There are as many roads to penury as there are paupers to follow them. As a writer, I always tried to see my own journey as material for nostalgic anecdotes to be delivered during acceptance speeches at some national awards galas. I like to imagine my struggles as leisurely, rather loopy jaunts.
Today, in real life, this jaunt is looking really rough. I'm on my way to sign over the pink slip on "Moby Dick," my white 2000 Buick Century, as security on a loan, so that I can pay my rent, two weeks late and counting. My destination is a storefront in a bleak San Jose strip mall between a liquor mart and a shoe repair shop. A fuscia neon sign beckons: "Fast Cash! Paycheck Advance! Auto Title Loans!" There, my signed pink slip will net me $1000 in cold cash, which I promise to repay over two years at an interest rate of about 98 percent.
I back out of my carport, find a jazz station playing rueful sax, and hit the road. The rain that threatened all morning arrives now in earnest, and the mist on my windshield quickly turns to tears, as if to make up for the ones I'm holding back. Somehow, my whole life seems prologue to this humiliating ordeal. It could be worse, I console myself, which only reminds me that it may, indeed, grow worse. The wipers begin beating time to the bitter scold in my head: why didn't you, why did you, why didn't you, why did you?
"It'll be okay, mom," says my daughter, guessing the reason for my silence. She sits beside me now, as she always has, and in a way nothing has changed-although her once downy head has grown into an avalanche of blonde-streaked waves, and the rattles and sippy cups have given way to a plastic box of eye shadow that she dabs on in the passenger mirror.
She has just graduated from college and is herself seeking a "real" job. In the meantime, she has moved back with me-compounding the financial pressures but giving me a comrade in the trenches. I understand, without taking it personally, that to not follow in my footsteps is for her almost a career goal in itself. Who can blame her? Financial turmoil has shaped her life since her father left us when she was three years old.
I merge onto Highway 280 South. The road is nearly empty on this Saturday morning. I picture commuters still enjoying their leisurely breakfasts before heading out to spend their spendable incomes.
As the miles unreel ahead, I cannot resist backtracking mentally over my own highway of choices that delivered me to this pass. How many wrong turns? How many dead ends, detours, directions unheeded? Or is the problem deeper still? The map is wrong. The destination does not exist.
Perhaps-now that science is revealing the biology of personality-I am just genetically wired to be broke. My inborn character quirks always seemed to have veto power over good intentions and resolutions. By age seven, I was already displaying the traits that have cleft my life like a fault line: dismissive impatience with saving, impulsive overgenerosity, dislike for routine and generalized temperamental unmanageability. Reading Aesop's fable of the grasshopper and the ants, I quickly identified with my gangly orthopteral soul mate, shivering out in the cold with his inedible fiddle.
South we hurtle from Palo Alto, wellspring of limitless venture capital, none of which has ever moistened my bank account. I presumed to live in this costly enclave so that my daughter could attend its top-ranked schools. And was that another wrong turn, I wonder, hearing her reel off anecdotes of her classmates: snobbery, sports cars, anorexia, grade grubbing, and soccer field behavior that would shame a velociraptor.
In 2000, after years of battling the gridlocked commute and enduring the petty bullying of middle managers, I left my marketing communications cubicle, planning to work freelance and support a modest writing existence. I believed fiction was calling me. There were story plots scratched on the message pad on my bed-stand table or scribbled on the back of parking stubs or the flap of an envelope as I drove. Many of these had already deteriorated into wads of lint at the bottom of my purse. It was time to start drawing down that cache of ideas, the only savings account I had.
And what makes you so special, my roadside Greek chorus now chants, that you just had to walk out on a full-time job? Did you think yours was the only quiet desperation or stifled ambition? While others remained on task, year in year out, dutifully paying their bills and building their 401ks-something you were too "artistic" to bother with-you were planning your exit, every single day. And when the Millennium came, that just had to be your new beginning too. Only now do you think about your kid. You are a bundle of plastic twine floating on her ocean, lying in wait to wrap itself around her wings with your self-imposed poverty, neediness, irrational ambition.
Last week, I dusted off my interview suit and explained to a succession of loan officers that I was a "freelance technology writer" (though I understand most technology about as well as do Stanford's pampered cattle, gazing down on us now from their velvet green hillsides). All I needed was a little "bridge loan" to get me to the next big project, right on the horizon.
