Falling Down the Economy's Rabbit Hole

I have had my own business, Clownbank Studio, as a commercial artist for 38 years and made a modest living doing signs, murals, and illustrations for mom and pop businesses such as restaurants, grocery stores, antique shops, and car mechanics, as well as corporate clients such as Atari, Disney, Universal Studio Tours, Dell Publishing, and others. While I never broke through five figures, at least I was doing what I loved and reached a modest level of success.

I am currently waiting to hear about a job as a bus driver for a firm that deals with the handicapped and the elderly for a wage that barely pays the bills. It would take half a week to make what I used to make in a day. I am on food stamps for the first time in 30 years and, if not for the largesse of my girlfriend, who is retired and living on a pension, I would be sleeping in my van (which is not running because I can't afford to have it fixed) and basically living on the streets. Friends who have had it together and were quite comfortable for 20-30 years are maxing out their credit cards and have become equity whores, mortgaging their homes so they can wait out a turn around that, hopefully, will return them to the life that they have lost.

The past six years have been a slow motion fall down the rabbit hole of despair. I have burned through my inheritance, all of my savings, and my late wife's retirement fund. I have sold two-thirds of my personal possessions and a lot of my studio equipment (compressors, ladders, scaffolds, etc.) at bargain basement prices. This is just a band-aid that temporarily slows down my decline. For the first time in three decades I don't have a studio because I don't have enough work to justify or afford one. I cannot face the few friends I have who have somehow escaped this nightmare because I have no good news to share, only my horror, that at the age of 62, I'm living like a was when I was in my early twenties -- on the edge with next to nothing, and no sign of regular work on the horizon. One freelance job used to lead to another, but these days word of mouth doesn't work like it used to or at all. The computer, outsourcing, and the thinning of the middle class have devastated my customer base.

When I used to read about the Great Depression (the one in 1929, not the one now), I wondered why the people out of work took it so personally. It was the system that failed them, not their own laziness, stupidity, or lack of skills. Now I truly understand. As a grown man, my bottom line is that I should be able to cover my basic needs and not depend on the government teat, winning the lottery, or the generosity of friends to survive. Sometimes, late at night, I kick myself for wandering so far off track from making a living as an artist -- how could I have
been so blind? I don't want to be pushing a shopping cart around with black plastic bags filled with my last pitiful possessions with nothing to do all day but sit and stare and recall the good times.

While this may be good for my spiritual growth, it is hell riding this emotional roller coaster -- it takes a lot out of you to prop yourself up day after day and keep the faith. When people say hang in there, it will get better, even they don't believe it. I am a grim reminder of what might happen to them and they don't want to catch what I have.

I am good at what I do and I want to work. I have a sterling reputation. Even a front page article about me in the local paper produced no interest or leads. Each day of wondering what's to become of me undermines my confidence in the possibility of getting out of my financial hole (at least when I was young I was full of energy, hope, and dreams). Who's going to hire me at my age? If I don't do what I know (and I have been developing my artistic skills passionately over all these years), then I'm destined to be a dishwasher, security guard, or some other low wage, dead end job. I am not alone in my predicament, but that is cold comfort.

As Congress jams its head deeper into the sand each day, ignoring the real issues and making the rich even richer, I have ceased to expect any help from that direction. They are the ones double dipping into generous pensions, enjoying great health care, and being beyond any accountability in their gated communities. The only thing they lack is a conscience. Short of a revolution, we seem to be doomed to live lives of lowered expectations. FDR was willing to make the rich pay their fair share -- those who profited greatly from the system were expected to pay back more -- but nowadays the job providers have no responsibility to reward the very workers who made their fortunes for them. Ayn Rand would be proud.

Peter Bartczak is an artist with experience in airbrushing, murals, design and lettering. Learn more at www.clownbank.com


Peter'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.

Have a similar story you'd like to share? Email us at workingpoor@huffingtonpost.com