An Abrupt Change of Plans

Twenty-two months ago, I turned 60.  The next day, I sat at my computer and created a table four rows across and six down.  I typed the numbers 1-24 into the boxes, printed it out and posted it on the wall of my workspace.

A month later, I crossed out the 1.  Every month afterward, I crossed out another number.  Last time I did it, at the end of November, there were only three boxes left uncrossed.

As some of you have probably guessed, I was counting down to the day when I could, if I wanted, retire and begin to collect Social Security.  In the last few years I’ve thought a lot about how I want to spend the rest of my life.  If nothing unexpected happens, I figure I’ve got 15 or so reasonably active years ahead of me.  I’ve worked pretty much nonstop for a long time, since I was a college student.  I have other interests besides work, something not all my colleagues can say.  I enjoy travel, love to act and direct, would love to have time to write, and have so many books to read.  My mother worked until she was 70, but not me.  Because even though I might reasonably have 15 years or more, it’s also true that I might not.

So I figured that, sometime within the next three years — maybe one, two at most — I would retire and launch into the next adventure.  At times I was bored; sometimes tired; often just wanted to have the freedom to pick up and go.

But last week I unpinned the paper with the 24 boxes from the wall above my computer and I ripped it up. On November 9, everything changed.  And it’s good, it’s okay.  There’s too much work to do and I’m too fired up to retire.  More than that, at a time when lots of my friends are feeling helpless, I’m actually in a place where what I do might make a difference.

Turns out that I remembered that I thrive in opposition.  I’m a natural-born rebel.  If he were alive, my father would agree.  Well, the opposition has a job for me, and I’m all in.

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Don’t talk to strangers

Anyone who has flown with Lifelongnewyorker knows of her aversion to striking up a conversation with seatmates on planes. To avoid the chance chitchat, Lifelongnewyorker prefers to fall immediately into unconsciousness, usually before takeoff. Should sleep elude her, she puts on headphones, studies the Skymall catalog or stares catatonically out the window.

Not that she condones rudeness. Lately she has taken to greeting her fellow traveler and engaging in Limited Small Talk (LST)

This week’s trip to Washington, D.C. was typical: sleep on the Montomery-to-Atlanta leg, on the next LST with my seat mate in first class.

Perhaps because I was feeling pampered and expansive after enjoying my upgrade, perhaps because there was no danger in being trapped on an escalator, I let my guard down on the moving stairs in DCA.

Here’s how it happened. I approached the escalator as an unending line of eager and excited teenagers, all wearing yellow wool caps and festooned, like matching luggage, with yellow nametags, flowed onto the steps. A man in his early 30s–clearly one of the chaperones–
paused so I could go ahead of him onto the escalator.

Once on, I turned, saw that he was a priest (no collar, but he too had a name tag). Frankly I was surprised to encounter a priest that young, given that the average age of American nuns is reported to be about 74. Fondly recalling the times I chaperoned student trips (a clear example of time adding a rosy lens to memory), I asked where they were all from.

“Louisiana,” he told me, and I responded that I hoped they were prepared for the cold. “They think they are,” says Bing Crosby, adding, “I’m not so sure.” Stepping off the escalator we laugh together. Since we’re walking in the same direction, I to the taxi stand and he to the baggage claim, I break the cardinal rule of LST: upon completion of a successful exchange, do not introduce a new question.

So, I ask, are these all juniors? I’m totally inside my own, ancient frame of reference — 40 years ago in NY, where the trip to Washington was a common feature of junior year. No idea if it still is. “No,” he responds, “they’re freshman to seniors.”

Now I’m puzzled. Can’t be a curriculum-related trip. Maybe they’re in some kind of competition, or members of the school band slated to perform at a national event. I forge on, “Really? What brings you all to Washington?” I ask, gamely.

“We’re here for the big pro-life rally.”

