Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sunday Reading

Living on Food Stamps — More people than ever no have no other form of income.

CAPE CORAL, Fla. — After an improbable rise from the Bronx projects to a job selling Gulf Coast homes, Isabel Bermudez lost it all to an epic housing bust — the six-figure income, the house with the pool and the investment property.

Now, as she papers the county with résumés and girds herself for rejection, she is supporting two daughters on an income that inspires a double take: zero dollars in monthly cash and a few hundred dollars in food stamps.

With food-stamp use at a record high and surging by the day, Ms. Bermudez belongs to an overlooked subgroup that is growing especially fast: recipients with no cash income.

About six million Americans receiving food stamps report they have no other income, according to an analysis of state data collected by The New York Times. In declarations that states verify and the federal government audits, they described themselves as unemployed and receiving no cash aid — no welfare, no unemployment insurance, and no pensions, child support or disability pay.

Their numbers were rising before the recession as tougher welfare laws made it harder for poor people to get cash aid, but they have soared by about 50 percent over the past two years. About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with a reported income that consists of nothing but a food-stamp card.

“It’s the one thing I can count on every month — I know the children are going to have food,” Ms. Bermudez, 42, said with the forced good cheer she mastered selling rows of new stucco homes.

Members of this straitened group range from displaced strivers like Ms. Bermudez to weathered men who sleep in shelters and barter cigarettes. Some draw on savings or sporadic under-the-table jobs. Some move in with relatives. Some get noncash help, like subsidized apartments. While some go without cash incomes only briefly before securing jobs or aid, others rely on food stamps alone for many months.

More below the fold.

Graceful Exit — Ellen Goodman retires and looks back and forward.

It has been a great gift to make a living trying to make sense out of the world around me. At the risk of sounding like a politician one step ahead of the sheriff, I want to spend more time with my family and fulfill the fantasy of a summer on my porch in Maine. But of course writers write — even more than 750 words at a gulp — and former columnists can get involved in causes.

At a farewell lunch my editor and friend read aloud some vaguely familiar words by a columnist 30 years my junior. ”There’s a trick to the Graceful Exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over — and to let go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance in our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving on rather than out.”

It was an odd experience to hear, let alone heed, my younger self. ”The trick of retiring well may be the trick of living well,” I wrote back then. ”It’s hard to recognize that life isn’t a holding action, but a process. It’s hard to learn that we don’t leave the best parts of ourselves behind, back in the dugout or the office. We own what we learned back there. The experiences and the growth are grafted onto our lives. And when we exit, we can take ourselves along — quite gracefully.”

She knew then what I know much more intimately now. So, with her blessing, I will let myself go. And go for it.

Depósito del Automóvil — In Havana there’s a love of antique autos beyond the ones on the street working as taxi cabs.

Just past the admission desk — admission is one CUC, or Cuban Convertible Peso, or about $1.08 — visitors are greeted by a 1926 Rolls-Royce Phantom I with coachwork by Letourneur & Marchand of France. We were told this car was found abandoned after the 1959 revolution and kept safe by the government until the museum opened in 1980.

The Rolls, like all of the cars on display, is not the sort of pristine example seen in most modern museums. The vehicles are well used and unrestored, but clean. Mr. Mesejo told us the cars were given a daily sponge bath to remove the potentially caustic dust that blows in from nearby building renovations.

The Depósito is arranged in two large rooms. The first room allows visitors to get close to the cars. In the second room, velvet ropes keep visitors at a distance. All informational placards are written in Spanish, so a translation guide is needed when the only English-speaking person on the staff, Mr. Mesejo, is not available.

While some auto museums apply faux finishes to give floors and walls a patina of period correctness, the Depósito’s concrete, stucco and painted surfaces are authentic. The rough-hewn building reeks of character.

Most of the cars in the collection are American, including a Chevy touring car and Model T and Model A Fords. Against the back wall are two 1959 Oldsmobiles, one originally owned by Camilo Cienfuegos, a revolutionary leader considered a hero by his countrymen. The few European cars include a 1953 MG TD, a 1920s Fiat (discovered hidden behind a secret wall in a mansion) and a bright red Alfa Romeo roadster.

“I know that car from when I was a child,” Mr. Mesejo said of the Alfa. “My father would not let me stand any closer than one meter from it, which is very hard for a little boy. When it came here to the museum, I sat in it for an hour.”

Some of the newer cars — a 1970s Daimler and a 1980s Chevy — were left to the museum as gifts by departing foreign diplomats.

The museum’s most important car is a 1905 Cadillac, which was in continuous use until the 1980s. The Cadillac is now being restored, the first such project for the museum. Much of the technical information needed for its restoration came from collectors in Philadelphia.

Fords and Oldsmobiles were assembled on the island in the 1940s and ’50s, Mr. Mesejo said. “After the Revolution the car companies left, and Cuba, as an auto assembly country, was paralyzed.”

We were told of the country’s dire economy, where street sweepers and doctors make the same wages. So auto repair for the island’s vintage cars becomes a creative endeavor: shampoo is used for brake fluid; iron pipes are cut up for piston rings; Coca-Cola is used to loosen rusty bolts; and cars are painted with sponges, then buffed with toothpaste.

“We call it the Cuban way,” Abel Contreras de la Guardia, our translator and tour guide, said. “We do anything to keep our cars running.”

Doonesbury — “Knowledge”