A Time When I Ran Low on Money

In the summer of 1980, just before my final year of college, I got an internship at Tektronix in Beaverton, Oregon. It was an engineering job, and paid more than $1000 a month, which would have been a good living for anyone in the area at the time. But there was a problem. My checking account was from Bank of Hawaii. No bank would cash a check for me, at least not without opening a local account and waiting 10 days. Fair enough. I opened an account, and deposited a check. That would limit my exposure to 10 days.

I had a California savings account, and even though ATMs had recently come into existence, an ATM card would not work at another bank, not to mention in another state. I could have sent a bank-by-mail request to California, but after a few days, that would just get me a check, and I would still have to wait.

It was decades before Craigslist, so the way to sell things to raise cash was via classified ads in the newspaper. But ads cost money – money that I didn’t have. I suppose I could have gone to a pawn shop, but had very little of value with me, anyway.

Fortunately, I could use my out-of-state checks to pay rent, so my lodging was covered. I signed up for a spacious studio in the Garden Brook Terrace. There was no bedroom, just the main room, with a kitchen alcove on one side. Except for a refrigerator and stove, the place was absolutely unfurnished.

Garden Brook Terrace
The Garden Brook Terrace, my apartment complex.

The office informed me that the apartment would not be available until the next day, so I had to figure out where to stay for the night. My ’73 Ford Pinto was full of stuff, so if I slept in it, I would have had to sleep sitting up. Right next to the apartment complex was a vacant lot, so I made the decision to sleep there. I had no blankets or mats with me, so went to a department store and got the cheapest cotton sleeping bag that I could find. (In retrospect, I probably should not have spent that $12 on a sleeping bag. If I had to do it over again, I would have slept in my car, and piled clothes over myself for warmth.) I waited until it was dusk and almost completely dark, then sneaked into the lot and rolled out the sleeping bag behind some tall weeds.

Empty Lot
This was where I slept the first night. It looks beautiful, but was freezing cold in my cotton sleeping bag.

I didn’t sleep too well on account of the cold. At sunrise, I got out of my dew-soaked sleeping bag and rolled it up. I distinctly remember thinking how nice it would have been to have a hair dryer for warmth, but there was no place to plug it in. I started up my car, and turned on the heater, but it took forever to get warm.

Later in the day, the office opened, and I was able to pick up my key and move into the apartment. There was far more space than I needed.

This was the inside of my studio. The boxes in the picture contain the sum total of the possessions that I brought with me.
init setup
I lived in one cozy corner of the apartment. I had a sheet, so covered the sleeping bag with it to make my bed. A desk lamp was my light source. I used a paper bag for my trash can. Cardboard boxes became furniture. Entertainment consisted of a few books and magazines I had brought along, and a little transistor radio.

I did an inventory of my cash, and found that I had only about $10 left, including coins. And I estimated that I would have to buy $5 worth of gas to get to work. As it would be a week until my check cleared and I got more cash, I had to be careful. (I had no credit card, which was not unusual for a student of the era.) I went to the supermarket, and walked up and down the aisles for a long time before deciding what to get. I had no pots, so couldn’t cook. My final decision was to get a box of cereal, a half gallon of whole milk, a large loaf of white bread, a package of cotto salami, and a bunch of 4/$1 pot pies.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Each night, I had a pot pie for dinner. These were not the Swanson pies with actual chunks of meat in them. The cheap brand had spam-like cubes of meat. The chicken pot pie had a beige-colored spam, and the beef pot pie had a dark brown-colored spam. I didn’t bring any utensils with me, but had obtained a plastic knife, fork, and spoon from the cafeteria at work. My ration was just one pie a night, so I ate every crumb and licked the pan clean. I didn’t have any dish soap, but fortunately had Tide laundry detergent, and was able to do the dishes (actually, the dish) with my hand, since I couldn’t afford a sponge.

(If I had to do it over again, I’d probably get spaghetti instead, borrow a pot from a neighbor to cook it in, and perhaps get a big can of crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce to ration over the week.)

Breakfast ration consisted of a bowl of cereal in the previous night’s pie tin, with milk. It wasn’t exactly filling, but took the edge off.

For lunch, I took 4 slices of bread and 2 slices of cotto to work. I didn’t have any lunch bags, so used whatever random plastic bag I had on hand. The good thing about the cafeteria was that condiments were free, so I used mayonnaise on the bread and loaded up each sandwich with a TON of pickle relish. That was sort of my vegetable for the day.

