I wasn't going to write about this. I really wasn't. It seemed crass.
But then Brian wrote about it so I thought I'd at least explain what was going on. Apart from that, I've done a number of columns documenting when comics fans behaved badly, so I feel obligated to make sure you people hear about it when comics fans do something magnificent.
Here's what happened.
We've never had a lot of money. I'm a part-time schoolteacher and freelance writer who married a social worker; these are not high-income professions. When I proposed to Julie, some eleven years ago or thereabouts, I warned her then that we'd always be hardscrabble poor, probably, because I wanted her to be sure she knew what she was getting into. She just shushed me and told me not to be stupid. That's the woman I married.
And for the most part, we've managed. None of my various teaching and freelance commitments are full-time, so there are no benefits, but they sort of add up to a living. Julie's job insured us both so we had health care. We don't carry debt. The student loan's paid, we own our car outright, so we just have the monthly bills.... rent, food, utilities. Gassing up the vehicle and keeping it running. Basic stuff.
As for frivolous expenses, entertainment and so on, there aren't any to speak of. We work all the time. Neither one of us really spends a lot; I like comics and old books and Julie likes thrift shopping at places like Goodwill or the Salvation Army. We have the internet which we use to watch old movies and TV shows, when one of us isn't using it for a job. We rarely eat out or travel, and when we do it's usually doing a back-roads expedition on the cheap, hunting old books and thrift stores. (Most of those trips are written up here.) That's the extent of our entertainment expenses. Honest, we're cheap dates.
But the last few months have been one disaster after another. Just listing them makes me sound like Eeyore.
First there was the infection that put Julie in the hospital for three days. After that the car needed a brake job that turned into an entire front-end rebuild; that cost us way more than we were prepared for, but we need the car to get to work (mass transit in Seattle is actually MORE expensive than driving) so there was nothing for it but to pay up. Then Julie got laid off, so there went half our income and the health care. We filed our taxes early, thinking the refund would bail us out, and it turned out that because my various employers didn't withhold enough last year, we actually owe money.
The hits just kept coming. Julie had resumes out the day she got word of the layoff and soon she had two job offers. She accepted the better one... but then they changed their minds or something and she didn't get it. Instantly she called the other person who'd wanted to hire her, only to discover that the lesser job had been filled as well. Since no actual paperwork happened with the almost-hire, the agreement was verbal, we couldn't document it for unemployment... and because my wife is scrupulously honest and had admitted to the unemployment office that she had turned down a job, thinking that she had another one lined up, unemployment disallowed her claim. (Before you say it, I assure you that I'd told her to be guarded, to admit nothing she wasn't directly asked, but Julie is guileless. She has the world's worst poker face. It's not usually such a handicap.)
There went the unemployment. We immediately filed an appeal but that takes four to six weeks to process and there's no way to expedite that.
So, six weeks. Worst case, yeah, but "worst case" seemed to be all we were getting lately. Even if the unemployment office managed to get it unsnarled in four, well, we'd still be underwater.
Because Julie's diabetic and we were now uninsured.... despite our best efforts NOT to be.
We did our damnedest to make sure the insurance thing went through smoothly. We enlisted Julie's doctor, even, to help get it all done in time, we filed a mountain of paperwork. Our old insurance ran out at the end of February and that deadline was coming toward us like a freight train. The changeover from Julie's former employer-paid policy to the new one through Obamacare and Medicaid was supposed to happen March first.
But-- here in Seattle, anyway, maybe it's better where you are-- government aid offices are not terribly interested in aiding people, despite the fact that it's their whole goddamned reason for existing. The staffers are jaded and burned out. Everyone they see, all day long, is desperate and frightened. It just rolls off them. You fill out dozens of forms swearing you're not committing fraud and you get all your employers to do the same (and it sure is BIG fun, going to your various bosses and asking, "Can you please sign this form affirming that you pay me low wages with no benefits?") Then once all that's done and you've documented the last year or so of poverty, all you can do is hand over your applications to a bored cubicle worker who's more interested in ferreting out people gaming the system than anything else. It's about the same as putting a note in a bottle and throwing it in the ocean.
We were assured by our particular bored cubicle person that we were covered, it'd be fine, here's your health insurance card, move along. So then Julie went in for a requested blood draw three days ago and was told the insurance doesn't start until April. Too bad. So sad. Just hang in there for a month, okay?
