Will work for minimum

SN&R’s writer takes a self-imposed $8-an-hour challenge

Keeping all your receipts and logging expenditures is depressing. It reminds you of all the small expenses, like Blockbuster video late fees (or what they call “restocking” charges) that piss you off, and all the things you can’t afford, like car insurance, beer and pizza delivery.

Keeping all your receipts and logging expenditures is depressing. It reminds you of all the small expenses, like Blockbuster video late fees (or what they call “restocking” charges) that piss you off, and all the things you can’t afford, like car insurance, beer and pizza delivery.

The refrigerator’s empty except for lime juice, molding rice and celery, which have been giving me the stink eye for weeks. Every time the door opens it’s like a bad rerun. I want pizza, anything, but can’t spend money. Celery prevails. Naked bunch.

I chomp the limp sticks in the living room because a kitchen without food is a notch above the dentist’s chair. All I’ve had today is a bagel, bitter coffee and Tostitos—all mooched from the office break room. I’m out of cash, food, ideas.

My mom finds out there’s nothing to eat at my place and brings over bread, chocolate-chip brownies, lasagna and chicken-broccoli casserole. This makes me feel 12 years old, not 30, but nevertheless I’m grateful, even for pity. She lives in Auburn and sells those ads on the back of supermarket receipts, 100-percent commission. She just started and hasn’t made a dime yet. Her fiancé makes good money, though, but his company just implemented furloughs.

They—my dad, stepmom, cousins, more friends and co-workers than I care to think about—are just some of the tens of millions who are underemployed or out of work these days.

I sense the fear at the office, family dinners, out drinking—the dread of having to spend Saturday night polishing up the résumé or scouring Craigslist. What if I lose my job?

Unsettling, and it made me curious.

Beginning New Year’s Day, I decided to conduct an experiment: I would only allow myself $8 an hour in salary, despite the fact that my SN&R arts-editor gig earns more than double that. Eight bucks, 40-hour weeks, 37 days, 888 waking hours. Of course, I forced myself to take this so-called “challenge,” so it’s just a drill. In the end, I’ll still have a job and even unused cash. A gauntlet by a poor man’s Morgan “Super Size Me” Spurlock, yeah, but nevertheless one in earnest.

I hoped it would remind me what money’s worth because, honestly, I’ve lost sense of that. I don’t bring lunch to work and in general eat out too much. I illegally download music online but spend hundreds on coffee. I don’t save. Will living on $8 an hour make me feel defeated, liberated, ashamed or exhausted? Will I stop using all my spare quarters to play that street-racing video game?

I live paycheck to paycheck as it is.

I wanted to know if I could make ends meet if suddenly, without warning, I had to get by on bare minimum.

Remember, any one of us could be out of a job tomorrow.

Crunching the numbers
I don’t recommend living alone without roommates in Midtown on $8 an hour. But for this experiment I don’t have a choice.

So, start with a roof over my head. Rent.com says the average Sacramento one-bedroom apartment goes for $650 a month. On Craigslist, the median price is more like $750. I meet in the middle: $700. That’s $580 left.

Health insurance costs anywhere between $57 and $150 a month, according to Blue Shield’s Web site. Bare-bones coverage for the hypothetical 50-year-old male starts at $167, with 40 percent co-pays and high deductibles. An arm and a leg for thankless coverage: No wonder nearly 7 million Californians are uninsured. $480 to go.

Cell phone? According to Forbes.com, the average revenue per user, or ARPU, is $49.79 a month. On Sprint’s Web site, they offer a $29.99 plan, before taxes and no text messaging. Down to $440.

Set the fridge on low, keep the lights off. Set the water heater closer to “vacation.” Shoot for $20 energy bills and cross your fingers: $420.

I don’t own a car; it was stolen last year. Zero.

Americans have an average of $8,500 in consumer debt. U.S. homeowners collectively have $11.2 trillion in mortgage debt. My father, who lives in Rocklin and works in lending, foreclosed on two homes last year. My youngest brother has almost $20,000 in college debt, which is in a way worse than consumer debt: You’re educated but feel like a dumbass for taking out so many loans.

I, on the other hand, fall into the category of the 23 percent of households who have no outstanding fiscal liability. In other words, losing a job wouldn’t be as devastating for me as it can be for others.

Final budget comes down to this: I can only spend $13 a day. Until February 7. And I still have to eat, feed dogs, and not get nailed on my bike and have to go to the emergency room.

