Moving out

I realized that as much as I love my friend, she lives in a world radically different than mine

BRATTLEBORO — Stopped at the traffic light on the Main Street of Brattleboro, I see a man in his 60s, gaunt with an unshaved face, bent over his bicycle.

The handlebars hold a stuffed black plastic garbage bag that I assume holds his earthly belongings. He holds up a can and is spraying and combing the purple nylon fur of a large stuffed animal with big floppy paws.

I try not to stare.

He flips the ears over fondly and combs carefully underneath. Sure enough, this is a stuffed purple rabbit.

A polished wood guitar is tied by ropes to the handlebars. He is so intent on grooming the rabbit and getting him ready for the ride that he does not see me. I want to offer him a hot shower and good night's sleep but know not to take in strangers.

* * *

Earlier, I had spent hours debating whether to shop; when I reached the checkout line at Hannaford, I realized that I had forgotten my wallet, cash, and credits cards at home.

When I was 20 and newly married, a week of food - including a sirloin steak plus a bottle of red wine - cost $24. After this round trip to the supermarket, I had $102 worth of food crammed in three small brown bags. If I go to Keene and shop at Market Basket, the food is cheaper, but I pay for more gas.

I used to think nothing of shopping at Lord and Taylor or Bloomingdale's, which I referred to as Bloomies. Even Saks Fifth Avenue was a possibility.

Now I shop at thrift stores, the dollar stores, second-hand shops. I have learned the difference between what I want and what I need. I need food, clothes, and shelter. I need to earn a few thousand dollars to add to my Social Security.

* * *

Like millions of others, I came to the end of my unemployment benefits after being downsized from my job. I tried for a year and a half to get another teaching job.

Then I stepped out of the box and applied for jobs at the Brattleboro Retreat and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. I applied for jobs as an administrative assistant, jobs working part-time as an adjunct at two-year colleges.

Nothing worked.

Even when I thought it would work, even when I was asked by the director of the summer program in a private school to apply for a summer teaching position and told over the phone my application looked great - even that failed.

Then I recalled the online application form that asked for my age as of June of this year. I wrote down my true age - over 65 - and never heard from the director of the summer program.

Two weeks later, I phoned to inquire about the status of my application.

“No jobs are available for you,” he said rudely.

I debated a lawsuit for age discrimination, but we live in a small community. I know teachers who work at that school. Was a lawsuit what I wanted? Of course the answer was a resounding no.

All I wanted was a job - any job - that would make me a contributing part of society so I would feel useful, not invisible.

I was having books published, but how many persons read poetry? I was host of a radio show, but how many listened or cared about excerpts from the letters of starving Vincent Van Gogh?

My last option was Walmart in New Hampshire.

* * *

I drove down to Massachusetts to visit old friends who were moving to a luxury condo in Georgia on some island. You know the kind: a gated community with a swimming pool and sauna and a lovely water view, marble bathrooms, and stainless-steel kitchen appliances.

I told my friend that I was considering cleaning.

She looked shocked.

”Doing what?” she asked. As if my idea was not only unthinkable but disgusting.

I reminded her that jobs were scarce in Vermont; in fact, a young father of two, a decent man, had recently committed suicide, hoping that his life insurance would keep his wife and kids going for a while.

”Everyone knows jobs are scarce in Vermont except for the tourist trade,” my friend said sarcastically.

Vermont, I thought. How about the damn rest of this country? How about what is happening to all the millions of families with kids to feed, all the mothers and fathers who cannot get a job?

I realized that as much as I love my friend, she lives in a world radically different from mine.

* * *

When my grandparents were my age, my parents supported them; in fact, my grandfather lived with us. Now, many of our children are barely making it from one paycheck to the next.

How long can so many people continue to search for jobs and not find one in spite of their best efforts, determination, and courage?

I mentioned to my friend that the dollar is worth less each day. This did not concern her either, since she is busy discarding every single book or piece of furniture or clothing that will not fit into the new luxury condo. She is buying new furniture.

She is leaving. Moving out.

How many others who have money have already left or are packing up and moving to safe, gated communities in remote places with a swimming pool, sauna, and a gym five steps away?

Moving to a place where they will never see a man on a bike combing the nylon plush fur of a purple rabbit, a tied-up guitar, and belongings thrown into a black plastic bag?

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