We were almost here, I thought.
I could see the robust Rocky Mountains in the back ground which seemed to swallow the soiled ground with mighty strength. In the foreground, I started to see traffic jams, endless lines of cyclists, and the smell of the city, which was the mix of sweat, Coors beer, and sweet chocolate.
I was finally away from the brutality of the small town mentality and was ready to embrace all Denver could provide me with her generous diversity. Except, I was too naive and irresponsible to know what lay before me.
It was April of 2008 and we had packed up our bags and set on a journey to reclaim our lives. To start over…to start anew…to begin life, because in our immature minds we thought ‘life’ was mutually exclusive with a high-powered job and an endless supply of the green stuff (not talking weed here, folks).
We were high on CHANGE that we left our brains in Nebraska. Honestly, even if Jesus had walked up to me in Lucky Brand jeans, Birkenstocks, and a tattered flannel he found pillaging Good Will and said moving to Denver WAS NOT a good idea, I would have waved him off and yelled, “HATERRRR.”
That’s how hellbent I was on moving to Denver.
Little did I know that the job that practically was promised to me wouldn’t be there. The house(s) we had looked at would either be foreclosed or would have drastically increased so they were out of our price range and we would be forced to live out of a small motel – not hotel – room for nearly eight months.
I would have too much pride just to pack up our 2005 Dodge Grand Caravan and return back to North Platte, Nebraska, yet relinquish just enough pride to wait four hours with a two-year-old Zachary, a four year-old Alicia, a six year-old Andrew, and a seven year-old Kenneth in an overcrowded Human Services building just outside of downtown Denver looking for any aid as necessary.
I wasn’t expecting what I received instead: the judgmental looks….the frowns…the looks of scorn as if I was asking for their entire paychecks to blow on weed.
We just needed milk and gas money.
Not a long-winded nag how I was an unfit mother for moving here, though I probably was.
I should back up a little and tell you how these circumstances came to pass.
I had moved to Nebraska less than 24 hours after my father was put into the ground. I just couldn’t bear looking at so many things that reminded me of him, so Steven and I moved to Nebraska to be closer to his parents. Things were rough – as many things are – as we were still babies trying to raise babies.
Eventually, I would find a steady job in a bar (yeah, the same place where I would meet my rape perpetrator. FUN!), Steven battled a rare eye disease that left him blind for a few years (he would find a long-term plan that would restore his eye sight), I gave birth to Alicia (finally a GIRL!) and Zachary, in between being the breadwinner, being a busy mom to my kids and Steven (at the time, he was battling a weed addiction coupled with alcohol. I imagine it wasn’t easy losing your eyesight. I’m thankful he’s been fully recovered for a few years now and is a wonderful husband and father) I put myself through college and the day I received my marketing and advertisement degree I exclaimed, “DENVER” proudly and boldly.
Although, the signs for the 2008 recession were all present, we ignored them foolishly and still packed up everything we could fit into our new (to us) gold van, quit our jobs, and took a chance (HEAVY emphasis on ‘taking a chance’ and Lady Luck would proverbially screw me up the rear).
I had my degree in hand, multiple job promises, and Steven was ready for what Colorado could give us. The answer wasn’t quite what we were looking for, but in the long-run, it was the most important life gifts we have ever received.
Within a few weeks, I learned my Advertising degree (and the $55,000+ advertising job that was ‘promised’ to me was worthless) and as the recession hit Denver, so did the job market for not just me, but thousands of folks that were in a similar predicament.
For all intent and purposes, I technically was not alone, but I sure felt like an isolated island surrounded by chaotic waves of misery and sounds of obsolete desolation.
Two weeks in, we knew living in Denver wasn’t anything we had dreamed it would be. As I mentioned early, if I wasn’t so damn prideful (and perhaps narcissistic) I would have told Steven, “Let’s gooooo!!!!!”
But that didn’t happen.