I’ll keep in mind that, for me, it’s only a drill. There’s an end in sight. But for millions of unemployed and minimum-wage earners, it’s not. It’s a struggle just to survive.

The first week
With that, a happy new year.

I spend day one, a Thursday, fasting. No collard greens, cornbread or black-eyed peas. No nothing. Just water. I’ve only fasted by accident in the past, but figure this will be a good way to stay mindful of what’s important, what’s viable, what’s necessary.

By the day’s end, I’m jealous of the dogs, who by the way can’t tell the difference between the old food (California Natural, $27) and the cheaper Iams stuff ($12.99). My girlfriend picks up the dog-chow tab; some call this love, others mooching.

January 2: Rise, shine, raid the girlfriend’s cupboard. Skippy peanut butter resting atop sliced bread, leaving an imprint like how your mug looks after a funky night with a pillow. I whip up a triple-decker PB sandwich and devour it.

She drops me off at my pad and I bike three blocks to work.

That’s right: Not only do I not drive, I don’t commute. This is fortunate: Insiders at the White House say President Barack Obama’s demeanor has markedly improved now that he breakfasts with Sasha and Malia above the quote-unquote storefront. I’m not good at saving money, so I wonder what I would give up if I had to buy a bus pass.

I drop a $30 co-pay to see my therapist that afternoon, and she says this experiment will be good for me, an exercise in egolessness. I laugh, because when I tell my brother about the $8 experiment, he laughs at me. “I know tons of people living on minimum wage.” This makes me feel stupid, like a gimmick, which makes me want to spend money that I don’t have on beer.

Stay mindful, present.

That evening, I give in and throw down $13.95 at Trader Joe’s: multigrain harvest bread ($2.99), pesto tortellini ($2.29), brie cheese ($3.83), canned organic garbanzo beans ($1.09), honey oatmeal soap ($1.49), a bottle of Two Buck Chuck ($1.99). Forty hours and already $18 over budget. What’s my problem? Of course, I’d have to go back to the shrink for that answer.

(Note to self: You can’t afford French cheese.)

Saturday morning I discover pancake mix in the depths of the GF’s cupboard. I dress the flapjacks with raspberries, chocolate chips, maple syrup and agave nectar. Her place is the mother lode. Loaded up with carbs and sugar, I pass out watching the Arizona Cardinals slip by the Atlanta Falcons.

On Sunday, I go on a bender before noon: $20 bucks on a barbacoa consommé, fried omelet, chilaquiles, Coke and horchata for breakfast. Later, five bucks for coffee.

Week one for the weak one: $17 over budget.

I find a half-used macaroni box in said cupboard of earthly delights, with carrots, celery and onions from the farmers’ market, and prepare a mirepoix. Add water, olive oil, salt, pepper, the macaroni, simmer, presto: a vat of soup, leftovers that’ll live deep into the week.

This is a relief, because on Tuesday I don’t want to wait in a three-hour line for a $2.35 meal at the Old Spaghetti Factory. It’s the chain’s 40th anniversary, and they’re giving away the farm and spumoni ice cream. A line of 125-plus trickles along parallel to the train tracks almost to K Street. Kids either fistfight or have their noses glued to Nintendo DS players. An overweight, mustached guy in his 40s tells me he read about the meal deal on Facebook and right away caravanned the family in from Galt. I ask what he’s going to order, and he says he’s hunkering for the Manager’s Special with sausage.

Our writer spent $11.27 at the Wal-Mart super center near IKEA: fruits, veggies, toilet paper and the “gourmet” tater tots. His mom lied about the 25 cent avocados.

I finish the soup leftovers on Wednesday night. Out of the $91 allotted for the week, I’m over budget by 20 cents.

OK, $1.20.

Around midnight, I sneak out to Pieces on 21st Street. A greasy-pizza-loving hipster cabal gathers outside the front door, waiting for the employee with dreads to appear, cradling slices like orphaned children, giving them away for a dollar. The oily, cheesy pizza keeps my fingertips warm. It’d probably give me a heart attack, but I’d save a fortune if I ate here every night.


Wal-Mart vs. Slow Food
As a minimum-wage worker, I wanted to explore whether income would influence whether I bought natural, local, organic foods or whatever was cheap.

As a kid, my mom shopped exclusively at Costco, Target and Raley’s. I’d never been to a farmers’ market until college. Slow Food invokes bowel-movement humor, not culinary philosophy.

