Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Just Call Me Jean

with 12 comments

Total Black: -$124.84
Total Red: $269,947.64

I noted in Pocket Full of Change that I was a bit short on cash this week due to ironing out the kinks in getting set up on a budget.  What I didn’t note there—or in similar posts—is that in the past I’ve sometimes had to subsist on borrowed bread during these times of lean.  But I’m no Jean Valjean, stealing a loaf of bread.  Or am I? 

I thought I had discussed this in prior posts, but after running a few searches, I was surprised to see that it looks like I’ve not mentioned it before.  I hinted at this in A Cold Blustery Walk Home when I noted that I hadn’t had breakfast or lunch because I was short on cash.  And in B(l)ack in the Red Again I wrote about eating a can of Spaghetti-Os for lunch because that was all I could afford.  What I didn’t note, however, was that in those days of scarcity I often supplemented my spartan meals with any “available” foods in the common areas at my jobs. 

Most temporary attorney staffing agencies stock their refrigerators with cartons and cartons of milk for coffee.  And a variety at that: whole milk, 2% milk, 1% milk, skim milk, and even half-and-half.  With upwards of four or more cartons of each type milk, and a grumbling tummy, and no money for lunch, well . . . I’d take a glass.  Or two.  Or three.  Spread out over the day, of course.  The milk would quiet my stomach.  And occasionally, if a project had ended, and some food items were left behind . . . well, I’d eat them.  I’d have noticed an unopened bottle of juice that for days or weeks no one moved.  Or a box of crackers in the cabinet, for example.  Or perhaps the refrigerator needed cleaning.  Seems at every place I’ve worked, no one cares about having a clean refrigerator.  I’ve tossed juice that was months old.  Milk that had curdled.  Mold with only specs of fruit left on it.  In cleaning out the refrigerator, I’d come across unopened, uneaten food that was still good.  If it were still there a few days later, I’d take it.  Why not?  It would have spoiled otherwise, right?  Rather than waste food, I’d eat it.  I don’t know if I would have cared so much if I hadn’t been living paycheck to paycheck, but that certainly helped inspire my concern for wastefulness.  Today flashed me back to those same shenanigans.

The refrigerator in chambers got to stinkin’.  And, as before, no one but me seemed to care.  Others just opened the refrigerator door then complained about the rotten smell that permeated the office and lingered for hours thereafter.  Each time the door opened, a new whiff would waft out and hang around.  So I started tossing outdated food.  But I also noticed a few items that were still good.  A loaf of bread, for example, and those quasi-cheese slices from Kraft.  That turned into lunch for a few days.  Toast with cheese on it.  Yesterday, for example, I spotted three bagels.  Co-Clerk has been out since last week, and Officemate is out this week, so I figured those items might spoil.  Well not the Kraft cheese, I suppose.  That mess lives for eons.  Those bagels supplied both breakfast and lunch yesterday.

I was about to go scrounging for food again this morning when the comments to Pocket Full of Change and rereading A Cold Blustery Walk Home brought me crashing back to those times in New York.  Life in New York was rough.  I truly lived hand-to-mouth for many of those years, especially those final few.  Images of a frightened man, chugging a large glass of milk before anyone could spot him flash back to me.  I didn’t want to get caught with more than my “share.”  I think I may have even done that while an associate in the law firm.  One temp actually did call me on my glasses o’ milk back in the days when I was Working on Wall Street.  He didn’t care but noted that someone else might if she saw me taking such a large quantity of the office milk.  On that assignment I worked inside the law firm.  The real employees are always policing the supplies from the theiving temps.  And once again, yesterday, like some scurrying mouse, there I was sneaking bit of butter for my stolen bread and scampering back to my desk with it.   Immediately the French epic Les Misérables by Victor Hugo flashed before my eyes.  I am kinda like Jean Valjean. 

Valjean spent nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his family.  No one is about to toss me in prison for a few glasses of milk or for eating leftover food.  I’m not stealing, per se.  At worst I’m guilty of taking more than my share.  But I was cautious and considerate—perhaps disturbingly so—making sure any food items I took had truly been abandonded.  I never ate someone’s lunch, for example.  Something I’ve heard happen.  Nevertheless, is what I did still wrong?  Is it unethical?  A slippery slope I need to scour, lest its slickness slides me away?

