‘How I wrote the story': Profiling the ‘average’ family

Lessons in penetrating a social cliché

This is the first in a series of essays written by L.A. Times reporters about techniques they used to put successful stories together. The stories and essays are several years old, but the lessons are transcendent. The full story follows the essay.

We start with a piece that Jane Gross (who came to L.A. from the New York Times, and subsequently returned to her old paper) wrote during the 1996 presidential campaign. The object was to define an empathetic expression candidates in both parties were throwing around without definition: “middle class.” In anticipation of the California primary that March, I asked Jane to profile a family as close to the middle as possible. What happened was a lesson in how good reporters throw themselves into an assignment. She injected terrific humanity and detail into her piece; it put the reader into the shoes of a family that was distinguished not by its extreme nature, as is the case in most stories, but by its very averageness.

'How I wrote the story': Profiling the 'average' family

'How I wrote the story': Profiling the 'average' family

Here’s Jane:

The assignment was so simple–pedestrian, even–that I was sure it must be a boring editor’s idea. Or something that someone else had already written, which would get me out of doing it. Or something that I had written so many times before, the curse of being almost 50 in this business, that I’d never find an interesting way to do it. But I’d go along out of duty, to be a good trooper, because my editor had been an avid cheerleader for all my ideas. There wasn’t much chance, I thought, that this story would be either fun or challenging.

Find a family, the editor said, an average family that earns more or less the median income in California and describe how they live. The story will rise and fall on the richness of detail, he predicted, just like a colleague’s front-page profile the year before on the life of a single minimum-wage family.

The difference, I thought to myself, was that poverty was intrinsically more interesting–or so I thought until I found the Etter family of Burbank and overcame my initial distaste for their aggressive piety, unintended anti-semitism, flag-waving politics, starchy diet and brown shag carpeting.

But more about that later. First I had to find them.

Approaching it like a man-in-the-street story was out of the question. You can’t just stand on a corner with a sandwich board advertising for a family that earns $40,500, which Research Librarian Maloy Moore quickly discovered was the median income in the state.

But my editor, determined to capture my interest, had a clever idea for how to get started, an idea that almost worked. Find the census tracts in Los Angeles County closest to the mean, he suggested, and begin poking around there. Maloy found them: one in Pico Rivera, one in Burbank, one near the Beverly Center and another in North Hollywood.

I eliminated the tract in Los Angeles immediately. It was where I lived and I knew that the median must be the result of low-income elderly living in houses they’d owned forever and much higher income newcomers like myself.

I made one cursory drive through North Hollywood and found no there there; it didn’t hang together as a neighbohood. Also, I saw advantages in settling on an incorporated city, either Pico Rivera or Burbank, because there would be a local government and other infrastructure that might lead me to a family.

I spent three days moseying around Pico Rivera and Burbank, driving and looking, driving and looking. I hoped one of them would call out to me as a perfectly average place. Meantime I made notes of all the neighborhood institutions where I might return looking for a ”rabbi,” a wise local resident or official who I could meet, impress with my gentle nature and who would then lead me to the right family and persuade them to talk to me. Realty offices. Head Start programs. Churches. Schools. Weekly newspapers. Mortuaries. Parks. The Chamber of Commerce. City Hall. Any might be the wedge in.

While mulling the two places, I visited both City Halls and discovered that the mayor of each city happened to live in the tract I was considering. That seemed promising. Surely they’d like their towns written about for their sweet averageness, not because of a gruesome murder or the like. Surely they’d know people in their neighborhood who fit my profile. I left notes for both–in fact reurned several times in the intervening days– and never heard from either.

Meanwhile, I fixed on Burbank. In order to soak up enough detail for this story I would need to be able to interview in great depth, push for more and more specificity, and also eavesdrop, glean insight from what the family members said to each other when they thought I wasn’t listening.

That would be impossible in Spanish [spoken heavily in Pico Rivera]. I am too language intensive an interviewer to have much success with interpreters. I need to shmooze, converse rather than question, confide things about myself so people don’t feel they are playing a one-sided game of strip poker. I needed an English speaking family.

