Call Me Pensioner

Back in 1997, Lifelongnewyorker left a job, and a career, she’d been in for 18 years.  Lots of reasons:  desire for novelty, fear of doing the same thing–in the same place–for the rest of her working life, oh, and wanted to be able to retire someday.

You see, Lifelongnewyorker was a teacher and, despite being in New York, didn’t have the wisdom at age 24 to go work in the public schools. No, she kinda fell into teaching the year after she finished her Masters.  She intended to continue in grad school and get her PhD and, of course, teach in college.  But meanwhile, earning some money was a good idea.  She made a fresh decision every year, she said, about whether to sign that contract or not. 

It turned out to be a pretty cushy teaching gig.  Lovely college-like campus, classroom with a (non-working) fireplace and pier-glass mirror in a converted mansion, interested and generally smart students, and got to teach the subjects I loved.  Oh, atop a hill overlooking New York Harbor.  And five minutes from home. 

The downside?  Well, as I mentioned, it wasn’t a public school, and there was no union.  This school operated under a system that might be described as medieval and patriarchal, except that it was run by women.  The people who originally staffed the school, and schools like it, were motivated entirely by service for others and for God.  They were replaced by folks like me with more mercenary impulses, but believe me, no one was going to get rich there. 

In fact, no one could support a family on the salary.  My choice to teach was, essentially, subsidized by Mr. NYer, who made more than I did.  In a sense, the education provided by the school was subsidized by the spouses–mainly husbands, of course–of the dedicated people who made the long-term decision to teach there.

Although I loved what I did, I always chafed at the fact that the job embodied so much institutionalized sexism, and that in a sense I was supporting it by my participation.  But there was that cushiness …

The school was private, but the benefits were provided by arrangement with a larger, related entity in the same industry.  Let’s call it  the A—hd–c-s- of NY.  Fortunately, we wives tended to enjoy our husband’s health insurance.  And we were young, so we didn’t think too hard about the, er, retirement benefits.  I knew there was a retirement plan, and that after five years I was vested in it, but frankly this system wasn’t built for long-term employees, and I am willing to bet that few people actually cash in. 

The vast majority of teachers fell into one of two groups, neither of which contained the retirement-minded.  The first group, recent college grads, got a few years experience under their belts and then either jumped ship to real careers in the public schools or just plain left.  The second group included women who were returning to work after having stayed at home to raise children. 

Not exactly breadwinners, none of us.  And the system depended on exactly this kind of labor, and on the unspoken assumption that we were motivated by something beyond making a good living.  About twelve years after I arrived, a group of us approached the administration about setting up a 401K, or whatever the non-profit equivalent would be.  They’d never heard of such a thing (I will simply note that the people running this institution fall into the category of religious communalists).  But after examining the idea for well over a year, they discovered that the A–hd–c-s- of NY did offer such a thing, and had done so all along. No apologies for having not known this.  And then there was the pension. 

The pension, and even the idea of retirement, were always a kind of distant joke.  There were rumors, urban legends we thought, of people who had actually spent their entire careers teach settled into impoverished old age.  Once I entered my 40s, the prospect of NOT being able to retire comfortably loomed larger, and I didn’t like it much.  So, in search of novelty, new opportunity, more money and, perhaps a chance to retire, I left.

Soon after my last day in front of the chalkboard, an envelope arrived at home from the A–hd–c-s- of NY with information about my pension benefit.  It had been actuarily determined and printed in black and white on the paper I held in my hand.  It was a fixed number, one that would not grow with inflation.   The amount of my full pension, the munificent amount that I was entitled to beginning in the year I turned 65, was, well, let’s put it this way:  the monthly pension amount I would begin receiving in 2020 equalled the amount I earned working in two and a half days in my new job in 1997. 

But there were options!  I could wait over twenty years to cash in, or I could choose what was behind Door Number 2.  The second choice was Early Retirement:  take half the munificent amount at an earlier age.  I did some back-of-the-napkin math and decided I should take the early choice option.  I would salt it away–interest rates were a lot higher when I made this decision–and would no doubt come out ahead in the long run.

