Bus People, Dec. 12

He clutches several overstuffed backpacks and garbage bags to his chest. From them bulge odd-shaped objects: a large stock pot, the threadbare head of a well-loved stuffed horse, the handle of some gadgety floor cleaning tool. The seat beside him is suddenly vacated and I plop into it, thankful for the relief from standing. He greets me nearly unintelligibly, a large wad of chew in his lower lip. I say hello back and, taking this as a cue, he begins to tell his story.

He’s a scrapper and says the stock pot and other aluminum in the sack at his feet will get him about $60. “Wow,” I say, genuinely impressed. He has a guy for everything, he says. Clothes. Antiques. He even has a guy for iPhones, which he says he finds with some regularity, even working ones. They get him about $70 apiece, even the broken ones.

He’s suing Denver Health, he says, for a botched surgery. They left a sliver of metal in his eye, and the vision is slowly going. He says scrapping used to be hard work, but now it’s harder work, with the eye going. Things that took 20 minutes now take an hour. He says he doesn’t know how much Denver Health will pay him, he doesn’t know how much an eye is worth. It’s not something you can replace, he says. I look over during a quite moment and, as my bad habit these days tends to be, glance at his phone. The message he’s answering says, “Congrats on getting some housing, dad. Text Ashley and let her know you’re OK.”

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Broke is the new black

I can’t really remember a time in my adult life when I haven’t been broke. Which is why this article is so poignant for me. It has real numbers confirming what I’ve suspected all along. It’s not that I’ve failed. It’s not that I haven’t tried hard enough. It’s not that I’ve been spending too much on stuff I don’t need (though I should work on that, and I know it).

It’s that I’m broke, and it’s because, until fairly recently, nobody has paid me enough to not be broke.

Now, bear in mind, I’m using the word “broke” as a highly relative term. I’ve experienced broke in a vast and varied spectrum of ways. I’ve been so broke I have done laundry in my bathtub. I’ve been so broke I’ve purposefully overdrawn my bank account to the allowed limit by getting cash from an ATM, because I needed groceries. I’ve been so broke I’ve used CoinStar to get $8 to buy pasta and sauce for two weeks, at a BigLots where I did my best to pretend not to see mice running down the cereal aisle (that very BigLots is now an upscale bowling alley for the very worst people in Denver).

I’ve always had a safety net with my family. I’ve always been able to wake up knowing that I wouldn’t be homeless. I was, and, in many ways, AM broke, but I’ve never been poor. I draw a very clear distinction there. I am fortunate in the regard that I have resources and support structures that I have always known were there for me if the worst happened. When it did happen, when I was laid off after four months at a job and was, therefore, ineligible for more than $300 in unemployment, my folks helped me survive. That’s the difference. I was broke, but I was going to be OK.

I’ve moved to a different level of broke now. I pay my bills on time but occasionally tap into my overdraft protection. I always pay my bills and pay down my credit cards, so I have stellar credit, but virtually zero savings outside my government retirement fund (which, of course, is off-limits until I actually retire). I own a house and a car but agonize over budgeting and purchases that fall outside the “necessities.” I bargain hunt with a zeal most people reserve for loving their children or believing in a higher power. I’m comfortably broke. I put weekend trips on credit cards and eventually pay them off.

My reality: I own a pair of Manolo Blahniks (secondhand) but lay awake at night thinking of ways to reduce my grocery spending.

I’ve been in the post-collegiate working world now for more than a decade. In that decade, I have accepted pay cuts, done work for free, very frequently been denied cost-of-living wage raises and have had to accept, as a fact of life, that the notion of a continually growing wage is never a guarantee. Ours is a generation that has been told, since we shook off our sweaty polyester graduation gowns as we left high-school, that it’s a tough world out there.  We’ve had to do what is necessary to get by, and we’ve never been told to demand what we think we’re actually worth. We’ve been told to be happy with what we can get.