Except for just after meals, I was hungry pretty much all the time. It wasn’t a fainting hunger, just a desire to eat. Food was constantly on my mind. Every time I passed a soda machine at work, I wished I could have one, instead of the water that was my standard beverage. Snack machines created that same longing. What kept me going was the knowledge that it was all temporary. In just about a week, maybe a bit more, I would be able to buy any food I wanted. And I actually had a safety net. I could have called my parents at any time, and they could have mailed me a $20 bill in an envelope. Or even wired me cash through Western Union. But I had resolved not to call them unless it was absolutely necessary. Over the next week, I thought a lot about what it would be like for other people who had to live with hunger every day, with no safety net, no end in sight.

The apartment complex had a duck pond. I seriously thought about taking a duck, just one, as meat. Besides that being wrong, I had no experience with killing fowl, and decided not to do it unless I was really desperate.

My entertainment options were limited to things that were free. Every evening after work, I would take walks around the neighborhood, and sit around the local air-conditioned mall. Some of the days had highs exceeding 100 degrees F, and the apartment had no air conditioning, so I would often stay at the mall for hours. Each day, I would go to the supermarket and slowly walk down every aisle, planning what food I would buy on the day I got money.

Inside my apartment, I had no TV, which would have been the standard entertainment of the era. I did have a little transistor radio. I would listen to it a couple hours each night, hoping that the battery would hold out. I found that I could pick up one TV station on my radio for some reason, so managed to follow a TV show or two at times. I also had a few books and magazines, but couldn’t buy anything new to read.

I had met my neighbors – Sam to the left, and Annie to the right. I didn’t really hang out with them, though. I would have loved to go out with one or both of them, but that would have required money on my part, even if we went dutch. My interactions were limited to short conversations on days when I happened to catch them outside on the walkway.

Thinking about it now, maybe I should have come clean about the money situation to Annie on the first day, and begged a loan of food from her, a loan which I would likely have been glad to repay tenfold. I could have shown her that I wasn’t some freeloader – I was a Stanford student, with money in the bank, and a job at Tektronix. I just couldn’t access my money. But if we had taken that path, I would probably have fallen hopelessly in love with her…

Annie Couch
My neighbor Annie, who worked at Nordstrom. She was considered very attractive by 1980 standards.

Just before bed, I would take a bath. A shower would have suited me better, but I had no shower curtain. So it had to be a tub bath. Fortunately, I owned a towel.

I wrote a letter to someone almost every day. It didn’t cost me anything, because I had brought along a supply of envelopes and stamps, and could use the backs of advertisements for stationery. One person I wrote to was a girl named Lynn. I shared what I was going through, and a few days later, a package arrived, with some food. She said she had never heard of such poverty in the enclosed letter. It’s almost impossible for me to explain what a gift of food meant to me at the time. Lynn was such a sweetheart. Basically, way too good for me.

care package
Two Cup o’Noodles and four packages of instant Miso Soup!

I had a 35mm camera with me with film in it, and used it to take the pictures above. Ironically, I could take pictures, but couldn’t develop them until I got money.

Here is Lynn-O. The word angel wouldn’t even begin to describe her.

After that lean week, I was able to get cash from the bank. I didn’t splurge and go out to eat, but went straightaway to the supermarket to get fresh foods, a scrubber sponge for the sink, and dishwashing liquid. I had been holding off on doing laundry, for although I had detergent, it would have taken quarters to operate the washing machine at the complex. Having money meant clean clothes.

In the following weeks, I picked up luxuries like a set of inexpensive teflon pots and pans, a shower curtain liner (which worked fine as a shower curtain, but was cheaper), and even a small black and white TV. I went to the hardware store, and picked up a particle board shelf kit, a sheet of particle board, a hammer, saw, and nails. I used some of the particle board to make a long, tall box to use as a stool to sit on, since I had nowhere to sit in the apartment aside from the toilet and the floor.

I was even able to have guests over for dinner twice that summer – we sat on mats on the floor at a particle board table, but I wasn’t self-conscious about it at all at the time. I felt like I had succeeded.

This was what the place looked like after I got money. It still looks sparse today, but I felt like I was in the lap of luxury back then.

Oh, and I did get to go out with Annie. Once, on my last night in Oregon, we went out to see the movie Xanadu, and for ice cream afterwards. Just as friends, not really a date. But as I was a wealthy man, it was my treat.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.