Well, the earlier age has arrived, and I have just filled out the paperwork to have my pension deposited into my checking account like clockwork every month beginning at the end of July.  My math skills have improved, as has my salary, and I’m afraid I made a poor choice (depending, of course, on how long I live).  First, I have to pay taxes on this sum, and after taxes it’s pretty paltry.  And put it in the bank where it can earn 0.5% interest?  Not going to contribute much to the nest egg.  I figure it’s good for a really nice dinner every month, or maybe a new pair of shoes.  If I catch a good sale, maybe both.

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Views from Alabama

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Some of you have complained that words are insufficient.  So here are some pictures.  The first bunch were taken on a bike ride through our neighborhood.  They show the azaleas, dogwood, and wisteria in bloom.  Next are some shots we took last weekend at the Old 280 Festival in Waverly, the town that was bypassed when they re-routed the highway.  And finally, you can see the views from the various windows in our house.

The Abandoned One Schedules a Visit

Finally, tickets have been booked for the Abandoned One to visit.

It’s been a long process.  Abandoned has a full social and musical life, and only two weeks vacation, so he finds little time for travel.  He’s also gotten a bad case of the travel-time distortion syndrome that afflicts so many people who live in the city and who judge every trip against what is available within five subway stops.

People in New York use that yardstick, or some variation, to avoid being overwhelmed by choice.  The subway simplifies life so that one need never consider restaurants, bars, music venues, museums or even friendships that fall outside the magic route.  Without it, life would be overwhelming.

Trying to entice city folks to visit was bad enough when I lived in Staten Island, but is far worse here.  At least when the folk is my own son.

First, because he has inherited the miserly DNA of both his paternal grandfather AND his maternal grandmother, he began looking at flights by price.  Yes, you can get a relatively cheap flight to Montgomery if you don’t mind two or more layovers. American, for example, offers an itinerary that takes you to Chicogo’s O’Hare and then to Ft. Worth before nearly closing the circle by coming to Montgomery.  It’s a good way to build up your miles, I suppose.

But it takes about twelve hours.  So I advised that he should limit his search to the single stop-over, which means either Charlotte, Memphis or Atlanta.  Generally it takes about five hours.

Which equates to a completely unacceptable subway ride.

“I can’t find anything less than five hours,” he told me.  “It’s a lot less time if I fly to Atlanta. What if you pick me up there?”

“How long does that flight to Atlanta take?” I asked.

“About two-and-a-half hours.”

“Well,” I explained, “it will take about two-and-a-half more hours to drive from Atlanta to Montgomery, so the trip will still be five hours.”

“OK, I’ll change planes in Atlanta.”

Next obstacle down.  Yes.

“Looks like I can’t get into Montgomery until late — about 10 at night.”

What?  Does he think we’ve started going to bed at 9?

“Not a problem,” I replied (this was happening via online chat).  “It’s only 20 minutes to the airport from the house.”

“OK, well it looks like I can arrive at 10 pm on Friday and leave at 5 on Sunday.”

I did some quick calculations.  He would arrive on Friday, sit up with us for a while and then go to bed and sleep on Saturday until 3 pm.  Then we’d have about 24 more hours to visit.

“Why don’t you come in on Thursday night?”

And thus, through a series of small decisions, we negotiated our way to an actual visit the third weekend of May.

I should let him know what shots he’ll need.

A Glimpse of Southern Style

They have already begun to appear on the streets of the capital, long before they will appear in the U.S. Senate chamber.

I refer, of course, to seersucker suits.  They are worn here by men who look every part the southern lawyer about to withdrawn his large white handkerchief from his pocket and draw it across his brow.  I have seen them in the traditional blue and white as well as in a rather fashion-forward brown and white.

That Senate reference, by the way?  Back in 1996, Sen. Trent Lott re-introduced the practice of wearing the seer-sucker suit to signal the beginning of summer and show that the Senate had a sense of humor, I guess.  The “seersucker Thursday” tradition has really taken hold, as the photo shows.  Clearly, however, bipartisan consensus has not been reached on crucial questions like appropriate kind of tie, tie color or show color.  I think the classic bow tie is essential, and dark shoes the way to go.

For those of you who haven’t had enough, the word seersucker reportedly comes from the ancient Persian and means “milk and sugar.”