It’s only been since working at the city that my pay has been growing at a pace that keeps up with inflation. My very first job out of college paid $28k per year, in 2003. Until last year, with some ups, downs and a period of unemployment throwing the numbers, my annual salary hovered within about $2-4,000, + or, in some cases, -, of that number. Taken in aggregate, the decade starting with my graduation from college in 2003 (With honors!) and ending with my pay raise in 2013 resulted in an overall increase in earnings of just 11%. Most of this decade was spent living in a city where the cost of living has increased 13.6% just in the past five years. And where rents have increased almost that much in just one year.

Something has to change. With my entire generation carrying tens of thousands of dollars in college debt, with many employers expecting applicants to have labored for years in unpaid internships, there is a serious problem that still needs to be addressed. We are probably better than any generation since the Depression when it comes to creative solutions for frugal living, but that only goes so far. At some point, we’re going to need to be better compensated (or, in the case of recent grads in some fields, compensated AT ALL) for the work we do. Otherwise, we’ll keep delaying the purchases that run this economy, and everyone will continue to struggle.

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Happy birthday, baby

2006 was a big year for me. It was the year I turned 25, and it was the year everything happened.

I had moved to Denver the previous year and in autumn of 2005 I had started my First Real Adult Relationship. New Year’s Eve 2005 was the first New Year’s when I had someone to kiss at midnight. After the holiday, I would start a Real Adult Job as a proofreader at the city’s most prestigious ad agency. That’s how I began 2006: anything was possible, and everything was new.

In May of 2006, I had my First Real Adult Breakup.

In June of 2006, I had my First Real Adult Layoff. That was also the month my sister left for the Peace Corps. A few months later, another close friend moved away to begin graduate school. Summer of 2006 I had my First Real Adult Emotionally-Abusive Relationship. That was a good time.

Summer of ’06 was one of extreme highs and the lowest lows. It was the summer I became a full-fledged freelancer, writing about local music, restaurants and the theater scene. But it was also a summer when I’d leave multiple desperate, panicked voice mails a night for a guy who wouldn’t call me back and later cheated on me. It was the summer I appeared on an album cover for a local band. And it was the summer I temped at a methadone clinic and got fired (well, in the temp world, we call it “reassigned”) from a shitty data entry job. Importantly, it was a summer when the guy I was seeing left town quite a lot for his job, leaving me to hang out with his friends while he was away. Since I’d started dating my First Real Adult Boyfriend so soon after I moved to Denver, I didn’t have many friends of my own when we broke up. So, Second Boyfriend’s friends became my friends. One of these friends was a guy named Dale.

Summer smoldered well into October with unseasonably warm weather. I left the Second Boyfriend. I got a steady job at a scooter shop. Things seemed to be calming down. I focused on work and writing and dated a bit, mostly trying to get the bitter taste of my last relationship out of my mouth. Then the winter came.

Cabin fever urged me out of my apartment one December night. I had just been paid and went to the local watering hole. There was Dale, and his roommate, Rip. We played pool and listened to music. And just like that, Dale became more than my friend.

The blizzards soon blanketed the city in sound-dampening, transportation-hindering snow. We began to have a routine of getting together, walking through piles of snow to our favorite bars and then going home together.

If a fortune telling gypsy had told me when 2006 began that the year would end the way it did, I would have probably asked for my money back. But for all I went through that year, the final act of 2006 was my favorite. I’m so glad I met Dale. I’m so glad we’re still together, eight years later. Even the hard stuff has been worth it. I’ve often put it this way: My life may have been easier if I had never met Dale. But it wouldn’t have been better.

He asks me all the time why I stayed, why I’ve stuck around. I don’t have easy answers for this. I don’t think anyone who has ever truly loved someone does have an easy answer… can you imagine? Why do you love XYZ? Because he’s handsome and makes a lot of money. Because he doesn’t question my motives. Because he lets me have my way. Those would be easy, awful reasons to love someone. You need more than that. You have to have complications and scar tissue and unanswered questions, or things burn out pretty fast.