It’s important that we stop bad practices before they turn into habits.  As Mohandas Gandhi is reported to have said, “Your beliefs become your thoughts.  Your thoughts become your words.  Your words become your actions.  Your actions become your habits.  Your habits become your values.  Your values become your destiny.”  I certainly do not want my values to become those of scarcity or want.  And I do not want that to be my destiny.  I’m not sure why I’ve not valued food sufficiently to provide it for myself, resulting in situations like these.  Buying coffee or paying my credit cards have been higher priorities than buying groceries.  That’s one theme that comes through fairly loudly in these electronic pages. 

It’s time to stop this madness.  It’s time I put my health and well-being ahead of that of my debtors’.  Budgeting will certainly help.

Total black is in the red again. At least on paper I have a negative balance. That’s because the check to the New York doctor, referenced back in Oops . . . I Did It Again, finally posted today.  Unfortunately, it posted a few days shy of when the transfer from Bank of St. Croix is scheduled to hit my account at Bank of America.  I could’ve sworn I scheduled that transfer last week but when I double-checked yesterday, it wasn’t pending.  Takes three business days to transfer.  Of course, the check had to post today.  Looks like the bank will honor it, but with a $35.00 insufficient funds fee, of course.  I can’t wait for these final death-throws of my life in New York to end.

Also today I received an email from Sublettor, telling me that his job is moving him to Washington, D.C. now and so he wants to be able to sub-sublet my apartment. Or find a new tenant entirely. This could be good if he finds a replacement tenant. I’d get my security deposit back sooner than October!

New York certainly is a jealous lover who doesn’t easily let you go.

12 Responses

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  1. Jean Valjean didn’t spend 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. It was five years for what he did, the rest because he tried to run.


    August 5, 2010 at 21:23

  2. That’s true. I guess I exaggerated. Those escape attempts were partly what incensed Javert. I guess I was thinking domino effect. But for stealing the bread . . . .

    Laid-off Lawyer

    August 5, 2010 at 21:34

  3. Glad you’ve got the budget started, the overdraft fee could have provided food for at least several days, I hope you’re able to avoid any more of them!

    One of the premises of dave ramsey is the “four walls.” Buy food, pay rent, utilities, and transportation necessary for work before dealing with debt. (I’m typing from memory, so I may not have this exactly right).

    If people knew your situation, I doubt they’d care about the food at work. But since they don’t know, they might think its weird if they find out your surviving on refrigerator debris; I’d try to avoid it so as not to be thought of as odd. Many people at my work keep cans of soup and crackers on hand as emergency rations – not something to plan to eat, but handy when there’s nothing else.


    August 5, 2010 at 22:23

  4. wait a second. . so you’re driving a new car and paying hundreds of dollars of month in payments but you’re stealing food from work?

    I think I’d be a little annoyed if I saw you sneaking milk and then driving off in a new car after work.

    Just seems a little weird that you’re spending so much on a luxury (a Jeep Wrangler) when money is so tight.


    August 5, 2010 at 23:39

  5. @comment: Ok, first, I’m not “stealing.” As I noted profusely above, when I was a temp attorney, I took one too many glasses of milk and then ate food left behind. As in literally: the project ended; people stopped coming to work; the food was still there. Since I found food expired from like 2008, I figured it was a pattern of temps to buy food and forget about it. As for the milk, that was when I was a temp too. I didn’t have a car back then. I’m no longer working as a contract attorney. Two different situations. At my current job, I had been cleaning out the fridge and saw bread that would have expired by the time others came back (except that Kraft cheese I mentioned) so I used it before it expired and had to be tossed anyway. But then I realized I was repeating the same behaviors as when I had been a temp attorney. That gave me pause.

    Second, I’m not driving a luxury vehicle. No list of luxury vehicles includes a jeep. So you must mean that it’s a “luxury” to buy a new vehicle? Hardly. If you read prior posts, and the comments, you’d see that this issue was fairly fleshed out already. Because of the short time I had to move for this job, lack of savings, low credit score, available income being eaten by repeated rental car renewals, and then amount of limited funds to borrow from my mother—all that resulted in me having to buy a new car because only then could I get an auto loan. What kind of car is a different discussion. I opted for a Jeep because it would be a safer ride here and higher resale potential later.

