Wednesday, August 31, 2011

It’s Midnight in America

Jupiter Images
It’s midnight in America. Brenda can’t sleep. Even with the reclining seat of her old Toyota pushed all the way back, a car makes a cramped, uncomfortable bed. It’s hot with the windows rolled up. Sweat trickles down her neck and pools on her chest and stomach. She could roll down the windows to let in a cooling breeze, but then the mosquitoes would get her. And maybe something worse than mosquitoes. Footsteps on the pavement startle her awake again and again. What if a strange man notices her sleeping in her car? Three miles away, her home sits vacant. She realizes now that she qualified for a fixed rate loan, but the officer at the bank told her she had to take an adjustable mortgage, instead. After sinking her savings into her house, she is homeless. It will take her months to save up enough for deposit and first and last months rent for a tiny apartment. Until then, she will sleep—tryto sleep in her car.

It’s midnight in America. Joe can’t sleep. He breathes OK when he is sitting up, but when he tries to lie down, fluid fills his lungs, choking him. Joe got laid off from his job, because his doctor said he could not stand on his feet all day. It was bad for his heart. His unemployment insurance just about covers his rent and food, but there is nothing left over for his heart medications. Three of them are generics. He gets them at Kroger for twelve dollars a month. The other two are still under patent, and they would cost him $250 a month, if he had $250 a month after his bills were paid. Each night, he struggles to breathe. Once he finally gets to sleep, he wakes up with chest pain. He used to use cheap nitroglycerine tablets, but there is a nationwide shortage of generics like nitroglycerine, and he can not afford the more expensive brand name versions. So he lies in bed, propped up on three pillows, staring at the ceiling, willing the pain to subside. Dawn is a long time coming.

It’s midnight in America. For the third time this week, Janelle has gone to bed hungry. She planned ahead for her retirement. Social Security would bring in $1200 a month. The private pension from the factory where she worked forty-five years would add an additional $1000. Then, her employer declared bankruptcy and sold the firm to another company that kept the plant going but refused to honor pension agreements. The owner of her company was hired by the new firm. He has great benefits and a hefty salary. He eats steak at least three times a week. Janelle gets by on cereal and milk and occasional tins of cat food. Tonight, there was no food in the house. Nothing. She drank a couple of big glasses of water and went to bed early, but sleep eludes her. Around midnight, hunger drives her from her bed. She pulls on a robe and creeps out the front door. Tomorrow is garbage day. The neighbors’ trashcans are on the street. She pulls open a lid and begins to rummage. There’s a cold slice of pizza left in the box. The cheese is congealed and the crust rock hard. She wolfs it down. It tastes so good.

It’s midnight in America. Justin’s feet ache from walking miles, trying to find a tech job to replace the one that was moved to India. He still has internet service, though he has turned off the cable and the air conditioner and he only keeps the phone because he needs some way for potential employers to get in touch with him. His face looks ghostly in the light from his monitor. His brow wrinkles as he reads yet another tech ad that specifies “Must be currently employed.” He recalls how competitors used to try to hire him away from his old firm. Maybe if he had taken one of them up on their offer, he would still have a job. But he stayed out of a sense of loyalty. It didn’t seem right to leave the company that trained him in the lurch.

It is midnight in America. Brian is cleaning his gun. He has a constitutionally protected right to own a firearm, but he has no right to treatment for his bipolar disorder. Right now, he is in one of his down phases. The medications that would help him cost more than his family’s total food bill each month, and to get those, he would have to see a psychiatrist and pay him $125 a visit. He has been down to the local MHMR, but they have a waiting list. When asked during the bright light of day if he was planning to hurt himself, he answered truthfully “No. I couldn’t do that to my kids.” But it is midnight now. The kids are asleep. He is alone with a bottle of whiskey and a handgun. The whiskey numbs the pain, briefly, and it is a lot cheaper than health care. He stares down the barrel of his gun. A bullet is even cheaper than whiskey, and it’s a lot more permanent. He holds the gun to his head. His finger hesitates on the trigger. Will it hurt? Another swallow of whiskey bolsters his courage…

Dear Mr. President. I know you wanted to emulate Ronald Reagan. I know you were planning to run your own version of “Morning in America” as part of your re-election campaign.

But this isn’t morning in America. This is one of the darkest hours our country has known in a long time. Yes, I know that the poor, the sick, the homeless, the unemployed, the desperate are hurting your re-election chances. I know that your supporters want us to all shut up or face something even worse next fall. But some of us won’t make it to next fall. Some of us won’t make it through the night.

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