My complicated reasons are more like this. Nobody has ever loved me like Dale loves me. He’s neither desperate nor distant, needy nor aloof. He calls me out on my bullshit and I call him out on his. It is not about what he does for me or what he has, it’s about how we are together. He helps me with the stuff I struggle with, and in return I help him. We’ve been through fights and moving and family issues and death together. We’ve grown together in ways I could never have imagined all those years ago. We bring out the best in each other, in new ways, all the time. We just work together. It’s easy, easier than I ever imagined it could be.

I love you, Dale. Happy Birthday, and Happy Anniversary.

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Posted in Let's Hear It For The Boy | 2 Comments

Tuna Casserole and the War on Terror

So basically America is a high-ranking exec in an office and he comes into the lunch room before everyone else and heats up something rank every day, like tuna casserole. Since he’s usually alone in the lunchroom (he loves being first at things) America never thinks that anyone minds the smell, and he doesn’t think of the fact that he has to share the lunchroom with the rest of the employees of The World. And then he starts noticing that someone started stealing his lunch on some days, because they’re sick of the smell. Well, America gets uber pissed at this and starts enlisting one of his lackeys to work as The Snack Authority (TSA) and try to keep people from stealing his lunch.

This is probably pretty good. Just don’t bring those leftovers to work.

But TSA isn’t too bright and he just reacts to the thief’s behavior. First he tried putting America’s lunch in the crisper drawer and taping it shut, but the thief cut the tape. So TSA confiscated all the scissors in the building and installed a metal detector so nobody could bring them in.

But all the while, America is still heating up his stank-ass lunch whenever it doesn’t get stolen, and stinking up the lunchroom every day that he can, never thinking for a minute that what he’s doing might actually be the reason people keep victimizing him. He never questions his decision to bring stinky casseroles nor does he consider the way his actions affect the rest of the employees, because, to be honest, he hardly has to deal with them in any real way except when he needs them to do something.

And America LOVES his tuna casseroles. He can’t imagine why anyone would choose to eat anything else. He thinks that the thief or thieves are stealing his casseroles because that’s what THEY want to eat, and so he starts emailing out the recipe, thinking that if he can just convince everyone else to make them on their own, they’ll stop attacking him personally because of his awesome lunch. He starts talking to anyone who will listen that they should stop eating their curry or quinoa or whatever weird shit they’re eating and start eating tuna casseroles, because they work really well for him and look how successful he is! He’s a high-ranking executive! Obviously, he owes a lot of where he is today to his steady diet of tuna casseroles.

But slowly, and even he’s starting to realize it, the tuna casseroles are starting to back up on America. He probably should eat a more varied diet but he’s invested a lot into the idea of this food at this point and changing might make him appear weak. Between the cholesterol in the cheese and the mercury in the fish, there’s a chance that sticking to his guns and devoting so much time and effort to the tuna casserole issue might eventually kill him. But that’s a long way off. For now, he and TSA will just keep going, eating them up, stinking up The World and trying to force everyone else to come around.

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The “Colorado Paradox” that isn’t.

I was born in Boulder, Colorado. Usually I tell people this, and follow with, “I know, it’s weird! Nobody was born in Boulder!”

People move to Boulder. They aren’t from there, in the same way almost nobody is from Manhattan. People who can, who want to, pour into Boulder, and into Colorado, from elsewhere. To many, the state represents a tantalizing prospect: dazzling natural beauty, all the outdoor sports and recreation you can handle, for less than you’d spend to live in any of the coastal cities. The Centennial State offers Californians, New Yorkers, Texans and Midwesterners a dream come true: Freedom. The freedom to kick off at 3pm on a Friday to pack for the weekend’s camping trip, and not be written off at work as a slacker or worse. The freedom to pack up the car and head for the hills when the pressures of life get to be too much. The freedom to ditch a suit and tie for Merrells and a North Face vest: the Colorado transplant version of “business casual.” I understand why people want to come here. There are plenty of reasons I have not yet left, though I don’t know if I’ll always be here. But there’s a problem with Colorado’s reliance on transplants. A problem that I don’t see anyone addressing in a real way. The truth is that Colorado has a statistical distinction of being one of the best-educated states in the union, despite the fact that Colorado is one of the nation’s worst places to get an education.

