When You're Too Financially Desperate to Even Drink

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
From Darhil’s behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the art and photography for the cover story

A reader gives Neal Gabler the props he deserves:

I just want to say that what Mr. Gabler wrote in his article on the 49 percent of Americans who cannot afford a $400 emergency was shocking, enlightening, and extremely brave. I was appalled to read such horrible slams directed at him the comment section and I think they just validate his point that many people are in complete denial that many people are, or could be, at risk for “financial impotence.” Thank you for the insightful article and I will continue to read everything Mr. Gabler writes.

I’m actually in the middle of reading his 500-page tome An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, an award-winning work I can’t recommend enough. It tells the inspiring story of the handful of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe that built Hollywood in defiance of the exclusionary WASP establishment of New York City led by Thomas Edison and his monopolistic pals in the film industry. In a crazy coincidence, I started reading the book back in February, prompted by all the Oscar buzz and controversy over the Academy’s diversity, before I even heard that Gabler was writing an essay for us—his first, and hopefully not his last, for The Atlantic.

But back to our reader series, the following confessional from Linda Lee, an unemployed journalist, is just as brave as Gabler’s. And her agonizing story hits close to home for members of the media such as myself:

No matter how unhappy you are, never quit a job. I did, when I was being paid more than $100,000 a year as a newspaper editor, had a rent stabilized, one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, and owned a small—400-square-foot small—cottage in Columbia County, near Hudson, on two acres of land, nearly paid off.

What was wrong?

I felt unappreciated. I felt stymied. I was in a rut. I’d been there for 17 years. The newspaper was not letting me grow. And I wanted to do something of my own.

All this was in 2004. Remember 2004, those days of economic optimism? Someone in Miami offered me even more money, and a three-year contract, to start a new magazine. So I jumped from a stable company and a cheap apartment in New York to an unstable company, and the house of my dreams—with a 30-year conventional mortgage—in Miami, the Wild West of high expectations and deceptive values.

Times were good. I eventually gave up my rent-controlled apartment, because my Miami house was accruing value, and I figured I could always sell it and use the profit to go somewhere else. The mortgage crisis hit Miami starting in 2007, long before other places, because Miami real estate was so out of control. People “bought” three or four pre-construction condos—“bought” in the sense of making a down payment—and then flipped them on completion, making $100,000 on a ten percent, $30,000 investment. And then they did it again.

I told my literary agent in New York that I wanted to write a book called “Tiny Bubbles,” about the crashing real estate market in Miami, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Orange County, California. I’d seen the whole thing first hand, from cocktail parties flowing with champagne and gorgeous girls in strapless dresses to announce the start of sales on some new building that existed only in computer renderings. I’d seen the grand openings of million-dollar “sales centers,” tarted up by designers like Philippe Starck with high-end  amenities, to show people exactly what their apartment would look like—except for that clause way down in the small type saying that the developer could substitute different appliances and materials of “similar” quality.

The sales centers were Potemkin villages, not even on or close to the building site. They offered a false front on three double-wide pre-fab structures, all arranged to offer grand living spaces, fake views of the water, rain-forest shower heads, stainless steel appliances, Italian cabinetry, marble floors and, my favorite amenity, the second kitchen, in the master suite, so buyers would not have to walk to the kitchen.

Then there were the gushing announcements of buildings being sold out, the press releases, the media coverage, the pretentious names—Apogee, Aria, Icon, the Mansions at Aqualina. My favorite excess: the hot air balloon that would take potential buyers up to the height of the condo they were considering, so they could see the view.

My agent told me that no one wanted to read a book like that, that it was depressing, and that, besides, real estate in New York was just fine. This was, remember, 2007.

By 2008, Miami real estate had crashed and burned. And so had my magazine, because my advertisers were those same luxury condos and the appliance companies and furniture stores that sold things to people who were going to buy luxury condos. I lost my house to a short-sale that disappeared every cent I had put into it, my cash down payment, my thousands of dollars of improvements. And I exhausted all of my other cushions, my 401K, half of my pension, taking early Social Security, just to survive and find a new job.

That was nine years ago. There were no jobs in Miami, but I also could not find a job in New York. Newspaper, you know. And I couldn’t afford to live in New York anyhow. Nor can I get a job in any of the places I’ve tried: Washington, DC, Leesburg, VA, several places in New Jersey, Hudson, NY, Minot, ND, Pleasantville, NY, Philadelphia or Emmaus, PA or Harrisburg, PA. I am overqualified, and over-age—even though I would happily work for someone younger. Or anyone.

Recently, I’ve been interviewed for a Civil Service job that would pay me $40,000 a year. At the interview I asked straight out if I would be disqualified either because I’d previously made more money or because of my age. I was told that in civil service positions, that does not matter. But it’s been six weeks since the interview, and I’m still waiting.

Meanwhile, I am in a moment of financial dread. My bank account is almost empty and I’m waiting for a wire transfer of $2,000 from Paris, for a revision of a guidebook I wrote about Miami. The money was supposed to arrive at the end of March. It’s now April 20, and no money, despite countless emails to Paris.

I have payments of $308, $225, $200 and $54 (for two credit cards, a car payment and car insurance) due in the next five days. I have enough food for myself, and enough dog food, but the cat is beginning to eye his feeder suspiciously. I can’t afford to drink. Right now I have $12, which I’m holding onto for an emergency.

This is not what I expected my life to be like: I am living in a converted garage of a house I share with my son and daughter-in-law, a two-room living space with a half bath and no kitchen.

Most of my friends say, “You’ll figure something out. You always do.” But I haven’t and this time it’s possible I won’t.

If you have any advice or help to offer Linda, drop us a line.