Monday, March 16, 2009

the "F" word

So lately, the F word is inescapable. It’s on everyone’s lips, from the crudest of talk show host to the President himself.

Even for someone like me, who makes it a practice to minimize exposure to such “news”, its just about impossible to avoid being hammered by the statistics, especially here in Florida where they say the rates are now 1 in 70.

The new F word, of course is Foreclosure. There is nothing remotely sexy about this version of the F word. It also bears little relation to its official clinical Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary definition:

Fore*clo"sure, n. The act or process of foreclosing; a proceeding which bars or extinguishes a mortgager's right of redeeming a mortgaged estate

Translated in human terms, the F word means destitution, unspeakable misery. Here in this country, most of us working folk have assumed “a roof over our head” as a base line right. It is more than the loss of a physical place—as awful as that is—but of one’s place in society. More than belongings are lost, cherished memories, irreplaceable memorabilia, along with a sense of self. I can imagine disorientation, along with lifestyle issues too numerous to mention.

How do you maintain your job is you still have one? Get your mail? Keep your kids in school? Go to the bathroom? I imagine that the “luckier” ones bunk with family or friends, but that can get old fast.

And as the ranks of the “new homeless” grow, the rest of us tend to back away in fear. Just beneath our surface, most of us are just a few missing paychecks away from joining them. Don’t kid yourself into thinking only those “irresponsible” borrowers are at risk. A simple chain of events can bring any of us down.

I have a bit more empathy than many having dodged that bullet decades ago. I was single mom in my late 20s, existing on aid to dependent children payments and food stamps. One day, seemingly without warning, my bank account containing $400, my entire month’s welfare check, was frozen. The small local bank responded to my hysterical phone call with sympathy, apologizing, saying there was nothing they could do.

It was a judgment by Sears against a $720 debt. (If there was notice of court proceedings, I don’t recall receiving it. But it’s possible I was so overwhelmed it just didn’t register.) There is a bit of irony here, though.

Several months prior I had been “let go” from my management training position with Sears. They wanted me to be a store manager, I wanted to use my pysch degree and work in human resources. So they showed me the door one day in April. And now they were hammering mine down for the rest of their cash.

I called a lawyer friend and asked if it was legal for them to, in effect, garnish my whole “pay” and as it turns out, they has no right to any of that money and the action was reversed.

But I was already on a dangerous path. I couldn’t pay my real estate taxes. After two years a tax lien was sold. At one point, a sheriff was at my door, threatening to carry my somewhat shabby belongings out onto the front yard to be sold. It was two days before Christmas. Yeah, right outta a bad movie.

I can still taste the fear of all that, roiling in my gut, as those around me see the ground under their feet fall away today. I was fortunate. My parents were able to help me stay afloat for a few years. That isn’t an option available to many, especially now, when even the most affluent have seen their bottom line sink below the financial horizon.

I realize this bleakness is not my usual post, as I truly reject wallowing in the negative. I just feel it necessary to acknowledge the humanity at the base of those “toxic assets.”

And there is nothing toxic about that.

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