I could say what happened was purposeful. That it was a social experiment. A protest against the system. I could say I was joining the legions of folks like Ben Affleck who said he will live on $1.50 a day for five days to bring attention to folks living below the poverty level via the Live Below the Line campaign. And I think I could pull that off as the truth because I think you would believe me. But I am going to tell you the real truth because until this happened to me and my family, I only understood some of the work I do from a privileged distance. I had compassion but no experience.
This truth, (as many truths are), is embarrassing. It exposes me and my lifelong struggle with organization. One husband, two dogs and four kids later, I have gotten better, but at the same time life has gotten more complicated. And I’m not nearly perfect yet.
The day started like any other Friday. When I saw the bright yellow cardstock notice written in Spanish from (FILL IN THE BLANK) GAS, I didn’t pay much attention. I grabbed the rest of the mail and began sorting. Junk. Junk. Bill. Junk. Thank you note. Junk. And then I was back to the yellow cardstock.
I did take Spanish for a few years but I am pretty limited. If you want to say “let’s go to the beach!” or “I love swimming!” I’m your go-to gal. But I couldn’t translate “AVISO DE DESCONEXION DEL SERVICIO DE GAS NATURAL” I flipped the notice over to reveal, “NOTICE OF NATURAL GAS SERVICE DISCONNECTION. Natural gas was shut off on 4-26-13. Call us at…” etc.
I sat back confused. Then I got a bad, sinking feeling in my stomach. I shakily dialed the provided number while I located in a massive pile of mail an unopened letter from the gas company marked “URGENT” in red.
I feel the need to explain how this had all come to be. About three months ago, in an effort to make things more simple, (the irony is not lost on me) I switched to what I thought was auto pay for our gas bill. In actuality, I had only signed up for paperless billing, which turned out to be a huge pain. You need to enter all kinds of billing and account information, which when I went to pay the bill, I could no longer locate due to the aforementioned difficulty I have keeping track of important things. In addition, I currently have 148 unread emails. Things like “Gas customer connection” in the subject line don’t stand out as a thrilling read. So, long story short, three months went by and…
When I called customer service to pay the bill and schedule a day to restore service, the representative said the next available appointment was Thursday. That was six days from now. I was incensed that they couldn’t come out sooner and was told I could contact a supervisor early Monday morning.
That left me plenty of time to muster up the courage to tell my husband and to discover the relationship between gas and the heating of the shower and bath water. I showered at my neighbors’ and cooked breakfast on camping burners in my driveway. (Yup. The husband came around to seeing it as slightly humorous – albeit also incredibly embarrassing—and made chocolate chip pancakes and hash browns 5 feet from our back door our first sans stovetop morning.)
Sunday my parents brought over dinner to avoid another meal cooked on the blacktop. As we all sat around chatting, laughing, redirecting the poo talk for another time, I tried to forget my humiliation and put to the back of my mind the anxiety I had been feeling in anticipation of anyone outside of my inner circle finding out we’d been cut off due to non-payment. I pictured the pathetic looks, the whispers, the rumors of impending foreclosure of our home, the teasing of my kids… the list went on and on.
Maybe we’ll get lucky and this will all be over sooner than Thursday, or maybe we will continue to cook in our electric oven, take five-second cold showers and utilize the convenience of kind friends washing machines and dryers. But in the midst of all the chaos, I realize for us, this is just a temporary inconvenience. For others, for many others, this is daily life—waking up with a sense of shame, the stigma of poverty and impossible choices. My situation wasn’t financial, it was organizational. But there are many families having to make choices between food and shelter, heat and water. Many won’t have my same story and most won’t have my relatively easy solution.
I have thought about, talked about and worked at changing the system for many years, but I have never personally had to swallow it. It's left a bitter taste in my mouth and a sad feeling of shame realizing how far I've strayed from something I truly thought I was in the thick of. But it has also given me a renewed determination and dedication to continue to remind myself every day—tikkun olam.