And then I wondered to myself, “Well, Tammy, I should be able to find a manager-esque restaurant job.”
What a failure that was. I was either ‘overqualified’ or suffered from jealous women in management that didn’t want a young buck to take the reins.
Fine. Give me an hourly wage then.
“No, you’re overqualified.”
Basically. We were screwed.
I sucked it up and went to a local staffing agency and begin working in a hot dog factory — YES, an actual processing plant for the odds and ends of pigs stuffed in casings for $6.02 an hour.
But it was a job. And I was happy to start until the day I walked in and was met with this horrible processed meat stench that literally made me gag.
No one outside of one sweet Mexican-American named ‘Manda’ spoke English and the line leader, but I still sucked it up. The first day, I learned what REAL manual labor was.
I learned how privileged I was.
I learned how awful Caucasian Americans treat Mexican and South American immigrants and boy, did they let me have it.
It didn’t matter. I came here to work and that’s what I did. It was the hardest 12 hours of my life. I didn’t want to go back, but I didn’t want my children to starve either.
And so I went back.
In the locker room that morning, putting on the latex overalls, the green lab-coat, a hairnet, latex gloves to my elbows, and a mask (and I didn’t mention I had to get a body sanitation done every morning), I was greeting by another English-speaking employee who worked another room (Italian Sausages) and exclaimed, “Whitey, you came back again? You guys never come back the second day!?! Are you sure you are all white????”
I laughed hard on the inside, but just gave her a sheepish smile.
I did this job six days a week for nearly two months until I separated my shoulder from stacking 50-pound boxes of pig parts (hot dogs), but during that time I learned quite a bit about Hispanic culture, their work ethic and subsequently my work ethic, and how I managed to withstand that smell for two months.
But I was out of work again.
And we were barely making ends meet by paying $185 a week rent to a local (drug-infested) hotel for one-room. We made dinners in a hot skillet that we bought at Wal-mart and tried to make the best out of the situation. It’s why to this day, I can’t stand to look at hamburger meat, Hamburger Helper (Tuna Helper, Chicken Helper), or anything that can be cooked in just one skillet.
Even though, eventually, we received government assistance (SNAP) at $250 a month, it was never enough. I learned (as well as Steven) we both had to forgo eating breakfast and lunch so the kids could have three healthy meals a day. We learned washing our laundry at a laundry mat was too expensive, so I started cleaning rooms at the hotel to use their washer and dryer.
Boy, I was pretty much humbled in every sense of the word.
And I think using the word ‘humbled’ is a sever understatement.
Steven was able to find a job as as third shift janitor to help supplement the income, but the situation was so depressing and difficult, he began his substance abuse. It’s not something he is proud of (nor I), but we are proud of how far he has come since then. To be fair, that’s the part of being in poverty and being homeless, self-righteous folks don’t understand….it’s UNBEARABLE to see your life unravel like this…to see the circumstances you allowed dictate your life and to witness the world being far more cruel than she ever was before.
To think, we weren’t ACTUALLY homeless just severely attached to poverty. If this was this AWFUL for us, how do those that have to wait in line to get a meal at a local soup kitchen feel? How do those men that wait countless hours at the Denver Rescue Mission in hopes of a soft place to rest their weary head feel? How do those that are begging for cold water at the corner of Colfax and Wadsworth only to be spat in the face deal with their days and cold nights?
Within a week, I had acquired a new temporary job 65 minutes north of Denver, which I commuted to on RTD (Denver’s public transit system) that took nearly three hours. It was another factory environment that paid $6.52 per hour that was also provided a work placement program for young adults that were living in halfway houses dealing with drug addiction. In theory it was a beautiful thing, but only theory. The management of this factory, which hand-made reindeer-like Christmas decorations out of twigs (I had blisters for months) were selling hard drugs (cocaine, acid) with the recovering addicts and also using them for sexual favors.
