“It breaks my heart, the things people don’t care about,” said Jashawn. We were standing outside the storage facility where she worked, testing my new security code. (Long story here that involves my new kiln accidentally shipped out long before it has a home –and contrary to the order I placed–so it’ll now cool its heels in storage, at company expense, until I’m ready for it).
Jashawn and I had talked on the phone a couple of times, getting through the rather complicated arrangements, and we’d greeted each other like long-lost buddies. Sympathetic, courteous and helpful, she’s also hell on wheels in an electric golf cart, and I braced myself against the seat as we careened around the corner and zoomed down the alleyway of silent, padlocked doors.
Storage facilities, it turns out, give you 30 days to catch up on back rent and if you can’t, put your possessions up for auction. “We hold auctions every month, more and more these days” she confided, “There’s really good stuff if you wanna gamble on what’s inside one of these units.”
I allowed as to how it couldn’t be all that good if someone didn’t think it was worth 75 bucks’ back rent but she shook her head. “You’d be surprised; we auction off cars and furniture and all kinds of things. People fall on hard times, their kids gotta eat, and that $75, it seems like a mountain to climb.”
I agreed that times were hard, maybe getting so hard that paying $75 to get your stuff out of hock becomes impossible to more and more folk. “I tell you, it’s getting that way for us,” she sighed. “I’m lucky to have this job, it’s a good job and I love meeting all you people. But my husband, he was laid off a couple of months ago and there is nothing out there. He tries and tries, but nobody’s hiring. Nothing.”
We pulled up in front of a locker with garage-sized doors and stopped. “You know, we got two small kids and my job was just extras, just to make ends meet or maybe buy school stuff for the kids or go to the movies or the zoo or something,” Jashawn said, “Now it’s feeding the whole family and I don’t know what we’re gonna do if he can’t find work. He went to the unemployment and they give him $100 a week.”
She frowned. “$100 a week is all he gets. I guess we should be grateful, but my husband, you know? It hurts. It hurts his pride. Man’s gotta work, to know he can feed his children. And they don’t care. Those unemployment people, they purely don’t care.”
She got out of the cart and pulled open the locker. There, inside, were mountains of papers carefully wrapped in plastic. Boxes of child-made ornaments and potholders and sculptures. Piles of picture frames filled with shots of toddlers and daddies, sleepily smiling mammas in hospital beds carefully holding their babies, crayoned suns and trees and houses. “I wanted to show you this,” Jashawn said, and in truth it looked more like a family attic, though maybe one on steroids, than a commercial storage locker.
She picked up a wooden frame stuffed with pictures of a young hispanic family at a preschool graduation and held it out to me. “All this stuff you see, this is what’s left over after an auction. The buyers don’t want peoples’ private pictures, or drivers licenses and papers. So we figure even if they can’t pay for the rest of their stuff, things like these pictures are gonna be precious for these people and they’ll still want them, right?”
“Nyu-huh, they just don’t care. See, that’s part of my job, to pull out the personal stuff and save it for these folks. Babies’ photos and report cards and little bronzed shoes–that’s part of your kids and you’d want it, right? But I can’t tell you how many times they just never show up. I call them, tell them that I’ve saved it for them, that it doesn’t cost ’em nothing and just come get it, but they never show up.”
“I dunno,” she said quietly, “It’s so easy to lose your heart in these times. Maybe they just don’t see a way out, maybe they’re too ashamed. Maybe they just give up. Give it all up.”
Our eyes met, and I wondered if she was talking about her customers or herself. Then she looked away. “Few weeks later, it goes in the dumpster. We haven’t got the space to keep it any longer,” she sighed, motioning me back so she could roll the door shut. “But how could you tell your babies that you threw out their lives like that?”
I shrugged helplessly. We climbed back into the cart and drove to the gate.