Observing Financial Desperation - Live Like a Mensch
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Live Like a Mensch

Observing Financial Desperation

Yeah, I don't think adding brake fluid is going to help...


As I mentioned before, BB (Baby Brother) was born late on Friday, September 13--but for various reasons which I will refrain from detailing here, we knew he was going to be arriving that day. I spent much of the day wondering aloud in the baby's general direction: "I donna suppose you could speed things up?"

J and I also took several walks around the neighborhood.

On one walk, we brought our greyhound with us and meandered around. A few streets over from our house, a little boy, who had been playing on his front porch where his mother sat frowning at a laptop, was delighted to make Obie's acquaintance. We stopped so the boy and the dog could get a good sniff of each other.

That's when the mother came down from the porch and asked us if we knew anything about cars.

J, ever humble (and cautious), said "I know a little."

The mom went on to explain that her car--a Buick Park Avenue, which can be well nigh indestructible if well cared for--seemed to have at least one faulty brake line. The rear brakes were not working. The mother had added brake fluid, but it just leaked right out. She wanted to know if she would just be able to get away with replacing one brake line, or if she'd have to have the entire shebang replaced.

J listened and gave her the opinion that it was unlikely that things were only bad in one area, because in an old car, if one brake line is corroded, it's likely the rest of them are right behind it. He also told her about what he suspected the cost would be for full replacement--about $500. The woman just shook her head at the number. He told her that she should probably get the car towed, as it was not safe to drive with faulty brakes.

"My stepfather was going to drive it to the shop and use the emergency brake to stop," she explained.

Except the Park Avenue is the sort of car that features a foot brake rather than a handlever for the E-brake, making it more of a parking brake than an emergency brake. J warned the woman that using that type of emergency brake in that way could result in the brake locking up, which is also incredibly dangerous on the road.

The woman then got in the car and started up the motor so she could check something. J winced at the sound of the motor, since his keen engineering ears are able to diagnose car problems based simply upon their startups. (He's like the House of car problems). He told me later that the car probably wasn't worth the cost of fixing the brakes since the engine issues meant that it was irrevocably headed for the big garage in the sky.

J tried to talk more to the woman about what she could and should do for the car, but the woman's mother emerged from the house and told her that they needed to get a move on. We were relieved to see the woman, her mother, and her little boy get into a different car to leave.

As we continued walking, J and I both worried about this little family and their car problem. Clearly, the woman needed the car to be running and didn't have the money to get it there. She was thinking about doing things that were dangerous because she so badly needed the car. No car probably meant no transportation to her job, which meant no money, which was the problem in the first place.

Not that I make a habit of offering money to complete strangers, but looking at her sweet little boy and worrying about him being transported in a car with no brakes had me wondering if I could offer to pay to fix them. (J was clearly thinking something along the same lines, except he was thinking about offering to fix the brakes himself. This is why he made sure to tell me--and himself--that the car was hardly worth fixing).

The thing is, there was no real fixing this problem with the Park Avenue. When J and I have a car problem, that's all it is--a car problem. We have the money set aside to fix it, even if J does not have the time to fix it himself. We still know how J will get to work, how we will pay for groceries, and how to replace the money we spend on the repair.

For this family, the car problem appeared to only be a small symptom of the bigger issue. Even if we could somehow make their car safe to drive, it would not solve their financial instability or their desperation. (Considering the fact that the woman was asking for help of random strangers trying to walk a baby into the world tells me she truly did feel pretty desperate). There would be another crisis looming, another fire to put out, another moment that made it seem as though getting ahead was simply impossible.

J and I spent the rest of our walk talking about how lucky we felt--and how we hoped the woman would heed J's advice and refrain from driving the Park Avenue.

Yesterday, LO, BB and I took a walk around the neighborhood, and I noticed that the Park Avenue was still parked in the exact same spot.

I'm glad no one has driven it, but I can't help but worry and wonder about what the loss of that transportation means for the family.


Photo courtesy of Mark Heard



frugal_fun said:

Emily - I apologize for this level of suspicion, but it is possible this woman somehow knew that J was a car guy? It seems possible given a number of previous neighborhood walks that this wasn't an "accidental" meeting.

It's all a little bit fantastic to believed. What was she doing on the porch with a laptop? (Does she usually do that?) Why would she ask a clearly pregnant young family if they knew anything about cars? Why would you start a car "with brake trouble" in front of a stranger who knew "a little" about cars..unless you knew the person knew quite a bit? (Although in fairness J probably had given himself away at that point.)

Again, I apologize here for having such black thoughts but it sounds so..unreal. And what's so strange here is that clearly there was another car involved. There's an assumption in this setup that someone is going without transport, but time ran out and everyone jumped in another car (with brakes one would presume) and drove away. I'm not so sure what I feel about this family.

On another note, I did read the link about getting ahead and I understand. I've been there too. That said, I've watched close relatives go from upper middle class to nothing because they had the exact same mindset.

As a complete contrast, I've read about a slave who bought his freedom, then opened a factory, and then sent his daughters to college, one of the first black families in America to do so. (I wish I could remember his name.) I imagine he was subject to all the same poverty temptations and more.

I'm not sure it's healthy to wallow in the poverty mindset or spend time thinking giving money (rather than earning it) will solve the problem. It certainly didn't work my relative's case.

October 7, 2013 2:54 PM

Emily Guy Birken said:

We'd never seen these neighbors before--and there were several indications that this was completely accidental. The woman really wasn't listening much to J's opinion, and it was very clear from the state of the house, the car, the clothes, and a few other clues, that this family was really struggling financially. It wasn't clear to me if the grandmother who gave them all a ride at the end actually lived there or not. It was very bizarre, but it seemed to me like the sort of economic desperation that comes about because of a mindset of poverty. It was really unsettling to see.

October 9, 2013 1:42 PM

frugal_fun said:

Ah, okay. I figured I was missing something. I can see how that it would be unsettling.

October 11, 2013 4:59 PM

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