Penalty Box

To do list for today:

Smog check and send in DMV registration for my car. It’s a month overdue, thus will cost $115 instead of $82, so penalty = $33.

Take back books to library. 6 books x 30cents/day x 10 days overdue = $18.

So far today…

Went with Paul to Little Tokyo (that’s in downtown LA) to look at glasses frames. Missed the parking meter by four minutes. Ticket = $55.

But some good news–yesterday I found my lost pay check between the seats of my car, saving all check-stopping fees.

The thing about being a low-wage earner and the casualness of fines in our culture, is that after a while, it can ground down at your sense of self worth. There’s a lot less wriggle room for mistakes, and when you make them, there is more pressure to think of yourself as a “bad person.” Right now in my life, 1 parking ticket = 4 hours teaching English, or 7 hours working someone’s desk at a TV show, or 3 hours of editing, or 2 hours of copy-writing. Or, 50 hours of writing a short story that sells to a literary magazine. Or, just to give it a little more perspective–at this point in my life, 500 hours of writing a screenplay will not pay for my parking ticket.

I think if one could pay for a parking ticket in under an hour, if I made several thousand dollars per written episode–It would be easier to cut oneself some slack. A parking ticket or a late fee diminishes in one’s consciousness, thus loses it’s connotations of “good” or “bad” morality. A mistake is just a little mistake, not an essential error in judgement for which one must do hours of penance.

Worth is not all about money. But for most of us, our worth is tied up in our value to others. Maybe you don’t make a high salary, but you are a great dad. The time you spend with your kids is invaluable. But if your wage is so low that a parking ticket means you have to spend your Saturday working to compensate, instead of spending time with your kids–then has lack of money managed to erode your worth? You literally are worth less for those hours to your kids–because you aren’t there. So you are back to being worth however much your employer is paying you–and that might not be enough to pay a parking ticket inside half a day. So your highest worth is actually to the City of Los Angeles as a faceless, nameless, source of revenue, which they will budget badly.

For all of it, I’m lucky–although I do my share of minimum wage work, I do occasionally get to make more than that. And I’m not trying to support a family of three, or four, or six, on my income. But even so, the presence or absence of money has an impact on my self-esteem. The fact that I have self-esteem is partly derived from the fact that I used to make a very healthy salary. I can look back at some point in my life and see that I was valued, that there were people who valued my skills, my work, and specifically, the way I did my work. If I had never had that experience, I don’t know where I would be psychologically right now. Would I see myself as an upstanding, valuable and valued citizen? Or would the temptation of doing something that people with more money and less problems deem a crime be too much to overcome?

It’s all pretty depressing–and it can make me pretty depressed.

But to end on a happy thought: I can stay at the library all day (well really two hours if I arrive by car) for free! It’s like a spa for the mind, and you can just luxuriate in it, and it’s pretty great. So my screenplay would pay for indefinite time at the library…as long as I remember to return my books on time.

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