When I read the “highly educated” statistic, I can’t help but feel shortchanged. Though I was born in Boulder, we lived in Minneapolis and Albuquerque before settling back in Colorado (Longmont) when I was 11. I remember the quality of education in the Twin Cities in the mid-eighties: a cutting-edge computer lab, supplemental gifted and talented courses, intensive special-needs programs, exceptional resources and talented educators. Albuquerque felt like a bit of a step down. One or two computers, a lot of money funneled to safety and security measures, but as far as the actual content of the classes, it was pretty much on par. Moving from Minnesota to New Mexico in 4th grade meant going from long division to basic multiplication tables.

Then we came back to Colorado. Computers in the lab were old and clunky. I went from pre-algebra in 6th grade to basic fractions. Book selections were at least a couple of grade levels below what I was accustomed to. Many teachers were noticeably overworked and disengaged, so despite my academic head-start, I quickly became bored and complacent. Nobody seemed to care that I could do better than Cs and Bs, so I stopped caring, too. Other students seemed to be acting out, too, sometimes violently. Yes, part of this noticeable change can certainly be chalked up to the vagaries of adolescence, and the fact that I was a kid coming from a big-city school to the almost tribal small-town culture of a semi-rural area. But a lot of it was a simple, glaring fact: Colorado schools were the worst-funded schools I’d ever attended, and it showed.

A 2014 statistic states that only about one out of every five kids who graduates from a Colorado high school will go on to obtain a college degree. Statewide, about 25% of kids won’t even graduate high school at all. We’re 43rd in the nation for per-pupil spending, with an average per-pupil expenditure about $2700 below the national average. The result is that Colorado’s achievement gap between wealthy and poor students- already among the worst in the nation-  is widening. In 2009, 40% of Colorado’s low income students failed to graduate high school, a rate twice that of their middle- and high- income classmates. And with rising tuition rates, and a rank of 49th nationwide in State and Local funding for higher education operating expenses, Colorado puts college out of reach for many of those local, low-income students who do graduate.

In our institutes of higher learning, transplanted college students are the bread and butter of our public colleges. Out of state tuition is about three times what in-state students pay for the privilege of getting a BA in Boulder, where they make up 47% of the CU student body. Again, where is the incentive in providing assistance to the local student, when his or her place could be taken by a Texan or Californian student paying the 300% markup?

Of course, none of this matters if you come to Colorado pre-educated.

Colorado’s economy depends on people who are educated in other states. It requires them, thrives on them, and certain segments of the population benefit immensely from the fact that educated, ambitious people want to live among the Rockies. In the minds of policymakers, administrators, and (perhaps most important in our TABOR-hobbled state) taxpayers, there seems to be little reason to spend money on education locally when talented people continue to flood into our economy at no cost to us.

I don’t actually think that the Colorado Paradox, as it is called, is maliciously engineered by certain shadowy actors, or that is intentional in any conspiracy-theory kind of way. But I do think that it emerges from market forces that make it the most profitable, least resource-intensive way for the state to construct education policy. The problem is that whether the policies in place are intentional or not, they leave Colorado kids in the dust as the state rolls out the welcome mat to out-of-state brainpower.