I’ve found a new way to drive home that avoids the major streets and takes me through an elegant neighborhood, Edgewood, that’s right across the road from us.  Edgewood homes–many quite large– sit elegantly back from the street on spacious green lawns. Mature magnolia and live oak trees dot the landscape, and you’ll find plenty of three car garages, gazebos, and automatic sprinklers.  Riding our bikes there, we’ve noticed that most houses also have one or two elegant dogs, many of whom sit picturesquely on the green lawns.

Today I made a right turn onto on of these streets only to encounter a man walking his dog in the road.  Judging from his attire — dark grey suit pants and white dress shirt — the dog-walker had just arrived home from work.  He controlled the dog with a leash held firmly in his left hand.  In his right, he held a wine glass half-full of what looked like a lovely Merlot. 

 Ah, Southern style.

Bingo, Taxes and Title Loans

It’s time to wade into Alabama politics.  Just a little.

I’ve been advised to “try to get to like us first” before starting to follow state politics.  This advice came from a person who would like us to stay in the state.

Knowing that I now live in a state that elected Jeff Sessions to the U.S. Senate, I’ve tried to follow that advice.  I do know that elections — primaries, I suppose — are coming up, because lawns have sprouted signs in addition to weeds.

If Young Boozer wins the Republican primary for the post of state treasure, I have to admit I’m tempted to vote for him, if only because of his name.  If he loses the primary, I will most likely vote for the Democrat, regardless of his name.  Because the name of the other Republican is enough to almost keep me from voting entirely:  George Wallace, Jr.  Yes, the son of that George Wallace.

But electoral politics isn’t what’s leading the news these days.  No, the hot fight is over bingo.  From what I can gather, bingo is the word used in Alabama to describe what is known in every other part of the United States as slot machines.  The governor believes bingo violates state law, and ordered the casinos in which the machines operate to be shut down.  But the attorney general is on the side of the casino operators.

It’s hard to escape the Bingo Wars if you have TV.  Actually, we don’t have TV (see previous post), but we still get to witness some of the warfare by way of billboard attacks.  As near as I can tell, the governor and his allies are in the pockets of evil Mississippi gambling interests who want to maintain their regional monopoly.  The pro-bingo forces are the front of shady looking gangsters who smoke cigars in poorly lighted rooms.  There must be an element of morality somewhere, too — after all, slot machines, even when called bingo, are a form of gambling–but I haven’t seen it emerge as a dominant theme.

In fact, Alabama doesn’t seem to be bothered too much by the moral aspects of state financing.  The highest marginal rate on the state income tax is 5%, and your federal taxes are deductible.  Our property taxes are among the lowest in the nation, and, as our mortgage broker noted, “we have the schools to prove it.”  So, the tax system doesn’t impose a heavy burden on people who make a lot of money or can afford to buy a big expensive house.

But woe be to you if you need to buy stuff like food and clothing.  Here in Montgomery, the combined state and local sales tax is — get ready — 10%.  That’s higher than New York’s sales tax (8.5%).  And, to add regressive insult to regressive injury, the tax is levied on everything, including groceries.

I hear there’s a law under consideration in the legislature to finally repeal the tax on food, but it has been introduced before and failed.  In the Commerce Cafeteria at lunch last week, I overheard two suited men — lawyers, legislators or some kind of high-level state officials, I would guess from their appearance — denouncing the foolishness of this effort. “And it looks like they might get rid of the sales tax this time,” one said in a voice filled with chagrin, “Well, how do they think they’re going to make up that revenoo?”

But it’s OK, because poor folks have ready access to easy money: Title Loans.  There are more Title Loan offices here than there are pawn shops in Las Vegas, I am certain.  I wasn’t exactly sure what a title loan was, although judging from the locations of these places, I was pretty sure it was basically a legal form of loan-sharking.  The storefronts look a lot like those check-cashing places you see in lower-income neighborhoods in New York.  Both business make their fortunes off the “unbanked.”

