It started as a tiny wet spot above the shower. At least that’s what "Harry" thinks he remembers.
Over weeks and months the moisture accumulated, and its collateral damage became more apparent. The ceiling bloated and pruned and cracked. The dark mildew ring metastasized from the bathroom to the kitchen.
Harry says his landlord was a genuinely good guy, the sort who wouldn’t toss a down-on-his-luck tenant to the street over a few months of back rent. But when the landlord finally got a look at that ceiling, he flipped. And Harry had to find somewhere else to live.
"It was just a small thing at first," says Harry. "But it wasn’t going to fix itself, and pretty soon it became a really big thing. It was out of control before you knew it."
Harry is ruefully aware of how these things happen. He asks that his real name not be used here because his own recent history of seemingly minor setbacks and neglect have left him in hot water with everyone from the IRS to his best friends. The point, he says, isn’t so much what has happened to him, rather that what he’s going through is likely more common that any of us cares to acknowledge.
Harry is 58, twice married and the father of a teenage daughter he adores. He has a quick wit and an easy laugh that belie his heavy-eyed, hangdog appearance, and he appears animated not just by his artful juggling of discount coffee and cheap cigarettes, but by a stubborn, almost irrational sense of local-boy pride.
Harry was born in Vietnam to Chinese parents and raised mainly in Palolo Valley. He went to college, worked steadily and held his own for most of his adult life. And then seemingly small things began to erode the ground beneath his feet.
He and his second wife separated. Business went slowly south. A roommate stiffed him on several months of rent.
Harry leaned on friends and acquaintances for help, be it a $20 loan so he could feed his daughter or larger loans for rent and other basics. And increasingly there were bills that just couldn’t be paid.
Harry does what he can to make monthly eyedropper payments against an ocean of IRS debt. Once he fell behind by a couple of months, and they garnished part of his wages to cover the debt. That led to an overdraft on his bank account, which led to an overdraft penalty, which left him unable to pay other bills.
"It was never any one big thing that happened," he says, running his tongue over the spaces where, before he lost his dental insurance, he once had teeth. "It’s always the small things that never let you catch up. I try to make progress, but I can’t even get started before some other small thing knocks me back."
In addition to his day job, Harry also works a pair of part-time jobs to try and dig himself from under his debts.
"You can blame this guy or that guy, but when you’re at home staring at those four walls, you realize that you’re responsible for your own life," he says. "I keep going for my daughter, so she can have a better life, and for my parents, so that all their hard work wasn’t for nothing."
Reach Michael Tsai at email@example.com.