The results of the Paradox are pretty grim for many Colorado natives. Those who have the resources to move here are usually doing pretty well before they even arrive. Moving across state borders is, itself, an expensive and disruptive choice that usually requires a certain level of privilege. Those who grow up here and can’t easily leave must contend with skyrocketing housing costs, competition from better-educated transplants for jobs, and the financial obstacles keeping them from gaining higher educational opportunities. It’s not impossible to rise above these odds, but it’s getting harder all the time.

Meanwhile, the odds for real education reform in Colorado aren’t great. Our TABOR laws hinder revenue increases, the state’s libertarian streak means many taxpayers refuse to “throw money” at problems in the schools, and retirees and child-free newcomers to the state don’t have any skin in the game. Add to this the fact that the Colorado school system is pretty segregated along class lines, rendering perspective difficult. Rich schools and poor schools are virtually invisible to each other, so the rich don’t have to see how bad it is for the poor and the poor often don’t see what they’re missing. For example. America’s 10th poorest school district, Centennial School District in the San Luis Valley, is isolated and remote, just North of the New Mexico state line. Contrast this to the wealthiest school district in Colorado, suburban Douglas County, 221 miles and a world away.

A one-room schoolhouse in Buena Vista, Colo.

So what’s to be done? I think the first step is to recognize the Colorado Paradox for what it is actually NOT: this isn’t really a paradox at all. In a free market economy, the Colorado Situation is no more paradoxical than the forces of supply and demand. It makes a lot of sense to capitalize on the educational wealth of other states, to buy in talent instead of cultivating it in-house, over the course of a couple of decades per each homegrown college graduate. That’s simple economics. But just because this isn’t paradoxical doesn’t make it less unconscionable. There may come a time when all these educated people stop wanting to live in Colorado. Maybe they’ll get tired of the wildfires, or the traffic, or the ever-rising home prices. Maybe the heat will start to get to them. Maybe (probably) weed will be legalized elsewhere, and this will stem the tide of incoming pot users. Maybe people who came here and set up lives for themselves in their 20s will start to have kids, and will be so appalled at the state of Colorado’s education system that they’ll take their families and their tax dollars back home.

Colorado should know better than to depend on an unpredictable resource for its economic well-being. It should have learned with silver in the 1890s, but didn’t. It should have learned with oil and gas in the 1980s. But it didn’t. Will it learn to invest in its own children before the glut of transplants slows to a trickle? We can only hope.

Posted in Postmodern Problems, Ranty, Serious Face, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Dear Mortgage Lender,

I understand that in this market, in this city, at my income level, my file may not have been your top priority. I understand that the fact that I make less than 80,000 per year puts me in a situation that’s pretty easy to put at the bottom of your pile and that you probably have bigger fish to fry. I understand that there is plenty that I fundamentally don’t know about the whole mortgage lending process, since this is the first time in my life that I’m doing all of this. I get it. It’s hard to get motivated to answer my daily questions, my requests for status.

What I don’t understand is why, at 3pm the Friday before my Monday close date, you were still working on what appear to be showstopping parts of my loan, and were unable to complete these tasks in time for us to proceed as scheduled.

I don’t understand why you were, at 3pm on this Friday, composing emails to the underwriter regarding whether or not they could actually lend on a half-duplex, when it’s been well-established that my future home will be a half duplex for about a month now.

I don’t understand why you called me and asked again for documents AND FUNDS that I’d sent a month before, then asked me for divorce papers for a divorce I haven’t had.

I don’t understand why those aforementioned requests for status were either ignored or falsely answered with a cheerful, “we’re all set!” when clearly, parts of my file were still incomplete or not delivered to the right people as of 3pm the Friday before I was going to close.

While I’m prepared to admit I don’t fully comprehend every aspect of the lending process, the only answer I can find for my questions is that you have failed to provide even basic levels of clear, honest communication to me. Meanwhile, I cheerfully rented a truck, took a day off work at a job I’ve been in for a grand total of five days now, reassured our landlord (who’s been breathing down our necks to get out so he can get higher-paying tenants to replace us) that we’d be out before the end of next week, and went on with my life imagining that everything was going according to plan. Your email apologizing for the “inconvenience” was as disingenuous as it was reductive. You are not sorry. And inconvenience fails to even start describing one dimension of the situation you have now placed us in.

