You Wouldn’t Like To Be My Neighbor

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about the neighborhood. I’ve actually written quite a bit about my neighborhood before, and I haven’t exaggerated much. There’s the weird assumption that Bay Area residents live in one of the most affluent, progressive parts of the United States. Anyone that actually lives in the Bay Area knows better. Oh sure, we’re in this huge melting pot of international culture and history, but the whole wealth thing? Yeah, that doesn’t go so far. Unless you’re living in Silicon Valley, Marin County, or own a vineyard in Napa. Even San Francisco, for all its technology and splendor, has a huge homeless population. If you walk even just a couple blocks away from say, Union Square, you’ll notice that the Tenderloin looks and feels very different from Nob Hill. All cities have poverty, but San Francisco lets you see it up close and personal. I hate treating the Tenderloin like a modern Mordor, because there’s probably a lot of stuff worth seeing. Yes, there are strip clubs and prostitutes, but the food is cheap and buildings are decorated with murals! Not to mention it’s the only way to reach Japantown and the San Francisco Public Library from the north on foot…

Anyways.

I don’t live in San Francisco, though. I live in a smaller, but no less dangerous city about 40 minutes away. No, I’m not going to say which one it is (sorry, e-stalkers!), but I will say it’s one of the worst parts of the Bay Area. Not Oakland, but pretty close. I’m talking about a city that’s been mired in perpetual debt even before the economy crashed in 2008. It’s much like the Wild West out here; crime is rampant, and the police force is so underfunded, it’s not even funny. Someone tried to burn down the courthouse not long ago. No, seriously. The school system here is probably one of the worst in California, and that’s saying something. The other end of town has been developed into a modern urban sprawl, leaving this end perpetually stuck in crappy-1970s-crime-drama mode. This part of town is definitely working class…for those people that actually work. My neighborhood used to be one of the greatest districts in the city, but it’s long been forgotten about; the century-old buildings are in disrepair, and the former main street is a deserted husk of boarded-up shops. All the major chain retailers are, of course, at the opposite end of town. The closest business to the house is an adult bookstore, a yoga place, and a seedy corner drugstore. It is not safe to walk around at night, and it’s not much better during the day. A man was murdered in the street in broad daylight about three houses away. Police sirens are common at night, and gunshots only occasionally. I’ve heard screams a few times. That story I wrote about a drug deal going down in front of my driveway?

Yeah, that happened.

So, why do I still live here? Family. The house I live in has been part of my family since it was built about a hundred years ago, and it’s been my pseudo-base of operations for my entire life. The neighborhood has just gotten worse over the decades, but the house is still quite liveable. The recession hit my family hard, so a little banding together was needed to make sure we got through it. I’ve been saving up, but it’s hard when you have to take care of the disabled and elderly. Now that I’m unemployed, I can’t just strike out and look for an apartment. It’s expensive to live in the Bay Area, and I’d need something way better than minimum wage to maintain a decent standard of living. It just feels…I don’t know. Like I’m stuck in a trap. I know I’m smart and capable enough to find something better, but how? Where? No wonder I like traveling to the city so much; it takes me two miles to get to the nearest bus stop, but at least it’s an escape from all of this.

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If I Had A Billion Dollars…

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about winning. Specifically, what you’d do if you won one billion dollars, tax-free. I like that the prompt included that little bit on the end, because that makes things far less complicated in terms of structuring a portfolio. Nobody likes paying taxes, and doing it for a billion dollars would probably physically hurt. So, what do you do with that kind of money? A lot of people would spring for some kind of mansion, cars, an island, etc. Sorry to be boring, but I don’t think I’d go that route. Not immediately, anyway. Having that much cash suddenly dropped on me would certainly solve some of my short-term problems, but it’d potentially cause a ton more without a good amount of foresight and planning.

There’s a pervasive belief that being rich means you can retire. Maybe you’ll get a big coin vault and go swimming in it like Scrooge McDuck. Or maybe you'll fight crime. Spending the rest of your life in the lap of luxury sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it? And while it’s technically possible to do with a tax-free billion, it would be inherently limiting. The amount of money in your account isn’t as important as how you spend it to maintain your standard of living. Basically, stuff adds up. Read up on Warren Buffett sometime; the dude’s lived in the same house since 1956. His lack of extravagance is something I’d like to emulate. For example: I don’t have a car, so I walk and take public transit. Sure, that makes me a scrub in most people’s eyes. But I’m saving thousands annually on insurance premiums and maintenance. The same goes with the phone; I’ve been using the same ratty old flip phone for the better part of a decade. Its data plan is almost non-existent. It doesn’t have a camera, a music player, or even the Internet. But it can make or take calls, and that’s all I need.