    But you’re right in that there is a discrepancy. I acknowledged that above. That’s what prompted me to post this. I’ve put my debtors ahead of myself. It doesn’t make sense to be spending nearly $500 a month on a car payment and not have food in the cupboards—unless I were some crazy car lover, sacrificing everything for a BMW, for example. That’s not the case.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    August 6, 2010 at 07:30

  6. You must start taking better care of yourself. If you have a weekly budget for food write a menu plan around that budget for every day of the week and pin it on the fridge, this does work.

    I dont think it is a big deal drinking office milk and eating fridge contents, I did this when I was hard up, sometimes you just have to do these things to survive. Often there is an oversupply of miik anyway and it ends up getting thrown away.


    August 6, 2010 at 09:16

  7. I’m just totally lost here –
    You’re spending $500 a month on a 2009 Jeep Wrangler that you bought new. And you’re debating the law/morality on if drinking milk from the fridge or taking food that might be thrown out anyhow is stealing and how best to spend $20 on extending your food for the week.

    I think that a new car is a huge luxury. Frustrating because so many people I know are struggling with used cars or $200 or $300 payments. Most people making 50k a year with 270k in debt aren’t buying new cars so yes this is a luxury. If you can’t see this then you’re living in a fantasy world.

    I don’t know what I hope to accomplish with this post, I’m not trolling but I just find it frustrating.


    August 6, 2010 at 09:54

  8. @comment: Let me try again. An automobile here is a necessity. There’s no public transportation to speak of that I could use, especially not where I live. When I moved here, I had a few thousand dollars available and, because of the sluggishness of the government, went five weeks without a paycheck. Scroll back through prior posts to see how much cash I had on hand, if you don’t believe me.

    With little money on hand, and with a low credit score, and with only a limited amount of money I could borrow from my mother, there wasn’t many options available. So I either had to buy a used car or a new car. Only two options there. No other type of car to buy. I wasn’t going to lease. That was too expensive. And the clock was ticking down because renting a vehicle in the interim was costing about $600 for every ten days or so. I didn’t have available credit because Bank of America lowered my limit just as I arrived and gobbled up the $1,000 I had sent to the card to clear up space for a car rental. Thus, I had to use my debit card and here they make you take full insurance coverage with debit card rentals. I didn’t have my own car insurance since I lived in commuter towns for the past eight years.

    So there I was needing a car but with very little cash on hand, very little credit on my credit cards, a low credit score, and only so much my mother could lend. I could have gotten an “island junker” as they call them. But at what long-term cost? For example, I’ve already had to cart a co-worker to and from work each day because his Hyundai overheated. He lives right near me, also up on a mountain, over dirt roads and rough terrain. His radiator cap blew off. Probably from all the jostling his car goes through each day. It’s been swipped by another car and broken into already as well. Jeeps seem a little more secure. They’re higher off the ground and you can just unzip the back and reach in so people don’t really leave anything in them. But I’m getting side-tracked. The point: I needed a car. My used car options were limited. And most were upward of $7,000 or more. Again, limited cash on hand, and no bank was going to give me an auto loan—again with a low credit score—to buy a used car. So, if I didn’t have the cash available to buy one, and didn’t have enough cash to get a good one that wouldn’t break down given where I lived and the length of my commute—I was stuck having to get a new car where I could get financing. And given that my auto loan is at 18.9%, it shows the state of my finances.

    Check out the comments to My First Car. If I had had a year to plan, as most law clerks do, I could have visited St. Croix a few times, evaluated all the different locations, then settled on a nice apartment in a good neighborhood and perhaps bought a cheap car state-side and shipped it down. But I didn’t. I had probably two months to plan everything and pull it off. Hindsight—especially when viewing someone else’s decisions—is certainly always 20/20.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    August 6, 2010 at 10:40

  9. I just feel bad that anyone with a law degree that works as hard as you do would have to “steal” scraps from the office fridge.

    Something just isn’t right with this picture! As you know, I’ve been around on this blog for a while, so I know what’s happened over the past six months or so (and read the earlier posts, mostly). The vehicle is a done deal–stop explaining yourself on that one! I don’t think it was the best choice you could have made, but it’s done. Do keep in mind the high likelihood that your new Jeep WILL be involved in an accident before you leave the island though.