Also, Burbank had another advantage. It was much closer to my home, which meant I would be able to spend a few hours with the family–say, attend a school event in the morning, then disappear for a while to let them live their lives in private–and then return later in the day, say for dinner. I feared in Pico Rivera I would either wear out my welcome by hanging around for too many hours at a stretch or limit my visits because of the inconvenience of going back and forth.

Once I fixed on Burbank I made the rounds of schools, churches, parks, etc. looking for that rabbi. In each case, I called, asked if I could come introduce myself and seek help on a story. A face-to-face meeting was important to me, since I’ve learned that my diminutive size and non-threatening presence tend to make people want to help me.

Also, with each potential contact, I offered to bring clips of other stories I’d done, a tactic I’ve developed over the years as a way of acknowledging that I was asking something unusual–intimate access to people’s lives–and had no business expecting them to trust me without some insight into who I was and how I did things. Again, the strip poker thing, a way to make the transaction fairer.

These meetings, I knew, would be the most time consuming, difficult part of the story. If I found the right rabbi, I would find the right family and once I found them all I’d have to do is hang around, look and listen.

But this selling of myself is the part of reporting I hate most; it’s like being a vacuum cleaner salesman. Even with a benign subject like this one (our goal was not to stir up trouble or make anyone look bad), I knew I would expose more of this family’s life than they would likely be comfortable with. I knew they would never understand, no matter how many times I explained it, that they were about to take their clothes off in Macy’s window, as an old New York colleague once put it. They are not public people, celebrities, who are savvy about the press and give as good as they get. I knew I might hurt this family and yet I nevertheless was promoting myself as the kindest, most sensitive person they would ever meet. The older I get the more I hate this deception.

But the elementary school principal loved me, the ministers loved me, the town librarian loved me, and so did a woman behind the counter at the planning department who just happened to live in my targeted tract. They would all look for someone, they promised. They liked the idea of a newspaper account about average people, not the high and mighty or the down and out. Be patient, they said. We’ll call.

After selling myself, my least favorite part of reporting is waiting to see if any fish bite the lines I’ve thrown. Getting no response is a nightmare because then you have to start all over someplace else, peddling the over-priced vacuum cleaner. Too many responses is also no good, because then you get involved in auditioning people. I’d done that recently with a story about child protection caseworkers, found two I liked equally and then had to tell one of them: Oops, I don’t want to write about you after all.

On this story, only one family materialized, via the secretary at the local Methodist church. They happend to live a few blocks outside the census tract I’d chosen, which seemed at first prohibitive, but they’d know other people, I thought. So I paid a visit on Jim and Wendy Etter late one afternoon about a week after I’d begun my search miles east in Pico Rivera.

In one regard, the Etters were perfect. They loved to talk. And talk. And talk. We’d barely finished shaking hands when Jim told me they were too average to have any secrets. What I assumed would be a half-hour get-acquainted session turned into a visit of several hours. I wondered if I could stand days on end with this couple, who were deeply religious (which I am not), politically conservative (which I am not), perhaps anti-semitic (Jim described his aging Cadilac as a Jew Canoe) and offered me Kool-Aid instead of coffee.

Are there really people like this a stone’s throw from Los Angeles, I wondered, people whose idea of fun was driving the church bus on a whale watching trip and who considered dinner at Denny’s a night on the town? They seemed throwbacks to another time, not typical at all.

But they loved to talk, I had no fallback family and I realized it didn’t matter if they lived inside the boundaries of the census tract or not, since that was merely a device for narrowing the field. So I paid a return visit to the elementary school principal, who seemed to be a straight-shooter. There are lots of old-fashioned, devout families like the Etters in Burbank, she told me. They are typical as typical can be.

The next day I returned to see Wendy and Jim and lay out my agenda. I would need a lot of time with them; I hoped to join them on family activities rather than just sit and ask questions. I would need to meet their relatives and neighbors. I would need a detailed look at their finances. No problem, they said.

Wendy and I reviewed their calendar for the next week or so. I wanted to limit visits to a few hours at a time so as not to disrupt their family too much or exhaust their patience or mine. And I wanted to alternate following along as they did normal things (not interviewing in any normal sense of the word) with actual sit-down Q-and-As.

