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Hi all

Just wanted to let you know there are a couple new posts at my new boxcarkids blog http://www.theboxcarkids.net/wordpress. WordPress.com has a new upgrade that I purchased that redirects traffic to the new blog so hopefully you’ll all reach it that way.
New posts:
If This Were Fiction, and
Tenterhooks

Posts in the pipeline:

The Best Corners for Pandhandling

Room Without a View

The Pernicious Effects of Poverty

I know some folks are still linked to this site- just wanted to let you know to pop over to theboxcarkids.net/wordpress/ to catch up with the latest – whoa, big drop – move of our roller coaster life!

Many people have encouraged me to move my blog to a site that allows advertising in order to try to make some money from it. I like wordpress- the ease of it and the amount of detail and number of options they provide me in blogging. And I like the spare, elegant, non-commercial look of my blog. I began it not to make money but to express myself, provide an outlet for my thoughts on our situation, and connect in some way with other people. The donation link provides people who are genuinely moved to help a way to do so without crass commercialization and blatant ads obscuring the content.
But our situation has dragged on much longer than I anticipated and so many things – like job retraining or a bigger trailer or summer camp or new glasses or a root canal – are out of reach unless I can find some way (and yes, I’m applying right, left and center for available jobs, and no, I’m not quite ready to stand on the street corner with my most photogenic kid and a sign that says “Anything Helps, God Bless.”) to add to our income. So I am considering moving my boxcarkids blog to a site that allows ads. As someone who used to mute all commercials when watching TV, I’m not pleased to be thrusting ads on my readers but I hope if I move, many of you will continue to follow our adventures (or misadventures as they may be).

I think I’ve found a potential job retraining opportunity that could suit me and make use of my previous experience in the environmental field. Our local community college has a short course this summer that would allow me to earn a Building Performance Institute Certification. This is supposed to be a growing field with an increase in jobs. It costs $1600 in tuition so I can’t actually take the course this summer as our projected expenses already outstrip my unemployment check but if they offer it in fall, or more likely next winter, I might be able to save up enough to take it.
Here’s the course description:

Train to become an energy efficiency auditor and earn your BPI Certification (Building Performance Institute) in only one week. A recent study by the California Community College’s Centers of Excellence indicates that the need for building auditors will increase by 54% over the next three years throughout South Central California. Individuals in the fields of construction, design, inspection, contracting, and utilities will want to take this new course to learn to identify the relationships among overall performance, efficiency and durability. Class participants will learn to target, diagnose, and recommend procedures to remedy inefficient building performance. Course fee includes classroom training (1 full day + 2 half-days), field training (2 half-days), course materials, study materials, BPI application fees, written exam fee and field exam fee. The written and field exams will be held on Day 4 and 5 of the course. Course fee includes classroom training (1 full day + 2 half-days), field training (2 half-days), course materials, study materials, BPI application fees, written exam fee and field exam fee. The written and field exams will be held on Day 4 and 5 of the course.

 The April unemployment numbers came out not too long ago and provided another economic head scratching moment for those of us following the statistics. Head scratching because in April the economy added a record 290,000 jobs (yeah) and at the same time national unemployment claims rose from 9.7 to 9.9%.   Hmm, more jobs, more unemployed people?  Turns out the increase in jobs brought out people who had given up looking (and therefore were no longer counted among the unemployed despite the fact that they had no job). 

President Obama’s take – “[April’s] job numbers come as a relief to Americans who’ve found a job, but it offers, obviously, little comfort to those who are still out of work.”  The number of people unemployed in the nation stood at 15.3 million in April this year.   Counting those who have given up looking for work and part timers who would prefer to be working full time, the so-called underemployment rate rose to 17.1 % in April.

“When you look at the employment report from 20,000 feet, it’s all good numbers,” said Brian Wesbury, chief economist at First Trust in Chicago. “What happened [with the higher unemployment rate] is that people rushed back into the labor force.”

“That will slow down and we will see the unemployment rate come down. But in order for that to happen, we need job gains and we are getting that now.”

Indeed the jobless rate declined in 34 states in April. So things would seem to be looking up, right? Briefly. Then on May 20th NPR reported that number of people filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week by the largest amount in three months, saying that the surge is evidence of how volatile the job market remains, even as the economy grows.  Applications for unemployment benefits rose to 471,000 last week, up by 25,000 from the previous week, the Labor Department said Thursday.

