Unemployment, and my new car

I am embarrassed to be collecting unemployment. I am embarrassed about it because my husband has a good job. I am more embarrassed about it because I have a brand new car. I feel like Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen driving a welfare Cadillac,” but it’s not like that. Really. We needed my job. We have two kids in college, and my job paid for our health insurance as well as my son’s tuition. Now my unemployment barely covers our COBRA payment.

My old car, with 150,000 miles, is paid off, and I gave it to my daughter to get her to work and school. We tried all summer to share a car and take the bus, and it was hard. Not impossible — lots of people do it — but it was difficult, and this fall it will be tougher. She is working in Encino and going to school two days a week in Valencia, and we live in Echo Park. And I am looking hard for work. There are great deals on cars and the interest on a car loan is a lot less than on a student loan and I bought the most basic, no-frills model I could find. But it’s brand new. And a beautiful color. And I love it.

A friend just lost her job — the lousy job that barely covered her mortgage and didn’t last long enough to get her unemployment — and I don’t want to drive my new car over to commiserate with her. I actually thought about taking the old car and just not mentioning that I had bought a new one. She’s the first person who would be happy for me, who would tell me life is too short and to enjoy it, but when I heard she’d lost her job I felt sick — about my new car. In all honesty, I bought the car and cried all the way home from the dealer.

When I lost my job, I let my one-day-every-other-week housekeeper go. The car payment would pay her salary, but I’m home now and I can clean my own house. I feel guilty about her and about the memberships to the Sierra Club and the ACLU and others that we’ve let lapse. But this is Los Angeles, and I have to drive wherever it’s necessary for job possibilities and to the super-cheap grocery store miles away and to my therapy group, which is actually free but very far from home.

Collecting unemployment is complicated for me. This is the first time I’ve ever done it. I’ve been entitled to it in the past but have never applied. I’ve just gotten another job as soon as I could. I always thought if I were able to work, and there was work to be had, then that’s what I should do. My mother believed that the government owed us nothing except public school, traffic lights, police and a fire department. President Kennedy’s admonishment, “Ask not what your country can do for you” etc. hung on the wall in her first-grade classroom all 25 years she taught.

But this time, I had a job with the state, and I was laid off because of budget cuts. I lost my job because of the state’s bad management. This time, I feel I deserve some recompense. I wanted to keep working at that job. I put up with furloughs and pay cuts without complaining. I liked what I did. My immediate bosses liked me. I had great evaluations, and I’ve been given wonderful letters of recommendation. I offered to take another pay cut and work fewer hours just to keep my health insurance. But the powers that be chose to lay me off, so now they can help me and my family until I find another job. They can help me buy a beautiful new car. In any case, unemployment doesn’t last very long — not forever, like I thought my job would; not even until my kids are both out of school.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself. I paid in all those years; it’s my turn to get some back. “They owe me.” That’s what I chanted as I drove to a job interview today. That and “I have to find work.”

If we’re careful, if nothing goes wrong, we can afford it — all of it. Tuition (with my daughter’s scholarship plus a loan). Healthcare. Our mortgage (if our tenant stays in the garage apartment). The basic bills (but we’re not turning on the A/C no matter what!). And my car payment. I can afford to drive my wonderful new car, but I can’t help being embarrassed by it.

Diana Wagman was a professor in the film program at Cal State Long Beach.