The NPR Commentator and the 47 Percent

You may have heard Dave Dickerson on NPR and thought he was doing pretty well, but in fact he was homeless most of last year. 

Editor’s Note: In this series, we will be sharing posts from a blog called We Represent the 47 Percent. We share these not because of a desire to endorse a candidate, but rather because they are compelling, emotional, and relatable stories of real men doing the best they can with what they’ve got.
Dear Mitt—

You may have heard me on public radio a few times, and thought, “I bet that man’s doing all right.” Actually, I was homeless for most of last year. Not on-the-street homeless, but staying in a series of fold-out beds and couches in different cities, trying to work out how the hell I was going to get enough money for a car. (I asked around, but my family and friends have no connections in the automotive industry.) I had risked everything on a book that didn’t sell, and then I wrote another, and that didn’t sell either, and by the time I realized I was in trouble, I was out of money and my problem was deeper than I thought. It’s a risk of the job. I guess you’d call it a bad year.

Have you ever found yourself in St. Albans, Vermont in mid-November, staying with the nearest friend who could put you up, with all your belongings reduced to two suitcases of 75 pounds each? (Amtrak’s rules. I blame Big Government.) There are precious few jobs in tiny St. Albans, and even fewer available when they have to be in walking distance through ankle-deep muddy snow in 0 degree weather. Have you ever tried to get a job at a meat counter, at age 43, when your only job experience is teaching and writing, and everyone can see the mud on your trousers? I could have lied on my resume—everyone told me to—but you know, Mitt, I never like misrepresenting my past work. People always figure out when you’ve been dishonest.

That was a winter filled with surprises. If all you have is $200 to your name in a town with no bus lines, that few thousand dollars for even the shittiest car looks impossible. You live in constant fear, because you never know when your brain will say, “Hey, I just thought I’d remind you that you’re almost broke and out of food, and the only way out is to get several thousand dollars from a job that doesn’t exist. And shouldn’t you be moving out soon?” These random check-ins are a poison in the air. I found myself crying in the shower every morning, shuddering in the stream for almost an hour sometimes, until I felt like I could face the day without flying into shrapnel. What I’m trying to say to my host at the time is this: Thanks very much for putting me up for four months, and I promise I’ll give “Portlandia” another chance. I’m sure it’s a very funny show if you’re in the right frame of mind.

After months of writing and self promotion—and we can both agree that promotion is hard work, am I right?—I wrote my way out with Kickstarter. Not enough for a car and gas—that would have cost $5000! What am I, a gambler?—but enough for a bus ticket to anywhere. I eventually made my way home, with only one suitcase (Greyhound’s even stricter than Amtrak). Now, living in my dad’s trailer in rural Tucson, I could finally get work, maybe.

I had actual job offers this time–low-paying jobs that I knew I would hate, but could eventually get me a car if I took the bus to work, never ate out, and socked away $8-an-hour paychecks for 8 months. But—whoops!—they were all off the bus lines, or were on weekends when the buses didn’t run. Half the time I couldn’t even get to the interviews. (You might ask, “But Dave, why didn’t you just start two hours earlier and walk to the interview?” You got me: I’m lazy.) And by the way, if you’re traveling by bus, you can only hold one job at a time because the commutes take 90 minutes each way. It’s exhausting. If you can borrow thousands of dollars to start your own business, Mitt, I highly recommend that route instead.

I won’t bore you with the details of what I now call “my year of shiftless entitlement,” except to say this: it’s over. I got a call, someone had recommended me as a game show writer, and presto: I spent six weeks in LA, and I now have a ten-year-old Dodge and a few thousand in the bank. It’s not much, and I don’t think I’ll be paying any income tax this year. But I’ve got a car, and the climb should be easier now. Not trading-in-my-family-stock-certificates easy, but I’ll take it.

But let me be clear. That call came from nowhere. I wasn’t trying for that job; I didn’t even know it existed. For all my striving, what finally saved me was this: I got lucky. And I am deeply grateful. Because if I couldn’t tell the difference between hard work and good fortune, what kind of asshole would I be?

-Dave Dickerson

 

David Ellis Dickerson is the author of the memoir House of Cards and is a humorist best known for his regular contributions to public radio’s “This American Life.” He is also the creator of the YouTube web series “Greeting Card Emergency.” His fiction and humor have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Story Quarterly, The Gettysburg Review,  and Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. He has a Ph.D. in American Literature from Florida State University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. He currently lives in Tucson, where he is working on several things at once. He’ll keep you updated if anything happens. 
Lead photo courtesy of Flickr/Chuckpala

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About We Represent the 47 Percent

In a leaked video, Mitt Romney told a room of wealthy donors that 47 percent of the country---those who don't earn enough to trigger a Federal tax payment---are "dependent on government" and "believe that they are victims." This vision of nearly half of our nation is wrong and divisive. We Represent the 47 Percent is dedicated to humanizing a statistic, one voice at a time.