 So for us job seekers it’s a bit of a roller coaster – hopes up, hopes down.  And depending on your demographics your outlook might be colored by other factors.  For instance if you were a secretary or travel agent the opinion recently voiced by a number of economists – that some lost jobs will never come back and some out of work people may never regain their economic place in society – might send your outlook right off the cliff.  In the past few months this idea has been the subject of articles with headlines like “Lost jobs are likely not coming back;” “Jobs That Aren’t Coming Back; “ and “Even in a Recovery, Some Jobs Won’t Return;“  All of which essentially say the same thing – many of the jobs lost in the recession – in industries as varied as construction, interior design and auto manufacturing are no longer deemed necessary.  During the past few years of belt tightening companies have automated processes, out-sourced work, shifted duties and learned work arounds for laid off employees (such as having managers file their own papers, make their own coffee and book their own travel – administrative staff took a big hit, 1.7 million jobs lost).  Sorry folks, the recovery has begun and employers are thinking they’ll just keep some of those cost-savings after 2 years of penny pinching!

 Other demographics come into play for the job seeker as well.  Geographic demographics for one.  While the job market may be getting better in some parts of the country, several states – Michigan, Nevada, and California topping the list – are not seeing any significant improvement. In April California’s unemployment rate was at 12.6 percent, nearly 3 points above the national average.  The good news was that it ‘held steady’ – unchanged from March.  2.3 million Californians remain unemployed while non-farm payroll jobs increased by 14,200 in April. At that rate…well, you do the math.

Then there’s age.  Oh to be 30 again!  Although nationally the youngest workers were hardest hit by the recession, older unemployed workers are finding it harder to land a new job and are remaining unemployed longer. 

 “Things have been very tough for older jobseekers. Duration of unemployment for persons aged 55 and older has soared since the start of the recession and remains higher than for younger workers,” according to an analysis by Sara Rix of the AARP Public Policy Institute. “Those numbers do not paint a rosy picture for millions of older Americans, many of whom may never find jobs comparable to the ones they have lost since December of 2007.”

 I understand the AARP is holding job workshops to help older workers find “meaningful” employment.

Add in being a single parent with a damaged credit rating and you’ll begin to see why I’m not celebrating the economic recovery just yet.  I admit to owning a bleak outlook but not, I’m sorry to say, one I believe is unrealistic. I’ve been out of work for 10 months now- about 9 months longer than I ever expected I’d go without a job!  I apply for jobs and even interview from time to time, without landing one.  I am discouraged. I see the recovery as hope that my children may yet have opportunities but I am no longer confident about remaking my life from the ground up.

For a sobering take on the jobless recovery and what it will mean for America check out this article: “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America” in the Atlantic.

Thanks for all the comments and good ideas!  Our summer plans are slowly coming together and I’m using several of your ideas!  We signed up for the kid’s free bowling – there’s a bowling alley not to far from us that is participating.  I’m applying for a YMCA campership for my youngest 2 (both 7); and my middle daughter (9 year old) has received invitations from friends in Virginia and Seattle and I can use  my soon to expire frequent flyer miles to send her to visit for several weeks.  My oldest is playing summer league basketball and is old enough (12) to be on her own for a bit if she needs to be.  We are continuing to explore options locally and I’m continuing to apply for jobs (2 more this week- one at a Naval Base as an environmental technician and one as a forest ranger).

Someone asked if I’d let Tricia or Ben babysit – and the answer is no, nor would the kids be comfortable with that.  Tricia is disabled – in fact she’s going to have a hip replacement this summer now that her medicare insurance has come through, and both Ben and Tricia have habits that undoubtedly help them get through life (smoking, drinking and possible other substance use) but that I don’t want around the kids.

Update – As a commentor mentioned the shoe rental isn’t included in the kids bowl free, nor are adults (although for $24 you can add adults to the bowl free deal for the summer).  Shoes are $4 per person.  We signed up and it might be something we do for a special treat. 

Heard from the Y – there are no scholarships available that would help us – too many people in the same situation! Camp for 2 kids would be $900 a month with a scholarship- half my monthly income, so that is out.

