My husband got a new job a few weeks ago. We moved back to the city from upstate, borrowing money from his mother to put down our security deposit. Great news, life-changing, it was supposed to be.
For years, we’ve been looking for a leg up; we’ve been broke and barely getting by. I’ve been working between four and six jobs at a time, and my husband had been working toward something more stable and with benefits for years. His new job will provide health insurance in three months. His commute will be 20-30 minutes instead of an hour and a half. We sunk what little money we had into moving, contingent on that new salary, contingent on me continuing to work all four jobs I’ve been working the past couple years, and prepared for our new, more comfortable life.
And then the coronavirus hit.
My husband’s job is in construction, which means if the economy keeps crashing, especially as he’s the last hire, I assume he’ll be the first to go. It means for him to keep it, he has to commute via New York City transit every day, which is obviously risky now.
All my jobs have gone online, so I can stay home to be with our two kids, whose elementary school closed down last Monday. But this has an impact on my work. I already work on weekends and late at night and early in the morning, and also all the hours my kids are in school – I usually read between 700 and 1,000 pages of student work and books in order to teach in any single week. I manage to write as well. It has always been a lot, but I have gotten it done. Now, for maybe the first time, I do not see how I can. There are only so many weekend and early morning hours. How long can I keep this up?
I’ve been putting everything on the credit card and trying not to think about it. The panic buying I did a few weeks ago – all that food that I thought would last a month – is already gone. Snacks are perhaps the most reliable distraction when you’re homebound, especially with children. We ate an entire loaf of the six-dollar challah that I’d bought the children as a treat meant to be split up over days in a single afternoon. I sat idly eating from the jar of peanut butter during our “math lesson” on Monday, only to panic when I realized that the peanut butter was almost gone. I ate the last bar of emergency chocolate I’d bought myself last night, anxious about the schools closing, and sad, as a former NYC high school teacher, about all the kids I knew who would lose so much now that they didn’t have their schools.
We were on a walk last weekend and our older daughter had to go to the bathroom so we went into a nearly empty bar by our apartment. All the servers were standing by the bar talking about the virus. I was a waitress for a long time, and, though I’m trying to do my part to social distance, I wished that I could sidle up close to them and tell them how sorry and how scared for them I am. I remember the bone-deep fear of a patio shift on a Sunday when it rained unexpectedly and a day that was supposed to provide a sixth of my rent suddenly resulted in $20. I don’t need to remember those years because I’m still living them. Just two years ago – as a mother of two and the sole provider for my family – I was told my boss was stepping down and her replacement might not ask me back the next semester. That quick stop into the bar was a tangible reminder of how precarious my finances have been and continue to be.
The title of this column is Two in Five, because that’s the percentage of Americans who couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency. That’s one good brunch shift as a server in New York City; 20 hours of childcare in Brooklyn; a third of a six-week teaching gig at a community organization; half a column at a major publication; one quarter of my biweekly pay at my most well-paid adjunct job. Maybe I’m more used to being scared than people who don’t do gig work; my life has been precarious for years. But also, I’m used to being one of the people bailouts and an economy on the upswing doesn’t touch. That $1.5tn dollars injected into the stock market, payroll tax cuts – these have nothing to do with our lives or our precariousness.
One bad week or one lost job or cancelled shift – not to mention a pandemic – is all it takes to push us backwards. I know better than to think anyone will come and save us, better than to think our landlords will give us a break, that our ability to access healthcare or childcare won’t just disappear. And now, we’re staring down not weeks, but months, of this.
Two in five of us live in constant fear of when one single catastrophe destroys us, debilitates us, gets us behind on rent or forces us to have to cancel some service or essential thing that only feels expendable now that we have no choice. We already felt, almost always, like we were one stroke shy of drowning, and now the emergency is here, it’s both invisible and unrelenting – there is no end in sight. It’s hit all of us at once.