I often lament how out of touch most of us are with everyday people. By “us” I mean a collective endowed with enough spare money to invest and accumulate capital.
As we move up the social hierarchy, our definition of “everyday” tends to drift further away from the on-the-ground reality experienced by tens of millions of Americans. Eventually, we become completely detached.
I’m detached physically (i.e., financially and geographically), but not mentally. My capacity to conceptualize precarity isn’t a testament to my character. Rather, it’s a testament to a character I used to play, once upon a time. I perpetually identify myself with who I was then, even as the passage of time renders that era increasingly inconsequential if we’re to judge a person based on the percentage of their life spent in this or that occupation.
Although the pandemic was a stark reminder that, to quote Deutsche Bank’s Aleksandar Kocic, “a surprisingly large segment of the population is practically one paycheck away from some kind of insolvency,” I’d argue the reality of that still fails to resonate with most members of the upper-middle class in America.
On Thursday evening, I was walking through the neighborhood when a young man asked me where the nearest convenience store was. He couldn’t have been older than 22 and he was woefully out of place. He was African American, dressed in a cream-colored “Poetic Justice” hoodie, a pair of long, Champion shorts and unlaced Timberlands. I avoid my neighbors assiduously, but I know them all well enough to say, with something approaching certainty, that had I not intervened, someone would have called the police, if they hadn’t already. Of course, he wasn’t doing anything wrong, but technically, it’s private property. And one look at the evening news is all you need to know that “trespassing while black” may as well be a capital offense these days.
I briefly tried to give him directions, but some fairly ominous thunder made it immediately apparent to both of us that I was either going to give him a ride or… well, or be the guy who gives somebody walking directions to a gas station that’s at least two miles away when it’s obviously going to rain. I’m a lot of things, most of them bad, but I’m not that guy. I gave him my first name (in case any of the neighbors came out to interrogate him), asked him to wait where he was, trotted home, got the car and came back to pick him up.
As it turned out, this young man’s plight encapsulated almost everything that’s wrong with America, including and especially the myriad socioeconomic hurdles that make upward mobility mostly impossible.
He was on the phone when he got in the car, which I actually appreciated because it obviated the need for the customary awkward exchange, where the person hitching the ride is compelled to profusely thank the driver, who’s expected to say it’s no trouble at all. Neither of those sentiments are genuine, of course. This is 2021 not 1967. The person in the passenger seat invariably (and in many cases justifiably) suspects the only reason he’s riding, not driving, is bad luck, while the person driving is by definition inconvenienced unless he’s an Uber driver.
When he got off the phone he showed me a paycheck. “I just got this job,” he said. It was a company check for $353 and some change. By his account, he lived an hour and a half away (actually two hours based on my experience with the town he mentioned). Apparently, he started out on Thursday (payday) with just enough gas to get to his job. The plan was to work, then drive on fumes to a grocery store on the island known for two things: Homemade ice cream and charging ridiculous fees to cash payroll checks. The latter is good business here because there are scores of unbanked employees working in various capacities at resorts.
Unfortunately for my new friend, the check was post-dated to Friday. The grocery store wouldn’t cash it. When he went back out to his car, it wouldn’t start. In addition to the check, he had $10 that someone in the parking lot gave him. His plan was to buy a gallon of milk at the gas station, empty it, fill it with gas, put that in his car, drive back to the gas station and spend what was left of the $10 on more gas.
I’m sure that sounded good in theory (or maybe it didn’t and was just the only semi-plausible course of action available to him), but in practice it wasn’t going to work.
For one thing, there’s a reason you don’t buy milk at a gas station. It’s expensive. Even more so here. That meant that $4 of the $10 would be spent just to obtain the receptacle. The convenience stores here aren’t exactly Pilot Travel Centers. For the most part, they’re just small shacks with one aisle of snacks, a fridge and one of those old-school freezers with throwback ice cream treats. They don’t generally have “supplies” like, say, gas cans or funnels, and even if they did, they’d have cost more than the milk.
Once he’d paid for the milk jug and the gas to fill it, the $10 would have been pretty much gone. At most, he would have had $2 left to put in his tank, which would have left him stranded nowhere near where he said he lived.
When I pointed that out, he sighed: “Damn. You probably right.” “I’m definitely right,” I said.
It was hard not to laugh. His situation was the furthest thing from funny, but the math wasn’t even close. In fact, given the timing, it was at least possible he wouldn’t have made it off the island at all. Around 4:00 PM, almost everyone here leaves because almost everyone is an employee. He could have easily ended up stranded on a literal bridge.
At that point, the two of us had been sitting in a (tiny) parking lot, blocking one of only four gas pumps for nearly 10 minutes.
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” he said, looking down at his hands. At that point, I did allow myself a small chuckle. “Well, there’s nothing you can do. I’m gonna have to give you $30 so once you get back here, you can buy enough gas to get home.”
“I ain’t ask for all that,” he said, despondent.
Ever the realist, I said about what you’d expect. “It’s not a matter of you asking or me being a nice guy, it’s just that we’re in this together accidentally and this is the only way out.”
He repeated himself: “Damn.”
When we got back to his car, he opened the door, put the gallon jug on the ground, then leaned down and gathered his belongings from my floorboard. He had a keychain with three keys on it, a Nike drawstring bag and his folded up paycheck.
Before he got out, he looked down at the check and then looked at me. “Why would they give me a check I can’t even cash?” It was the first time he’d looked me in the eyes during the entire half-hour ordeal.
I didn’t have an answer. Or, actually, I did. I had a thousand answers. But he had a long way to go. Just so he could turn around and drive back the next day.