General rule of thumb/common sense: If you want to make a profit, earn more than what you spend.

However, that doesn’t mean I could or want do more. Money is one (and certainly not the only) means by which we get resources and opportunities. I may not need a smart phone, but it’d make managing a business and building relationships much easier. So, if I want more opportunities, I’d have to make more money. I’d get the immediate problems out of the way, like getting the house paid off and health insurance coverage handled. After calculating my standard of living and doubling it in case of unforeseen expenses, the rest would be left for investments. Since this money is tax free, I won’t have to put all of it immediately into my IRA, though a portion of it certainly would. Some of it would go towards at least a few interest bearing accounts or fixed-rate CDs, even though the percentages these days are pathetically low.

Did I mention I was in banking for 12 years?

The investments wouldn’t be just in terms of accounts, either. Technically, everything you own is an investment. They just have varying degrees of necessity and returns. I may be a huge geek, but I know a week’s worth of groceries is always better investment than a TARDIS replica. If you’re in the photography business, you don’t just get the best camera money can buy; you get one that doesn’t break your bank and still suits your needs. If you’re a diplomat en route to Beijing, it’s probably a good idea to invest in learning Mandarin. Everything you pick up along the way are just pieces of the foundation of your financial career.

Mine would likely include investments in real estate development, particularly in China. Renewable energy, psychology, educational, food, transportation, and health care technology developments would also be essential. Communications, preferably with a focus online streaming and messaging, would also be a priority. Privacy, too. The stock market is also plausible, but it’s way riskier. I still have chilling flashbacks of working at a bank when the recession hit. I’d rather have a good, steady burn instead relying on just finicky economic confidence. Once I have a solid return, I’d donate to charities, particularly those involved with world hunger, depression, and education. Maybe start a college.

…And build a personal library. Deep down, I’m still a bookworm.

A Dozen Years: The Rise And Fall Of The Boss Man

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about loss. That one’s really relevant to me because I lost my job not too long ago. Without getting into specifics, I worked for a dozen years for major company. It started as a summer internship, then a part-time position during college, then a full-time thing after I got my degree. I had the unfortunate timing of graduating just before the recession hit. As in, weeks. Since the employment market was terrible, I fell back on my old standby position and dug myself in. I loathed the thought of going back to my former job, but it was the safe, logical choice. I developed more on a professional level, using my experience to transition from an aloof part-timer into a leadership role. I was very good at it. It didn’t pay much, but I was earning enough to recover what I’d spent on my education and save for retirement.

And it drove me nuts.

Aesop once wrote that familiarity breeds contempt. It’s very true, and it goes both ways. I learned a ton about leadership, procedures, and on-site training, but I loathed how dehumanized and empty I felt every single workday. The younger staff respected me for my years of service, insight, and refusal to play office politics, but eventually they took my responsibility and competence for granted. Even though I was still in my late 20s, I was nicknamed the Boss Man. I even mentored some of my higher-ups! I didn’t fit in with this newer generation of corporate worker; what they teach in seminars is what I learned the hard way, through hands-on experience and patience. Good work ethics had been watered down into statistics. I had too much pride to just phone it in for the sake of meeting quotas. You can’t quantify the human connection with a pie chart. I voiced contempt for the new corporate atmosphere several times.

Too many times.

When I got the call at home, I wasn’t entirely surprised. I had an inkling I was going to be replaced; why keep a mouthy old-timer when they could just hire and train someone new for a fraction of the pay? The possibility of transferring to another position was dangled in front of me like a carrot on a stick, and I played along for months. But at some point, someone decided I was more trouble than I was worth. So it ended with little fanfare. A simple, impersonal telephone call from HR stating that I’d been terminated and that the necessary paperwork would be sent to me. Twelve years of service, and that was that. I jotted down the notes, thanked the HR representative for informing me, and hung up the phone. I sat there quietly for about a minute. Some of my family was in the room. I said, quite clearly:

“It’s over. They cut me loose. I can’t go back now. But it’s okay. It’s okay. I’m just trying not to panic. I’m trying…not to panic. I’m trying not to panic. I’m trying not-

Then I started crying. Hard.

