My target demographic for this post is, I dunno, 18-40. (I’m 32.) More importantly, I’m interested in input from other people who are getting screwed over by the foolish, self-centered decisions of their (probably) Silent/Boomer parents, in particular parents who can’t or won’t admit that they screwed up and are leaving their kids cleaning up the same mess again and again.
This isn’t as navelgazing as it sounds. The problem that I’m dealing with is a very practical one. In 2010, my parents moved from the house in Pennsylvania where I had lived from the fourth grade through college to a retirement house that they had built to specification in the Adirondacks. I was very afraid at the time that this move was going to seriously fuck things up for me; whether or not I was right depends on the exact placement of the threshold beyond which shit gets serious.
The first problem that popped up in my face was that it was suddenly much more expensive and three or four times as time-consuming and tiring to visit my friends around Philadelphia and Washington, but my parents, especially my mom, kept insisting that this wasn’t a serious problem. Fuck yes it was serious; I was the one trying to make travel and meeting arrangements, not them, and it sucked. My dad kept encouraging me to invite my friends up here, which verged on the ridiculous. The fact that my parents’ affluent retired friends are able to schedule visits up here within loose one- or two-month windows doesn’t mean that my friends who are working full-time and trying to save up some money will be able to get a three- or four-day weekend and want to spend fourteen or eighteen hours of it driving a total of at least 700 miles. It’s been four years since I last saw one of my best friends from college, who is now raising three children under the age of five in Maryland. No way in hell is he going to drag his ass up here, even i he and his wife like the idea. Even my other friend who’s really enthusiastic about coming for a visit isn’t likely to fit one in any time soon, since he works standard business hours, his wife works weekends, and both of them are on call to babysit his nieces.
The completely untenable logistics are separate from the viability of most of these people being able to spend the night here without drifting into a major snit with my mom over some stupid shit that she won’t release.
To make my own visits to my parents’ place reasonably tolerable, I need a car of my own here. When I suggested taking my car out of long-term parking and driving it back east in early December, my dad hemmed and hawed about wear and tear until I gave up on the idea. He also wanted me to stay back east and babysit my mom while he went to California on business for a week and a half. A couple of months later, there was the absurd, maudlin meltdown at the restaurant over whether I was going to abandon my car to the Sacramento Airport or fly back and retrieve it from the lot, a trip that I had to either coordinate with the pear orchard job near Allentown or, as I ended up doing, quit the job. (I doubt it’s possible to abandon a car to at SMF economy parking within three months. Nine weeks and $634 in, the airport administration still didn’t give a shit about my car.)
What made this mess even worse was that I had been borrowing one or the other of my parents’ cars to commute to the orchard job, and the day of the airport parking clusterfuck over dinner my dad had prevailed upon me to make a 300-mile round trip to trade cars so that he could get the one I had been driving in for an inspection. This meant that my parents were making do with one car for my mom’s commute (usually twice weekly) and to run errands forty minutes away in the county seat. This was obviously a worse idea than my parents would admit, as was the expectation that I spend basically half my weekend ferrying their cars from Allentown to Kingston and back. We were putting needless wear and tear on both cars, and on me as their driver, and it was because my dad wouldn’t agree to cosign for a rental car. (Years earlier, I had been rejected for what was effectively an emergency car rental in Colorado because I had an out-of-state license and no credit card; this was still true of me in Pennsylvania.)
The other option would be for me to buy a cheap car of my own for use on the East Coast, which would be a bit financially dicey and might make my parents flip out if I even proposed it, or convince my parents to buy me a clunker. My dad gave one of our dissembling sack of shit ne’er-do-well relatives $15,000 to buy a car in 2011; I resent that fucker not because he’s gotten car money and I haven’t, but because he’s such a smug, disingenuous, hubristic asswipe about the whole thing. I wouldn’t have a problem if the money had gone to someone honest and morally decent instead. My dad has told me, almost verbatim, that I have to take care of my current car because he probably won’t be able to pay to replace it, and he more or less conceded that the transportation grant to that dirtbag is the main reason why. By the way, dirtbag also has free and clear title to his primary residence and a Social Security pension. I sure as hell don’t. He should show some goddamn gratitude and humility for being allowed to mooch so liberally. I don’t go around acting like I’m the fucking love child of Sacajawea and Davy Crockett when I’m financially dependent on my parents, and neither should he when he’s financially dependent on my parents.
