When all else fails, life gives a reason to go on, if we seek it. In Jim Marquis’ case, he seems to have found his.
It’s disquieting to go into his subsidized-housing apartment in Serra Mesa and see a living room with one easy chair and a small TV on a stand, and that’s pretty much all. The bedrooms are equally sparse — blankets and pillows on the floor and clothes and toys in boxes. Marquis says furniture is going to be delivered by Amvets any day now, but he’s been here four weeks and it hasn’t arrived.
However, the place is clean, and there’s food in the kitchen.
The apartment is filled with the scampering and giggling of three little girls: Sarah, the oldest at 7 with the innocent smile of a Down syndrome child; Emily, 6, a bubbly blonde; and chubby Michele, the baby at 2. They seem to have no complaints. But at their ages, they don’t look around much.
I don’t have the training or the long nose of a social services case worker, but I know what I see — happy kids.
Being poor is neither a crime nor a sin.
In Marquis’ own life, happiness has been a Rubik’s Cube: a puzzle to be pondered, not solved. He is a man of 46 who has fallen on hard times; actually, it’s been a while since any other times.
The man looks like a bank teller with Republican hair and a mild, agreeable manner. He’s a recovering alcoholic who has been unemployed for four years. Last year, in desperation, he took his family to find refuge in St. Vincent de Paul Village in downtown San Diego. They lived in cramped family quarters for a year and a half while he worked to rehabilitate his life. He is now in the last stages of a divorce, the byproduct of which gave him primary custody of all three girls by court order.
I acknowledge, this is a small story about an unimportant man. But before you ask, “Why am I reading this?” let’s creep out onto the ice this family stands on, so thin that a dropped dime might crack it. To abuse that metaphor, we see a guy who needs to reach safe ground but is endangered by every step.
Every weekday, when the girls are in school or day care, Marquis trudges several blocks to the public library to use a computer and go online in a job chase that never seems to get any closer than the day before.
His scariest frustration is that after about 60 interviews, he hasn’t landed a job. He goes to job-finding classes and fairs and spends hours on the computer knowing he’s not likely to find an employer yearning to hire an unemployed, middle-aged, recovering alcoholic. “It’s a tough thing to go back to those kids each day knowing I’m still unemployed.”
Marquis was raised in a meandering family back east, then spent four years in the Navy. He accumulated three years of college before drink and a girl built a barricade between him and a degree.
His career was the catch-as-catch-can journey of direct sales. “Custom-logo products is kind of where I got a strong foothold. I was at a company for 10 years called Photo Ball. They manufactured collectible products. I managed the West Coast territory. I was also an inside sales rep for a company that manufactured software for auto repair.”
It was a living, but as stable as a skateboard. “I was a highly functioning alcoholic where, you know, everybody knew if they needed to find Jim Marquis, they’d just go to my bar after work. You know? I’d be there on weekends, too.”
That’s the way he went rocking through life until 2003. “I was really abusing my body, and my body wasn’t compensating, and I didn’t know I had diabetes (Type 2), so my mind was starting to turn to mush and my body was starting to fall apart. My liver was failing. I checked myself into (a rehab hospital) to see what was wrong with me, other than the fact that I knew I was probably drinking too much.”
He got scared and sober, and that lasted from 2003 until 2009. During those days of relative calm, he married in 2005 and had a house and a stable job. Then his marriage started to fall apart, and he was downsized out of his job.
Back to you-know-what.
The troubles mounted: His first child was born with pulmonary hypertension and Down syndrome and required lengthy hospitalization, and … oh, well, things just generally went to hell.
In June 2012, the family was kicked out of its small Lakeside apartment for nonpayment of rent and were admitted to St. Vincent de Paul’s. Marquis thrived in that institutional setting. He washed dishes for 16 months and paid attention to the counselors. He enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous, attended the meetings and says he still does. He also took steps to end a marriage that was dragging them both down. He left St. Vincent de Paul’s about a month ago after he was able to find independent housing.
“I’m grateful for everything that (St. Vincent’s) helped me with. Their group (activity) is amazing. And their case managers, they’ve provided me with a foothold in society and the confidence to go out and look for work.”
He’s affable, well-spoken and seems sincere. My hunch is that he could function well at an inside customer-service-type job in a controlled setting. If he stays off the sauce. However, it wouldn’t be my payroll money at risk.
You’ve stayed dry? Is it tough?
“No. Not when you’re using the tools that AA provides, when you’re going to meetings and you’re working the steps and you’re doing the right things. You know you’re doing the right thing when you’re thinking less of yourself and more about other people.”
Have you had the urge to drink again?
“Yes. I mean, OK, yeah, maybe a couple times I thought about it. But I don’t have, like, that urge like I do when I’m in the middle of my alcoholism. It’s not the same.”
He’s keeping his family afloat in the way of a pauper in a thrift store — everything that fits looks good.
Marquis is in full survival mode. He’s on every public welfare roll that will accept him. He has VA health coverage, and the kids get theirs from Medi-Cal. He lives in subsidized housing, buys generic-brand food, drives an old car and uses a public-library computer. He’s a regular in the aisles of Food 4 Less and the 99-cent store. His public-assistance income is spent in pennies. But, by God, his kids are healthy and have food on the table and there’s no beer in the fridge.
He doesn’t complain and doesn’t seem bitter. Not that he has any reason to be, but that never stopped anybody.
His sister in Texas sent him an extended family pass to the San Diego Zoo, and that has become their primary recreation. The kids probably know as much about the zoo as some keepers, he thinks.
Marquis has had a bounce-around career in marginal jobs. He became an alcoholic, had a marriage that failed and children he couldn’t afford.
That’s an American failure story.
What makes him different is that he has responded to the needs of those kids for whom he’s the main caregiver. They’re not in foster care or put up for adoption. He dutifully searches for a job that he has to realize is likely not there. He says he’s gone a year and a half without drinking, though we all know, for an alcoholic, long-term sobriety might end this afternoon. It’s like quitting smoking: no one gets it done the first time, or even the second.
“These kids are why I wake up in the morning. My goal is to nurture them into productive human beings. I love playing with them, helping them with their homework and just being there for whatever they need. I never miss a teacher conference. I want to make sure they have a better life than I’ve had.”
As time passes, the children will become aware of all they don’t have that most other kids do. But we can hope they grow to realize they also have what many others do not.
There are all sorts of head-shaking observations one could make about Jim Marquis. Some would surely be caustic and mean.
However, give credit: He’s a loving father, alone, with no job or money, charged with making a stable home for three little bouncy girls. And it doesn’t even drive him to drink.
F. Scott Fitzgerald — himself an alcoholic — memorably said: “There are no second acts in American lives.”
He was wrong, but time will reveal if Jim Marquis is a man to prove it.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net His email is firstname.lastname@example.org