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Surviving the recession

As the bottom dropped out of the economy, The Times began publishing a series of “postcards” from the recession. Recently, we asked a handful of our correspondents for an update. Some have found light at the end of the tunnel; some are thankful to be stuck on hold; some are still in the dark. The one sure thing? There’s no going back to the way things were before the collapse.

Sweet home, and Alabama
Kerry Madden

A year ago I moved to Birmingham, Ala., to accept a full-time, tenure-track job as an assistant professor in creative writing — an offer I could not refuse in the midst of recession.

I flew home to Los Angeles five times, and my husband and younger daughter flew to Alabama three times. Now we are beginning Phase 2 of Alabama- California life: Our younger daughter started sixth grade at a middle school in Birmingham this week. Our older daughter is a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence, and our son has just graduated from UC Santa Barbara and moved home — to L.A., that is. The college loans are staggering, but with my paycheck and my husband’s, after 22 years at L.A. Unified, we’ve started to hack through the dense forestation of college debt.

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I love my students and colleagues in Alabama. My students range in age from 20 to close to 70. One wrote about his father, a one-armed alcoholic who ran a sandwich shop in the 1950s, and another wrote about her grandfather who was the iceman in Birmingham in the 1950s, and it’s likely that the one-armed man bought ice from the grandfather. We had a cracking thunderstorm that seemed to underscore my fiction workshop almost every Thursday night in the fall. I teach in the Humanities Building, where the cornerstone is dedicated to George C. Wallace.

But it’s difficult. I never thought of Los Angeles as home until I had to leave it. My husband may eventually move to Alabama, but we can’t afford to wreck his pension. In Birmingham, I pine for old friends, exploring L.A. noir haunts with my son and taking in indie films with Junior Mints. And where is Trader Joe’s when you need it? Most of all, where is my family? We are together and apart, and likely to remain so.

Kerry Madden is the author, most recently, of “Up Close: Harper Lee.”

Spanish lessons
Fred Taylor-Hochberg

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The recession sent me to Spain. I lost my job at a law firm in San Francisco just as the economy tanked, so I went to Madrid to teach English. Now that my teaching contract has expired, I’m back in California and back in school, getting a master’s in public policy from UC Berkeley, with the eventual goal of immigration policy research.

People often ask me, how was Spain? I am terrible at condensing my answer into something appropriate for casual conversation. Do they really want to hear about how lonely I was at times, about how easy it was to find drinking buddies and how hard it was to find friends? Do they want to hear about my disagreements with how English was taught or about dealing with the kids’ apathetic parents or the startling lack of organization at my school (and in Spain in general)?

Of course they don’t, because that’s whining and nobody likes whining. They want to hear about the good and the beautiful things: Moorish palaces and wine and beautiful women with black hair and flamenco and flowerpots on whitewashed balconies. So I talk about that stuff.

And really I should because, in spite of all the things that made living abroad difficult, these amazing things really exist, and I am extraordinarily lucky to have seen them.

Fred Taylor-Hochberg started classes at Berkeley last week.

A new state of mind
Candice Reed

My husband lost his job; my free-lance fees didn’t make up the difference. We refied, but we could only get a subprime mortgage. Finally, we had to sell. I was a disheartened California boomer. And then I moved to Washington state.

We found a place on Lake Chelan for less than $1,000 rent and an electric bill lower than lunch for two at Johnny Rockets. When I saw the price of butter, I did a little dance in the grocery store.

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I found a job in the newspaper business again. In March, when my book came out, I was in demand for free-lance writing and speaking gigs about trying to help others find or create jobs. It was like 1999 again!

My husband, who had worked since he was 18, retired on a small pension and Social Security. He spends most of the day biking up the hills and hiking through the forest. Our town has a bookstore, a movie theatre, fine dining, shopping. Wineries dot the hills and traffic is nonexistent.

We have no desire to own a home again. We’re out of big-time debt. We have enough left over each month to travel around this new state of ours. The sky is blue 300 days a year because we live in the high desert, and this past winter was mild. For the first time ever, I experienced four seasons.

Of course I miss my family and friends, the beach and good Mexican food, but the paycheck helps with flights to San Diego. I had to let it happen, I had to change. Don’t cry for me, California.

Candice Reed is the coauthor of “Thank You for Firing Me! How to Catch the Next Wave of Success After You Lose Your Job.”

Life in the Sierra
Samantha Dunn

Reports say the U.S. economy is improving by degree, but all I can personally attest to is that it has gotten no worse. What has improved since the economic meltdown is our ability to make a life on half the income we once enjoyed.

We moved from Southern California to the Sierra foothills so my husband could pursue his dream job with the California Conservation Corps. We found an idyllic farm, I got pregnant, and the recession hit. First, state cutbacks kicked in, then freelance work evaporated faster than a snowcone in the Sahara, and my publisher canceled all its book contracts.

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Today, we’re holding steady. I have a little more freelance work, although rates are on par with what they were 15 years ago. My husband still has that dream job, albeit with a pay cut. Still, with free eggs from the neighbor’s chickens, and our combined income, we manage to keep food on the table, pay the rent and keep the lights on. Turns out kids are just as happy to play with sticks and rocks as they are with Einstein baby gadgets. Life isn’t comfortable, but it is doable.

Samantha Dunn is the author of several books. She teaches in the UCLA Writers Program.

My parents’ keeper
Gustavo Arellano

I now pay a mortgage — for my parents.

Last year in these pages I lamented the impossibility of buying a home despite my white-collar career. Then, my father lost his job. He was a short-haul driver for nearly 25 years, servicing the ports of Long Beach and San Pedro and points from Thousand Oaks to Oceanside. But clean-air regulations went into effect that forced my father to quit unless he wanted to spend thousands to modify his big rig or five figures for a new one. At 59, neither option was viable.

My father hasn’t found work since; the trucking market is now glutted with thousands of unemployed workers, many of them immigrants like Dad. Add that my mother has worked only part time since she was laid off in 1997 from the old Hunt-Wesson tomato cannery in Fullerton, and that my two younger siblings only work part time, and the responsibility of the monthly note falls to the oldest kid in the family — me.

I pay it gladly, given what my parents have given me. And because my parents bought their Anaheim home more than 20 years ago, the mortgage is just a third of what I pay in rent for my minuscule apartment near a massage parlor.

But I honestly don’t think my father will work again; who wants to hire a 59-year-old Mexican with a fourth-grade education, except for the most menial of jobs, jobs that usually go to people half his age and without papers? So until my parents qualify for Social Security, it’s my responsibility to pay for a house I haven’t lived in for years.

And I’m exactly where I thought this economy would put me, despite adding a mortgage payment to my budget: Owning my own home is a ship that sailed long ago for me, one that I never expect to see again unless I win the lottery or discover a perpetual-motion machine or something.

Gustavo Arellano is a columnist at the OC Weekly.


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