And now I’m speechless. I recall that a colleague’s daughter who is a ninth-grader at the local Catholic high school is also going to this rally, not because she personally has strong views on the issue, but because it’s a school trip to the nation’s capital with her friends. She’s excited: They’ll stay in a hotel, see the sights, and talk all night long. Oh, yeah, and go to this rally. Colleague wasn’t thrilled that her daughter was being enlisted as a foot soldier in a political cause that Colleague doesn’t support.

I can’t tell him I support the cause, and the rules of LST are clear: do not invite controversy with strangers. ” Humma humma humma,” I imagine myself saying, but it comes out as “I hope they don’t freeze.”

And at that very moment, mercifully, the door to to taxis is on my left. Baggage claim pulls him to the right. I head outside.

The big rally is the next day, and it’s getting going as I arrive for an event on a street that has been blocked off to traffic because of it. As others arrive, everyone comments about the march. Mostly, these fall into the same category as comments in New York when the prez is in town or the UN is in session– it’s all about traffic and metro delays.

One person remarked upon the fact that he saw mostly groups like the one I encountered at the airport; young people in matching outfits full of energy, and as excited as if they were going to a football game. He also reported seeing a lot of young priests, and we joked that every priest in America must be at the National Mall.

And that led me to another memory. I, too, was in the company of a priest for an event in a bitterly cold Washington once. I was 17, out of high school and the official bus captain for one of three buses of people from Staten Island headed to the capital on the day of Nixon’s second inauguration, which we protestors were calling his coronation. We were there to march against Nixon’s odious expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos, and to demand peace.

On my bus was a groups of students from a local Catholic boys school, led by a priest whose name, I believe, was Fr. Tosh. We spent most of that very long and very cold day together. One thing I remember: we were somber. We were there for a serious purpose; it was no party.

Back at the airport today, I saw and heard people from the rally heading back home. Meanwhile, on the overhead televisions, CNN was reporting on the protest planned for today, in which people will rally against gun violence and in favor of stricter gun control.

And I couldn’t help but hope that at least some of those young priests led their charges to today’s rally,too.

Mystic Chords of Connection

I first heard about White Noise from my dentist.

His son, an aspiring actor, was in the cast when the musical work-shopped in New Orleans.  According to my dentist, it was Broadway-bound. I hope it is, eventually.  Right now, it’s about to open in Chicago.

When the producer of White Noise reached out to the SPLC to partner on an educational guide, I had already heard of the play, courtesy of my dentist (his son is now on the road in Wicked).  Long story short: it touched on topics important in my work, plus I love theater.  I agreed that we would produce an educational guide.

Today I traveled to Chicago to attend the opening night, which is tomorrow, Saturday April 9 at the Royal George Theater.  I plan to write a blog about the play and our reasons for partnering, so I arranged to attend the final preview performance tonight to get some ideas.  I arrived, picked up my tickets at the Will Call window, and found my seat in the second row center. Before the show started, the producer I’d been working with found me and we chatted for a few minutes when she noticed the woman sitting two seats to my right.  Holly, the producer, greeted her — “Hi! You got here!”

I turned in time to hear, “Yes, and I’ve brought half of Brooklyn with me,” said the woman who, in profile, looked awfully familiar.  Oh, my God, I thought, it’s a former student … or is it? All I could see was her profile as they chatted for a minute;  when I had a chance I interjected, “Brooklyn?”

The woman from Brooklyn turned to me.  And that’s when it happened — the realization and shock, followed by “Ms. Costello?!”

Yes, it was indeed a former student, whose name eluded me but her face did not.  I don’t know what she remembered from what I taught, but she did tell me about the impact I had, which was good to hear, but beside the point now.  It gets stranger or more wonderful, depending I suppose on your point of view.  Colleen, my former student, now a lawyer, was there because her husband, along with his twin brother, was one of the composers.  His last name is somewhat common, so it hadn’t jogged any memories when I first read their interview in our guide, but it should have.  Turns out that Colleen (class of ’87), married the son of one of my colleagues.  And yes, that colleague, Alice Morris, was also in the audience, along with her husband.