Nowadays, I go back and forth: When I have money, I buy natural foods. If I’m broke, free for all. But during this experiment I wanted to make a strong effort to eat as much locally bought, organic and natural food possible. I explained this to Mom.

“You’d be shocked by the prices at Wal-Mart. Twenty-five cent avocados,” she said, knowing my weakness for guacamole. I decided to give Mom a chance.

It’s gridlock finding a spot to park at the Wal-Mart off Interstate 5 near Ikea. It’s not unlike an Oakland Raiders game. All that’s missing is buddies dressed like Gwar double-fisting cold ones.

Inside, there’s a run on Bud Light. A banner hanging above the island display has Wal-Mart’s new slogan: “Save money. Live better.” I remember seeing this commercial: The couple saves a wad of cash and it turns into a flat-screen TV.

West Sac’s Wal-Mart supercenter is open 24 hours. A four-pack of Angel Soft toilet paper is $1.26; I buy it, but only because I feel guilty about stealing TP from work. Avocados are 64 cents each; Mom lied. Gala apples are 97 cents per pound. I splurge and bring home Crispy Crown Ore-Ida tater tots, because tater tots make me laugh.

This is my second time in a Wal-Mart. The first I didn’t buy anything: It was in college and I was trying to score weed.

I bring home potatoes, lemons, avocados, onions, apples, TP, Ore-Ida and an orange bell pepper, all for $11.27. The apples look pretty but have no soul. Flavorless. The bell pepper goes bad within days, its carrot-colored skin shrivels like toes in bath water. And the taters are just OK, crumbling into pieces even after broiling and not the best I’ve had.

I don’t have a rubric for how to compare Wal-Mart to the farmers’ market, so I’m going to just trust my gut, which of course is entirely untrustworthy. It’ll eat anything and everything these days.

At the farmers’ market, the 3-foot-tall stacks of in-season Napa cabbage heads are beautiful, almost unreal, like something you’d see in a hedgehog video game. The guys selling Bledsoe Pork look like men who slaughter pigs for a living: gruff men in hoodies who don’t smile. Wal-Mart has Scientologists out front courting shoppers, the farmers’ market has 9/11 conspiracy nuts. Maybe they’ll unite when it’s revealed that Osama bin Laden is really Tom Cruise in one of those Mission: Impossible masks.

I spend less money at the farmers’ market. The Fuji apples there, at 50 cents a pound, are gleaner quality but delicious. There aren’t avocados for less than $1, however, so if you’re gaga for guacamole, Sam Walton’s your man.

And, I admit, his prices are lower. Verdict: Wal-Mart by a tot—but reluctantly so.

As for the grocery bills: By the end of the experiment, I spend nearly 60 percent, or $282, of my $13 a day on food and beverage. I buy three pints of beer in the 37 days for a total of $7.50.

On the flip side, I mooch, jank, hustle and scavenge food or money for food more than I ever have in my life.

When I lived in France I bought meat at the butcher, bread at the baker, fruits and veggies at the stand and cheese at the most amazing fromageries, and everything was local and natural and affordable. It’s the way food is bought and sold in most countries; France just happens to have incredible food. I’d gotten away from going to the farmers’ market, but will start going back each week. I’d save money at Wal-Mart, but can’t bring myself to shop there.

‘Hire Me’ guy
For a guy without a job, Christopher Adams sure doesn’t dress the part: gray pinstripe suit, baby-blue paisley tie, pressed white-collar dress shirt, clean-shaven, hair parted with precision, coffee in hand. My mom would be impressed—then give me a hard time.

“This is the first coffee I’ve bought in three months,” he confesses before explaining how he became unemployed. Moved back to Sacramento last fall to be with his girlfriend. Had a sales job, top 8 percent of the company. First Friday in November, he took his high-school sweetheart to McKinley Park. A beautiful day. A blanket. A dozen roses. And a ring. She said yes.

A week later, Adams lost his job.

“I’ve always underrated job security until now,” he says, still smiling, still able to laugh between sips of coffee. A 29-year-old Northern Arizona University graduate, he’s applied for hundreds of jobs with only a handful of interviews to show for it. And no real prospects, he says, just 100 percent commission gigs, like my mom’s. Most people would curl up in a ball and hide. Or get drunk.

What he did instead was an eye-catcher.

