|BWS Stories - "Reflections of the Way Life Used to Be"...Times Have Changed|
"Reflections of the Way Life Used to Be"...Times Have Changed - My Life in Debtors? Prison
E. D. Santos still works as a part time data entry clerk, a job she has maintained for the past six years, but will welcome job offers, or better yet, a huge contract from a major publishing house! She and her books can be found at her website www.bookcantina.com, where she doubles as her alter ego, Tejana Juana.
My Life in Debtors? Prison
Debtors' prisons, also known as poor houses, were abolished in England over a century ago, and in the United States, imprisonment for unpaid debts were determined unconstitutional in 1833. But prison can also be a state of mind. Here, the author relates her serious-yet-humorous story about becoming entangled in a cycle of debt and its many-faceted ramifications, a trap that can sometimes be more confining than concrete walls.
As a professional yet little-known writer for the past eighteen years, I have contented myself with making a modest living from my writing, while working part-time jobs for a steady paycheck to pay the bills. Most of these "lesser" jobs included teaching evening classes, temping at hotels' front desks, but primarily working clerical jobs in various kinds of offices.
About three years ago, something happened that forced these opportunities to dry up for me, and as I continued to send out inquiries and resumes, I was rarely granted interviews, and was certainly not getting hired.
What had happened?
I was sure that it had to do with my age (I'm middle-aged, and I don't color my gray hair). Although there is a law in the books against age - or any other -- discrimination, it nevertheless does happen. But proving it is next to impossible, and besides, the current political atmosphere has rendered such laws toothless.
Whatever the reason, I was in a serious predicament: How was I going to continue paying bills, including creditors, without the needed additional income? I began to panic, fearing total unemployment and its inevitable next stop - homelessness.
My Criminal Past -
At one point in my job search, I was informed by a state agency that I was unemployable due to an "outstanding warrant" for my arrest in Los Angeles, California. Having once lived in Los Angeles, I could only conclude that the warrant must stem from my one arrest there - thirty-six years ago!
It was 1971, the tail end of the Love and Peace era, and my boyfriend and I decided to hang out at Griffith Park, confident in the knowledge that our small stash of downers (barbiturates) would be quickly depleted in that one afternoon.
I recall being loud, probably obnoxious, to my boyfriend as we argued about something, and as I turned to dramatically stomp off on very wobbly legs, two policemen appeared out of nowhere and immediately frisked us. I vaguely recall much else except the fear of going to jail, as they had already found my tinfoil roll of drugs in my pocket. Preferring to think of it as a bad dream, I dropped down on my butt and buried my face in the dirt, hoping they would just go away. I'm sure that act alone secured my trip to the precinct house.
At any rate, I later appeared in court and was ordered by the judge to not only fulfill three years' probation, but also three concurrent years in a therapist's office.
Both of those requirements were met. I know that for a fact because spending just one night in Sybil Brand Institute, a women's prison, was enough to scare me straight. I was NOT going back to that place!
Now, thirty-six years later, it appears that there may have been a second part to that arrest. Having chased down the few leads I could get my hands on from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, I discovered that the aforementioned warrant, which was issued in 1973, derives from an offense given only as "public peace."
It sounds like I was arrested for handing out flowers at a peace rally!
But if the warrant was issued based on my public display of drug-induced disturbance of the peace in 1971, why was I never previously informed of it? I never made any secret about my place of residence, and the County of LA -- including my probation officer -- had every opportunity to find me without much effort at all.
This begs the question, how is it that I was later able to get a driver's license in Texas after having given previous residence locations in California? How is it that getting pulled over for speeding never turned up this information? Curious, isn't it?
My Activist Past -
I would love to be able to say that I participated in at least some of the protest marches of the Sixties in California, but the truth is that I was one of those lazy protestors, content to watch other people get their heads cracked by the riot police as I watched the evening news, indulging in my favorite alcoholic beverage. I was there for them, though, screaming "Right on, brother!" "Right on, sister!" "Hell no, we won't go!"
I was terrified, as I stated earlier, of going back to jail, so making public my protestations was out of the question.