At least it does when you are small.  Coming back from taking the trash to the dumpster the other day I was struck by the comparison between our neighbor’s truck, and our ‘house’.

Our house is feeling especially small these days with summer looming and the prospect of spending more time together indoors once school is out.  And it seems we will be forced to limit our outdoor activities in our patio area – a 3-foot wide concrete slab that borders the trailer.  Today the park manager told me that the owner (who sadly is not fond of children) has said we either get rid of the toys on the patio or get kicked out of the park.  So I took all the Hot Wheel track to the dumpster, and packed up the cars and my son’s Legos to take them to storage.  We will park my youngest daughter’s bike behind the trailer and the scooter and skateboard will go underneath.   The basketballs have already been banned –  they are stored in a Tupperware container under the trailer and taken out only for team practice. Bouncing them here bothers the older residents.

My son who can spend hours building fanciful Lego cars and other vehicles (along with my oldest daughter who wants to be an architect and builds equally intricate Lego houses) will be sad when they come home tonight, but if you know anything about Legos you know just how many tiny pieces are required to build these creations!  And there are so many specialized pieces –  little figures, windshields, lights, wheels, corners, stairs, windows and doors.  I freely admit the Legos were getting out of control – we have a big table next to the trailer and a couple of boxes of Legos and the kids would spread out and design and construct to their heart’s content.  And they didn’t get cleaned up and put away after each session – no one wanted to just build and dismantle – so they sat out on the table top and a few would get scattered below…  Well, I couldn’t throw them all away but we cannot keep them indoors either as we have NO counter space for Lego creations. So off to storage they go.  Heck, we have no counter space period and the one table becomes a bed nightly!  We gave up an experiment with jigsaw puzzles over Christmas vacation for this very reason – it was just too hard on everyone to take the thing apart each night and start again the next day.

What we really need is MORE space – a bigger RV with bunk beds for the kids, and a little more indoor storage, and some counter space.  I haunt the listings on craigslist and cruise by the park and sell lots in town looking for travel trailers even though I’ve hardly begun to put aside any money for such a purchase.  And I must find some free/inexpensive activities for the kids this summer so we aren’t couped up  in this tiny space for days on end.  Spring break showed me the necessity of that as during those 10 days we started out getting on each other’s nerves, and by the end were driving one another crazy. If we are forced to be together in this space for the 10 weeks of summer we will descend to the point where the majority of our  interactions will be negative.  Like overcrowded rats or the lost boys in The Lord of the Flies, our inner savages will awaken.  And if that happens…it won’t be toys on the patio that get us kicked out of the park!

We are allowed to have the table and a couple of chairs on the patio, and ‘may decorate with potted plants’ if we wish.

When we had to move out of our rental house and into our trailer we sold almost everything we owned.  Furniture, artwork, clothing, toys, yard tools, TV, VCR, coffee pot, kitchenware, dog food bowls…well, nearly everything!  But try as you might to downsize there are always things you can’t part with for one reason or another.  I had to save boxes of paperwork, and thought it was worth saving things that we could use once we were back in a house and clothing the younger kids might grow into in the next year. I had a work wardrobe that I hoped I’d need again soon and I couldn’t give up my entire library or the things I bought for the children to commemorate their birth heritage.  And the kids didn’t want to give up everything they’d collected or earned or cherished.   So we did what so many people do – we rented a storage unit.  And it’s jam-packed – both with the things we couldn’t give up and things I subsequently bought to try and sell on eBay or Craigslist. 

Some days when I stop by the storage center to remove or put something in our unit I see units double locked – one lock bearing the little red sticker warning the unit ‘owner’ that they are in danger of the storage unit version of being foreclosed.  “See the manager” the stickers say. Or I see a flyer posted advertising an auction of storage units whose rent has not been paid.  I make a mental note – remove all valuables from our unit if in danger of defaulting on rent!

There have always been storage unit auctions – people die, or go to prison, or for one reason or another abandon their unit, and the owners of the storage center, unable to reach the renter or extract the rent from them, sell the contents to settle the debt owed.  With the current economy these auctions have increased – more people have to downsize and store things, and more unit renters eventually find themselves behind on their rent.  Conversely more people are also looking for alternative or additional sources of income and are buying up units for items to resell at the swap meet or on eBay.  It’s sort of a microcosm of the economy, one in which the majority of both sides – losers and winners– are poor folks already beaten down by the recession.