And, folks, the small world phenomena continues:  one of the producers, whom I have yet to meet, seems to be a person from Great Kills, the town next to the one in Staten Island where I grew up.  His name will be familiar to anyone who came from the Island in that era, partly because he fronted a band that bore his name and did some wordplay with a well-known maker of semi-tractor trailers.  I mentioned it to Mr. NYer on the phone tonight, and I gathered that he (Mr. NYer) used to play Little League with the producer’s brother.

So, what do you think are the chances?

Flying First Class

New Yorkers enjoy one big advantage over many other folks when it came to flying: three airports and plenty of carriers.  Traveling on business to Los Angeles rarely cost more than 300 bucks, if you were willing to haul yourself out to JFK.  And with town car service, it was no big deal.

The downside for the business traveler?  It took a lot longer to rack up those frequent flyer miles or qualify for the perks they could bring when you took a different airline for every trip.

But when you live in a small city, life is simpler. Montgomery is at the end of a short radius in the hub-and-spoke air travel system that emerged in the late 70s.  Although three airlines fly into the Montgomery airport (MGM), two of them provide service that is more theoretical than actual.  American runs one flight a day to Dallas. Perhaps two U.S. Air flights take you to Charlotte.  Otherwise, you’re flying Delta, to Memphis or Atlanta. Mainly, you fly Delta.

Since virtually every trip involves two legs in each direction, and since Delta counts “segments” toward Medallion status (of which there are three levels) it only takes six flights to qualify for Silver Medallion.

And what does that get you? A special luggage tag. Zone 2 boarding, before the overhead storage is full. Seating closer to the front of the plane. Fees waived for checked baggage.

But the best perk?  When you’re a Medallion member, you are automatically put in for a first class upgrade.

Delta’s policy is to fill first class.  Keep that in mind next time you travel: those people in rows 1 through 4 most likely did not pay $1,000 for the seat.  They just paid their dues by flying.  A lot.

When you book a coach seat on Delta, there’s a bit of a thrill at the end when the message appears, in red, that an upgrade has been requested automatically.  Sometimes, a message arrives in your email a day or two before the flight that you’ve hit the jackpot: You’ve been upgraded and your new seat assignment is 2A.  Mainly, though, you get to the gate and watch the TV to see what position your name has on the upgrade list.  All those gold and platinum members are ahead of the mere silvers, so when you’re number 18, you figure you’ll be flying coach.

This week, I got the prize, an early upgrade on my return flight from Boston to Memphis.  And then the snow started.  My flight was pushed back an hour, and the risk of missing the connecting flight in Memphis was just too great.  I switched to an earlier flight to Atlanta, and saw my first class 2A seat assignment morph into 33E.  And I was cast into Zone 4.

But then, just as they began boarding, my name wafted from the PA system.  Come to the desk, it said, for “reassignment.”  In other contexts, this could be alarming, I know.  I drifted to the desk and traded in my boarding pass for one inscribed 2D.  I had scored.

On the inbound flight I’d sat in row 18, and watched as a restless three year-old, followed closely by his mom, approached the first class cabin.  He wanted to visit, but she held him back, explaining that they weren’t allowed in there.  It was weird.  I kept expecting him to hold out his hands and ask, “Why do they have food?”

Because that’s one of the things you get in first class: food, served on plates, with real metal forks and knives.  They’re dull, it’s true, but that is beside the point.  When you arrive, the flight attendant (one, just for the folks in first class) takes your coat and hangs it in a closet.  You arrive at your seat to find a bottle of water sitting on the broad armrest that has ample room for your elbow, your seatmate’s elbow, and the two bottles of water.