When Cesar Chavez began his marches for equality in the fields, I really began to feel the twinges of guilt. It was becoming so much easier to drown my sensitivities in booze and drugs ... in the privacy of my own home, of course. When I moved back to Texas in 1974, I had somehow created an aura of mystery around myself in that everyone assumed I had been there right alongside Mr. Chavez making a stand for La Raza. I didn't do or say anything to dispel that myth.
It was when I discovered that the politics of my small town were severely skewed against La Raza members or suspected members, that I realized all the rumors about local conspiracies had some basis of truth. I was dialing my brother's house to talk to his wife one day, when a male voice at the other end of the phone line picked up and identified himself as "Sheriff's office."
"Oops, wrong number," I apologized. Dialing the number again - carefully - I was taken aback by the same voice, same response, "Sheriff's office."
I gingerly hung up the phone, stunned, and looked up the Sheriff's phone number, which was - you guessed it - nothing like my brother's number. I later discovered that it was possible to wiretap a phone without coming into the home. It's done as a "piggy-back" connection on the line just outside the house. Of course, wiretapping is illegal, but I say again, how is that supposed to stop some unscrupulous person (or persons?) from doing it?
What does the above-mentioned story have to do with my current dilemma? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. I do know that I can't get a job in my own home town. I also know that employers here are not likely to utilize expensive background check services unless they are a government agency. But when certain small-minded, small town individuals get the tiniest sliver of news, they do love to gossip!
You do the math.
My Indebted Past -
So now we come to the subject at hand. Admittedly, I have never been able to keep a lid on my spending, though you'd never know it. I don't buy expensive cars or jewelry or any of the other trappings of conspicuous wealth, real or imagined. My biggest expenses have gone toward self-publication costs, promotion of my books, computers and software, those sorts of things.
Some twenty years ago, I found myself in a world of credit card debt from which I was extricated only with the help of a consumer credit service that operated free of charge. I also had the good fortune of being able to find full time jobs back then, so my debts were -- in time -- surmountable, then eliminated. At that time, of course, I had decided I wouldn't let that happen again, and I stuck to that plan easily, using cash only in my purchases.
In the past couple of years, however, the economy being what it is, it became increasingly more difficult to maintain that way of life, and gradually, I began to utilize credit cards again to tide me over when I couldn't meet my monthly expenses. Needless to say, cashless purchases give one a false sense of security, and before I knew it, my credit card bills were through the roof.
That was when I launched into Plan B -- finding more work -- which brings us back to the beginning of my story regarding my problem about exactly that. I am firmly convinced that the new mandate about all federal and local law enforcement agencies sharing information - a post-9/11 safeguard - had a hand in this. Not that I am against any measures to keep us all safe, but that doesn't mean it's being accomplished effectively. Follow this line of logic:
A criminal records search for my name and social security number in Texas and in California will turn up nothing. However, a bright red flag goes up on a national level search. That means that none other than our good buddies at the FBI have my records. Why? For disturbing the peace? No, it simply means that information sharing, according to the Los Angeles County clerk's office, has taken on a new definition. It means clearing out all your old records and dumping them into the FBI files.
Our tax dollars at work.
So here I am up to my eyeballs in debt, creditors calling me daily, repeatedly, relentlessly, with no way for me to pay back my debts because I CAN'T GET A JOB!!! Add to all that the well-known practice by many employers in doing a credit check on potential employees, to see if they might be a "bad risk." Huh?!? Doesn't applying for a good-paying job show the employer that the individual is TRYING to get out of the hole? Talk about a catch-22 situation.
I need a better-than-minimum-wage job to pay back my debts, but I am being prevented from getting that job. For whatever reason - take your pick from the above outlined possibilities - the cosmos is stacked firmly against me. I mean, heaven forbid that it might cause a rip in the fabric of the universe if I were to get a break for a change!
My financial status couldn't be more steeped in the toilet than it is now. Do I sound bitter? Wouldn't you?
Meanwhile, I am still plugging away at various means of hopefully making money through my writing, such as entering writing contests, submitting my work to magazines, etc. It's not a steady gig by any stretch, but I'm still hoping for that big break. The big break that will free me from this prison of debt.
Any big time publishers out there? Call me.