We decided I would have dinner with them the next night (hamburger helper, toasted buns with butter and garlic powder and graham crackers slathered with refrigerated frosting) and go with son Stevie to his scout meeting. The next day, I would join Wendy at a conference at school about daughter Darlene’s progress.

Then, I’d go with her to son Danny’s play group. One night, Jim would take me onto the set at Universal Studios, where he worked as a ligtning engineer. And over the weekend I would accompany the family to church and go to a weinie roast for Stevie’s 11th birthday.

The following week, the family was hosting a coffee klatsch for an Assembly candidate and going on a whale watching outing. Both sounded like rich reporting opportunities but I suspected I would be done by then. I am most comfortable reporting like a house afire for a week or so and then getting down to the business of writing. More time than that and I start getting bored, lazy. Once the adrenaline stops pumping, I know I am at the point of diminishing returns, that place where two more days won’t make the story two days better and could make it two days worse.

Along the way, as always happens when you just hang out with folks, there were serendipitous moments. Wendy’s mother wanted to see an art exhibit that included one of Darlene’s first-grade paintings. Afterward we took the kids to a playground and while they swung and climbed the older woman told me about shopping at the thrift store. On the way to get Danny at day care, Wendy asked if I minded making a stop at the bank; she had bounced several checks and needed to unscramble her accounting.

In the midst of my week with the Etters, Jim was surprised with an award from the PTA. I was part of the conspiracy to get him to school for the ceremony by telling him Stevie had won a writing contest. One morning when I arrived to meet Wendy, Jim was at the breakfast table, entering the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes. She rolled her eyes and began telling me of his many hair-brained schemes to make money.

By now, I really liked these people, in spite of myself. Their faith consoled them, their values were admirable, their children kind. Wendy was the surrogate mom to every latch-key kid in the neighborhood, patient and intelligent in her mothering. She tolerated Jim’s foolishness, loved him dearly, knew better than to nag him half to death.

And what I had taken for anti-semitism was much more complicated than that: At church, they went out of their way to introduce me to the Jewish custodian. I’m sure they thought it would make me feel welcome. (He was, alas, a Jew for Jesus and tried to recruit me.)

I was starting to worry that I was being too sneaky about their finances, folding invasive questions into the middle of innocent conversations about other things. I knew I could piece together a complete dossier of their debts without them quite realzing what was happening.

But I didn’t want to trick them, so I started making the questions more and more explicit. I asked Wendy if we could sit down with her stack of bills and actually go through them one by one, which we did. I spent one morning deliberately asking Jim questions about how his parents handled money, whether they also had lots of debt. Similarly, at Stevie’s birthday party, I asked both Jim and Wendy’s mothers and their many sisters and brothers about credit cards and whatnot.

Last, after I was done writing, I went back to visit one evening at dusk. Wendy and I sat on a bench outside the house as all the neighborhood children played and we talked about whether the deep debt scared her, which of course it did. That night, her daughter Darlene drew a picture for me to hang on my refrigerator and asked if I would come back and visit them after the story was done. I said I would.

I have never been more careful not to surprise people about the contents of a story as I was with the Etters. Short of reading it to them, which is obviously not acceptable, I do not know what more I could have done to be sure they were emotionally prepared.

But, apparently, they weren’t. I called the night before the story ran, to tell them it would be in the paper. I wrote them a note soon thereafter thanking them for their time and kindness, telling them how much I had come to like and admire them. I have forwarded several letters to them from readers wanting to help, each with a scribbled hello on the envelope. I have not heard a word from them. And their silence hangs heavy on my conscience.

THE STORY:

”An Average Family Teeters on Brink of Financial Cliff”
By Jane Gross
March 24, 1996

Jim and Wendy Etter buy their clothes at a thrift shop, stretch their food budget by adding extra macaroni to the Hamburger Helper and have $12,239 in credit card debt.