Almost immediately, even while the folks in steerage are jostling aboard, you’re offered a drink.  Wine and beer are part of the service.  But really, anything for you.  After all, you’re first class.  Your coffee is hot and it comes in a ceramic mug.  No styrofoam here, except perhaps in the extra-wide seat cushions that envelope your body.

The steward winks when you inquire about stowing your laptop in the seat pocket prior to takeoff.  Those rules don’t apply to you, ma’am.  She offers another drink.  Would you like that water in a bottle or in a glass with ice.  That’s right.  A glass.  Your wine comes in a stemmed glass.  Soup is served with your southwestern salad.  It’s a Thai tomato, and it’s good.

After the meal, the steward offers you a hot towel.  She picks it out of a bowl with bamboo tongs and places it directly into your hands, murmuring, “Be careful, it’s hot.”  As soon as you’ve finished removing the grime (no doubt drifting forward from the nether regions of the plane), she appears again to remove the used towel from your sight.

It’s quieter in first class, and there’s plenty of room to set up your laptop, spread out your papers, and work.  If that’s what you want.  Otherwise you can recline and burrow into the spacious seat, ask for a blanket, and doze off.

What did you do to deserve this?  Not much really, and therein lies the problem.  The absurd difference between the treatment in first class and coach is, frankly, disturbing.  I kept imagining that scene in Dr. Zhivago, when Yuri returns home from the war to find his once-aristocratic in-laws’ home transformed into a commune for the comrades.  He is welcomed by the comrade-in-chief who explains how the previous arrangement was wasteful and bourgeois.  “Yes,” Yuri stammers, “This is much more … fair and egalitarian.”  He explains to his wife as he climbs the stairs that he really means it, it is more fair, but at the same time he knows he’s being seen as a decadent aristocrat.

Which is kinda how I felt when it was time to deplane and I saw the final perk of being in first class.  This was a 757, with the boarding door located between the first class cabin and the coach seats.  As we pampered first class passengers, having been handed our coats, skipped up the aisle, I saw that the flight attendants were physically blocking the aisle in coach so we could leave the plane first.  The rabble in steerage would follow later.

 

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.

Sights from my Office

Some people have been clamoring for pictures.  Here are a handful take from or near my office.  Apologies for the haphazard layout — I haven’t figured this part out yet.

I’m on the 4th floor of the SPLC building with windows on three sides of my work area.  The downtown is a mix of office and government buildings and some structures dating from as far back as the mid-19th century.  These, originally homes, are now mainly used as office buildings. 
These pictures are completely inadequate, but give a sense of where I’m at every day. 
Above is the Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Maya Lin.  The memorial and museum behind it are part of the Center, and commemorate the people killed in the modern Civil Rights movement.

 Not sure what is housed in the white columned building, but it’s diagonally across from the center and illustrates the scattered older buildings that dot the downtown area. 

The remaining photos are view from my office.  First is the view looking north.  On the left is the Regions bank tower, and the new construction is being built above a historic courthouse building.  Those cranes, so common in New York, are terrifying when they swing in our direction. 

The red building is the Dexter Avenue King Baptist Church, where Dr. King was pastor. 

The white buildings are mainly state offices.  The domed building beyond is the Alabama capitol.  It’s just two blocks away.

Here are some links:

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

City of Montgomery

Montgomery on Wikipedia

SPLC

Alabama state capitol

Week One

It’s good to start a new job on a four-day week.  Although I’m enjoying playing the rookie role at the office, I think I’ve had enough crammed into my brain for now.

The stuff pouring out of my ears takes several forms.  Each day, I’ve engaged in a sort of one-on-one seminar in the history of my program, along with deep background/mistakes made/lessons learned for my main areas of responsibility, and what the goals are this time around.  Each day I’ve lunched with a different department head, a good way to establish a rapport (or fail miserably at it) and learn who does what.  It doesn’t mean I know how things are done, but knowing who is responsible is a very good thing.  And then there’s the practical — today, for instance, I learned why I have three waste baskets under my desk.  One is for trash, one for recycling, and one for shredding.  I am responsible for emptying the shredded basket into the secure shredder on each floor.