The longer I deal with the fucked up logistics of splitting my time between two coasts, and in particular the logistics of splitting my time between the Adirondacks and any place other than the Adirondacks without a car of my own at my immediate disposal, the more I realize that a surprising amount of this shit could be solved with money. It actually is possible to buy happiness, as long as one spends the money thoughtfully, and it isn’t necessarily all that expensive. One can hire a prostitute, after all, and if she’s payable in anything other than cash money (say, in crack) there may be some problems coming down the pike.
It’s quite grating to listen to condescending, up-by-the-bootstraps shitheads bray about how the reason some foolish demographic (Millennials, if I have to hazard a guess) has such meager savings is that it’s spending all its money at Starbucks. These fuckers are actually ridiculous enough to argue that if only the frivolous spendthrifts would exercise the thoroughgoing material and social asceticism to brew their own damn coffee at home they’d suddenly have retirement savings or be able to afford a down payment on a house or something.
First of all, Starbucks allows its customers to buy social interaction with its baristas for one or two dollars a pop. It’s a fucking good deal, and I don’t give a shit if you think I’m a loser for hanging out with baristas; it’s only a problem if the baristas act like I’m a loser, and most of them don’t come close. Second, this kind of attitude helps drive wages and working conditions for retail and food service employees into the ground. It does this because it convinces people to buy all their groceries at bottomfeeding discount operations like Walmart, Target, or Grocery Outlet, regardless of whether they can or cannot afford to shop somewhere more ethical (and pleasant), like Safeway, on the assumption that they’ll save a few percent on their bill. This is a rather meretricious argument in a society where, on average, food accounts for something like 18% of household expenses. It’s wrongheaded to argue that the poor shouldn’t shop at shitty stores that treat their employees badly in order to make ends meet and keep their kids fed and clothed, but it’s also wrongheaded for prosperous middle-class parents to act like they have a moral obligation to their own families to shop at a bottomfeeding dystopian nightmare like Walmart in order to save three percent of their net income on groceries.
Third, the brew-your-own-damn-coffee argument never addresses the hundreds of dollars that a household could save in one fell swoop each month if mass transit were improved and housing costs were brought down. Gobias Industries (“as in, Gobias some coffee”) was downright bashful in its call for alms. An effective socialist program would expand Section Eight and the public housing stock until the public sector had the capacity to undercut every rent-seeking slumlord in every market big enough for a housing project. Amtrak, various regional transit systems, and a number of public utility districts (SUB, EWEB, SMUD, LADWP) already operate roughly in this fashion. The reason American governments generally can’t operate housing as a utility the way they operate public transit systems and public K-12 schools (the latter being gaping money sinks regardless of their social benefits, if any) is a combination of bourgeois intransigence and working-class apathy, confusion, demoralization, and, up to a point, disenfranchisement.
My travel expenses, and sure as hell my coffee expenses, don’t look so bad in the context of my often spending upwards of $1,200 a month on rent at the Crossland Economy Studios. Those dumps aren’t worth $41.99 a night. They aren’t even worth $29.99 a night, which is the best deal I’ve ever seen at the Salem property. If the transient occupancy tax on SRO’s were a property tax millage, the tax revolt would have to be put down my military force.
