Making it

Or not

There’s a terrific story by Sheelah Kolhatkar in the March 15 New Yorker. It’s about a specific set of trailer-park operators, mostly in and around Iowa, and the tenants who live in their parks. I guess you’d call them tenants; they have the liabilities of home owners in that they usually pay for and have to keep up their trailers, but also the vulnerability of renters — actually more vulnerability, because the laws written for trailer parks in Iowa are weighted very heavily in favor of the owners; “in many states,” Kolhatkar informs us, “they are excluded from the basic legal protections that cover tenants in rented houses or apartments, such as mandatory notice periods for rent increases and evictions.”

The story is as depressing as you would expect — even more so, because some of the tenants Kolhatkar talked to became activists in opposition to the screwing some park owners were giving them, and even got some Democratic legislators to work with them, before the Republicans (including Chuck Grassley’s son!) mobilized and utterly crushed them.

There are sentences in the story like “The Mobile Home University Web site states, ‘Mobile home parks are the hottest sector of real estate right now, due to the endless decline in the U.S. economy,’” and “The stimulus payments she had received in April and December had quickly disappeared; she had been putting groceries and car repairs on credit cards,” and “She has since been evicted, and she and her family have been living in hotels.”

I got interested in the story because of a New Yorker tweet announcing it:

“As income inequality rises, investors turn to trailer parks as a growing market.” Hard to know what the vultures will come for when that market is fully extracted — cardboard refrigerator boxes, perhaps, that people will be living in and some genius will decide are under-leveraged, or the shopping carts with which the homeless tote their worldly possessions.

But the lead factoid — “There isn’t a state in the U.S. in which a person working full time for minimum wage can afford a one-bedroom apartment at the fair-market rent, according to a recent report” — is something I’ve seen many times before; maybe you have too. And as often as I see it I still have a very hard time wrapping my head around it.

I got out of school in the late 1970s and, as I have told some of you, paid $125 a month for a small railroad flat in the East Village. The neighborhood was unsafe then; also I lived on the top floor of a six-story walk-up, and it got very hot in the summer, especially with the windows all on one side of the shotgun and not giving much breeze. Plus roaches, unreliable steam heat, etc.

But it was my own place, and rent-stabilized! (In year two it went up to like $132.) And I knew guys who lived further east and paid about as much for more space. Others I knew wanted something safer and bigger, so they paid more — like these girls I knew who shared a classic six on the Upper West Side. I forget what they were making but they were working as receptionists and still had no trouble making the rent.

I had trouble making the rent, sometimes — on occasion I even had to hide out from my landlord, Enzi, a tough guy who hung out in the Italian social club on the first floor with his mean, slobbering mastiff Peggy, until I could scrape the cash together. But that was because I was working in restaurants and there were, how you say, business fluctuations; plus I was, how you say, an idiot, very irresponsible about money. (I remember quitting one job because I was sick of it and thinking, welp, I have $800 in the bank, I reckon I don’t have to think too hard about this for a while holy shit where’d it all go?)

But dumb as I was I continued to live indoors. I could always pick up some kind of stupid job — messenger, light clerical, handing out flyers. (And I got food stamps. Ha ha, eat it, Sons of Reagan!) That I was white had a lot to do with it, I know, as did my being young and educated and sort of cute. But I knew people less white and less everything else who were also hustling and also getting over, if by the seat of their pants.

Because the basic deal back then was, if you could work and not totally trip over your dick (occasional stumbles were okay), you could make it — that is, you could have a home (not necessarily great) and pay your bills (not necessarily on time) and have a few luxuries. You could even get ahead — which never interested me, but to each his own. There was a baseline below which you were unlikely to fall. One could of course always hit one of life’s larger obstacles and wipe out, but that was fate, not the system. The system was reasonable — not fair, of course, not ideal, but reasonable. A person stood a chance.

Now look. Look now. Kid gets out of school (probably with massive debt). Minimum wage? Forget it. Got to take a job that is itself an investment — one you better stick at, better rise in, better not fuck up. (Quit because you’re sick of it? Are you kidding?) And don’t miss any payments — Enzi may not be waiting downstairs, but your credit rating is always on, buddy, and you better not let it get too many dings or your head will never get any higher above water and the water’s nearly up to your nose as it is. And if you do slip, good luck coming back up!

And that’s if you’re lucky. Luckier, certainly, than those people in the New Yorker story.

I tell these stories the way old folks told me stories when I was young, I guess, and I don’t know if the young folks today are any more attentive or likely to get it than I was then. But I will say that in those days, the old folks were talking about, say, some baseball players or some dance-hall or some food they liked, and how I couldn’t imagine how good they were back then, if I could only know! But they weren’t talking about a way of life, about the system, about making it. They never talked about that as something I’d never understand. They assumed I would make it, of course, just as they had made it, with a job you didn’t have to take too seriously and vacations and new cars when the old ones ran down and retirement at 65 in a home of your own. And why wouldn’t I? This is America.

Or rather, it was.