Comments

  1. I’m recently started sad blogging at blogspot (also wrote ahow-toguid.blogspot.com) to get things off my chest. Just learned this week my husband has also been crying himself to sleep – been my new normal last few weeks. Any of the four in our family has shed some tears at any given time of day. We are days away from foreclosure auction on our home and have a few hundred dollars to store some of our stuff here in CO before heading out to CA where there’s family to take us in, and hopefully a job transfer opportunity for our son. Our teen is hoping to take advantage of on-line high school program, while my husband hopes to find some kind of work after two years jobless. I will not be staying with them. I’m the destitute relative my cousin will take in after my husband contacted her in hopes that she’d open her door to me. My already emotionally shattered family will be broken up. I’d like to get in my husband’s head that there is still hope for him to be able to restore his life, and improve things for himself and our youngest while they are staying at his parents. My son, I hope he proves resilient through this all. 10 years of job losses, and more importantly security and trust…. my situation is hopeless to the point that I never see myself able to resume treatment for chronic illness. I tell my husband he had no obligation to me anymore. It sound harsh, I know. But, I just need him to know he has to do what he can to make things better again for himself and our kids. My middle girl, has been the fortunate one to have been accepted to college w/ generous scholarships. Makes me sad that this house will no longer be the home she comes home to. She must now establish that for herself.

    After hearing 47% comment I’ve been sick to my stomach at mealtimes because it’s my disability benefits that puts food on the table. I was already feeling like and invisible American… that comment just made me feel shitty and worthless.

    Take good care, Dave. I try to remind myself we are not alone. We are not alone.

  2. Serious question:
    The author of this piece admits up front that his situation resulted from his choice to “risk everything on a book that didn’t sell,” and then he doubled down by trying to sell a second book.

    Please explain to me why he then writes as though he is a victim.

    The commenter above me has had real misfortune, that’s clear from the disability payments, if nothing else.

    But the thing is, if you CHOOSE to “risk everything” then who are you to blame others when you lose everything?

  3. Mike,

    It’s good that you’re asking this is a question. Because there’s much more to writing a book than you might think. It’s a risky proposition unless you can finance it yourself. If you have unlimited funds, access to loans, or someone who is interested in your work to fund it for you, you are in great shape. But many writers are at a point in their career when it’s just time to let their work stand on its own whether they can fund it or not.

    It’s called: Believing in yourself. Not everyone is lucky enough to write a bestseller. Most writers don’t. But when it works, it works.

    Writing is often feast or famine. There just aren’t that many steady writing jobs. But when it’s what you do, it is what you do.

    Thanks again for asking a question and not just making an assumption.

  4. The Wet One says:

    You folks have some real shitheads for politicians.

    Just sayin’

    Kick that asshole’s ass come election day will ya? Restore my faith in the basic decency of Americans, because the ‘publicans are really doing a number to your reputation. Seriously…

    The Wet One

  5. “”””
    I had risked everything on a book that didn’t sell, and then I wrote another, and that didn’t sell either, and by the time I realized I was in trouble, I was out of money and my problem was deeper than I thought. It’s a risk of the job. I guess you’d call it a bad year.
    “”””

    Starving artists should get real jobs.

  6. Baby Davy is quite whiner. I posted this comment GL Piggy’s take down of this chump:

    “This guy isn’t the victim he claims to be. Just another leech who doesn’t want to deal with the consequences of his own freely chosen lifestyle choices. The difference between you, GL, and Baby Davy here, is that you understand a little thing called responsibility. A guy like you will make it, because you don’t make excuses for yourself or blame others.”

  7. I’m glad that the author recognizes he got lucky. Because lord knows he didn’t do the work to succeed. News flash to David: if you openly write the words “I’m lazy” when discussing your jobless situation, its nobody’s fault but your own.

  8. I completely agree with James! Apparently Baby Davy (I like that too) is waiting around for the world to discover his brilliance and isn’t getting the message that the world is sending: his writing doesn’t have a future. I’ve heard him on NPR and I frankly don’t see why they keep inviting him back. Humorists are supposed to be funny. Clearly he’s a good salesman though and seems to like cars, so maybe he should just accept reality and head on down to someplace called Honest Joe’s Used Cars? Or he should take the low paying job you might hate. Unlike the 12 million unemployed if he got JOB OFFERS he’s a bit of prick for continuing to complain.

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