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Except, it could.

It’s our wedding anniversary this week.

Forty-six years, which should seem like a long time, but it doesn’t.

In honor of the past 46 years, I planned to write a touching column, but then I got an email from the CEO of a health organization - I’m on his board - that included a report on poverty and how people become poor and stay poor.

So let me tell you a story.

In January of 1975, I lived a block off Franklin Ave in Minneapolis and commuted to my job as a dishwasher/janitor at Nino’s Steakhouse in Roseville. On the way, I’d drop off my girlfriend at her job as an administrative assistant at the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota.

It was about ten miles, all but the first couple blocks freeway. On a bad day, it took 15 minutes to get to work.

Then my car broke down.

Luckily, it happened on a weekend and we had time to figure out a Plan B. The morning routine changed. Instead of strolling to the car at a little after 8:00, we caught a bus to downtown Minneapolis at 5:30 a.m. Once there, we stood on a street corner for fifteen minutes, then transferred to another bus that took us to the West Bank of the University of Minnesota where we caught the intercampus bus to St. Paul. When we got there, my girlfriend walked to her office and I hitchhiked the last two miles. That was the tricky part, because I couldn’t count on getting a ride. I was never late for work, but a couple times I was a half hour early, which meant standing in a January parking lot, shifting from foot to foot, until the assistant manager showed up, smelling of coffee and cologne, and let me in.

Here’s the thing. If I’d had children, with an ironclad daycare schedule, or if I’d looked like the kind of guy too scary to pick up, or if public transit had been one notch more complicated, I’d have lost my job.

Boom. Just like that. I would have been looking for work, and the unemployment rate that year was 8.2%, the highest since 1940. Being a dishwasher wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds, but I’d been happy to get that job – I don’t like to think what the next rung down the ladder would have been.

It could have been much worse. What broke on the car was the steering – a little ball and socket doohickey that connected the steering mechanism. It came apart when we were going five MPH. It could just as easily have happened when we were driving down I94. I wouldn’t have been unemployed; I’d have been dead. Or if not dead, I’d have had a hefty doctor’s bill, no insurance AND no job.

I couldn’t do anything about the car during the week, because we left for work in the dark and it was dark when we got back, but on Saturday I crawled under the car and figured out the problem. The spring that held the ball and socket together had weakened with age. I put three pennies behind it, and then as a safety device, wrapped a wire coat hanger around the whole thing.

Because I’m all about safety.

I’m 46 years into a terrific adult life, and I’m grateful and feel fortunate for that. But I’m taking just a few minutes to think of the people, the millions of people, who’ve just had one too many things go south in their lives, one too many obstacles to overcome. A lot of us like to think, “Oh, that could never happen to me.”

Except, it could.

Copyright 2021 Brent Olson


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