My Turn: Dinner for Eight

A year ago, eight friends began to meet weekly for dinner. We were introduced at church—some of us sang together in the choir, others worked on committees, a few went on a mission trip to Biloxi, Miss., following Hurricane Katrina. But what really brought us together was chemistry, the ease with which we were able to laugh together. That might seem hard to believe when you consider how disparate we are: politically, we are five Democrats, two Republicans, and one honest-to-God registered Independent. Three of us are loudmouthed liberals and two are contrarian conservatives; the others act as referees, reminding us to be respectful.

There is a 16-year difference between the oldest and youngest members of our dinner group. We are engineers, pastors, hairdressers, car-rental agents, construction workers, household managers and ultrasound technicians. We are moms and dads with kids in high school and college; one of our daughters is an Iraq War veteran. Half of us have grandkids and two thirds of us are lucky enough to have our parents still around. Together, we represent a giant slice of the American pie.

Why should you care? One year later, six of us are unemployed. Our group, struck by a divorce, is actually now down to seven. Another marriage is teetering. Severe depression is a daily companion for one weary soul and a dreaded visitor for three or four others. When we call and ask, "How are you doing?" we're really checking in for a status update: orange alert or red? One family is now on food stamps, largely due to a son's special needs; another is living on a disability check. One couple is in danger of losing its home to foreclosure, while a second family is living off its home, mortgaged to the teeth to pay for college and, now, groceries. A young man who has struggled up from the misery of an impoverished childhood is frustrated to find that his sparkling new medical certification—acquired with the help of $35,000 in student loans—is practically worthless in this job market. A brilliant, midcareer engineer, living for the last decade in a gated community, is startled to find he can't provide for his family. Not one of us is eligible for unemployment benefits. We are not counted in the monthly statistics cited on television. We are the new poor.

What lessons have we learned? Education does not equal job security. Those who are most valuable in this slump seem to be those who have hands-on skills: cutting hair or laying miles of telephone cable, waiting tables or tending bar. We have learned to accept this new, dismaying economic reality, in which education, experience, energy and expectations guarantee nothing but a place in the soup line.

Last year our little group worried about pensions and health-care benefits. Now we worry about keeping gas in the car. We no longer discuss good spots to vacation or plan blowout New Year's Eve parties. Instead, we strategize about how to get by. We discuss upcoming garage sales and where to find good thrift shops. We pooled our money for a BJ's Wholesale Club membership, so we could buy food in bulk and split it among us. We scrambled to find clothing for a 5-year-old after one couple in our group was forced to take in a young niece. At one gathering, we simply spent the night dreaming about winning the lottery, even though few of us bother to play.

What will save us? I don't know, but the one thing that helps, from week to week, is dinner with friends. We still gather, this fragile little group, every Friday evening. Sometimes we sit around a real dinner table at one member's home in a gated beach community; other times we're balancing our plates on our knees in another's small rented house across town. The children are invited, along with their various friends, boyfriends, girlfriends—whoever shows up. Meals often turn into celebrations: it's the need to find some joy in the midst of growing hardship. As the months have worn on, we have become adept at feeding a crowd on just a little money, with a lot of cheap wine as our mainstay. We exchange jokes and political commentary as usual, but we also trade books, clothes, furniture. We help with haircuts and fixing broken appliances. We are more forgiving of the edginess in certain personalities or the occasions when someone drinks a bit too much. We try to believe that, somehow, we'll survive this present crisis. But for now, dinner together feels like our last best hope.