Wednesday, February 13, 2013

From Fame to Food Stamps: A True Story

For most of my life, I've been very lucky, having lived a relatively middle-class lifestyle. I came from a military family and lived many places while growing up. Even since I left home at 17 years old, for the next 35 years, I've always had a full-job and supported myself in a comfortable fashion.

Early in 1989, when I was 33 years old, I left everything behind in Philadelphia when I flew to Las Vegas. I arrived with nothing but a few hundred dollars in my pocket and an army duffel bag, stuffed with all my worldly belongings and clothes. I was starting my life all over again.

At first, I stayed with my uncle and found a job downtown, which was five miles away. But because I didn't have a car, I used my aunt's bicycle to get back and forth to work.

After six months, I moved downtown to a weekly motel, walking back and forth to work, which was only four blocks away. Because I lived and worked downtown, for a short time my co-workers had nicknamed me Downtown Bud --- that was my short-lived "fame".

Eventually, about a year later, a co-worker sold me an old car he had, and I paid him $100 a month until it was paid off. Having a car enabled me to find a regular apartment, which was a little cheaper than the tiny downtown motel room.

For the next 18 years, my life had greatly improved --- better cars, nicer places to live, and financial security. I bought a cell phone, a new guitar, a desktop computer and a flat screen TV --- and all brand new furniture and other household goods.

And besides work, I went places and did things. I went shopping, to the movies, and to the local pubs and casinos --- and I dined out at a lot of restaurants too, until October of 2008, when I was laid off from my very last job. At that time I had just turned 53 years old.

Afterwards, for the next 2½ years, I remained unemployed and was forced to use up all the money I had in savings, trying to maintain the status quo while looking for work; until eventually, I received an eviction notice and lost my car.

By this time, amongst all the glitz and excess of Las Vegas, the unemployment rate had hit a record high of 15%, with the State of Nevada having the 3rd highest unemployment rate, the highest foreclosure rate, the highest suicide rate, the 4th highest homelessness rate, and saw one of the highest increases in the poverty rate.

Two Washington economists, Dean Baker and Kevin Hassett, had written an op-ed piece for the New York Times, saying that a worker between the ages 50 and 61 (like myself), and who had been unemployed for 17 months or longer (like myself), only had about a 9 percent chance of ever finding a new job. I guess they were right, because I never found work again.

And from everything I've read, it wasn't just me, many others told a similar story.

Their study also found that in that age group, the long-term unemployed were also more prone to suicide.

As of January 2011, I was five days away from being homeless before a friend had offered me a spare room. Most of my belongings had been left behind. But because I was now destitute, I became eligible for food stamps.

With no money, no job, and no car --- now at 56 years old --- I was starting my life over again. A pre-condition I had with arthritis in my back and neck became substantially worse, and I also developed atrophy from being long-term unemployed.

During that time I opened a claim for Social Security disability, while also getting State Medicaid to see a doctor and to get the prescriptions I now needed. Over the next two years my SSD claim was denied 3 times and is now on a second appeal.

That was also when, on Fox News Bill O'Reilly had implied to millions of his viewers that I had just voluntarily "left my job to go on the government dole".

All my days are spent doing nothing but laying in bed, watching TV, and spending time on my computer. With the exception of my doctor appointments and renewing my health card every 3 months, I don't go anywhere or do anything else --- much like what being under house arrest might be like (but without the ankle bracelet, but instead, living with the constant anxiety of worrying about my financial future.)

I'm 57 years old now, and five long years away from the option of taking an early Social Security retirement at the age 62 --- which won't be until the fall of 2017. But what can I do until then? And even so, that might only be $900 a month --- how could I live on that? Although, it might enable me to start paying rent for my spare room, but not much else.

When I first moved to Las Vegas, I had planned to work until I retired at the age 67 for my full Social Security benefits, which would have been in 2022. But the way things are now, by then I will have been out of work with no income at all and have been unemployed for 14 years.

And now with the "sequester", what if the politicians cut food stamps and Medicaid? How will I live? I couldn't. The politicians in congress who are making $174,000 a year will have decided that people like me just aren't worth the expense of saving.

(Pictured below) Bud Meyers after applying for food stamps in February 2011 --- just two months after the wealthiest Americans got the Bush tax cuts extended for another two more years, while the rest of America was still going broke.

From Fame to Food Stamps: A True Story (from my unfinished novel)


He felt an intense and irrational fear, because although he knew he wouldn't see them, he knew he would feel their stares from the shadowed windows...the stranger's eyes from next door and across the street, penetrating and peering into his soul. He felt ashamed, because he knew they would see his disgrace, the failure he had desperately wanted to hide from the world. He felt helpless, because he knew he couldn't hide or escape their judgment. They would know, and there was nothing he could do.

And now he had to face them again.

He put on his black sunglasses and pulled his baseball cap down snugly over his forehead, then took a deep breath and silently opened his front door. Now the invisible eyes were wide upon him; he could feel their prying eyes as he softly closed the door behind him. He felt his beating heart pounding wildly inside his chest.

He turned the key, locking the door, and with his head down in shame, began walking towards the dumpster. He went through this horrifying ritual once a week, late at night, when most people were sound asleep. He walked the 50 yards to the dumpster, and heavily breathing, threw the large plastic bag inside, then quickly turned around and walked hurriedly back to his apartment.

When he was finally back inside, relief washed over him as he pulled the cap off his head, grateful to be back inside the safe and familiar confines of his small apartment. He was almost certain that no one had seen him this time, although he was never quite sure. But it was a risk he had to take, until now. He had always hated this weekly chore, fearful they might learn something that even he didn't know about himself.

But this time it was different, because this week was his very last trip to the dumpster. He was grateful that he would never have to go through that hell again.

After that night, he had never taken his trash out again, but opting instead, to let the large plastic garbage bags just pile up on his balcony porch for the last three weeks of his life - - - because until that day, Bud Meyers had been planning for the last three months, just exactly how he would finally end his life.

* How will Bud's story end? We won't know until a final decision has been made on his Social Security disability claim to the Appeals Council. With any luck, if his claim is finally approved, maybe Bud will have another chance to start his life over again. Otherwise, who knows what will become of Downtown Bud.

Bud's Related Posts on Social Security:

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