They canceled a life insurance policy to cut corners, place a $20 check in the collection plate at church each Sunday while praying it doesn’t bounce, and have no idea how they will put their three children through college. The Etters, a hard-working, pious Burbank family, are teetering on the brink of ruin–not because they are poor, but because they are average. They earned about $40,000 last year, close to the median income for a California family.

To watch the Etters pay their bills, rear their children and face their future is to appreciate the rhetoric of ”shrunken expectations” and ”diminishing middle class” that dominates American political and economic life.

The Etters are surviving, not succeeding, clinging to old gentle values in new harsh times. They have less financial security and fewer creature comforts than their parents, who had money in the bank and ribroast on the table. And they carry a crushing burden of debt that leaves Wendy, a stay-at-home mom, anxiously tossing and turning at night, and Jim, a lighting technician, entering the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.

Wendy paints and wallpapers the house, makes the curtains and builds agrandfather clock from a kit. Their drinking glasses are mismatched, and the linoleum is peeling. They’ve made a family joke of wrapping gifts in newspaper.

But the Etters still consider themselves ordinary middle-class folks, living a life of simple pleasures and quiet hardships, just blocks from where they grew up.

Beyond the fact that Jim Etter, a union man, plans to vote for Patrick J. Buchanan on Tuesday, the Etters betray no anger that the American Dream has passed them by despite their diligence.

When Jim, 54, hatches get-rich-quick schemes, Wendy gently reminds him to ”be happy we’re not out on the street, even though we almost have been.”

Cushioned by religion, the Etters are philosophical about their lot and refuse to measure happiness in material ways.

”Almost every night when we eat dinner together we pray,” Wendy says. ”And what we say is: ‘Lord, lead us where you want us to be work-wise. Maybe you don’t want us to be rich. Maybe you just want us to get by, like we are now.”’

Jim Etter freelances as a lighting technician, last month on the Fox situation comedy ”Partners,” and now on the NBC adventure ”JAG.” He earns a union wage of $25 an hour, with medical benefits, but it’s a feast-or-famine living, with occasional 70-hour work weeks and lots of downtime in between.

Years ago he had a dependable stream of work from Stephen J. Cannell Productions, which partially relocated to Canada, where films are cheaper to make. He remembers a year when he earned more than $100,000, had money in the credit union and was able to buy land in the mountains, where he and his brother-in-law built a cabin.

Now, angry at the defection of American business to foreign shores, Jim scrambles from gig to gig, some years making as much as $60,000, others as little as $20,000.

Jobs come from gaffers he has worked for before, so he prowls nearby sound stages on his breaks, schmoozing and hoping.

”Long-term jobs have pretty much gone by the wayside,” he said. ”Technical people bounce around helter-skelter. I sell my time. I’m for sale, like a street hooker.”

When Cannell Productions decamped, Jim turned down a chance to follow. His children were happy, and Jim was a pillar of the community, driving the bus on outings for the Magnolia Park United Methodist Church and taking on a tiny Cub Scout pack and raising its membership to 60. His widowed mother, who lives in Burbank, depended on him. Wendy’s dad was dying. Their brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews also lived nearby. Moving was out of the question.

For a while, Jim moped and lived off the family’s savings, which are now depleted but for the mountain cabin and two acres of scrubby land near the Mojave Desert that they figure they’ll sell for tuition or retirement.

On the verge of losing their house, which is mortgaged to the hilt, they opened their mailbox one day and found five $100 bills in a church envelope.

”The Lord told me you needed this,” an unsigned note said. Soon, Jim got the first of his on-again, off-again jobs.

The Etters bought their modest, three-bedroom bungalow in 1979, a few months before they married. No down payment was necessary because Jim was a Vietnam veteran. The $89,950 house cost them about $700 a month. As their equity increased and their financial burdens mounted, Jim refinanced several times. Now their monthly payments are up to $1,800, more than two weeks of his average pay, including taxes and insurance.

Except for Jim’s collection of old cars and long family vacations in California’s national parks and mountains, the Etters live meagerly. Wendy rarely takes the children grocery shopping because they want expensive things such as prepackaged crackers and cheese.

