Room and Board

Written By: Alice Martin

There was a time in my life when I was very, very broke. And I was also broken. I had just ended a bad relationship and I came running home to my mother from upstate New York to Sagaponack on Long Island. I had just lost one daughter at birth, and had gone through a difficult divorce. Now I had another young daughter and a 10-year old son to take care of alone. Although my mother had plenty of space in her house, I knew I had to strike out on my own after a while so that I could become self-sufficient again. The first place that I rented had only two bedrooms for three people in a one level apartment. I tried putting the baby in with my son, but it didn’t work out because her crying would wake him up. So, then i hung sheets from the ceiling with thumbtacks to try to separate them, but the landlady complained. My last effort was placing his single bed in the laundry room which had a low lean-to ceiling attached to the end of the house. My son, Adam, had to fight with the Bridgehampton school children who followed him home and broke his glasses, ganging up on him. I decided it would be better to move to Riverhead where I was working at a minimum wage job, which involved accounts receivable and payable. I was eligible for childcare and a very bad house rental. We were on a busy road next to a bar. My son had to sleep in the attic where there was no insulation. Nails were sticking through the ceiling and pierced his head when he sat up in bed. The first night we moved in, a drunken man knocked on our front door on his way home f rom the bar next door. I qualified for a Department of Labor training program for the title of accounting clerk. The position was half subsidized by the Department of Labor and included a once a week job coach check up of my work performance at the ceramic tile and appliance store. Thank God for the oversight, because my boss was a disgusting old man who cooked broccoli at lunch that stunk up the place, and who made me sit on his lap if I wanted signatures on papers or wanted to be handed my paycheck. He said the most awful things to me, threatening to fire me at every turn. So I jumped at the chance to switch to another job offered by a visiting associate of my boss. I would have to commute to Ronkonkoma and be an executive secretary for the Mass Mutual Insurance Company. I had switched to a much worse situation. The boss had just survived a heart attack and was a hold terror, thrashing his desktop with open palmed hits and loud screams. His son was on the other side of my office, and he had a bad sense of ethics and a self-aggrandizing attitude. Besides that, i wasn’t familiar with computers, or electric typewriters or figuring out the insurance salesmen’s commissions. Due to my lack of experience and the obvious disdain I had for both of my bosses, I was fired within 6 months, just as I was breaking ground for a three-bedroom house in Riverhead, which had a subsidized mortgage. The interest rates were 13 percent, but I had a 3 percent mortgage, and the government paid the difference. They also lowered the payment because I was now on unemployment. During that time, I was very depressed and discouraged because nothing was working out in my life. We met the conditions for food stamps and we had to buy the black and white labeled cans at Waldbaums and openly display the food stamps at the check out station, as well as the WIC coupons (Women Infants and Children). We obtained additional at the food pantries, and the local church brought us boxes with a complete Thanksgiving dinner in them in November. I learned how to place a monthly order for little frozen half-pound packets of meat from the local meat store, which fortunately would accept food stamps. We ate a lot of canisters of loose oatmeal, macaroni and cheese (six boxes for one dollar,)large jars of applesauce, and tons of huge chunks of government surplus American cheese. My son stomped up and down when he had to redeem the free school lunch coupons in front of his friends, and when I made him mix and drink powdered milk. But my planning made the food last until the end of the month, unlike the results of other people on the government dole. After that, I hustled up long-term substitute teaching assignments, which usually lasted six months at a time. I qualified for welfare childcare services because my teaching jobs were at the entry level salary with no health care benefits. My son threatened to drop out of school unless I found the money to pay for an operation on his ingrown toenail, and my daughter broke her wrist in kindergarten. Luckily, the injury happened on school property, and the school provided the health care coverage that was needed for the healing of her broken arm. I didn’t know enough to sue the school for the injury on the jungle gym. And, of course, there were gaps between the jobs. My resume looked very sketchy when I applied for new jobs. Eventually I got a 3/4th position as a high school English teacher and I could drop my daughter, Mariah, off at Head Start, which we also qualified for. This led to a two-year full time position as a 10th grade English teacher, and I had benefits and a decent salary. Unfortunately, the injured teacher I was substituting for, who had been hurt in a car accident, returned to work and I was out in the streets again. During this time, I struggled with affording gasoline and car repairs, household bills, buying clothing, and meeting the requirements of two growing children. Eventually, i coupled a part time professor job at Suffolk Community College with a part time BOCES Jail Education 3/4th position that included all benefits. I also attended night school for my third Master’s Degree. Within a year, I had a full time job at BOCES and I had found my niche, where I stayed for 18 years until I retired. You have never found a person who praises BOCES so much and who appreciates her benefits and retirement more than I do. I worked hard for it, and just kept on putting one foot ahead of the other. My children still tease me about the powdered milk, free lunch passes, and bumble bee striped pants from the Salvation Army clothing store, but I think in their hearts they realize how hard I worked to get them through to graduation and college. May they never struggle so hard to bring up their own family. And, as a single mom, I raised two highly successful who excelled as top scholars, and who are now a corporate bankruptcy specialist and a movie producer. By the way, i paid back al that government subsidized mortgage money when I move don to a different house!!