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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Justin from Chicago


Please tell us your name, age, where you live, your family situation and how you're paying the bills?

I'm Justin, age 30. I live in Chicago, where I have resided for 2.5 years. I currently live in an apartment with my 14 year old dog, Leo. I came to Chicago because I graduated with my Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from Florida Atlantic University. I joke with people when they ask how I got to Chicago by saying that I don't strip nor work on a cruise ship, so job opportunities were seemingly limited in Florida when I was looking. One of my closest friends, whom I met when we both lived in St. Louis, had returned to Chicago, where he was from. He offered me a place to stay for free while I job hunted, and I took him up on it.

I found a job within six weeks working for the Chicago Housing Authority as a Housing Specialist, doing Section 8 recertifications. This is what a graduate degree will land you these days. Correction - I worked for a private contractor for the CHA. Because that's the neoliberal Chicago way. What a hell hole. I have never worked some place so demoralizing in my life. I could write all day on my three months there, but let's just say when you hand off a public good, a public service, to a private company, they will do whatever they can to squeeze every last penny out of their contract. I escaped and spent two years at a major housing nonprofit agency. I spent my time there assisting homeowners who were losing their homes to foreclosure (and sometimes saving those homes) and I was teaching homebuyer education classes. I lamented working within this system, but if I wasn't there to help my clients navigate it, who would? I recently took a job with a major suburban city government in their community development department. It was quite a large pay increase, and I know I can count myself among the few fortunate ones who are making more now than they did a few years ago. However, my commute one way is 40 miles, so I spend a lot more time at the job and the commute now.

How is your economic situation compared to five years ago? What about ten or twenty years ago?

Five years ago almost to the day I quit my job in St. Louis and left the country for six months. It's hard to explain, but I was miserable, as if I was slowly suffocating, and if I didn't leave, I was going to die. The last five years have generally seen a huge improvement in my personal happiness and fulfillment. This is mainly due to letting go of any preconceived notions of what it means to be successful. I fear that I could always slip back into the mindset that made me so unhappy five years ago, but I know so much more about the world, how it works and why it's so imperative for me to try to remain cognizant of what is important - making time for my friends and family, drawing the line and saying no, knowing when to cut my losses (usually at a job), saving money and living "low key." I have no desire to climb any ladders. I just want to make enough to survive. Unfortunately, this seems to entail working full time. I know how relatively fortunate I am. That doesn't always make me feel better.

Working as an advocate in the foreclosure process, I saw people who thought they were doing what they were "supposed to do" be tricked by loan officers, or discarded by long time employers, or manipulated into believing that everyone has a fair shake at success, however that's defined. What saddened me the most at my last job was the pervasive belief of my clients that it was due to some personal defect or mistake that caused their failure. I made it a habit of reminding people that they can't control these things. It's not a personal failure. We don't control anything, it seems. What a powerful lesson it was for me to learn.

Ten years ago I was an undergrad, and though I knew even then something was amiss, I had no clue as to the depth and severity of what we all face.

If you have children, how are they doing? What are their prospects? You can also talk about your parents or siblings if you don't have children.

No kids. Never. I have a one year old niece and a second niece or nephew on the way. I am scared for them. I only hope I can do something for them. My father is disabled, but also retired military, so he's one of the few groups in this country who has a pension, plus his disability. They do well. He took early retirement from the service because he was asking too many questions and was not towing the line like he was expected to do. I think he's really starting to see things more clearly as he ages, though he and I don't always agree. My mother is financially reliant on his income. She doesn't like to talk about current events. I can't say I necessarily blame her. She worries about us, though not always for the reasons I would worry about.

Please discuss your city, town or neighborhood, its industries and businesses. Is the local economy improving or deteriorating? How are your neighbors doing?

I live in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood in Chicago. Seems like a select few are doing quite well. I could write a book on this one question, but I'll just mention one thing I continuously notice. I live in the near northwest side. Many long time businesses are closing with signs that often say, "moving to 3xxx or 4xxx W. Whatever Street." Twenty years ago, I have been told this was the same story, but it was moving from 1xxx to 2xxx. These are almost exclusively hispanic owned businesses. They come in, they stabilize a neighborhood, and then they are pushed further west. And it's called progress. And yet I won't move further west (or south) because I can afford to live in an apartment that is near a park, across from a grocery and close to all the things I like to do and the people I like to see. And what if I did move? I'm not sure it would make any difference other than give me the satisfaction that I don't live in a gentrifying hood. My neighborhood is still considered rough by many mostly middle class, mostly white people, but single family houses on my block are going for half a million. It's only a matter of time.

