Life can be soul crushing
So obviously I’m not writing or Internet browsing as much these days. Part of it is due to the fact that I’m working out like a fiend at night. I’m two weeks in on a months long (years long?) journey to lose a LOT of weight. That means everything hurts. There’s a certain amount of humiliation even in trying to exercise. I used to be an avid athlete, and now even a little bit of running makes my knees ache and my gigantic calves seize up in swelling pain. I can’t even always recognize if it is the type of pain to push through with great determination, or the kind of pain that leads to injury and delay and discouragement.
This week, I started on the Couch-to-5K program. It’s three days a week that alternates your workout between running and walking in short bursts and over time, gradually lengthening the amount of running. Literally, you start running for thirty seconds and walking for 90 seconds… for a half hour. I think by week 4 or 5, you are running all the time. They have a pretty awesome app that syncs with your iTunes and tells you what to do… “start running…” “start walking…” “you’re halfway done…” etc. On off days, I do an hour-long walk. Plus 300 sit-ups, every day. So far, so good. I would say that my weight problem is 80 percent lack of exercise related and 20 percent food related. Maybe even 90/10. I don’t eat poorly during the day. The only thing I really need to work on is shutting down the pie-hole after 8 p.m. Nothing good goes in after 8 p.m. I need to regulate the alcohol intake, but I’m not going Baptist or anything. Life is still to be lived. I may do occasional updates on my progress, but I’m not going to make this a weight loss and health blog.
The other thing that has swamped my life has been my attempts to find a friend a job.
I met my friend (let’s call her Tammy) as a customer at the bar right around the corner where she is a bartender. She caught my attention when she knew my name and my drink the second time I went in there. And not because I’m such eye-candy; she just does that. I’ve seen her competently handle a full bar at high volume times without losing a beat. I also noticed the way she treats a lot of the Lawrenceville “characters” — the old codgers on scooters and the down-on-their-luck locals who get ignored at the hip bars, don’t order much, and rarely leave a tip. She knows each one of their names, too, and treats them with kindness and respect. I would visit her bar maybe once or twice a week, but sometimes once every other week, usually on slow nights. On Fridays and Saturdays, there’s DJs and a club atmosphere and that’s just not my scene anymore.
Couple of weeks ago, I went in and Tammy was in tears. Her life was falling apart. She spilled out her story like I was a priest in a confessional. Her best friend had just been murdered in Homestead. Another friend had accidentally O.D.’d. Her boss was cutting her back from 5 days a week to 1. She has a 13-year-old son. She looked at me through tears and said, “I’m a 48-year-old mom with a high school education. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m afraid I’m going to be homeless.”
I could best describe Tammy as sort of a yinzer version of Erin Brockovich in dress, in attitude, in heart, in work ethic, and in her unwillingness to take shit. Yet these last few weeks have beaten her down and sapped her confidence.
I quickly brought Jean into the picture, because I don’t want to cross any inappropriate lines and I ain’t no dummy. We had Tammy over for dinner. She can text on her smart phone but doesn’t know the Internet or even have an e-mail address. I started feeding her job postings from Craigslist, but many of them want resumes. She’s was all “Why does a bartender need a resume? I’m not going for a job in high finance.” I was a bit surprised by this, too. But now we’ve designed her a resume.
And she’s hitting it. Yesterday, she told me that she gave out all the resumes and needed more. So I dropped off 15 more copies this morning. And yet, through it all, she’s only had one job call her back for an interview. She doesn’t know if it’s because of her age (at 48, she looks more like 35, but won’t pass for 25), or because of her education, or because her current boss is bad mouthing her to others. I told her that finding a job these days is just a slog. You may have to see 50 people to find one job. I’m encouraging like that.
The more I’ve gotten to know Tammy, the more her real story has poured out. Her mom gave her up for adoption, then went back to get her when the grandparents told the mom she couldn’t live with them if she did that. So her life began with her mom using her in order to have shelter. Her father was a drug addict. Her mother dealt drugs and brought a parade of “step-fathers” and boyfriends into the home. As an older teen, her mother was arrested on a third strike offense, meaning a long jail term. Tammy was forced into some unpleasant and degrading circumstances in order to have the charges against her mom withdrawn. Throughout her life, she has been used and degraded by other people. Her husband is near the end of a lengthy jail term for beating her and breaking her arm. She has had to be the single provider and parent to a son with some degree of ADHD and autism. He’s been a handful. Yet she never got into drugs or became an addict or turned to illegal activities as a means of escape. She still carries herself with respect and dignity. Her back is straight and her head is high.
Another part of the scarlet letter she carries is a felony conviction in 1989, more than 20 years ago. It was for aggravated assault because of her involvement in a fight. I don’t know much about it. She says she was trying to break it up and got caught up in it. Who really knows or cares at this point? No one was hurt. No one lost money or possessions. It was 24 years ago! But Tammy has to tell every employer that asks that she is a felon. That never goes away. Can you imagine having to constantly come face-to-face with some stupid thing you did 24 years ago when you were young and impulsive? There but for the grace of God….
I know that Tammy is not my problem. I just couldn’t stand to see her used up and thrown out again without trying to help. But it’s so hard. I tend to see the world through the eyes of a college-educated man with a good track record who was born into an upper middle-class family in which I lacked for nothing in the way of opportunity and preparation. Through any door I enter, I am treated with respect and deference. That’s all I know. Tammy had none of those advantages. What if I had been born into her situation? What if I had to go looking for a job as a 48-year-old mother with a high school diploma and a vocabulary that includes more Pittsburghese than the Queen’s English? What if I had to endure all the looks and the fake, disdainful smiles and the polite refusals and the “we just filled that position” responses, even though they still post the job the next day?
Tammy has had soul-crushing and degrading jobs before (legal, but incredibly demeaning and not the kind of thing you put on a resume). She doesn’t want to go back to that. But day after day of rejection has her wondering how she will keep food on the table, pay for rent, and make her car payment. She says that despite all she’s been through, this is the most discouraged she has ever felt. It would just kill me to see her go backward. Yet, even with my knowledge and connections, I still haven’t been able to be of much help to her other than as an encourager, resume builder, email monitor, and Internet job searcher.
Tammy’s not looking for handout. Just a job. She’ll work hard. She’ll work whenever.
In the evening, as I do my run/walks, I do a lot of soul-searching. How many of us are one catastrophe away from being in a situation much like Tammy’s? How many people around us are feeling naked and alone and thinking, I have no idea what to do next? How many times do we judge a person who is merely the product of the environment into which they were born? Where would I be today if I were born into Tammy’s situation? Probably in a cell somewhere near her husband.
Say a prayer for Tammy today. She’s really due for a break in life.