Adams was desperate, needing a “striking approach, a bold tactic.” He got up early, put on a suit and ate breakfast as if he had a 9-to-5, but instead set up shop on Alhambra Boulevard during the morning commute, waving a “Hire Me” sign, box by his side, “Free résumé of Chris Adams.” He did this again at night. And the next day. And the next.

“[My girlfriend] was a little shocked at first, but then she was supportive,” he smiles.

He didn’t take to the streets lightly. He just couldn’t get work, any work, even a job with Jackson Hewitt wearing an Uncle Sam costume and waving a sign on the side of the road.

It’s embarrassing to reveal that I’ve been living on $8 an hour for over a month as an “experiment,” but it’s an icebreaker. We share stories of cost-cutting: His diet of soup and 25-cent tuna, my diet of “quinoa surprise.” His Costco moment was when they told him to stop coming back for free samples.

A yard sale was Adams’ biggest payday: $120. This covered his Campbell’s Chicken Noodle-O’s, but won’t save his home in Portland, which he says is 30 days from foreclosure.

Adams hoped things would change with Obama, but now accepts that it might take a while. Creditors call every day, all day, from different area codes. “I had five calls by 9:21 a.m. this morning,” he shares, telling them, “You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.”

But in spite of everything, Adams shoots a big, optimistic smile. “My fiancée keeps reminding me that ‘It’s only a comma, it’s not a period,’” he says. I hope he’s right.

When Adams says it’s tough to get a job, any job, I not only believe him: I can empathize.

Around mid-January, I start looking for a second job, too, having no idea where to begin. So I start with the worst places I could imagine working at. McDonald’s is in the top two.

I’ve worked food retail before: boiling bagels at a suburban cafe owned by a former Dallas Cowboy, barista, smoothies boy. But I can’t remember how I nailed those interviews. Going into McDonald’s, I tell myself not to talk too much. A friend says I should try to use the word “sucks” as much as possible.

The McDonald’s on Folsom Boulevard and 56th Street is startlingly spick-and-span, and for some reason this appeals to me, like I’m going to enjoy degreasing the tables or picking gum from under seats.

“May I speak with the hiring manager?”

“He’s gone for the day,” a girl behind the counter says.

Christopher Adams got engaged on November 7, 2008, and lost his job seven days later. After months being unemployed, he took to the streets of Sacramento armed with a “Hire Me” sign and several résumés. He still hasn’t found a job.

“That sucks.”

She gives me an application—“explore a golden opportunity”—and says that Bob, the boss, conducts interviews on Thursdays after 2 p.m. She doesn’t know if they’re hiring. On Thursday, Bob’s there. My application is riddled with “modifications.” I work for SN&R—as a delivery driver, which isn’t a total lie since I ran routes the first year I worked for the company. We chat, go through the motions, but Bob has bad news: Sales are down and McDonald’s isn’t hiring.

“How can sales be down at McDonald’s?”

There’s still hope: If there’s a corporate retail chain I loathe more than any, it’s Blockbuster. Unilaterally censoring cinema masterpieces, manipulating renters with late-fee legalese—Blockbuster’s Guantanamo Bay of video rentals.

I really hope they hire me.

Applying for work at Blockbuster is not unlike trying to get a visa to go to Cuba. The online process takes nearly an hour, including a 50-plus-questions survey that’s the SATs of weeding out stoners and the ethically challenged. “What would you do if you caught a co-worker stealing?” Shake him down for 25 percent. Then go buy some ganja.

I fantasize about being hired and deleting everyone’s late fees.

Brandon, a manager, calls me in for an interview at the K Street branch. He sports thick-rimmed glasses and blond highlights that make him look younger than he probably is. I’m calm, unshaven and in jeans and a button-up Levi shirt.

“What do you least like about your current job?”

Uh. For some reason I forgot that I was probably going to have to spend the entire interview lying.

“Well, I can’t stand delivering newspapers in the rain.”

The whole charade lasts less than 15 minutes and, when it ends, Brandon explains that he’ll call me around 6 o’clock to set a time for a follow-up with the head honchos.

Brandon never calls back.

Weeks later, I go to that same Blockbuster to rent a DVD for my girlfriend, who’s sick. I have a free coupon, but upon checking out, the clerk hits me up for a 245-day-old “restocking fee” of $1.25. A couple days later, I’m at the Blockbuster branch on Folsom Boulevard and there, too, I owe $1.25 (but this time, I persuade the clerk to delete the fine).