Today I saw a title loan place advertising — on a huge banner — its interest rate: 9.9%.  Got that?  Nearly ten percent when CDs are paying less than 2%; when you can get a mortgage for less than 5.5% (well, if you can find a bank willing to make the loan).  This drove me to Google, where I found out more about the business model under which these places operate: you borrow against your car.  Apparently, all you need to do is bring in the title to your car, and you too can be paying ten cents on the dollar for a loan.  Can’t pay?  Well, they’re a step up from loan sharks, I guess.  They just take your car.  I’m thinking Repo Men.

So, let’s get this straight:  You’re a member of the working poor — maybe you have a job at a casino.  You live in a city without much public transportation, so you depend on your car.  If you work in a casino, you REALLY need a car, because they’re all in the middle of nowhere.  You live paycheck to paycheck, which means that you spend 100% of your income.  And the sales tax is 10%, so essentially it knocks your purchasing power down by 10%.  (Folks who make more money tend to save some portion, and another chunk of their spending is discretionary, so the 10% sales tax doesn’t hit them proportionately).  And then the governor shuts down the casinos, you’re out of a job at least temporarily, and the day comes when the rent is due.  So you dig out the title to the car and borrow some money …

Unlike members of the Tea Party, I believe in taxes. As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “They’re the price we pay for civilized society.” But not these kinds of tax policies.  What ever happened to progressive taxation, based on the ability to pay?  Gone, I guess, with the progressives.

I also believe in banks, and wish they’d work harder to revive the spirit of thrift — can you imagine if banks spent as much money on direct mail promoting savings accounts as they do pushing credit card offers?

The Sick Pet vs. the Extremely Secure Home

One of the main reasons Mr. NYer and I decided to buy this house here in Montgomery was that it was new construction.  Well, to be more precise, it’s that it wasn’t old.

As loyal readers will remember, we’ve already done the older house thing.  Our Staten Island house turned 90 last year, and getting it to that blessed age took continuous infusions of care and cash.   I was explaining this to a colleague here and he knew exactly what I was talking about.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Living in an old house is like having a sick pet.”

I immediately flashed on the long illness of our most-recently departed cat, Spalding, who, over the last 18 months of her life cost us more than I spent on my first new car.  Perhaps even more than we spent on our second new car.

RIP Spalding.  I hope the new owners don’t stumble across your remains in the back of the garden.

A new house, we figured, wouldn’t need a new roof, furnace, floors, windows, kitchen, bath, deck or water main for awhile.  We wouldn’t be struggling to control an over-planted garden, or worry about having a plumber on speed dial.

Instead, we’ve landed in the Invisible Zone.  Not only is our house new, but so is our street.  And so is our community, Lockwood.  It’s easy enough to help people find Lockwood — we just mention that it’s the old Standard Country Club, which was Montgomery’s Jewish country club.

The problem surfaced almost as soon as we took possession.  We had no TV (nor telephone or broadband), and hulu is fine if you don’t … mind … long … pauses … and … stops.  So we were eager to re-establish our Netflix account and start catching up on our backlog of fine flicks.  Except when Mr. NYer sat down at the laptop to reawaken the dormant account, the computerized address system told him ours didn’t exist.

Having worked in direct mail, I knew immediately what was going on.  The Post Office has, in fact, acknowledged the street, but businesses that take addresses online don’t trust the consumer to accurately enter his own address.  And for good reason — it’s amazing how many people can’t render their zip code properly.  So they practice what’s sometimes called “address hygiene” and employ address verification systems.  But–and here’s the rub–they don’t update them on a real-time basis.  I knew we were in for more of this.

And more of it we got.  UPS denied the address, and it took two phone calls, precise directions, and three delivery attempts before THAT package arrived.  We haven’t tried FedEx yet.

Turns out the cable company — the one that has the monopoly at Lockwood — hasn’t laid cable at this end yet, so we still don’t have TV.  Instead, we turned to AT&T for phone and DSL.  They had laid cable — fiber optic, as it turns out — but there were problems with the microchip cards in the hubs.  Or some such thing.  It only took two days to work that out.

We’ve still not convinced the New York Times that our address exists.  It’s been 10 days now that they’ve been “checking with the local distributor.”  We haven’t heard back.  But Charlie, one of two Barney Fifes who work our gate (we live in a gated community), did offer that one other resident got the Times — only the Sunday Times, mind you — and the delivery arrived around 9 pm on Saturday night.

