Friday, April 23, 2010

money money money

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
(Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby)

i'm driving home from work, listening to my favorite show, this american life, with a brilliant man named ira glass (meaning the show is with him, not me. although there isn't much i wouldn't give to have ira glass riding home with me from work. and i mean that in a completely nonromantic way.)

so the show for today was called "scenes from the recession," and was a collection of stories on that theme--vignettes of odd things that are happening as a result of our weak economy. (for example, did you know that dentists have seen a huge spike in broken teeth in the last year? it's because people are so stressed with work and bills and so on that they grind their teeth at night more than before!)

the particular story that was playing when i pulled into smith's grocery store was about an apartment complex that had to foreclose...with tenants still living there. the building had been shabbily built--no concrete foundation so the floor was separating from the ceiling, an entire plumbing system that needed to be redone, sewage that perpetually bubbled up in random places in the apartments, you get the picture.

these types of foreclosed buildings seem to be popping up across america--hastily built, sliding past proper inspections, only occupied by a couple of tenants who somehow got blindsided into buying a condo in these buildings and are now having to pay the $3,000 water bill for the entire property. though in different quarters of the country, under different managements, with different stories of demise, they all have this one thing in common:

behind the shattered windows and boarded up doors, the apartments are "LUXURY".
granite countertops,
stainless steel appliances,
plasma screen TVs.
it seems the contractors banked on selling these apartments for their sparkle-factor. and for a few unlucky buyers, it seemed to work.

with these images floating around upstairs, i get out of my car and walk into smith's, because smith's has a u.s. bank, which is where all us true-blue idahoans do our banking. i'm in line to deposit a couple checks, and can't help but overhear the couple--a man and a woman--at the counter next to me. they're trying to cash some checks, but there's a problem: no valid ID. their driver's licenses are expired, and apparently their costco card just won't cut it.

so they start putting up a big stink (as my mother would say) about how they have to pay $500 in bills RIGHT NOW, and it can't wait another day and they have to get their cash. it seemed as if this dilemma of paying for the bills had been one they had wrestled with for many many years. the stress of late fees and interest and never having enough seemed everyday life to them.

their argument with the teller is interrupted when the man's cellphone goes off, a full-bore hiphop dance beat. he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a blackberry and takes the call. (*pause: BLACKBERRY) then i look over at the woman. fresh set of fake nails. a brand new copy of "Avatar" in her hands to purchase once they get the mess with the cash worked out.

now, i support giving people the benefit of the doubt. on the show, ira said that the builders of the property that the story was focusing on were always strapped for cash (hence the seediness of the building they built), but they somehow managed to drive around in a brand-new yellow hummer. maybe the hummer was given as a gift to the builders, i don't know.

but in a world where everyone seems to find a reason to stress, complain, yell, and be miserable about the lack of money they have, it sure seems we're spending a lot of it on stuff that doesn't really matter.