    As the year mark is approaching, what is your honest assessment of when you will begin to make a serious dent in your debt? Post-clerkship I would imagine–hopefully your year there will be worth the cost. Speaking of which, is there really any benefit to extending your clerkship? I mean, will you more likely land a higher paying job, stateside, with a 2 year clerkship rather than one? If not, also consider the fact that as long as you’re living in the USVI you’re likely going to simply tread water (if that) regarding your indebtedness.


    August 6, 2010 at 12:37

  10. @T-Bag: my scrap-stealing and milk-pilfering only happened during those in-between days. Not something I did every day. Prior posts, especially Debt Vultures, certainly speak to that, given the flack I took for my lunch budget. But this isn’t new. Running out of food used to happen back in law school too. I’d get stuck, especially at the end of the semester, with very little cash before the next reimbursement came through from student loans. I learned eat myself “down” to bare cupboards. Quite green of me, frankly, because many of us buy those boxes of raisins or cans of lima beans but then don’t eat them. I did. I also got creative with food: tuna sauteed in garlic, olive oil, and butter, then mixed with a can of corn and tossed with pasta is yummy. My mother commented a few times on her heart breaking when she visited my apartments through the years and saw no food. The larger question is why?

    I certainly have given away a small fortune to restaurants and fast food spots. Then again, in the US today, who hasn’t? But whence my unwillingness to buy groceries and just eat them? In Poland, in the Peace Corps, I used to buy in bulk and I often cooked quite a lot of food and then shared it with my neighbors. Not really something New Yorkers would do. I cooked fairly often while in law school too. It’s just law firm life that really started gumming up the works. Hard to cook and shop when the grocery store in my neighborhood closed at 9pm. I often didn’t return home until then. And then living in a hotel for three months in Europe—no way to cook or buy groceries there. Plus all my meal were reimbursed anyway, so why bother, right? You fall into patterns of behavior that get entrenched. Then living on unemployment for a year didn’t make things easier. Hard to make $1,600 a month stretch to cover rent, bills, food, doctor co-pays, commuting, etc. It’s just been a long haul these past few years. But it’s ending.

    As for year two? I’ve made a dent in my debt already, if only by consolidating a large portion under the bank of mom. Still, debts are paid off, at least as far as collection goes. Once I get this budgeting thing worked out, and then a part-time job, I think I’ll be doing well here. How long I stay is unclear. It certainly wouldn’t make sense leaving here just to move in with mom and be unemployed. So I may end up having to stay another year just out of economic necessity. But I’ve also thought about staying another year strategically too. Perhaps I could leverage this experience into the Third Circuit? End up back in Pennsylvania. I’m not sure how much a two-year versus a one-year clerkship makes a difference. I think a two-year clerkship would be more beneficial because it takes so long to get acclimated. But some judges or employers might not see it that way. Hence most clerkships are only one year.

    Definitely, however, this experience will enhance my resume. I’ve gained an exposure to all areas of the law, including civil and criminal, a working knowledge of the federal rules of evidence and also civil and criminal procedures, and familiarity with Third Circuit case law and procedures. All in a few months. Then there’s the experience preparing for trials and the opportunity to enhance one’s writing skills. The list goes on—here more so than at state trial level courts, I believe. Oddly. When I was in Brooklyn criminal court, for example, I don’t think the judge’s law clerks really got to see much. There, for example, the judges are divided into criminal or civil and then much of their work wasn’t on paper. Here it’s almost all on paper and just like any federal court judges on the mainland, VI judges handle both civil and criminal.

    It’s really a great experience from a legal perspective. One I don’t know many would think of. But I’m glad. Hidden treasure. 🙂

    Laid-off Lawyer

    August 6, 2010 at 13:09

  11. Bud, you gotta get over reliving the decisions you made, right or wrong its done.

    Sam Adams

    August 6, 2010 at 19:07

  12. I posted last on your blog near the beginning of it … at the time you were only $230k in the hole (IIRC); since that time you have been able to ‘pay’ down -40k of that. Congrats. And not very surprising.
    It’s good to see you’re taking your (adopted) mom down with you on your sinking debt ship. For shame.


    August 18, 2010 at 23:06

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