Carol Sarao, 57, was a successful musician for many years before the economy soured on the music business. For the past seven years, she's worked a series of hourly jobs and now brings in $240 a week writing web content. A lot of the problems that I have are maybe of my own creation.
I grew up in northeast Philly. My dad worked for the city, for the health department. My mom was a school teacher. I guess middle class, you know, comfortable. I don't come from a poor background, or rich.
I was always a musician; I got into it when I was 21 and I loved it. I was just fooling around on keyboards, and during those times -- in the late '70s early '80s -- there was a bar on every corner and the disco thing was huge, so you could just work six or seven nights a week. You didn't even have to be very good. I wasn't even particularly good when I started. I didn't own a keyboard or know how to play chords, but I was young and there was just such a demand for musicians.
I moved to Atlantic city in the '90s because that's where all the work was, working six nights a week in the casinos. I bought a small condo because I was doing well then. I still own the condo but I haven't paid the mortgage in a long time.
For years and years I worked every night. I worked in bands for corporate parties, for a council for President Clinton. The band did really well; we made really good money. I was used to working one night a week at a cocktail reception and making in a night what others would make in a week. It was just always music.
Until about eight years ago. Three things happened: the economy went bad, I married a guy that whacked my credit card, and the music business went down. All of a sudden I'm losing my house, bankrupt, can't put any money in the bank because the creditors will just put on their liens. There's like five different judgments on me for the condo fee. I could hit the lottery for $100,000 and it wouldn't even make a difference.
I never got in the habit of doing a conventional job. After about 30 years of playing in bands and traveling and going on the road and having a great time, the entertainment business kind of collapsed. In the meantime, I'd gotten a master's degree in writing, but I found that I could not get any kind of a job. Nobody wanted to hire me, an older woman with virtually no experience in any sort of conventional work.
I've applied to everything. I've applied to Walmart, Lowe's, Home Depot, and they all said, "You're just not suited to us." I made the mistake of saying I had the master's degree and somebody told me that's wrong because they think you're going to leave. So I tried to change that, but once you've gone into their database, you can't really. It's an amazingly involved process these days. Just to apply to Lowe's you take a psychological profile that goes on for an hour.
So I've actually cleaned toilets, I've done security guard, I've taught piano. I'm just starting to make money online writing web content. It's pretty depressing because it's like ghostwriting -- I just finished writing a story on cleaning rain gutters, you know? Right now I'm making my living writing online and working as a musician one day a week. Six months ago I was working as a security guard in New Jersey and I was working as a custodian, a job for like $8 an hour that I only got anyway because I knew somebody.
I would say I make about $240 a week now. It's embarrassing. It's just all over the place.
I'm in Florida staying rent-free with a childhood friend. I don't have that many expenses. My friend will not take any money; she knows what I've been through. I buy food and I help clean the place. I do have a car, a gift from my mom, and she pays insurance.
I don't have health insurance or anything like that. If I get sick, I try to research it on the Internet or I try to find a friend who has antibiotics or something. I haven't had any sort of exam in years; the money's just not there. Five, ten years ago a mammogram, blood work a few years ago, maybe. I'm 57; I don't how much longer it can go on.
I had an allergic reaction, swollen all over. And I remember sitting outside of the emergency room and thinking, "If I can't breathe, I'll go in and get the shot. But if I can breathe, I won't go in and I'll save the money." I knew it'd be like 500 bucks in the ER. I've had different cuts that got infected and I just used a hot compress, found some antibiotics. Right now I've got these impacted teeth the dentist wants to take out and I just keep taking [the antibiotic] clindamycin, trying to stave that off. The cap fell out, and now I can't afford it, so now I've got this gap in my teeth.
I try to use a barter system for medicine. I'll mow somebody's lawn or something. A lot of people I know here are kind of poor and trend towards a barter system, people trading and giving things back and forth.
Those weeks when I had nothing coming in, I was just scrambling, actually foraging for food -- a grapefruit on the ground. I was staying with a friend, and she was broke too, and I remember we were walking past this box of mashed potatoes --- who's going to eat it first?
My mom will send checks here and there. A lot of it goes for food. It just goes. Gas to get to different jobs, to Walmart. I just spent $200 to do half a mortgage payment. Try to give what I can to the bank so I don't lose the condo.
Walmart is where I shop mostly. The last item of clothing I bought was blue jeans in July at Marshalls for 17 bucks. I would never buy clothes. I have friends that give them to me. A manicure/pedicure would be out of the question!
I feel like it's unpredictable. I may die broke. I may get more poor. I may turn around and get money again, because I had money once. I just don't know. Life is just a lot more dangerous when you don't have money. I feel like any 9-year-old walking around the street has more money than I do. I never thought I would be this poor. It's like just falling into an abyss.
As told to Shadee Ashtari.
Carol's story is part of a Huffington Post series profiling Americans who work hard and yet still struggle to make ends meet. Learn more about other individuals' experiences here.
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