Do you agree with my basic contention that the country is unraveling economically, politically and even socially? What is your vision of the future?

I'm not sure we ever were "raveled" to begin with. This country was built on violence and forced labor and exploitation. The chickens are coming home to roost. I half-joke with friends that we'll someday either be underwater (literally, not just figuratively) or we'll be ex-pats in Seoul or Berlin or some other city in "Americatown" or "Little America" type enclaves as we escape. Then again, the more things change, the more they stay the same, so we'll all likely be going down with the ship together. I feel more now than before that leaving won't do any good except I won't have to participate directly in this game or be reminded daily of the challenges we face.

My friends and I know things aren't going to be as good for us as they were for our parents, for most of us, in most ways, especially economically. I hope that as things continue to deteriorate we remember to be there for one another. I hope we reject the most noxious aspects of capitalism and morph towards a more humane existence, as that's all I believe will happen as things stand today. I don't believe change will happen completely or quickly without some major pain.

What can we possibly do to mitigate our problems, whether collectively and/or on a pesonal level? If you're really struggling, please share some of your coping mechanisms and survival tactics. What adjustments, minor or traumatic, have you had to make?

I try to stay knowledgeable on what's happening. I'm cynical but not to a point that causes me to think it isn't worth trying to make others' lives better. I have few illusions that I can affect some sort of macro level change, but I do try to do what I can. I mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters. I try to not buy new things if I can buy them used. I share with others what is going on in this world in the hope that if enough people know, something might change. I doubt anything I do will make a long term difference, but you never know. I wish I had a better answer. Or approach. Owning my privilege and my hypocrisy has helped me be a little more grounded.

Please participate in this Readers' Postcards series, as your answers will be very instructive to all of us. Just answer the above questions then send them to me, preferably with at least a photo or two (of your town or just you or your family, in your home or wherever). If you'd rather not state your full name, that's fine. Even a pseudonym is OK. My email: . Many thanks in advance!--Linh



Linh Dinh said...

Hi Justin,

Please tell us how you managed to survived for 6 months overseas. Most Americans can't function an hour in a foreign land without a tour guide or commanding officer!


Anonymous said...

Very informative and well written. Thanks for sharing Justin. --Gordon in Nebraska.

Justin said...


When I lived in St. Louis, I bought a fixer upper. Fortunately I sold it when the first-time homebuyer tax credit came on the scene, so even though it sold for less than I had hoped due to the collapse of the economy, I did walk away with a modest amount of money. I rented for a little more than a year after that before leaving the country. That house money enabled me to support myself while abroad. Needless to say, grad school wiped out whatever I had left.

I haven't owned property since. Sometimes I think about buying again as a means of committing to the city and stabilizing my housing costs, though we all know that's not a guarantee anymore, if it ever was. I feel renting is my little way of rejecting the financialization of shelter, a basic human need. Someone's still making a buck off of me though. God bless America.

Justin said...

As a side note - I speak Spanish moderately well so being abroad wasn't as intimidating. Plus I had my dog and my car so if necessary I could jump in and drive back.

Chuck Olroski said...

Justin: Fascinating story! Once upon a time, I too swore off "climbing the ladder," tried to hang onto vines without stepping upon others, and O man... how the corporate Giants beat me into eating Bush Bush beans.

Thank you very much for speaking freely and directly!

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Justin,

What I like best about your account is the friend who let you stay rent-free until you could find a job. It's that kind of a gesture that can make all the difference, and plus, he didn't know how long it would take for you to find a job. It was entirely possible that you would not find anything, and you would have had to leave or, most awkwardly, he would have had to give you hints that it was time to leave.

I'm thinking of Ben Franklin's quip that a houseguest is like a fish, because both stink after three days...


Justin said...


His offer was a generous one. I'm fortunate that I have people like him in my life. I know far too many of us don't.

EdD said...

"when you hand off a public good, a public service, to a private company, they will do whatever they can to squeeze every last penny out of their contract. "

And when a "public service" is administered by "public servants", the budget is eaten up by salaries for political appointees in do-nothing jobs, and benefits for those administrators.

The 'privatization" scheme turns out to be worse, because the companies created to administer the services exist only by virtue of political patronage, if not being owned outright by politically appointees.

It's a no-win proposition. Government robs us all and wrecks the economy while justifying its existence with worthless "public services" which are claimed to be necessary because of the wrecked economy and all the people reduced to poverty as a result of the government's robbery.


About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.