Every few dinners is a crazy-quilt of leftovers: Who’d like the pork chop? Who’d like the chicken leg? And Jim brings home excess food from the set–sacks of doughnuts and pizzas the size of hubcaps.

Clothes are hand-me-downs from older cousins to son Stevie, 11, and then to Danny, 5, or thrift shop finds. Wednesday is senior citizen day at Wendy’s two favorite secondhand stores, with 50% discounts, so she takes her mother along.

”I can fill a 33-gallon trash bag with stuff for the kids for $20,” she says.

Her 6-year-old daughter Darlene’s favorite dress came from a rummage sale. Wendy made the one Darlene wore her first day of school. Halloween costumes get resurrected, thanks to Mom’s gifts as a seamstress: Last year’s Lion King becomes this year’s hound dog.

The children do not mind, Wendy says, showing no sign of wishing for new, cool things. Stevie balked at wearing a hand-me-down T-shirt to school because it was pink, she said, but agreeably wears it at home or camping with the family.

”They are really put-together kids,” she said one recent evening, sitting on a bench in the frontyard and supervising a dozen neighborhood children at play. ”When I tell them we don’t have enough money for something right now, they say, ‘OK, I understand,’ and we think of something else fun to do.”

Wendy pays the family bills, which she keeps in two piles on her desk, current and past due, each with a date penciled on the envelope. Since Jim’s income is unpredictable, so is her payment schedule, a triage operation more than a budget.

The mortgages, both first and second, get paid first. Then a portion of the utilities, enough to keep the lights on and the telephone working and not a penny more.

”They tell me how much they want, I tell them what I can pay, and they’re pretty good about it,” Wendy said of her creditors, waving a $430 accumulated telephone bill that she is whittling away a bit at a time.

She let the life insurance lapse to save $375 each quarter and stopped paying the bills on a cellular phone that Jim insisted on getting and is now turned off. She canceled newspaper delivery and cable TV and has yet to pay the last six-month installment of property taxes, due since December.

”The penalty is only $20,” she said. ”It’s worth it to wait.”

Between jobs, Jim works on projects that might allow him to leave Klieg lights and ladders behind and start a second career as a line producer. One is a swimming instructional video that he shot on spec, the kind that Wal-Mart sells. Jim owns 20% of the project and, if it makes it big, he could wind up with $40,000, he says.

Then there’s a three-project pitch that he’s made to a Canadian investor: A turn-of-the-century Western that he figures would be perfect for Tom Selleck; a low- budget TV series about blues and jazz stars, and a made-for-TV movie about a Yosemite ranger that he and Wendy wrote on their honeymoon.

Week after week, the investor says he’s coming to town. Week after week, he doesn’t. Jim’s optimism is undimmed. Wendy is skeptical.

”A lot of it he may be buying hook, line and sinker,” she said. ”But what areyou going to do? Just sit here?”

Wendy, 38, bakes snicker-doodle cookies, runs the Cub Scout troop, teaches Sunday school, keeps her eye on the neighborhood latchkey children and helps her blind, widowed mother and her mother-in-law.

Wendy, who met Jim at 16 and married him at 21, was born to be a full-time parent: patient, firm and inventive with Stevie, Darlene and Danny.

She supervises the older boy’s homework, creates contests to get the little ones to buckle their seat belts quickly, teaches them to assemble puzzles by separating the edge pieces and betrays no signs of boredom when asked, ”Guess what, Mom?” for the 10th time in as many minutes.

The three children are well-behaved, respectful and kind. They know to look but not touch in museums, to leave the back door closed so the dog, cat and rabbit don’t get into the house and to keep their voices down when their Dad is sleeping because he’s worked all night.

Stevie is the family entrepreneur and works for his money rather than getting an allowance. Right now he has $134.96 in his piggy bank, close to the $175 that he needs for a week at Scout camp on the Kern River. He takes aluminum cans to the recycling center, feeds neighbors’ pets, sells lemonade and exchanges unwanted birthday gifts for cash.

Darlene, an award-winning artist, is shy in school; she knows the answers but rarely raises her hand. So Wendy put a chart on her door: Each time Darlene speaks up in class, even if she’s wrong, she gets a sticker. Thirty stickers means a prize–maybe a rented movie of her choice from Blockbuster or a Barbie outfit.