In a recent article in the San Diego Union Tribune, Kimberly Pretto, president of Kobey’s Swap Meet, calls the increased number of storage unit vendors a “very sad thing” while noting that it is a new contingent of vendor that’s very strong in the market right now.

A measure of the new avid interest in storage unit auctions is the number of websites offering ‘how to’ guides, or tips for attending, and making a profit from these auctions, such as: How to Be Successful With Storage Unit Auctions,  Storage Auction Secrets (a website selling a slightly sleazy  e-book so I’m not linking it- you can hunt it up yourself if so inclined), and Storage Auctions, a Good Bid for Sellers, and How to Profit from Storage Unit Auctions.  All of these websites focus on the potential bidder – little is said about the person whose belongings are lost.

So here’s the view from the other side – J. Moore’s reflections on having lost a storage unit.  Moore (not sure whether that’s Mr. or Ms.) fell behind on a few payments and found out after the fact that the unit was sold.  What was in it?  “All my pictures, my cat ashes and 2 favorite stuffed animals, which I have had since I was 1 year old, one was from each of my grandmothers and all the other things and gifts from family I had left that I cherished and can NEVER BE REPLACED.”   Despite leaving a message with the ‘auction person’ asking for help in getting in touch with the winning bidder in order to retrieve some of these personal, and not profitable (who buys cat ashes) items, J. Moore never heard back.  “Vultures” is the term Moore uses for people who buy storage units.   

I, myself, have benefited from this system.  Although I’ve attended a few auctions I haven’t bid on any.  I don’t have the cash reserves or the space to store things. But I have, down the line, purchased things that others have unwillingly deserted in their storage units, to resell on eBay.  Several local liquidating businesses, in addition to buying up estates or stores that have gone out of business, regularly buy the abandoned contents of storage units and resell them – to people looking to save money on purchases (clothing is especially cheap and furniture and appliances are sold way below retail), and people who try to turn them over for a profit.  And I shop there.  But I’m not entirely comfortable with it, and while pawing though boxes of office supplies, DVDs, books, toys and clothing, I can’t help to wonder at the fates that have befallen the previous owners.   The photo albums and historical or genealogical mementos bother me the most.  Old black and white stiff portraits of solemn people dressed in their Sunday best, the family snapshots of children playing in wading pools in the backyard, or hugging the dog in a strangle-hold or blowing out candles in a blurry faded color Polaroid.  Who are these people and where are the people who cared for them?

And the boxes after boxes of dinosaurs, actions figures and hot wheel cars.  Is there a little boy mourning their loss or are they long forgotten treasures of an adolescent who has moved on to fixate on video games and the opposite sex? 

Or one person’s purple collection – purple candles, bath soaps, shower curtain, slippers, dishes, scarves, oven-mitts, lingerie, even purple  post-it notes – as I looked (in amazement frankly) through these boxes of purple possessions I had to hope that the fact that they were stored meant the owner had moved beyond this obsession and had opened up to a variety of colors.  Maybe for that person losing the storage unit was a good thing!

When we moved from our Colorado house we left some things stored in the basement with the intent to retrieve them at a later date.  Some of those things were irreplaceable – for instance Christmas ornaments collected over a span of nearly a half century.  My mother started the tradition – adding a Christmas ornament with some significance for each child each year, and I’d continued it with my children.  We didn’t need them at the time we moved but we cherished them and never thought to lose them.  But by the time we evicted the squatter in our house they were gone – who knows where.  Did he throw them out in a fit of spite?  Sell them at the swap meet along with our collection of lighted Christmas village buildings?  That loss still festers with me and now when I look at the books and clothing and kitchenware and the little collections of figurines and vases and such retrieved from abandoned storage units the cost to other people’s lives is almost palpable.  Somehow I don’t think those people shop here – I’m surrounded by happy bargain hunters focused on their own gain or potential profit. 