What else could I have said? That I'm a perennially aspiring novelist whose self-indulgent, autobiographical short stories are probably read solely by other writers and the editorial staffs of second-tier literary journals? That I have spent the last eight years trying to shoehorn myself into Hollywood's clenched consideration, resulting in one low-budget feature and five options simmering gently in a broth of perpetual revision? That all of this frenetic activity has yielded so far one bankruptcy, a credit score too low to register on the loan calculators, and tax arrearages accruing interest briskly? As a borrower, I am about as appealing as a glass of silicon wastewater.
So I walked out of the last bank with my head high and stood in the parking lot feeling sorry for myself. Then I looked at my Buick as if seeing it for the first time.
I drive a Buick because my father, a remodeling contractor who died in 1981, drove Buicks. His were truly noble steeds, though, back when a Buick wore an aura of romance and panache: the midnight blue Riviera he bought when business was flush; and the mauve Roadmaster-the last Buick before his business failed, precipitously and permanently, during one of the nation's lesser recessions. The stress had driven him to barbiturates and alcohol, effectively ending any possibility of rehabilitating his finances. My sister and I grew up on my mother's wages as a department store clerk.
My own Buick, finally paid off after eight years, has been through a lot, and today's barter is only the latest insult. In 2005, it was repossessed in the rain at 3 a.m. by a couple of husky young men, who had it up on the tow-truck by the time I emerged in a ratty bathrobe, holding my Lhasa Apso.
"Put some shoes on," one of them said.
The Buick looked forlorn and reproachful and a little silly, its capacious rump elevated by a chain, its grille tipped into a puddle. When a copywriting windfall enabled me to redeem it a few days later from where it huddled in a dusty south San Jose repo-yard, a girlfriend said admiringly, "You always land on your feet."
Her metaphor was wrong. I had not yet landed.
We enter San Jose at last, this manufacturing hub whose arcane etching rituals and caustic baths gave silicon the wherewithal to transform mind into matter into money. That money, however, always seems to migrate north towards Palo Alto and Menlo Park; toward the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs and marketing whizzes, while many of the neighborhoods here remain chronically indigent and crime-riddled.
It takes two or three passes around the block in what is now a freezing deluge to find the auto loan storefront. We park the Buick, and Nicki, impatient with my umbrella, leaps out and makes a dash for the door which looks close, but is actually far enough away for her to get thoroughly soaked. I come up behind her, and she grins sheepishly, the rain bedewing her face and lashes, the damp tendrils of hair pasted to her fresh, unconquered skin. I am suddenly dazzled:
"Young Girl Caught in a Downpour," I mentally title the artwork. We wrestle open the door, and a line of people turns at the cold, wet draft, one or two actually smiling in commiseration at the sight of us. They are mostly poor: Mexican and Filipino, African-Americans and Pacific Islanders; many elderly, several young mothers with children hanging from every limb. There are two women in wheelchairs and several veterans of my generation wearing bill hats with numbers and letters on the front.
The young woman at the window smiles too, although the line is long, the paperwork complex, and her computer temperamental. She hands us a battered camera and tells us to photograph the Buick's VIN number and its odometer. My daughter waves me to a chair and ducks outside-again without the umbrella-although the rain is now coming down in sheets. Seconds later, massive thunderclaps trigger little screams from the women. Several of the veterans flinch and then look straight ahead, jaw muscles working.
When Nicki re-enters, she is thoroughly drenched, and I thank her with faux exasperation, pulling off her outer sweater as though she is a kindergartner and helping her on with my own. Shivering, she offers only a token protest.
"Thanks, Mom." The people in line titter indulgently. I catch the eye of an elderly Mexican lady, and she beams a universal smile of motherhood at me.
And all at once, everything is all right. It's more than all right. The Buick is merely fulfilling another of the roles it was intended for. Like reindeer to the Inuit, my car is both transportation and sustenance. This is not a hard landing, but only a port in a storm.
So I sit beside my daughter, watching the rain through the window until it subsides and a cold blue sky peeps out amid the turbulent clouds, and a fresh wind begins to whip the treetops. The line slowly shortens, and when it is our turn, I am presented with a small bale of papers on which I provide my signature in about forty places. The clerk counts out a thousand dollars in small, used bills and, feeling far from dissatisfied-even a little rich-we leave and get back into the Buick.
Image by Jim Cooke.
Linda Boroff grew up in Santa Monica, and graduated from UC Berkeley. She has published a number of short stories, and her screenplay adaptation of the biography, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story by John O'Dowd is currently in development.