Danny has a pixie face, a spray of freckles, an upturned nose. He goes to Tiny Tots day-care for an hour and a half each Wednesday, which costs $11 a month. Wendy has working friends who spend most of their salary on child care; it makes her wonder about the wisdom of returning to teaching, which she did before the kids were born and again when Jim was unemployed.

Jim resents an economic climate that has driven millions of American families out of the kind of family structure he and Wendy struggle to keep.

”Economics has taken an awful lot of people like her and forced them into jobs,” he said.

That’s not how it was in the ’50s, a time Jim longs for and enshrines in the cars he owns, the music he listens to, the religion he practices, and the politics he favors. He drives a ’69 Camaro and Wendy an ’83 Cadillac Fleetwood. He refuses to part with a ’69 Caddy, their honeymoon car, or the ’56 Chevy convertible he drove in high school, both of which sit behind the house on blocks, along with a hand-me-down 12-foot trailer.

Wendy would love to sell the vintage cars–Jim has told her there are only six such Chevys in California, each worth $14,000–but he won’t hear of it. Money can’t buy the joy of ”going into the yard and turning a wrench with my boy,” just like he did with his father, Jim says.

His eyes grow cloudy as he reminisces about car trips when he was a boy and ”families were still families.”

Music stirs similar memories. The Etters have a player piano that they bought at the Los Angeles County Fair, just like the one they listened to at Shakey’s when they were dating. With Darlene on his lap, in a strong baritone, Jim sings along to ”Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” With the neighborhood kids joining in on washboards and stump fiddles, he belts out ”Surrey With the Fringe on Top.”

His voice carries, too, when the congregation at Magnolia Park Church, hands raised to the heavens, sings an extra chorus of ”How Great Thou Art.” This is the church both Jim and Wendy attended as children, where they met and where they married, once the two families made peace with the age difference between man and wife.

It remains the hub for the Etter clan. Stevie’s Scout troop meets here and Jim’s mother, Ruby, sings in the choir. Wendy organizes church outings, such as a recent whale-watching trip to Long Beach, when Jim drove the bus after working all night at Universal’s Sound Stage 37. The family occupies a pew of honor, second from the front on the left.

Not ordinarily a demonstrative man, Jim holds his arm tight around Wendy’s shoulder throughout the service. Both of them are in Sunday best. Finances permitting, the family will eat at Denny’s afterward. Otherwise, Jim makes pancakes at home.

One recent Sunday, the choir director, who had been Wendy’s first-grade classmate, offered an unscripted review of Steven Spielberg’s ”Animaniacs.” The Saturday morning cartoon show pokes fun at religion, John Switzer said from the pulpit, warning the congregation that ”the enemy of our souls is very clever.”

The Etters nodded approval. They wouldn’t let the children visit Jim on the set of ”Partners” because the dialogue was too spicy. They call Stevie’s fifth-grade teacher ”Ms.” Fagan because she insists, but they choke on the feminist honorific.

It is because of his conservatism on social issues, Jim says, that he plans a symbolic vote for Buchanan in the California primary. Wendy will too because she ”lets him do the footwork on these things” and then goes along.

Jim’s support for Buchanan is not a simple decision. A lifelong Republican, he thinks Buchanan is too unforgiving of abortion. Jim doesn’t approve of abortion, but says people are entitled to ”meet their maker in their own way.”

He also wishes Buchanan was less fierce about immigration. Yes, there are too many illegal immigrants in California, Jim says, but what parent wouldn’t sneak across the border if his kids were hungry?

As an executive board member of Studio Electrical Lighting Technicians Local 728, Jim says he’d ”like to be a Democrat if I could find one who’d keep his pants on long enough.” But as a Christian, he looks for a candidate whose ”basic values come from biblical scripture.”

Jim also hails Buchanan for his full-throated opposition to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement that he fears will move studios and jobs outside U.S. borders. And Buchanan has defied conservative stereotypes by taking the side of anxious hourly workers being downsized to boost corporate profits.