I’m not the emotional type at all. I’m the clever one, the one people go to for insight and advice. But in that moment? I was in free-fall. I’d read about panic attacks when I studied psychology. Never thought I’d have one. But within seconds I went from sobbing to gasping for air. My arms went numb, and my head was in agony. My heart felt like it had aged a decade, and the room was spinning. But about all else, it hurt. Regardless of how much I hated my job, a dozen years is a long time. It felt like a chunk of my body had been ripped away. I had put so much of myself and my life into it, and now it was gone. It wasn’t just a place to work, it was a place to go, to meet new people. Now all I had were the memories and skills I had developed. After all those years of service, I’d be nothing more than a footnote, someone quickly forgotten and replaced. It felt like a betrayal, even though I’d practically walked right into it.

Eventually, I stopped crying and focused. I’m great at looking things from a critical, logistical perspective, and this was nothing different. Looking at the calendar, I realized that my health insurance would end in a week and a half. Thanks, HR! I scrambled to get appointments for both my dental and vision care. You think fitting a check-up into your schedule is hard? Try getting an appointment during Thanksgiving week. It’s even harder than you’d expect. With a lot of searching and phone calls, I managed to squeeze in both appointments before the month ended. Now my teeth are all sparkly, and a new pair of nerdy-but-hopefully-attractive glasses will be on my face next week.

I might even post pictures.

After that, it’s more basic stuff. There’s filing for unemployment, and taking care of the arrangements for my 401K. I’m getting the paperwork organized. I’m going to be doing a résumé for the first time, and it’s going to look pretty weird. I don’t think employers expect to see someone holding a single job for a dozen years. There’s health insurance to consider too; now that my safety net has been burned away, I’ve got to find some to tide me over. I’ve heard the phrase, “Everyone has to have health coverage in 2014!” so many times, it’s annoying. It’s like a survival mantra or something. Of course, not everyone’s going to get it; try saying that to the next homeless dude you see. Go on, try. He’d probably laugh in your face. As for me, I already know I need it; I just need to figure out out which one. I’m holding off until January, because paying premiums twice is something I’d rather avoid.

After that? It’s…murky. I don’t know what other job I’d be suited for. Just have to take these uncharted waters one day at a time. I’ve come close to failure and managed to overcome it before. I intend to do so again.

Fighting The Fire Within

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about anxiety. Now that’s a subject I’m all too familiar with. It’s really weird with me, because I don’t panic in the face of direct danger. When one of my neighbor’s houses caught fire a few winters ago, I went into full-on confrontation mode, rallied as many people and extinguishers as we could find, and fought the fire. Granted, the firefighters showed up like three minutes later, but I kind of surprised myself looking back. I was so focused that it took me an hour to realize that I was outside wearing nothing but a t-shirt and shorts in subfreezing temperature.

Adrenaline is funny like that.

That situation just serves as a contrast to what I’m really anxious about: the future. Not dying, but living. This is my first winter in a dozen years (and in my adult life) that I’m unemployed, and it’s surreal in the worst way. I had to literally ask people what to do, because this is entirely uncharted water for me. There’s this underlying sense of guilt and shame. I don’t want to leave the house, I don’t want to spend anything, I don’t want to be a burden. I try to avoid turning on lights because I don’t want to cause a huge spike in the electric bill. Christmas – what little remnants of the tradition remain in my family – has been canceled. From an objective standpoint, I know I’m doing okay. I’ve been in worse situations. I’ve always been the type to save up and only rarely splurge, so it’s not like I’m going to starve.

And yet.

Late at night, there’s always that sense of dread, those vague little whispers that seep into the cracks of my foundation and try to topple me from the inside out. The fires of doubt and self-contempt burn within and try to consume me. Notions that I’m a failure, that I’ll never get anywhere, that my writing skills are useless, that I’ll be reduced to eating out of cans like I was in college, that my tastes and proclivities make me too unconventional for others, that I’ll never find a well-paying job that makes me happy, that I’ll end up alone and destitute, that the old concept of the American Dream – that family and house – might as well be from another planet. That I’m completely lost. That what little I do have is slipping away from me, just one day at a time…That maybe it’s not worth it after all.

But I will not give up.