An interesting thing about life, especially my life, is the number of times I need to make a critical decision at the very beginning of a new year. Typically, I’m carrying baggage of some sort from the previous year into the next, and find myself in a situation — often of my own making — where I need to make another decision in order to move forward. Or, if the decision’s a bad one, fall further behind.
This is a tale of one January from the ’90s. It was in ’94. I spent my holiday season with my mother and siblings in Mount Vernon after a year of financial hardship caused in large part by transferring from Pitt to Carnegie Mellon to finish my doctorate there. I made the move because I realized all of the intangibles that a young scholar would need for their career as a historian didn’t exist for me in Pitt’s History Department, and certainly not through my advisor there.
I was correct, of course, but Pitt paid their grad students more and provided health insurance. After I transferred, I was jobless for six weeks, fell behind on my rent, took a job with Allegheny County that paid $6.00 an hour, was within a week and a half of being evicted, and was generally miserable that summer. I decided to take a break from dating before my financial crisis — by midsummer, I couldn’t afford to take myself to McDonald’s.
The fall at Carnegie Mellon wasn’t much better. I was fine academically. So fine that some professors — particular my new advisor Joe Trotter — thought that I was making a mockery of the History Department’s policies and politics by pushing an agenda of finishing my coursework and all requirements for the doctorate except for my thesis in a year. Oh well! That meant, though, I had few friends on campus, and only one or two in the department that first semester. And my monthly stipend of $750 a month was less than what I earned working for Allegheny County full-time that summer.
It had reached the point where I could only make the minimum payment on my two credit cards, didn’t dare touch the Amex card, and didn’t buy anything new at all. I hadn’t bought a new pair of basketball sneakers in nearly three years, with one pair so worn that my soles had holes all over the place. It was one thing to grow up in poverty, or to struggle through my financial maelstroms while in undergrad. Now I had a master’s degree, and still the way I lived looked very much like what I struggled through in the ’80s. Except that I was reading E.P. Thompson and William Julius Wilson and Diane Ravitch, writing paper after paper, doing my initial thesis research when I’d been told specifically to wait, and watching the Steelers and Giants struggle their way into the NFL playoffs.
After being back at 616 for almost a month and reminding myself of what poverty really looks like, it was time to go back to Pittsburgh and execute the plan I’d put together ten months earlier. The one thing that did go right for me during the holidays was that I had caught up on sleep, with seven or eight hours at night and long naps in the afternoon. But I apparently hadn’t had enough rest. I made the wonderful decision to take the 7 Bee-Line Bus to downtown Mount Vernon, walk from there with my suitcases to East 241st in the Bronx, and then catch the 2 Subway to Midtown, transfer to the 7 train and then to the Train to the Plane, where I’d eventually catch a bus to JFK for my USAirways flight.
My flight was at 5:30 pm on January 10. So to make this work, I left 616 at 2 pm. Wouldn’t you know it, I forgot which “Train to the Plane” train to catch once I got into Midtown? The 7 train would connect, but I didn’t know which train to connect to. I found myself in the middle of Kew Gardens at a quarter to five, eventually caught a local bus, which meandered its way to JFK. I ended up walking into the airport entrance and to the terminals, another ten minutes. It was 5:35 pm by the time I reached the ticket counter. The agent told me that my flight had been cancelled hours ago because of the snowstorm in Pittsburgh. “Didn’t you get our call,” she asked? I then called my mother, who confirmed that about fifteen minutes after I left for the train, USAirways had called.
I eventually found an alternate flight out of LaGuardia that left at 7:30. But I had no cash on me, at least not for a cab or other expenses. That was the reason I went through the excruciating process of cheap public transportation to get to the airport, to save some money. So I walked over with my luggage to the next door terminal to take out money for a taxi. I had about $50 in the bank. Total. So I took out $40. The cab ride from JFK to LaGuardia cost $20 or so. I spent more money to get to my flight than I would’ve if I’d just taken Metro-North from Pelham to Midtown and then a taxi to LaGuardia. Could I have been any more of an imbecile than I was at that moment? I spent more money trying to save money and caused myself an undue amount of stress and drama in the process.
