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A Man, Woman, Baby And An Empty Bank Account
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A Man, Woman, Baby And An Empty Bank Account

LIANE HANSEN, host:

A year ago, Caitlin Shetterly and her husband, Dan, left Portland, Maine, to move to Los Angeles. The country was headed for a recession, and Dan's job as a studio photographer had been become part time. Caitlin worked as a theater director and independent radio producer but with Dan working only part time, they couldn't make ends meet. They thought they'd find more opportunities to weather a looming economic crisis in a larger market.

Here's Caitlin Shetterly with her story.

Ms. CAITLIN SHETTERLY (Radio Producer): When my husband, Dan, and I piled into our Prius with our dog, Hopper, and cat, Ellison, we thought we were doing the smartest thing in a failing economy: going West. Yeah, we joked about being the Joads and said Hopper, with his ears cocked, looked just like Henry Fonda in a slouch cap.

And sure, much of our move was on credit cards. But we thought the world would open up for us in Los Angeles. And it did - for a few months. Dan started to build a promising freelance career, and then I got pregnant.

By the beginning of December, Dan couldn't book a job. In January we had our son, and the one job Dan had lined up was canceled. By the first of February, we knew we were in trouble.

(Soundbite of crying infant)

Ms. SHETTERLY: (Singing) Mommy's going to buy you a mockingbird. If that mockingbird don't sing…

Ms. SHETTERLY: It's close to midnight, and we've finally gotten the baby to sleep. Now we can talk.

Mr. DANIEL DAVIS (Photographer): We're in a terrible situation. We're on the verge of losing everything.

Ms. SHETTERLY: What do you mean, losing everything? I mean, losing…

Mr. DAVIS: We have no income, Cait. I mean, we have medical bills, we have credit card debt, we have rent.

Ms. SHETTERLY: In addition to trying to book photo work, Dan's been applying for literally hundreds of jobs on Craigslist and has gone to restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, supermarkets, you name it. Even though he knows this is happening to lots of people across the country, it feels personal.

Mr. DAVIS: I'll come to the last shop on a block, and I don't want to turn around and walk back to the car, because I feel like everyone's watching me, everyone's saying, ah, there's that poor sap with his hand out. You know, what's wrong with him? He can't find a job.

So I've been walking around the block, behind all of the stores, to get back to the car.

Not that I don't want to do the work, or I think that I'm better. I'm not. I just feel like I have bankable skills. I have a college degree, and I can't even get a job bagging groceries.

Ms. SHETTERLY: With nothing on the horizon and a 3-week-old baby, Dan and I start thinking less about strategy and more about survival. It's amazing how, when you start to feel pressed into a corner, you'll consider almost anything, even something as drastic as not paying rent and risking eviction.

(Soundbite of telephone)

JESS: Hello?

Ms. SHETTERLY: Hi.

I call my friend Jess, back home in Maine, to ask her if she thinks we should take that chance.

JESS: Like, if you don't pay your rent and you get evicted, then if you ever wanted to come back to California, you won't be able to get a place in Venice again. I mean, that's a big bridge to burn.

Ms. SHETTERLY: Right.

Ms. JESS: I can see why you would consider it.

Ms. SHETTERLY: She suggests maybe we should pack up and go home.

Ms. JESS: It's smarter, probably, to go home, see what you can work out with your family. And just, you know - I mean, you're not going to live with your parents forever. Something will happen. Something will change.

Ms. SHETTERLY: My mother, it turns out, has already been thinking about our problem.

Unidentified Woman: So what I thought I'd do is, one of the neighbors and I can move your bed down to the library, if that sounds good to you. Does it?

Ms. SHETTERLY: Yeah, I mean I - it feels sad to rearrange the house for us.

My mother lives alone in a small house in the woods. She'd need our help to pay for propane and extra food, but she thinks it can work.

Unidentified Woman: You know, we're a family and we stick together, number one. Number two, it would just be nice to have you here. I know it will be hard for you. You'd rather have your own place, but at least you're home, you know? And I think Marsden might have a good time.

Ms. SHETTERLY: But Marsden's barely six 6 weeks old. He hasn't had any shots yet.

Look who's awake.

And he doesn't yet sleep through the night.

(Soundbite of car door)

Ms. SHETTERLY: We take him to his pediatrician to find out if a long car trip across the country is even possible.

Dr. EFRON (Pediatrician): The only problem is what you're going to be subjecting him to on the road, lots of strangers, lots of this, that and the other. And again, the risk is that a young infant gets sick.

Ms. SHETTERLY: Dr. Efron says he'd prefer it if our son were at least 3 months old and had started immunization before we hit the road. That makes us unable to consider leaving before April 1st. At night, after I put my son to sleep, I think of his vulnerable innocence and I want my husband, Dan, to make this better.

Mr. DAVIS: That's like a total gender bias. That's ridiculous.

Ms. SHETTERLY: I know. It's just that a part of me just wants you to fix it.

Mr. DAVIS: I'm trying to fix it. I try. I'm trying every (bleep) day to fix it.

Ms. SHETTERLY: Even if we get all the way back home across the country to Maine with our baby and our stuff, Dan worries that our options are limited.

Mr. DAVIS: We're screwed. I don't even know. It's not even like I have friends who are lobster fishermen. I can't even go out on a lobster boat, 'cause I don't even know any of them. You know, I'm going to have to pick potatoes and blueberries in the summer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVIS: We have to hold on until the summer for me to go out into the field.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHETTERLY: Last week, my father visited us and his first grandchild. Even though I knew he lost almost all of his savings tied up in the stock market last fall, I asked him if there was any chance he could help us hold on in L.A.

Unidentified Man: Well, we were talking before about how as a family, we would want to support each other. One of the ways that is not possible is just say, okay, I've got this extra money, I can give it to you. The amount of money you need is more than the amount of money I make in a month.

Ms. SHETTERLY: As much as the little girl in me would have loved my father to have been able to swoop in and make this all go away, I know that what's happening to us is larger than anything he alone can fix. I felt some kind of weird relief that what he really wanted to offer us was that we come home. In Maine he, too, has land where we can cut wood and grow a garden, where we can find refuge.

Right now the simplicity of that thought — whether or not it comes to pass — gives me comfort.

HANSEN: You can find a link to Caitlin Shetterly's blog at our Web site, NPR.org.

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