I have worked in some kind of customer service role for nearly my entire adult life. In my jobs dealing with the public, I’ve taken my own time and resources to ensure that I took care of important tasks that needed to be done. I’ve driven to DMVs in other counties to complete title work. I’ve helped a foreign customer secure a title for a scooter that was from another country: a task that required constant communication and a nightmare of international bureaucracy. I’ve driven gas cans to customers who needed them. I’ve fielded calls well after quitting time and on my lunch break in my job with city government, a task that a vanishingly rare portion of municipal workers will actually perform. I have spent my life providing excellent service to people I don’t know, and frankly, it amazes me that someone whose job is tied to a life-changing transaction can care so little about those who she works with. You are not sorry for the inconvenience. What you should be sorry for is your complete indifference.

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And away we go

This is the last Monday I will spend living in Capitol Hill.

This was where my 20s happened.

I came to this area almost a decade ago, from a small hometown, realizing that the kind of happiness I wanted was not to be found in Longmont. I came to Denver and for many years, this corner of the city, with its youthful population, cheap rents, tawdry bars and brilliant music and art scene, was everything I could have dreamed of. I met amazing people, saw amazing things, had great adventures and learned a few things the hard way.

I fell in love here. I had my heart broken here. I had my expectations met, exceeded and completely disregarded. I’ve done more growing up here in the past nine years than in almost any other period of my life.

But the neighborhood has changed, too.

The old, familiar dives are dwindling in number. Many of my friends have been priced out and have pulled up stakes to start families or other adventures elsewhere: the Highlands, Park Hill, the suburbs, other states… even other countries. In their place is a rising tide of 20-something kids who inexplicably have the means to pay the neighborhood’s ever-rising rents. The apartment I moved out of six years ago was renting for $575 a month in 2008; it’s now going for $825. That’s a 43% increase in a city where incomes have barely budged since 2005. And buying… well, buying is a better deal in Cap Hill but still too expensive for us.

And the sad, but at the same time happy, truth is: I’m not 25 any more. Proximity to hipster bars, bikeable distances to dancing and karaoke and walking to art house cinema are all nice things. But they’re less important than they used to be. I see the girls on their walks of shame when I go to work in the morning: the eyes smeared with eyeliner, the creases in last night’s dresses. I no longer see comrades in these bleary-eyed girls. I see people living through a chapter of my life that is very, very over.

I have outgrown cramped apartments and downstairs neighbors. I’ve graduated (for the most part) from the “second shift”of cheap after-work beers at the neighborhood bar to a nice glass of wine or whiskey. I can no longer work the next day with the hangover that results from drinking like I did when I first moved here. And I don’t really have any desire to drink enough to get to that point. I no longer need a neighborhood full of casual friends; just the handful of really great ones who have stuck with me through the manic highs and lows of my twenties. I’ve learned how to enjoy my time alone again, without feeling like I’ve somehow failed.

We’re moving further East, to a more residential part of the city in an earlier stage of gentrification than Capitol Hill. It remains to be seen how we’ll grow in this new territory. It’s quieter there. The houses are inexpensive. The bars are working-class and unpretentious, maybe even a little scary. There are no designer donuts very nearby, no artisanal toast, no organic groceries, no music venues. These things might reach us eventually. But this will be a place of our very own. The place we’ve earned. We’ll have our own cinema nights. We’ll mix our own drinks. We’ll sit in our tiny yard and look over what we have, what is truly ours, our reward for the lessons learned in those crazy, stupid, formative years in that remarkable neighborhood. And finally, just like in Capitol Hill, when we’ve put enough of ourselves into the place, we will be home again.

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