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One Strike and He’s Out--of the Middle Class Economy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On July 13, at a little past 5 p.m., I signed my name to a ponderous new mortgage on my home. That turned out to be my last act, to date, as a fully licensed participant in the great American middle-class economy.

Less than three hours later, in a fit of either high principle or lunacy (I bounce back and forth between the two), I went on strike with other union members against my longtime employer, voluntarily surrendering a good-paying job with the kind of side benefits Taco Bell workers can only dream about.

For two months since, I’ve been watching with terror and something like relief as a prosperous, mostly unthinking way of life recedes.

I’m hardly the first middle-class person to find himself in a financial fix in this day of corporate downsizing, even though my economic wounds are, like principles, self-inflicted. After 25 years in the journalism trade, I know all too well that a huge, growing mass of my fellow citizens never have known, and likely never will, a life in which a $23-a-pound prosciutto di Parma is an occasional possibility, and company-paid health insurance an enduring fact.

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Still, an unbroken quarter century of comparatively high-class employment makes it hard to see the style of living it engenders as anything less than a birthright.

Two months removed from that employment, I find I’ve already devolved into a lower economic creature, darting about in the underbrush, always on the verge of panic, ever watchful for predators.

Pre-strike, even with two daughters in college, I never found it necessary to skimp on the exalted foodstuffs that have always served in my household as a substitute for lavish vacations, late-model cars and burgeoning individual retirement accounts. Veal chops at $9.95 a pound? I’m feeling good today. Give me four the size of catcher’s mitts.

Just before the strike, I was at the market, and had placed a few boxes of not-very-expensive imported dried pasta in my cart. A woman coming up behind me lifted a box of that brand, checked the price and muttered, “A dollar-forty-nine? They’ve got to be kidding.”

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Higher economic creature that I was, I found her reaction curious. This was not terribly expensive stuff, and it was clearly superior to the bargain variety. What did a 70- or 80-cent difference matter?

You should see me in the pasta aisle these days. Worrying over the choices. Trying to figure out how, if I pick the pasta I want, I can make up the extra 70 cents elsewhere on my shopping list with, say, generic coffee filters. Castigating myself for such profligate mind-play (you really ought to get the bargain pasta and the generic coffee filters).

I’ve discovered, ironically, that having been comfortably middle class can be an advantage when times grow tough, at least where food is concerned. A recreational preoccupation with cooking, more typical of the comparatively well-off than of the economically stressed, has better enabled me to combine pleasure with the new frugality.

The other day, I stood before the meat counter calculating for a full 20 minutes before investing $8 in a large half-breast of turkey. I concluded that, with the huge bag of fresh seasonal vegetables acquired earlier for a dollar and change at a local farmer’s market, the household could have a slap-up Sunday dinner--turkey roasted by the indirect method on the outdoor grill, and a generous pot of ratatouille--plus a terrific cold dinner of same a day or two later, plus a minimum of three hefty turkey sandwiches for later in the week, all for about 10 bucks.

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I felt pretty pleased with myself until I realized that the care I once reserved for weighing words, ideas and artistic images I was now expending on the flesh of dead birds.

Since the strike began, I’ve found part-time work at $6 an hour at a small retail shop. I’ve fallen into the habit of thinking of the prices of things in terms of how many hours it takes me to earn them now. This concrete thinking helps me keep a clear perspective.

For example, I recently decided to treat myself, after an 11-hour shift at the store, by meeting a friend at a taproom that specializes in microbrewery beers. While sipping a $4 pint of porter, I was suddenly taken aback by the thought that an hour of my labor currently fetched 1 1/3 pints of this beer. Two months earlier, an hour fetched about 10. I can’t say the porter tasted all that much better for the realization.

Nowhere, however, is my economic devolution so apparent as in my changed attitude toward cash. I’ve pretty much dropped out of the modern electronic system of exchange. I haven’t written a check or used a credit card or visited an ATM. I have a profound new need to see my diminished wherewithal in fiber and metal as it comes and goes. I take the pay from my part-time job in cash. This cash--lettuce, cabbage, scratch--comforts me. It is tangible evidence of my continued, if decreasing, liquidity. I like packing it in my wallet and carrying it around. I pay for groceries with it. I hand it over to the shoe repairman and the auto mechanic. When my car is running on empty and I find I have $3 left, I buy $3 worth of gasoline.

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And when the cash is gone, it’s gone. Further spending awaits further earnings. There is no fooling around with any sort of if-come.

I like to think I’ve picked up a few purifying insights in this strange time of lawns that dare not be watered and leftover coffee kept overnight to be microwaved the next morning.

I’ve learned this middle-class life is awfully tenuous in a society separating yolk and white into the blithely rich and the eternally struggling. I’ve seen, too, that I’m a little more resourceful than I thought, and have figured out that a person is more than his or her job and income.

Surely there’s an enduring benefit to this living bad dream of a bourgeois. I probably won’t know that for certain, however, until the end of this strike. If it comes.

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