This week a Facebook friend asked if I could submit a family or personal story about a pivotal life moment. I responded, "Can it be serious?" He answered, "You can be serious?" I knew what he meant. For those of us television performers, folks tend to tack on our on-camera persona to the way they think we are full time off-camera. Yes, I can be serious. We all can be serious. 2011 has been a serious year.
This was my first and, I pray, last year living below the poverty line.
I was seen every week for six years hosting a show on Food Network. After a job lay-off (from my next national gig) coupled with long bleak period of unemployment due to this Grim Reaper of a Recession, I went from Food Network host to being another out-of-work American who qualified for food stamps. I lost my longtime and once-affordable studio apartment in New York City. I got evicted. I was forced to shed sentimentality like it was a dead layer of skin. I simply could not keep items and memorabilia I'd owned for years. Clothing, records, books, cookware, dinnerware ... just about all of it went to Housing Works, a few blocks away from me in Chelsea. Odd, but I used to do segments on Housing Works -- segments asking the public to keep it in mind when there was a need to donate used items to a good non-profit organization -- when I was on WNBC and WNYW.
My new social status really didn't hit me until I saw President Obama being interviewed on the news. He was talking about America's "new poor" and when he mentioned the amount of income that's considered "poor," it was like rough hands reaching into my body and yanking the soul out of me. At that time, I was still lucky enough to be getting unemployment benefits. They've since expired. Like millions of others, I'm sure, I said "It's not supposed to be like this for me! I studied and worked my way out of South Central Los Angeles! I worked hard. I paid off my parents' bills. I did the kind of work on TV that black folks were denied when I was a kid in the 1960s." I bet a lot of us children of the Civil Rights Era who were motivated, almost programmed, to be over-achievers in school, are feeling the same way. We felt we were doing the right thing and now look. If I wrote a screenplay about the last time I went shopping for clothes, it would be called "Goodwill Hunting." I was at the Goodwill Store in the Japantown section of San Francisco. And let me tell you, I was not the only man with a university degree looking over the racks in the Used Shoes section. I'm now living with relatives way out in the 'burbs of Northern California. I miss New York like it's one of the greatest loves of my life. Well, it is. With two pieces of carry-on luggage and a free one-way plane ticket, I sadly left New York for San Francisco where a college buddy had a small spare room in his apartment. That was in March.
What have I learned from all this? Deeper empathy, stronger faith, and the realization that I'm not the only one going through this. If you really talked to them, you'd probably be surprised at how many of your friends and neighbors who appear to be doing pretty well have had first-hand knowledge of unemployment, eviction, foreclosure or bankruptcy. That discovery, when talking to friends, moved me so much that I pitched this idea to local TV news producers when I was in San Francisco: From Food Network to food stamps. I reveal to folks that, yes, I was a national talk show host & talent also seen on VH1, CBS Late Night, HBO, LifetimeTV. I had Premiere Radio exposure working with Whoopi Goldberg on her national morning show. But I couldn't get new work after her radio show was cancelled. That was the beginning of hard times that dropped kicked me below the poverty line. I'd meet other folks in a similar situation, hear their stories and find ways to help. Ways to help them find work, find clothing & food, keep emotional health together in that financial crisis, etc. This weekly segment would also give ideas to friends & family on how to help. Here's an example -- back in New York, a buddy of mine gave me a Metro Card. $20 worth of subway rides. That was like gold to me. I had transportation for my job searches. A 50-something Latina I met in San Francisco told me that her best friend, a hair stylist at a local beauty shop, gave her free shampoos and haircuts so she wouldn't feel raggedy going into job interviews. Little things like that can have a big impact on somebody down and out.
No execs in San Francisco picked up my pitch. They all liked it but no one gave it a greenlight. San Francisco is a lovely town but, frankly, I would've had better luck there if I was a bottle of Merlot. It's not a TV town. It's wine country. I applied for all kinds of jobs for nine months in San Francisco with no luck. I still think my TV segment idea has merit. I'm so grateful that family in the Sacramento area came to my emotional rescue. Having endured such a rough year, it's a blessing to be with loved ones at Christmastime. So that's where I am now as I continue to keep the faith, find a new job and take the advice Fred Astaire sang in Swing Time: "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again."
More later. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.