Still, travel isn’t cheap, and it’s a lot more not cheap when the Adirondacks are on one end. When I was little, in the eighties and early nineties, my parents and I made more or less annual trips from the Bay Area to visit my maternal grandmother. These trips invariably involved a round trip on an American MD-80 between O’Hare and Albany, except for the one trip when American had mechanical trouble on the way back and bumped us to a United 727. If you’re familiar with commercial aircraft, you’ll agree that these are bitchin’ rides. American usually had two or three of these flights a day between Albany and Chicago. These days, it has a few US Airways codeshare flights to Philadelphia and Washington, mostly on weeny commuter planes operated by off-brand regional carriers and their exhausted greenhorn pilots. Service to Albany has been suckified in my day. The reason we still do so much business with American is that we built up huge mileage banks flying cross-country to Albany on routings that, with luck, are still possible on United. These days, my parents usually fly out of JFK. Their next trip will be from there to Albuquerque by way of Boston and Dallas. This may make sense, but I wouldn’t count on it.
I know, Wow Much logistix Very confuse. The reason for me to have a rental car or a clunker of my own up here isn’t so that I may enjoy diverse styles of ride, but so that I can keep the logistical bullshit to a minimum. Even the minimum is likely to be excessive. My dad keeps sandbagging me when I propose getting a rental car even though he has spent something like $35,000 on a dock and a used pontoon boat, or maybe because he has spent $35k on that horseshit. This is the kind of stumbling decision-making process that my parents follow. They drop five figures on some frivolous nonsense and then act too cash-strapped to travel to Burlington or Montreal. In point of fact, the pontoon boat has not broken the bank. But on some level, they seem to think that they’re able to afford this stuff because they were really fucking frugal, not because they had unusually well-paying jobs and rode one of the most obscene property inflation runs in world history from $80,000 to $2.5 million in less than two generations. They seem to think that they’re paying for their retirement house on the lake by sitting around in it like total losers all the fucking live-long day, when they’re probably recovering less than a quarter on the dollar and are definitely driving themselves inexorably out of their damn minds because they’re so opposed to regularly getting out of the house.
I think what’s going on here is that my parents have this need, probably pathological, to signal that they’ve arrived, that they have money and taste (but certainly not to say so explicitly!), but then they get rattled by a fear that they’re on track to run out of money. (Spoiler alert: their money isn’t about to run out.) My mom picked up a bad case of this from her mother, the one for whose sake we earned so many A’Advantage miles. My maternal grandmother was rather deranged. She was in debt into her fifties, but once she was able to start putting away savings, she did so in earnest, dying with an estate of over a million dollars. But a funny and really disgusting thing happened on the way to personal wealth. Actually, several things. She bought napkins that felt like medium-grit sandpaper. She went out in public wearing house dresses with the same thread count as the napkins. She bought low-end mayonnaise by the gallon. She falsfied her income in order to claim government cheese. She did all these things at a time when she had a New York City teacher’s pension, Social Security income, and a solid six-figure holding of General Electric stock.
My mom wants to one-up her on matters of North Country summer people taste. It ain’t working out so well.
The ‘rents are getting a bit long in the tooth, but look, I’ve more or less made my peace with the notion that the broad arc of life is tragic at the end or whatever. There’s some spiritual and philosophical shit that goes into the mix here, but it seems beside the point to discuss it right now. This essay has been longwinded enough without any religion. Speak now in the comments if you need some, or forever hold your peace; this is the internet, so now is forever, or until the electricity majorly craps out. What I can’t make peace with is the realization that my parents are dragging me into this country retirement bullshit hundreds of miles from my nearest friends and thousands of miles from most of my recent workplaces. I simply can’t be comfortable with their putting more than half a millon dollars into building a retirement house in an area with warm, humid summers but didn’t install air conditioning and can’t keep the driveway passable when it snows. They’re old enough that frequent visits are looking less like a luxury and more like a necessity, especially since I’m their only child, but they’ve moved to a place that is nigh impossible for me to visit on short notice and short turnaround from the West Coast without going broke. If you think an occasional prostitution habit is expensive, try an equally occasional habit of flying to Albany.
Holy Mary, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our derp.