So far we have been able to make our rent on our storage unit.  This month I’m trying to cull out some things to get us down to a smaller unit at a lower rent.  Some of this is just sorting out papers – a few boxes of ancient financial and academic papers will go to the free shredding day a local bank is hosting – and books (going to the school rummage sale to raise funds for the various field trips).  Some of it – I’m thinking family photos and genealogy records – will be shipped to my sister for safe keeping.   Perhaps I’ll include a few other things as well.  Who knows what next month will bring?

Things have been tough for a long time now, longer for some folks than others, and even with the glimmer of an economic recovery on the horizon, in a grim article titled “ Millions of unemployed may never recover”, the Seattle Times reports that the effects will be long-lingering for a great number of people.  Likely to be especially hard hit will be those who have been out of work for the longest period, and older out-of-workers.  I guess that will be a double whammy for me.  It is thought by some economists that long stints of unemployment erode a worker’s skills and lessen their ability to maintain networking contacts.  Even those economists who doubt that workers in general would lose skills after only six months or even a year or two out of work, agree that long periods of unemployment tend to make it tougher to get re-employed. And, as the article says, “even after getting hired, such workers are likely to experience a sharp and lasting hit to their incomes.”  And many older out of work folk will choose to retire early which means more people drawing Social Security and Medicare, and fewer contributing to the programs through payroll taxes.

I hate to be a gloomy Gus, but I very much agree with a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, and have said in earlier posts, that this recession  is bound to create fundamental changes in our society that will continue even into whatever level of recovery with which we are blessed. I don’t just fear my own future but the future of the generation that is in or just graduating from college, a group that globally has suffered job loss disproportionately during the recession. 

If you have children in this age group, read the Atlantic Monthly article. It’s a wake-up call.  And if, like me, your children are younger, consider what you can do to raise independent thinking, hard-working, entrepreneurial-leaning adults.  According to one study reported in the Atlantic Monthly article, teens and college graduates who have a hard time finding a job and suffer a lengthy stint of unemployment are more likely to develop drinking problems and symptoms of depression in middle age.  And that’s regardless of whether they eventually do find work.  There is something about not working that takes its toll on one.

A large and long-standing body of research shows that physical health tends to deteriorate during unemployment, most likely through a combination of fewer financial resources and a higher stress level. The most-recent research suggests that poor health is prevalent among the young, and endures for a lifetime.

Consider that the youth of today has been raised with high expectations – they’ve been told they can do and be anything and what’s more that they can have anything (a very materialistic generation) – but since they have also been “trained throughout childhood to disconnect performance from reward,… many are quick to place blame elsewhere when something goes wrong, and inclined to believe that bad situations will sort themselves out—or will be sorted out by parents or other helpers.”

Ron Alsop, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and the author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace, says a combination of entitlement and highly structured childhood has resulted in a lack of independence and entrepreneurialism in many 20-somethings. They’re used to checklists, he says, and “don’t excel at leadership or independent problem solving.”

Not a good starting point for kids trying to enter the job force during a recession – or in the lingering aftermath of one.  Contrary to the song, parents, perhaps you should let your babies grow up to be cowboys.  If ever there was a profession designed to inculcate the ethos of hard work and independence that would be it!  Our youth will need our help to recover fully and we need them to be productively employed, paying into social programs and replenishing the federal coffers.  

Will there be any possible benefit to our children, having experienced the hardships of the recession?  Perhaps.

A recent paper by the economists Paola Giuliano and Antonio Spilimbergo shows that generations that endured a recession in early adulthood became more concerned about inequality and more cognizant of the role luck plays in life. And in his book, Children of the Great Depression, Glen Elder wrote that adolescents who experienced hardship in the 1930s became especially adaptable, family-oriented adults; perhaps, as a result of this recession, today’s adolescents will be pampered less and counted on for more, and will grow into adults who feel less entitled than recent generations.

If so, I hope to count my children among them.  Interestingly enough my mother, born in 1928, was very adaptable and family-oriented, and ruggedly independent (a label a friend recently tagged me with) as well.  I think the lessons she learned during the hard times in her life, both as a youngster at the tail end of the depression and later as a divorced mother of four school-aged children, and which she imparted to me, go a long way to explaining why I’m able to roll with the punches the last few years have dealt me.  My children were all in orphanages when I adopted them.  I had intended to try my best to make up for that – to give them everything they might have been denied, to raise them full of American self-esteem and the belief that they could do and be anything they could want to be.  I still intend to do that, but just as I did, working my way through both undergraduate and graduate school, they will learn the benefits of earning their self-esteem and rewards through hard-work and perseverance rather than having them handed to them.  They might not be able to have anything they want but I hope they will still believe, and develop the skills to be what they want.

