cell phone to look up its value.  If it was something I could turn a profit on, I bought it and resold it online.  I kept two boxes in my trunk with items that I was selling and ones that needed shipping out to customers.  I made about $100 extra a week doing this but it was hard work.  You had to beat people to the thrift stores and know when and where to look. 
One day an old lady accused me of “raping the store” where she shopped for trinkets.  I blew it off but saw her get into a newer SUV and drive off later.  I wish I would have told her that I was doing what I was doing to put gas in my car, which I lived in, while she was filling up her attic and storage building with junk she bought with her social security check. 

My next stroke of misfortune happened while I was camped at Walmart.  I had gone inside to pick out a DVD to watch on my laptop.  This was one of my favorite things to do and I usually got most of my money back by reselling the DVD online.  Sometimes I had them up for auction before I’d even watched them myself. 

I came outside carrying my bag with a bottle of coke, a snack and my DVD.  A guy in an Obama “Hope” tee shirt approached me and asked me for a dollar.  I told him that I didn’t have any case and kept walking.  He said something as I walked away but I didn’t hear what it was.  If he hadn’t been wearing $50 pants I would might have given him a dollar or two.  They were worth fifty bucks because I’d sold a few online in the past couple of months.  I owned a pair of slacks, a pair of shorts and a pair of jeans that all total might be worth $40. 

Being streetwise is something I never really was.  I didn’t notice that the guy had followed me back to my car.  He watched as I took out my laptop and put in the DVD.  A few minutes after that, he appeared at my window holding something wrapped up in a piece of cloth. 

“Give it up or I’ll pull the trigger,” he said like he was asking for a drink refill from a waitress.  “Give it up.” 

I seemed to just run on autopilot as I opened the door and handed him my laptop.  He clutched it under his arm and ran away.  I sat there dumbfounded and half in a daze over what had just happened.  I got out of the car after a few minutes of just sitting there and walked into walmart.  I went straight back to the electronics section and found the cheapest laptop they had.  That was when it hit me and I got my senses back. 

Walmart security called the police.  When the police got there, they seemed interested in helping until they realized I was a homeless person living in my car.  Then they sort of blew it off and suggested that I somehow knew the person who’d robbed me and I’d given up my laptop perhaps because of something I owed the robber.  The security tape showed me just handing the laptop over.  But I pointed out that if it was just part of a deal, why would the man in the Obama shirt run away?  The cops didn’t care but wanted to know why I walked back into the store after being robbed and it took me ten minutes before I contacted security.  Now I could see they were suggesting that I was trying to steal from Walmart and maybe the other guy was in on it.  Like I said, I wasn’t streetwise at all and didn’t realize that when cops get sick of dealing with you and your problem, they often start trying to accuse you of committing a crime so you’ll get scared and leave them alone. 

Now comes the part of the story where the reader suggests to me how they would have fought the robber off or done things differently while dealing with the cops.  Keep in mind that I’m not a hardened street tough like most people seem to think they are these days.  Less than a year before I was a dedicated husband, a business owner who was loyal to his employees and a man who’d never even been in a fist fight.  As far as the Obama shirt the robber was wearing, I just can’t get over the irony.  It had to be mentioned.  I was robbed from the top down to the bottom. 

So I decided to just get some rest and order a cheap laptop from e-bay the next day.  That was the day that the “check engine light” came on in my car.  I took it in for repairs and the tech said it was just an oxygen sensor that had gone out but there was a more serious problem with the engine.  It was going to cost me everything I had in the bank and then some.  I sort of broke down.  Maybe it was really a problem and cost a lot to fix.  Maybe the mechanics were just trying to rob me like everybody else.  I wanted my laptop back, my only source of entertainment in the world.  I made a scene and left before they had a chance to throw me out. 

I still bought a laptop from e-bay.  I also bought a large knife that I wear on my belt sometimes.  The check engine light glared up at me everywhere I went.  I tried to drive it as little as possible.  My car lasted a few more months and then one morning wouldn’t crank.  I was able to paying the $200 towing bill but not the repair costs.  So I lost it too. 

Now I am sitting in the library with the rest of the homeless people, telling you this story.  Good luck.

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