The best description I’ve heard of Obama’s inaugural address yesterday was from the ever-thoughtful David Gergen. He called it a “muscular speech,” one meant for our times. And these are hard times. When the New York Times needs a bailout, you know times are tough.
Folks who read my blog regularly know that I’ve taken up a lot of my postings of examples of the hard times in which I grew up. Heck, most of my childhood was filled with hardship, and more recent setbacks don’t seem like setbacks at all when measured against it. I can think of a more recent time when it was hard going for me and for my significant other (now wife), when it took every bit of energy I had to move on to the next phase of our lives.
It started soon after I finished my dissertation at the end of ’96. My advisor Joe Trotter all but refused to help me find a full-time academic job, and I didn’t trust his couple of ridiculous suggestions anyway. It was hardly the best way to start my search for full-time employment as a historian. Still, I had the spring of ’97 to find a job while still on Carnegie Mellon’s payroll as an adjunct professor. Despite my advisor’s lack of support, I ended up doing interviews at Teachers College and Slippery Rock University. Only to finish second in one process and for Slippery Rock to put the position on hold. My then girlfriend, meanwhile, had left her job as a personnel director at a downtown Pittsburgh market research firm to find better paying work and to complete her bachelor’s degree at Pitt, so money started to get tight.
Our economic fortunes went south that summer, as I was unemployed for a bit more than three months. Looking back, I guess I could’ve groveled for a course to teach at Carnegie Mellon. But I’d heard too many horror stories from PhD grads who found themselves jobless getting paid as little as $400 per course while teaching there, so I didn’t bother. I was also embarrassed to find myself both Dr. Collins and unemployed, so I stopped hanging out with my folks for a while. I ended up taking a part-time job at Carnegie Library creating curriculum for a community-based computer lab, something I could’ve done without any of my degrees. I did find a teaching gig at Duquesne University, in their College of Education, but my first course didn’t begin until ’98.
I spent most of the first half of ’98 working part-time and helping my girlfriend stay focused so that she could finish her degree. She now had a full-time job and was taking eighteen credits — six courses — at the same time. Her boss fired her the day after she finished her degree, unofficially because her degree put her in direct competition with him. Officially, it had something to do with her unwillingness to work one late shift after six months of working late shifts and occasional weekends. We did put one op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that spring. Other than that, I only applied for nine academic jobs that first nine months of ’98. I didn’t know who to trust for help, and I was both frustrated and likely a little depressed.
After teaching at Duquesne for a few months, I realized what I needed to do. Teaching grad students by day and working with homeless people who were jacking off to porn, elderly students who didn’t understand what a computer was, and teenage posses on computers and in classes at night was too big a psychological switch for me. So I allowed the grant allotment for my position to run out, quit my job and signed on for teaching additional course at Duquesne in ’98 and ’99. Even with partial unemployment, I knew that times would be tough and only get tougher before we’d recover financially.
Long-term underemployment does have one advantage over the daily grind. The time to think about your future, how to shape it, how to allow and enable others to share in that plan or vision, who to trust or at least ask for help, how to get out of your own way to make things happen. I realized that it would’ve taken me until now to get a call for a job I wanted if I only planned to apply for nine jobs in nine months. I wanted to write, but I realized that I wasn’t particularly interested in writing academic journal-length articles (I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do as a writer). I also knew that we needed to leave Pittsburgh. I figured that the only way I’d find a job relevant to my degrees and training was if either of my advisors from Carnegie Mellon or Pitt were to keel over or if I picked up a teaching certificate. My other half was being turned down for jobs because she had a bachelor’s degree, and she was depressed herself.
At the end of ’98, I moved in with my girlfriend. It was primarily a financial decision. I realized that it didn’t matter what my mother or my future mother-in-law thought. They weren’t paying any of our bills, helping us find work, ponying up money for us to get married or to move. Despite the fact that we loved each other, and I spend much more time at her place than she did at my hole-in-the-wall efficiency, that was a rough first six weeks. We argued over the usual use of bathroom and toiletries issues. But we were also worried that this wasn’t going to work, that our financial situation would get worse, and that with only my meager income to depend on, we’d get evicted.
The worse of it was the week of January 25 in ’99. Because of the holidays, I hadn’t been paid in a month, and the only income we had until my first Duquesne paycheck for that semester — which was that Friday, the 29th — was my partial unemployment check of $131.29 per week. I paid rent for January with that, leaving us $5 to work with and about two days’ worth of food at home that week. I clung to $1.50 so that I could take the bus in from East Liberty to Duquesne to teach my class that week. Otherwise, I walked everywhere in the snow, just like I had in the worst of times when I was a grad student. My girlfriend must’ve cried three or four times that week because of the stress. I wasn’t surprised, given her middle class upbringing. I just hoped that she’d hold it together without me having to give yet another pep talk that was as much about keeping my spirits up as they were about hers.
We ate spaghetti on Monday and Tuesday, the sauce a watered down version of Hunts spaghetti sauce-in-a-can. I made instant mashed potatoes with homemade gravy on Wednesday, and fried dough that passed as pancakes for breakfast and dinner on Wednesday and Thursday respectively. The hardest part for my significant other was not having milk at home. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to and made fun of her, as she has said, “Eek! No milk!” with the whine of an eight-year-old about 500 times. But she did have a box of instant milk that her mother had given her three years earlier, which barely helped her get through the middle of that week.
That was the worse of it for us, when we had nearly $95,000 in debt and a combined projected income of $7,000 that year. I was paying my student loans on an income-sensitive payment plan of $20 per month, meaning that Noah’s grandkids would be my age by the time it would’ve been paid off. I still had my Amex card, but even with me using it sparingly, it was suspended because I didn’t pay that month. I couldn’t have been worse off if I had stayed at 616 after high school.
The winds of change, though, were already at work through a combination of some prayer, hard work, and opportunities. The following week would yield my first interview for a meaningful full-time job in eighteen months. I eventually interviewed for jobs at Tufts, Colgate, NYU, Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, and Presidential Classroom in DC, not counting phone interviews. I reassembled what at one point was a lost panel presentation for a major historical conference in Toronto, my first “international” trip. By May, my girlfriend had found temp work, at Carnegie Mellon of all places, and by June, I was teaching at Duquesne and had taken a job with Presidential Classroom in the DC area. I proposed in August, we moved to suburban DC a few days later, and found ourselves climbing out of debt by the second half of 2000.
It was hard, but given what we learned about ourselves, it was worth it. Times may be hard now, for us and for others, but they won’t always be that way, especially if you can see beyond where you are now. It’s the difference betweeen success, survival and suicide.