Loss Tempered by Privilege


Bear with me as I recount what may appear to be a trivial incident from last week. It will open out eventually to make a larger point. Raise your hand if something similar has happened to you.

Last Thursday, we made a run to Costco, which happens once every couple of months. It was time to restock peanut butter. That meant two conjoined giant jars we’ll be lucky to live long enough to get through. Also, a case of V-8 whose viscosity helps wash down our morning pills; a case of Ensure, part of a futile campaign to restore some of the meat that has retreated from my frame in recent years; the usual stacks of tuna and salmon that will be the centerpieces of our weekday lunches in the coming months; a new card of hearing aid batteries to keep me social; what? No fifty-count boxes of Swiss Miss? Only available in the winter months; and, of course, Costco’s most coveted pandemic prize – a 30 roll wall of 2-ply toilet paper. I enumerate this incomplete list of purchases to underscore the fact that moving them from cart to car and from car to apartment, requires the frequent putting down and picking up of whatever else is encumbering your hands. That will be important as the story unfolds.

It happens that our route home takes us past the closest Home Depot outlet, so we have plans to complete our tour of big box stores in the South Loop to pick up some cleaning supplies and some final flats of flowers and vegetables to supplement the plantings on our back porch and in our community garden plots. I might add that on earlier trips we have already spent a small fortune on these items which we justify by reasoning that we have no other expensive vices – drinking, gambling, skiing, golf, so why not permit ourselves this small indulgence?

We park on the rooftop lot at Home Depot and descend to the main floor via the outsize elevator designed to transport all manner of building supplies. A few steps into the cleaning supplies section, Rosellen stops in her tracks. “Where’s my bag?” She tends to be compulsively careful about her belongings, so this is odd, but sheassumes that she’s left it in the car, so we continue with our errands and, at the end, wheel the cart outside to unload our acquisitions into the car which is already loaded down with our Costco purchases.

No bag. Our worst fear is realized. The bag contains Rosellen’s keys, phone, drivers’ license and credit card. The only good news here is that she has left her second credit card at home, along with all her assorted library and membership cards, but the task ahead is formidable if the bag stays lost – cancel the credit card, inform all our online accounts which have that number that it no longer works, cut new keys, some of which are custom keys which can’t be reproduced by the hardware store, and, finally, replace the  phone.

First step is to call Costco. With all the lifting and moving of bulky items, it makes sense that the bag is there. A call to the store suggests otherwise. We know there’s a way to track the missing phone, but we’re not sure how. When we get home an email to friends yields a lot of useful advice and the next day our screen indicates that our wayward phone is, in fact, at Home Depot. A conversation with customer service is unproductive. No one has turned anything in. Our friends advise that if we return to the store, we can walk through the aisles and get the phone to emit a loud noise, a rescue signal like the one emitted by the black box of a crashed airplane.

You have no idea how vast and how noisy a Home Depot store is. We walk the aisles activating the loud noise. Nothing. If it’s still in the store maybe it’s in the trash, but there’s no centralized trash location to check. The customer service rep shows us the lost and found drawer and, bizarrely, it contains many phones abandoned by their owners but ours is not among them. We’re learning a lot of useless information: The Lost and Found guy at Costco reported that a surprising number of people lose, and never retrieve, their canes.

What if an employee has found it and stashed it in their locker? We ignore the Employees Only sign and enter their lounge long enough to ascertain that there’s nothing there before the employees escort us out of their private space. (Forgive us, dear workers, for our suspicions.)

We return home defeated, hoping for a miracle – a call from a Good Samaritan, a good news email, but nothing materializes. It’s the beginning of a long holiday weekend, so we’re left to brood about our losses and ponder all the inevitable what ifs.

Then things swing into a more active mode. The Verizon store is open on the holiday Monday, so we are able to get a new phone and because Rosellen’s phone is linked to mine, the shop guru can load everything from mine onto hers. The cost is very modest because we are indentured servants to Verizon through our long-term commitment to their services which are, in a sense, paying off the cost of the phone in installments. Rosellen is less cynical: “I’d have paid hundreds and not complained but all they charged were the taxes. The new credit card has been ordered and is on the way. Meanwhile we have that second card to keep us afloat. The replacement drivers’ license has been requested. It turns out that the high-tech car key can be cut at Ace Hardware and the “fob,” the thing attached to the key that sends lock and unlock signals, can be purchased online. Daughter Elana is Fed Exing her set of spare keys, from which we will copy those that are standard issue, leaving the custom keys which will present a minor hassle. (Turns out the custom car key is more complicated than a visit to Ace, but that’s story for another time.)

And here, finally, is the point of burdening you with the trivia that surrounds the lives of upper middle class urban dwellers like us. Almost all the fallout from this troubling incident will soon recede and become a story to dine out on because we operate with the expectation that there is a safety net stretched out beneath us that will keep us from hitting the ground. That safety net consists of the cash to deal with the costs of replacement, especially for the phone. Even if we had to pay for the entire cost of a new one, it wouldn’t be more than a blip on our next credit card bill. There’s also an intellectual safety net that’s woven from the knowledge of how to navigate the systems and institutions that can repair the damage incurred and replace what has been lost. That’s not a given for folks with limited experience swimming in those institutional waters or lack the language that will aid them in the necessary problem solving. Even our incursion into theEmployeesOnly Lounge was dealtwith politely and without suspicion, surely because of our appearance.

For those of us who operate under the assumption that the safety net will always be spread out beneath us, we need to be reminded, as Barbara Ehrenreich so potently chronicled in Nickeled and Dimed and Matthew Desmond underscored in Evicted, there is a large segment of our hard-working population who are only a car repair bill away from destitution. What for us might be short-lived inconvenience, might for others be a basic threat to their access to food, shelter and safety. For them the dangers of disaster are always lurking close by and, through no fault of their own, they can see their lives unravel. There’s got to be a better, more just way to live our collective lives.

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Marv Hoffman

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