Sure, no problem. Except Julie needs insulin every day. A vial good for ten days, if you are not insured, is $300. So we'd need three of those to get through to April. $900 that we were going to have to pull out of our butts because none of the 'emergency' options for poor people process any sooner than the aforementioned four-to-six-weeks, a phrase I've learned to despise. We'd tried to stockpile Julie's various prescriptions, insulin and glucophages and so on, but there's only so much you can do.... the law is such that doctors aren't allowed to prescribe very far in advance, even for something they know you need for the rest of your life. (Our friend Kurt has to document every year that he's 'disabled' despite being quadriplegic and confined to a wheelchair because documenting it one time isn't sufficient.)
So there it was. A month for the insurance and "four to six weeks" for MAYBE unemployment to come through.
We didn't have six weeks. Hell, we barely had six DAYS. We could pay rent or we could buy insulin a la carte. Never mind incidentals like eating, or putting gas in the car that Julie needed to get to job interviews (not very damn many of those, so far; having her old employer close the doors has glutted the job market for people in her profession.) Plus I needed the car to get to my various jobs, as well.
Always before in tight spots, we've had a plan B, we had put away some savings. But this time there was nothing. We'd burned through our savings putting Julie through school to get the certification for her job that she'd just been laid off from. We've been living check-to-check since then, trying to put it back, but we haven't managed much.
We sold everything we could sell, canceled everything we could cancel, but the truth is we don't really have any assets. "Selling off the collection" was the first thing I thought of, and I have been doing so. But the back issue market and the used-book market are both horribly depressed right now, no one pays Guide price for anything anyway. Even if they did, bits and pieces on eBay weren't going to get it done. There was no family to appeal to for help; our parents are gone. No matter how deftly I juggled our budget, the stark ugly fact was that we were going to be homeless on March 5th.
Co-workers and neighbors and church people clucked and offered platitudes. I know they meant well and I don't mean to disparage those who believe in the power of prayer, but, you know, the fifth was less than a week away and months of fervent prayer were so far showing a whole lot of nothing. I posted a bitter comment online and admitted to being terrified…
…and almost instantly the phone rang. Jim from Pasadena. “I’m sending you a hundred dollars and you’re going to shut up and take it. Because sympathy isn’t going to get it done. It takes actual help.” I spluttered and fumfuh’d and Julie started to weep. Jim went on to outline the strategy he had in mind for getting us over the current rough patch.
While I was on the phone, my email had exploded. Kelly in New York. Michelle in Santa Monica. Rick in Colorado. Ed in Croatia. Christine in Atlanta. All asking, What can I do? How can I help?
Every last one of them were comics people. The response was staggering and it was measured in minutes.
We had been on the other side. Julie and I had done what we could when one or another of our community was in trouble; we'd kicked in for the Sakais and Bob Larkin and Gene Colan. We never knew what it was like to be on the receiving end, though, until that moment. Within twenty-four hours the GoFundme was set up. Brian and Kelly and Sonia boosted the signal here and on Twitter.
It's... overwhelming. It feels like a miracle.
Except it's not. It dishonors all of you that have helped us to call it one. It's not a supernatural event, it's actual people, right here on Earth, doing something wonderful. I know damn well that most of the folks that donated something aren't any better off than we are. Everyone we know is living on the razor's edge. And it didn't slow any of them down for a second. We are so grateful to all of you that no words seem adequate.
I keep trying to find words anyway, and it just gets brushed off. Hell, it actually annoyed Jim. "What else were we supposed to do? Say 'aw, that's too bad' and then turn away? Say 'I'll pray for you' and then forget about you? Friends help friends, it's in the handbook."
Rick added, "Stop feeling bad...we are all part of this very odd family, and family takes care of each other."
That hasn't been my experience, actually. My family is a hideous dysfunctional mess, a collection of alcoholics and criminals for the most part-- I'm the black sheep of the bunch because I got sober in 1986. (Seriously. It's crazy. I'm radioactive as far as they're concerned.) People who have horrible families learn not to put any weight on the idea of 'family.'
So no one was more surprised than me to find out that we do in fact have a family. And that it's really fucking awesome.
We're by no means out of the woods, but Julie has her meds and we didn't have to give up our home for them. That's huge, believe me.
Should the spirit move you, the GoFundMe is here. The raffle is here-- Jim and Rick tell me that they can only do one item at a time but I assure you there are some very cool items lined up, mostly rare books and comics long out of print. Every little bit helps.
It's still pretty bleak, but I'm not as terrified as I was a week ago. And it's a huge and humbling thing to realize how many people who've never even met us dug in and did what they could, just because that's what decent people do.
Bless all of you and thank you.