I had a bit of a scare on Wednesday when the gates refused to respond to my security tag.  Had it been revoked already?  A guard came, checked who I was, and directed me to another gate.  It did open, and all was well.

A graduate course’s worth of reading has been recommended to me, and each time I return to my office another book or report or appellate case appears on my chair, with a note that someone (usually my boss) thought it would be good to read.  And it will be.  But I know that all too soon, the tension between learning/preparing and wanting to bust out and actually accomplish something will be hard to bear.

People are friendly here.  Hmmm, that’s reminds me of a line from The Laramie Project.  But it’s true.  The people I’ve met, mostly colleagues, are interesting, smart, intellectually curious people.  And they have opinions about life in Montgomery, mainly where to live.

In Staten Island, the first question is often, “So, are you a native?”  Here, it’s “Have you decided where you want to live?’  And then the lobbying begins.

There are several historic areas, with three very close to downtown and too mixed with restored and run-down homes for me.  I don’t want to live next door to a bail bondsman.  A few minutes away are the late 19th and early 20th century neighborhoods, also historic, of the Garden District and Old Cloverdale.  These are not all that historic in the sense that  I’m used to — most housing is 20th century, in fact I’ve not seen much in the city so far that pre-dates the Civil War — but they are distinctive.  The Garden District has wide avenues with imposing homes; perpendicular to these are smaller streets lined with cottages.  It’s laid out in a grid.  Next to it, Old Cloverdale has curving streets that maddeningly turn sharply left or right while going straight puts you on a completely different road.  The  homes here are cottage-y, in a dizzying variety of styles, from craftsman to Spanish, but they all work well together.  Within walking distance are two small town centers with a few shops.

The Garden District and Old Cloverdale have fierce advocates, people who suggest — strongly — that there’s no where else you will feel comfortable.  It’s a compelling and familiar argument, similar to one I’ve deployed on Staten Islanders, where I can’t imagine why anyone would live on the South Shore.  Basically, these places are the equivalent to West Brighton, Stapleton and St. George.  Only with more greenery.

Some folks lobby for specific homes.  I’m planning to look at a house in the Garden District right across from Ms. Atlantic City.  It looks perfect, but perhaps a bit specific — more on that tomorrow — and a bit more than I’d like to spend.  But Ms. Atlantic City has decided that it is the perfect house for me. 

Another colleague has chosen new cottages on Agnew Street.  The street is lovely, as are the brand, spanking new brick cottages with 10-foot ceilings, granite countertops, and plantation shutters, but they have almost no yards, and Mr. NYer’s sole non-negotiable item was that he wants to garden.

A few people argue for East Montgomery.  This would is like moving to New Jersey.  There’s a “long” commute of about 15-20 minutes, and easy access to golf courses, upscale shopping and large, new and relatively inexpensive homes.  I’m tempted by the latter, having struggled to keep our 90-year old Staten Island house warm, dry and intact.  But neither of us plays golf, and the environment, with its scrubby new trees and vast expanses of lawn, looks too bare.  We fear being isolated from the welcoming ferment of a closer community.

Against that, however, a colleague mentioned Hampstead, one of those Truman Show communities that are carefully planned.  This one, modeled on an English village, features a High Street, a community garden, and some buildings that combine commercial and residential use.   “And,” she said, “a lot of people from Old Cloverdale are moving there.”

Tomorrow I have an appointment with a realtor at 9 am.  I’ve sent her a list of about a dozen homes, in Old Cloverdale and the Garden District, that I want to see.  For due diligence alone, I’ll also make sure I see some in the other areas, too.  I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say tomorrow.  

As I write this, I have opened the French door to my porch.  Some nocturnal creature is singing, and a light fills the room.  Once the heat descends, I’ll have this place hermetically sealed, but right now it’s lovely.