On my first day, the only other Caucasian woman there warned me to take of my wedding ring or “suffer” sexual innuendos incessantly. I didn’t believe her because, well frankly, I was so naive. And boy, did I learn that first day when I was asked (actually nearly coerced) into a three-way with my male instructor and our female supervisor.
To say this was not an easy work environment was a MAJOR understatement.
I stay employed less than three weeks at this establishment…the horrific work conditions coupled with the sexual harassment, and embarrassment I endured every day was just too much.
Perhaps, I was just a weak, naive girl.
Perhaps, I was just not a good mother.
Perhaps, I wasn’t fit for city.
But, perhaps, I knew my own boundaries, and without getting too candid or specific, the things that were said (and done) in that place would make even the most lackadaisical macho man cringe.
Because I fear I may be losing you with my long-winded writing style, I will sum up the remaining two or so months of living in a one-room motel room in poverty:
Steven would begin a well-paying career (which he still has) in food services (chef) in large corporations, mainly hospitals. Though, it was a bit bumpy at first for him as he suffered some legal issues, he persevered.
Those aforementioned legal issues coupled with scrounging to just put crap food on the table, getting on RTD for 90 minutes in the morning to take Kenneth and Andrew to a charter school that was away from all of the crime I was in the midst of on a daily basis from sex trafficking to drug peddling to physical abuse, to suffering a physiological breakdown within my own-self.
I was at my breaking point.
A week or so before Thanksgiving of 2008, I made one of the hardest choices, which turned out to be one of the best choices, I have ever made. I booked five bus tickets for myself and the kids as we left Denver to live with Steven’s parents in Riverton, Wyoming. Within two days, I was working in a place that I didn’t have to worry about being attacked in any way, had our own place, albeit a single wide in the midst of native land that belonged to the Shoshone and the Arapahoe (which brought its own set of problem), and was providing for my family.
Despite the monetary income I was slinging in, the amount of spoiling I did for my four children because I felt like I let them down in a monumental way (and I did), and the independence I had once again, I was miserable.
I was away from Steven, and no matter how much he royally screwed up, we were a family – and being separated from him was such a difficult time in my life. Luckily, he was focused on making Denver work for US, and that’s something that’s been instrumental in our growth.
He found an institution that worked out for our budget to be employed under, as well, found a suitable spacious condo (homes in Denver are just not feasible for us, and that’s okay), and n the middle of July of 2009, we were making the trek WITH STEVEN back to Denver.
We were minutes away from returning to a city that called my name, but also that had eaten away at me, chewed me slowly, and spat me out, yet it felt like home as we sat through bumper-to-bumper traffic on congested I-70 and I could see the haze over the shiny (I love shiny objects) reflections off of the towering skyscrapers that adorn downtown.
THIS felt right.
This felt like growth.
This felt like love.
This felt like happiness.
This felt like our journey out of being impoverished was taking a leap in the right direction, yet my heart has and will always be with my brothers and sisters that have to endure this horrific state of economic despair every day of their lives and also suffer the social stigma from judgmental asshats.
I’m happy for everything Denver has taught me and that I have not forgotten those lessons. I’m glad Denver took the naivety from my eyes without hurting my childish spirit too much.
I’m happy I get to live in this place and experience the best of the human spirit despite the examples of the asshatery of the human spirit that presents itself.
I’m happy to see God in Her Mother Nature form love me with the robust mountains, the colorful sunsets, and the sweet whispers from her wind as she swirls around my maxi dress as I walk with my children past the cherry blossoms that adorn the historical parts of this beautiful place.
I’m happy I outgrew the ‘money=happiness’ mentality, my fiscal selfishness, and just wanting to give my children things over time.
I’m happy to have Denver as my teacher.
Yes, it was a huge mistake in hindsight, but it’s one of those mistakes I’m grateful for in the long-run.
I’m grateful that Denver turned out to be a beautiful, intelligent, compassionate, diverse, rabbi of a mistake.