[originally posted to my DailyKos diary]
I realize I’ve only posted anecdotal stories here, and I’m sure I’ll move onto something a bit more analytical when I have something of the sort to say– unfortunately, I had to miss Pres. Clinton’s speech in Roanoke yesterday.
But for the first time in months I returned to my local pub, and caught up with some friends I hadn’t seen since July. One of them, a young guy with a lip ring, wacky hair, and a penchant for karaokeing to the Strokes, joked around with me for a few minutes before dropping a bombshell I never would have expected.
“So, I’m glad I got to see you again before I go into the army.”
I thought at first he was joking, and it didn’t help that he took it all very lightly.
“Oh yeah, I’m going to go build sandcastles. I’ll even take a picture and send it to you guys.”
Now, he hasn’t enlisted yet– he, um, needs to wait a month or so in order to get his physical, if that tells you a bit more about him. But he’s made his decision, and plans to be out of boot camp by February.
At least he won’t enlist until after the election (“If John McCain gets elected, I’ll be screwed anyway.”), but nonetheless I spent the night trying to talk him out of it, or at least into the Air Force– I have two siblings and an brother-in-law in that branch, though they all enlisted in the 90s.
He qualified to join the Air Force, he explained to me, but they didn’t offer the same things that the Army did– apparently, the latter will pay off his credit card debt, whereas the AF wouldn’t.
“You’re twenty years old! What are you doing with a credit card?” And this is when I finally started to acknowledge the effect the financial meltdown has had, and will continue to have, on the life of poor kids like me.
“Well, when I was eighteen I had a really great job, and was making a lot of money. So I figured, I’ll get a credit card, I can pay it off easily, and I’ll build credit for myself so I can buy a house later. But I guess that’s when the economy started to sink, because I lost my job, and I had the debt, and now I can’t find a job that pays enough to live on.”
I practically wailed, “So the Army’s your answer?”
“Yeah. They’ll pay off the $3500 I owe. And I can retire when I’m forty. I mean, you can’t argue with that.”
“Yes I can.”
“Well, I can’t.”
And I realize that I don’t have it in me to argue with him anymore. He’s a healthy twenty-year-old high school grad working at McDonald’s because there are no prospects in this area, with credit card debt he got into to help plan his future responsibly. I just want to spend what time with him that I have left, and I regret not reconnecting with him sooner. I’ve never known someone who saw the military as the only option.
Besides, what right do I have to criticize his choice? He doesn’t agree with the war, but he has to do what he can to get by. I’m not doing any better myself, really– I’m a soon-to-be 23-year-old with excellent undergraduate qualifications that have landed me $40,000 in debt (which is supposed to start being paid off next month), working for $9/hr at a pharmacy chain. My landlord told me he couldn’t pay the mortgage on the house I rent part of, partially because I and a few other tenants of his couldn’t pay rent, and he’s too good of a person to boot us, if we make good-faith payments.
So that four-letter-word that Sen. Obama spelled out earlier– J-O-B-S… I can’t explain how much they’re needed. Another college graduate friend of mine is hoping to get a job at a sporting goods store. Another one is working at a gas station. Another is assistant manager at a retail store, another AM at a fast food place. One works full time for $200 less per month than her rent costs, at a bookstore.
And the one that breaks my heart the most is my mother, a staunch Republican who buys the Obama-is-a-secret-Muslim line, who’s been unemployed for more than half of this year already for the first time in her life. She’s been a computer programmer since the machines took up a whole room, and her last boss said he was looking for “younger” employees (yes, I know, age discrimination– but her spirit’s too broken to argue). She’s waiting to hear back about a couple of state jobs she applied for, but how long?
I’ve got an out, at least. I wanted to take a year off before grad school to do the twentysomething working-stiff thing. So by next fall I’ll hopefully be back in academia, researching in the UK and earning a stipend in sterling pounds. But I can’t just think “Lucky me” and ignore everyone else.
My young friend at the bar is the third friend I’ve had decide to go into the military over the past year, though one went for duty, and the other will re-enlist because “I’m 31 and have nothing else to do”. The latter, another college graduate, has been working as a cab driver.
There is this sense of despair that clings like a cobweb to the skins of the people I know, and myself. It’s just as thin, and easy to miss, but it is tugging at us. And we need hope.
This, these people, are the reasons I am voting for Barack Obama in three weeks. It is because even though we try to close our eyes to it and get through each day, we are in the dark places now, and need a move towards the light. This is why the Obama campaign’s message is so powerful. In times like this, in places like these, we need hope, and we need change.
The polls look nice now, but we can’t rest. Talk to the people you know, the people you love. Make sure everyone you know is going to vote, and talk to people you don’t know about voting. Be ready on November 4th, because we need– we DESERVE more than this.