Jobs, jobs, jobs.  With over 8 million jobs lost in the last couple of years, jobs are a big topic in the news, in bars, at the playground, on the senate floor, and at campaign podiums.  Job seekers, job training, creating jobs and WTF to do about all the people who have lost jobs.  In the latter category comes the sometimes heated discussion about unemployment benefits.  As an article in the Christian Science Monitor, entitled  Senate jobs bill: the perils of extended unemployment benefits, says:

The Depression-era program was originally intended as a temporary bridge to help the jobless until a recovery put them back to work – though nearly two-thirds of unemployed workers do not qualify. During a more normal downturn in the economy, states help people who have been laid off with jobless benefits lasting 26 weeks. But now, in some of the hardest-hit states, the long-term unemployed have been able to collect benefits for as long as 99 weeks – almost two years.

Some would argue that the long-term availability of unemployment insurance has turned it into something like welfare in the days before reform: open to abuse and not helpful in encouraging people to actually look for work. “Continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work,” said Republican Sen. John Kyl, of Arizona.

As someone collecting unemployment benefits I’d like to address some of the real disincentives to look for work or rather disincentives to take work, any work, or to enroll in courses to retool for a new career!

As another news article recounts, taking a part-time or temporary job while searching for a new full-time job can be deadly.  Deadly, that is, to your unemployment benefits. Some job seekers have been taking on jobs they wouldn’t have contemplated a few years ago, just to make a little money, to put food on the table, or stay in their home, only to discover later that by doing so they have re-set the calculation of their unemployment benefits so that they are no longer eligible for any benefits at all once that job ends and they are unable to land another. 

 “What is going on for these workers is that because their most recent wages are much lower than the wages they earned in their prior fulltime job, they are facing substantial cuts in their weekly unemployment benefits,” says George Wentworth, a consultant at the National Employment Law Project (NELP) in New York.

In fact, so substantial that in one case the woman’s unemployment benefits went from $483 a week to nothing after she took a brief part-time job. 

I’ve been counseled to take a job, any job, just to, well, to look good to employers.  But will taking a job as someone who hands out samples at Cost-co really make me look good to employers in my field (environmental permitting)?  Would I even put it on my resume?  Umm, no, I wouldn’t.  Would it help me to support my family?  Not really.  The pay would be minimal and after various taxes would probably be less than my unemployment benefit (which, based on my last quarter’s earnings is at the top of the scale – which is still paltry when you are supporting a family of 5).  Plus I’d be paying for after school care or babysitting on top of that. 

And if I take a job handing out samples at Cost-co, or accept the small amount that Salon.com has offered to pay me for article I wrote, I could be up the creek without a paddle if I haven’t landed that full-time job in my field within a year of being laid off.  Because if I don’t have a new, good, job within that time, my unemployment benefits will be recalculated, based on my earnings in the last quarter and if that’s the Salon.com payment my benefits will zip, zero, nada.  And I won’t be able to support my family on that!  So while I was thrilled to secure my first ever paid writing job I won’t be invoicing Salon or filling in the w-9 to report the meager income to the IRS and the unemployment people.  Salon can donate the money to a charity.

Another hindrance built into the system is the fact that you lose your unemployment benefits if you opt to take classes or retrain for a new career. The reasoning is – if you are in school you aren’t available to work and you have to be available to work to collect benefits.  But without the unemployment check how are you going to pay tuition (and rent and food and gas…)?  If they want you to get back in the workforce why don’t they pay you to take classes?  Or let you take part-time jobs without penalizing you when those jobs end and you are once again unemployed? 

Maybe the recession is over, maybe the recovery has started.  But locally unemployment is still over 11% and there are 5 times as many job seekers as jobs.  Obviously in order to get people off the unemployed rolls and back to work, you need JOBS, a lot more jobs, but in the meantime instead of stalling on approving unemployment benefit extensions and griping about how the unemployed are viewing those benefits as entitlements, why not remove the real disincentives to go back to work?

Box Car Kids

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