”Conservatives usually fall short when they put corporate America on a pedestal,” Jim said. ”Corporate America hasn’t treated the workers very well. The motion picture industry, for instance, is the richest in California, but they keep asking us to concessionize our contracts. Michael Eisner could not possibly spend all the money he makes. But if he gave up a million, just a million, he could pay everybody scale.”

Credit cards are both the Etters’ salvation and their downfall. They use them for unexpected car repairs, cash advances to meet the mortgage or Christmas expenses.

Wendy dreams about paying off all the cards, cutting them up and never replacing them. She has done that with Radio Shack and J.C. Penney. But here’s what remains: Visa, MasterCard, Mervyns, Sears and Montgomery Ward.

Once the Etters ordered a new card at 14% interest to pay off another at 21%. ”Then we had a whole card that was empty,” Wendy said–and filled it up again.

Recently, they used Jim’s mother’s card for a $3,000 car repair bill because they were maxed out on their own. And in each day’s mail come solicitations for more: Pre-approved! Instant credit!

”It’s like somebody gives you free drugs and then you’re hooked,” Wendy says.

At the moment, this is what the monthly ledger looks like:

* $3,000 due on Ruby Etter’s card; Wendy will pay $70.

* $3,000 due on their own Visa; she will pay $70.

* Maxed out on the MasterCard at $5,589, $89 over the limit; she will pay $90.

* $500 due to Montgomery Ward; she will pay $15.

* $50 due to Mervyns; she will pay $20.

* $100 due to Sears.

”I guess that’s it,” she says, with a sigh.

Jim’s and Wendy’s parents didn’t buy what they couldn’t afford, and quailed at extravagance. Jim tells a story of his late father, a printer at the defunct Hollywood Register News, paying $3,000 in cash for a 1953 Olds Super 88 and lying sleepless at night worrying about the expense.

Jim’s brother, Bob, a grip, has similar memories. ”My Dad never made a payment on anything but the house,” he said. ”Other people in the neighborhood ran bills with the milkman, but he wouldn’t even do that. He paid cash.”

So what has changed?

The family mulled the question one recent evening, as dusk settled over the backyard, abuzz with giddy children celebrating Stevie’s birthday at an old- fashioned wienie roast.

Ruby Etter thought it was the cost of living.

”Jim makes a lot more than his father did,” she said, ”but wages don’t keep up with inflation.”

Wendy’s older sister, Debbie, agreed. ”My first house cost $19,000,” she said. ”Now, my car costs more than that.”

Brother Bob hearkened to the scars of the Depression, which inspired caution in his parents. ”But our generation would rather have toys than money in the bank,” he said, noting his own decision to buy a Corvette and a 4-by-4. ”I didn’t even ask what they cost,” Bob said. ”I just asked what the payments would be. We figure we can buy something and pay for it later. It’ll come from somewhere.”

And so it has, so far, for the Etters.

A few days before Stevie’s party, after fetching Danny from Tiny Tots and before picking up Stevie and Darlene at school, Wendy stopped at Great Western Bank. She dreaded the visit, shifting from foot to foot as she waited her turn for a teller. Several checks had bounced–one for the second mortgage, one for Stevie’s Scout dues and one for a $17 purchase at Sav-On.

The teller pulled up the balance and said the Etter’s account was overdrawn by $36.29. Wendy’s records showed a shortfall of $68.

In Wendy’s hand was a $100 check from her mother, a loan until Jim’s next paycheck. She endorsed it and passed it to the teller for deposit.

”I hate this,” she said softly, eyes to the floor. ”It makes me feel like I’ve failed.”

RECOMMENDED READING: Go to your publication’s library, pull the last profile you wrote and compare it to this one. What lessons can you employ the next time that worked for Jane here? What did you think of that she missed? You are not allowed to tell me you do not have the same luxury of time that she had. Almost no one does. If you can’t steal an extra week, you can steal an extra day. If you can’t steal an extra day, you can steal an extra couple of hours, or an extra visit to your subject. How bad do you want to get better?

COMING NEXT MONDAY: A step-by-step lesson in organizing a long story.