So Charlie talked to the Times courier, who helpfully gave him a phone number for us to call.  Yep. 1-800-NYTIMES.  Mr. NYer thinks he’ll have to lie in wait this weekend for the courier and demand the name and number of his supervisor.

In the “making lemonade” mode, I try pointing out to an increasingly annoyed Mr. NYer that at least we’re secure.  After all, if no one can find us …

It turns out that we’re safe from “walk-in” miscreants, too.  I arrived home from work one day — a process that involved pulling out of the garage at work, driving about 12 minutes, picking up the black remote tag and waving it at the gate nearest our house, then hitting the button on the garage door opener just as  I turn the corner to our little street so that the garage is waiting open for me to pull in without hesitation.  Such a civilized thing!  Anyhow, I walked into the kitchen from the garage to encounter Mr. NYer, who informed me just how secure we were.

“Do you realize you can’t walk out of this place?”

I asked him what he meant, and he explained, “There is no pedestrian gate –the only way to leave is to drive out.”

As if there were sidewalks once you got outside.  Yup, it’s a whole new world.

BTW, folks, you can now follow me on Twitter.  If I figure out how to Tweet, that is.  I’m lifelongnyer there.  I’d be happy to have you follow me.

A day in a big city

A brief business tip to Philadelphia — Philadelphia, big-city wannabe!–reminds me of just what Montgomery is missing.

I arrive in Philly and immediately set out on a city walk — no destination in particular, but plenty of stops along the way, in and out of shops and keeping pace with the vibrant sidewalk traffic.

There are places that sell clothes.  Clothes I wouldn’t mind wearing.  If only I needed to … but, damn! my office wear has degenerated into jeans and capris.  Who knows — I might even appear in shorts one of these days. So no need for those kicky skirts, trendy tops and free-form dresses in the shops along Walnut Street.

There are bikes here, and bicyclists riding alongside cars on the narrow streets.  Mr.  NYer and I have decided that the only way to bicycle in Montgomery is to carefully map out a route that avoids main thoroughfares … forget bike lanes, even the gutters are dangerous.

As if I weren’t already all too aware that life in Montgomery is … different, I was pulled into a bit of romantic espionage that only happens in big cities.  It’s 10:30 when a dozen or so of us arrive at the restaurant for dinner (in Montgomery, even the kitchen staff would have long gone to bed).  I’ve been working the crowd at a donor event and have shaken hands with hundreds of people.  In the car en route to the restaurant, a colleague has convinced me that I’m courting disaster unless I sanitize immediately, so as soon as we hit the restaurant on Rittenhouse Square, I make a beeline for the ladies’ room.

There I happily discover industrial-sized soap dispensers, and wash my hands like they’ve never been washed before.  A quick dash into one of the stalls and I’m back at the sink for a second round of hand-cleaning when a young woman asks if I have a pen.  I do, and dig into my bag for it.  Visibly thrilled, she grabs the pen and begins to write upon a paper towel.  She finishes and approaches me to return the pen.

“Listen,” she says, “I know this sounds strange, but I’m on a blind date and it’s a disaster.”

Three of us turn to hear her tale of woe.

“Well, at least I can tell it’s going nowhere.  My blind date thinks it’s great.”   We nod in unison.  We’ve all been there before.

“And there’s this guy at the bar that I’m really interested in, and I know he’s interested in me.  So would one of you help by giving him my name and number on this towel?”

I don’t know whether I’m appalled by the chicanery, or thrilled to be back in the world where humanity is so densely packed that this kind of thing is a matter of course.  Before I have a chance to nod yes or decline, another bystander steps forward.

“I’ll do it!”  she offers.  The blind date tells us that the object of her desire is sitting at the end of the bar, wearing a suit, finishing a bowl of mussels, and named Brad.  I have no idea how she has obtained this information, but I’m impressed.  I head back to the table just in time to steer the good Samaritan to the right person.

I don’t know if Miss Lonelyhearts every hooked up with Mr. Mussels, but I can tell you I savored this slice of urban life.  A slice you just don’t get in Montgomery.