“No late fees” my ass.

I joke, but not being able to land a job is frustrating, and my job search is just part of this challenge. I can’t even begin to relate to someone like my mom or dad, who should be at the twilight of their working life but who possibly may never get to stop. Is this the new American standard? Trading job security and retirement for cheap imported MacBooks and bulk foodstuffs?

Scoff at electioneering and political posturing all you want, but I really hope Obama creates a new, sustainable employment sector.

Challenges end
Malnourished, patches of discolored and ratty hair, a nose’s tip that’s red and blotchy. Sleeping and no eating—which is understandable, because there’s no food in the house. Passed out, zonked, in the living room corner, snoring deep, sweet logs. Light from the front porch trickles in through the blinds, highlighting the ribs, which protrude like undulations on busy East Sac streets.

On the second to last day of this $8 experiment, my girlfriend brings home a stray dog.

He’s probably a year old and looks part lab, part retriever, part pit bull and all skittish: I speak and he cowers down, afraid. I stand up and he shudders. Poor boy.

I can relate; it’s been a rough day, one that anyone would have a tough time stomaching.

Around 11 a.m., a co-worker came into our meeting, tears pouring uncontrollably. Laid off. Around 2 p.m., a note’s taped to the front door of my apartment: Landlord’s going to raise the rent. Twenty-five extra bucks.

There’s the fear. How can I, or anyone, take on more rent?

Inside my apartment there’s a surprise: the stray. Rumor has it he relieved himself all over my girlfriend’s place, so now he’s mine or the shelter’s. I’m in no place to put a dog to its death, so keep the boy. For now.

He’s exhausted. The lion sleeps tonight.

During this experiment, I’ve been keeping my receipts in a drawer. I add a couple new ones: $1.70 coffee, 75-cent can of Coke, because when you can’t get tap water, soda is cheaper than bottled. My expenditure notebook bodes good news: $12.22 under budget, only a day to go. This means that I’m not only going to live on bare minimum, but also that this dog gets food. Canned. The gourmet shit.

I wake him up and he shoots his dark eyes at me like I’m the grim reaper.

We walk north down 19th Street, him prancing rather civilized-like on the leash. A block up at the upscale dining spot Waterboy, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass dines. In two days, hundreds of thousands of state workers will stay home, furloughed, so that California hopefully won’t default on its loans.

At the Longs Drugs on K Street, I tie the dog to a Sacramento Bee kiosk. He’s startled when the sliding doors whip open, but eventually plops down and waits. “Where’s the dog food?” Sprint to aisle two. Pedigree, three cans, $1.99 a pop. Checkout. Slide the ATM card.

Crash! I don’t even have to look to know the dog’s gone.

Out front, the kiosk’s flipped on its side. I see a white-and-brown apparition, blue leash in tow, shoot south on 17th Street. I run, screaming, “Stop the dog! Stop the dog!” Somehow he dodges two SUVs on L Street. I’ve never lost something alive. People holler back. “I tried!” I sprint as fast as I possibly can get my tired legs to go, but the dog grows smaller. My legs are limp like the celery. He’s got a block and a half on me, and then he’s out of sight.

“Stop the dog!”

At the R Street Corridor, I check every shadow. This area was supposed to be developed into a mixed-use central-city hub, but it’s still just boarded up. No dog. Fuck. I want to cry, then I do, but keep walking anyway, all the way to W Street. Some dude at the nearby liquor store looks like he’s selling drugs. I want to get high on anything because this just sucks.

Honestly, this 888 hours thing has messed with me. I try to explore how I feel about the whole thing—whether I value money more or if I’ll save money next month when I’m free to spend as much as I have—but it’s difficult to tell, because this is just a drill and I feel like a fake.

Losing the damn dog only reinforces this sense of being an imposter.

Still, after living payday to payday for so long, it’s amazing to have an uncashed, two-week-old paycheck sitting on a table in my apartment. I tell a co-worker about this, and he says he and his girlfriend should try living on minimum, too, because he’s not saving a dime, either.

I don’t know what I’m going to do with that extra cash. I’ll try not to spend it on video games. Maybe I’ll even buy a CD or two instead of downloading?

The experiment’s almost over; later that night my girlfriend and I share a plate at Crepeville. She has a Coke, I have a beer. $15. I’m over budget, but she lets me have the all the potatoes, which at Crepeville are notoriously excessive. I eat every last one.