I did change tickets, I caught my flight, and reached Pittsburgh sometime around 8:40. Then I caught an airport bus. This wasn’t a public transportation bus. It was a private bus service that ran between downtown Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh International in the days before PAT Transit provided for such things. The cost was enough $12. I caught a Yellow Taxi lined up in front of the William Penn Hotel (I have no idea what it’s called now) to my flat in East Liberty. I needed one that ran credit cards, since I now didn’t have the cash to cover the cost. This may not sound like a big deal. But back then, paying out more than $200 a month to Amex would’ve killed my budget and left me in search of food or additional money for rent, so I watched every penny as closely as I could.
The cab ride with tip cost $30. I was so exhausted from the ordeal that I didn’t notice that I’d left my wallet in the taxi when I got out. I was unpacking when I noticed it missing. Luckily the cab driver noticed immediately and had turned my wallet into the Yellow Taxi. What made this even luckier was that I lived on Penn Circle South and Highland Avenue, about two blocks from where Yellow Taxi’s offices in Pittsburgh and cab fleet were located. Still, 26 inches of snow had fallen in Pittsburgh in the past two days, it was cold and I simply had been through too much. I picked up my wallet first thing the next morning.
Out of that ordeal came a major decision. I had spent most of grad school finding ways to save money, cutting corners, making use of a copier card that a librarian at Pitt had lost to make thousands of copies of articles and microfilm for my classes and dissertation. I couldn’t afford to buy books, so those books I hadn’t checked out of the library already I usually made sure to read at least three book reviews before incorporating my ideas and those quotes in my papers. I was even walking the two and a half miles to and from campus every day to save money on bus passes, no matter the weather. With the snow on the ground, I’d wrap Giant Eagle plastic bags around my feet and socks before putting on my well-worn basketball sneaks. At least it kept my feet dry.
I did all of this so that I wouldn’t have to borrow any money for grad school. I’d already borrowed $16,000 for undergrad at Pitt, and another $1,800 my first year of grad school. I was hoping to make it without any additional debt. I realized that what I was doing was beyond sacrifice. It was stupid and unnecessary, and it meant putting up with things that would’ve made me drop out of Pitt my sophomore year. I made the decision to take out my first student loans in nearly three years after that. It was for another $1,800, enough to buy a new pair of sneakers and at least be able to catch the bus a couple of times a week. My quality of life went up a bit and my stress level dropped. I began to think about creating a space for myself at both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon while also knocking out my coursework and exams that semester.
It’s important to remember sometimes that life is like yin and yang, an ebb and flow, a dance. That even after all that I’d gone through in my past, that we carry some of those lessons with us and apply them in situations in which they’re not appropriate to solving a problem. Though debt is an issue, it wasn’t the issue for me in ’94. Getting to the doctoral thesis stage was more important. Even in debt, sometimes a little more debt is necessary in order to get back on one’s feet and push forward toward immediate and long-term objectives.
It’s kind of like what we as a nation face right now. Everyone’s up in arms about a trillion-dollar stimulus plan for a $13 trillion GDP nation. My $1,800 loan was the equivalent of eighteen percent of my income for ’94. The stimulus package is about eight percent of America’s GDP — at most. Debt is bad, and for America, it’s about as bad as a billion gallons of coal ash sludge in the Tennessee Valley. But I can also say that if I hadn’t taken out that loan in ’94, even with a stipend and free tuition, my doctorate quest would’ve ended by the end of that year. A lot of dreams might well end even if this stimulus package passes Congress and does stimulate the economy. Doing nothing or fighting it, though, is worse, and would leave many of us in a kind of America that we don’t want to live in.