Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Come walk through my brain with me...bring running shoes.

copyright 2014 Susan Cameron

Haven't we all fantasized about what we'd do if we hit it big in the lottery? There's a nice couple in Missouri, Mr. and Mrs. Hills, who cleared $136.5 million after taxes from Powerball. They took a chunk of the money and built their town a new fire station and playing fields for the kids. How great is that? Having so much money that you could do good deeds with it -- wow.

On a more selfish note, I think it would be fabulous to use my astronomical lottery winnings to have the Cameron Compound built. There'd be a big chunk of land near the water, and little winding flower-lined paths leading to six, seven, maybe a dozen Thomas Kincaid-y looking cottages where my friends could come visit, and have their friends visit too. Everybody could do their own thing and then meet at the gazebo/fire pit overlooking the ocean at sunset for drinks and snacks and genial chat.

Probably the closest thing Orange County has ever had to match my charming, separate-but-communal fantasy is the old Crystal Cove enclave between Newport and Laguna beaches. In retrospect, the place as it was from the 1930s through the 1960s must have seemed like some SoCal fever dream -- a jumbled free-for-all of housing constructed of remnants of ersatz tropical film sets constructed and abandoned in the 1920s; flotsam and jetsam that washed up on the beach after storms; store-bought lumber, and driftwood dragged home by the family dog; all assembled beachside by artists and accountants, stockbrokers and stockboys, all of whom knew somebody who knew somebody who was an actual carpenter willing to help out for laughs and beer.

At some point in the 1930s there was a...trumpeter? bugler?...who'd grab his horn and play Reveille, and the martini flag would be raised, and anyone who wanted to salute it could do so, and stick around for the bonfires and luaus and alcohol-fueled merriment. This was the tradition for decades. I imagine there had to be some turf wars or personality clashes along the way, but the people who grew up in the Cove all seem to have similar wistful memories of how magical it was, and a sense of gratitude that their sandy Brigadoon lasted as long as it did.

Of course, the Cameron Compound could never replicate that experience. We're older and more careful now about alcohol (cirrhosis!), and red meat grilled over a fire (colon and prostate cancers!), and sunburn (skin cancer!), and bonfires (smoke inhalation and lung cancer!) We have collectively decided to live forever, or at least live lives so danger-free and boring that it feels like forever.

Okay, that was tongue-in-cheek, but this is not: Our society has eliminated friendship and socializing because it interferes with work. The average American, male or female, spends more time working than a medieval serf, who got time off for feast days, saints' days, and months of bad weather. The 40-hour work week is a distant misty dream, and living on one partner's income while raising a family is so far in the past that it can't even be seen in the rear-view mirror. And the reward for all this labor? The answer deserves its own paragraph:

Median family income in 2012 fell to $51,017.

Too bad I can't stop this and make every reader ponder that figure, but I'll do the next best thing by piling on more bad news. The Crystal Cove folks got these things called pensions from the workplace when they retired back in the day, so they got pension checks every month as well as Social Security checks.

My old friends who endured working for the City of Detroit so they could reap the reward of a secure retirement (average pension? $19,000 a year; whoopee-skippy), a little pension to be added to the little Social Security checks (average Social Security benefit? $15,228 a year; more whoopee-skippy), which would have added up to $34,228 a year to live on -- but Detroit filed for bankruptcy, and what are the odds the city workers will continue to get the money they were promised, planned for and counted on? I guess they can join the Enron retirees living in their children's garages, or Bethlehem Steel widows living in their children's converted basements, or the elderly victims of Wall Street raiders who hijacked solvent companies, stripped their assets (such as pension funds) and declared them bankrupt, leaving the gobsmacked retirees twisting in a very cold wind.

Other friends work in other industries, of course -- banking, insurance, retail -- and not one of them feels secure, because they are all "of a certain age," as the French say, and are the most vulnerable to layoffs and firing. Most put in 60 to 80 hours a week and are paid for 40, because they're not hourly, they're salary; America is full of salaried chiefs working 80s and no Indians working 40s now. If they are hourly, they can earn bonuses; but only if they meet near-impossible quotas which are raised every three months, or whenever somebody is lucky enough to actually make their quota, and threatened with termination if they can't make the latest, even higher quota. Base pay for such folks is $10 an hour.

It could be worse; the attendants who work at my demented buddy's nursing home make $10 an hour too, and it's shift work, and they have to wipe demented old people's butts all day.

There's no pension at any of these jobs, of course, and most of these people are destined to join the non-federal-taxpaying "taker class" -- you remember Mitt Romney's 47% deadbeat figure, right? Mitt's not a deadbeat, of course, despite the tax breaks his business enjoys, and the 15% federal income tax cap on income earned (millions!) managing a hedge fund. Manage a grocery store, earn the median family income of $51,017, and your tax bracket is 25%.  It pays to be Mittens!

The Mitts of the world sadly shake their heads at those feckless folks who didn't have sense enough to choose a father who was the CEO of American Motors and the governor of Michigan; those profligates who pissed away their $51,107 a year on food, shelter, children's doctor visits and twelve car payments a year to get to work to earn the $51,107. They should have saved some money! Mitt certainly did, because he took the time and effort to build his own business from the ground up! Why couldn't those $20,000-a-year butt-wipers at the old folks' home do it, too?

Where was I? Oh, yes -- my fantasy of what I'd do if I won the lottery. Building the Cameron Compound might turn out to be a good deed rather than selfishness after all. I know a lot of good people -- a lot of good people -- who are going to need a safe place to land when they're old.


Susan Matthewson said...

I'd could go for that little Cameron community by the sea in a big way. I don't miss the weather of the midwest when I lived in St. Louis, but I sure miss the neighborly feeling and sense of connection that I had there. I haven't ever had that in California where everyone drive into their garage, puts the door down, and hides behind their walls. I can sit out on my patio for hours and not see a single person pass by. I miss my neighbors Jim and Sandy so much because at least there was someone around to say hello to if nothing else. I have seen the young woman who bought their place back in July exactly once--standing in her garage on her cell phone. She's been living there for months now and I've never even seen her drive out of or into the garage. I think she's a ghost. I miss being able to walk out my front door like I could in St. Louis and spy a neighbor next door or across the street and have a brief conversation or sit down for a cup of coffee or tea. I guess everyone is working too much and they just don't have time to be neighbors in the old sense any more. How sad. Great piece, Susie.

Nancy Grossman said...

This post needs a larger audience. I swear you need a newspaper job - if they even exist any more.

You speak from the heart of America my dear.

Though I get depressed reading what you write, I want to keep reading it.