Coffee heat rising


So I’m sittin’ around here (actually, slamming around doing some housework and unplugging the kitchen drain) when for unknown reasons the brain decides to reflect on bygone quarrels between my mother and my father over the way she used to spend “his” money.

In those days, it was almost impossible for a woman to get a job that paid more than pocket change. At one point my mother got a real estate license and went to work for a broker who was peddling property at the Salton Sea (we lived in Southern California at the time) — it was quite the little scam, from which she made approximately nothing. Actually, I believe her take was in the negative numbers, by the time you added up the gasoline and the cost of the damage to the car’s paint from sandstorms out on the desert. So in fact, whatever we lived on was what he earned.

My father deeply resented the way she would spend “his” money, although we did not live high off the hog in general. We rented mid- middle-class apartments, drove Fords, never traveled, did not go out to eat, did not gallivant to speak of. But she did like to buy clothes and makeup and she did like to shop in department stores. One time when he was home from the ship he happened upon a bill from a department store, the result of which was quite a sh!tfit, in which he ordered her to “stop spending my money.”

She used to shop in this department store, not far from where we lived…she was a hopeless sucker for the cosmetics salesladies. It was a nice middle-class store, but nothing swell-elegant. It was probably a Broadway: on the order of a Dillard’s. Not I. Magnin or Saks, but not Penney’s either.

She liked to wear lots of makeup and lots of perfume. Because she smoked a LOT, her skin was a mess to begin with and she needed perfume to temper the tobacco stink. And we’d spent 10 years in Saudi Arabia at a time when people imagined that a “healthy tan” was good for you. This meant her face was your basic shoe leather, the result being that every morning she would sit down in front of her dressing table and coat herself in layer after layer of moisturizers, cover-ups, foundation, rouge, and powder. An easy target for a sales pitch, she never understood (or rather, she refused to believe) that there was essentially no difference between a cheap make-up like, say, Coty, Avon, or Revlon and pricey stuff like Estée Lauder, and so she would allow herself to be talked into buying a whole line of spectacularly expensive products.

I can remember standing around a cosmetics counter with her as she browsed and bought and yakked and browsed and bought and yakked and finally we came away with something over $100 in make-up and perfume. This was in Southern California, so I would have been in my first or second year of high school — 1960 or 61.

Know how much a hundred bucks in 1961 is worth in 2020 dollars? Eight hundred sixty-nine dollars and twenty-nine cents! 

Holy sh!t!!

No wonder the poor guy blew a gasket! That would have been as much as he earned in a month — maybe more — going to sea full-time! As a Merchant Marine commander with a license to sail oil tankers of any tonnage on any ocean…

When I went to the University of Arizona in 1962, my father gave me $1000 a year to live on. It was enough to pay my tuition, the dorm rent, books, and food…with a little left over for clothes and incidentals. In 2020 dollars, that would be almost $1,000 a month, though after my freshman year tuition was essentially free. So…just imagine how outrageous spending a month’s worth of that on make-up would’ve been. 😀

Strange, what crosses your mind when the place is quiet and you have nothin’ else to think about but cleaning the kitchen counters…

Cost of commuting

Here’s a trade-off for you: Buy a house in the far-flung suburbs to save a few bucks and end up spending half your income on the combined costs of housing and transportation.

In a recent Play-Nooz story, ABC’s Phoenix television station reports that people who think they’re saving money by purchasing in remote suburbs have to pay so much more on automobiles and gasoline that the combined costs of housing and transportation consume about 45 percent of their family income, an amount generally considered unaffordable. Anything this outfit says has to be taken with a large grain of salt, because the reporting can be…well, pretty laughable.

So I checked out this interactive map by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a nonprofit that promotes urban sustainability. Indeed, it appears that when you combine housing and transportation costs, a large part of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area becomes unaffordable. Factoring in housing costs alone does cause a larger region to consume less than 30 percent of the family income. Add transport to the mix, and you see that more people spend 45 percent or more of family income on driving plus housing.

At first glance, this sounds credible, given the astonishing cost of gasoline. I have no car payment, yet in the past month I’ve paid almost $110 just for gas—and I haven’t gone anywhere except up to the college and to a few stores, most of them on my way to and from the college. If I had to pay $300 to $600 a month for a car, as many people do, transportation expenses would run 18 to 32 percent of my income—when I’m teaching three sections. In the summer, when I can’t get a job, such costs would consume 31 to 71 percent of net income.

Spend a few moments studying the housing-only map, though, and you’ll see that large parts of the “drive until you qualify” burbs never offered any bargains. The Southeast Valley—Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Tempe—is pricier than the close-in districts to start with. Granted, they’re new, shiny developments (so shoddily built that they won’t stay that way for long…), and granted, the city of Phoenix has done everything it can to thump centrally located neighborhoods. (The city and the county are run by developers—they take office on boards of supervisors and the city council. It’s in their interest ensure that the central city deteriorates, fostering white flight, so that people will buy their plaster-and-Styrofoam houses in the ever-expanding sprawl.) Scottsdale has always been ridiculously expensive; it’s an enclave of whiteness that has worked to develop a upscale reputation. The area to the northwest is largely occupied by retirement communities; cost of housing and taxes are lower there because of the downward pressure exerted by the demographic. The area to the south of the central city has been low-rent from the git-go; much of it is dangerous slum, schools are horrific, and few who can afford to live elsewhere willingly settle there.

So, I would argue in the first place that new suburban housing is more expensive than centrally located middle-class housing. It’s not true that people buy in the sticks to save money; they buy in the sticks for demographic reasons (if you don’t know whereof I speak, consider the latest bit of hilarity from the state house, which reflects the tenor of our elected leadership) and because they hope for schools that are more or less adequate. People who buy for those reasons don’t concern themselves with the cost of transportation—they regard it as just part of the cost of living.

When you add the cost of automobiles to the cost of housing, you do get a total that consumes way too much of net income. However, Drachman Institute Associate Director Marilyn Robinson’s claim that “If a household can get rid of one car, they can increase their available income by approximately $8,500 a year. They can do that if they have access to good and frequent transit service and if their neighborhoods include amenities like shops and recreation within walking distance” is an absurdity, at least where Arizona cities are concerned.

Few central or suburban neighborhoods are within walking distance of “shops and recreation.” The two  grocery stores closest to my house are in unsafe areas and are overpriced specifically because residents living nearby can’t afford cars and so form a kind of captive consumer base. These stores can charge anything they please, because too many of their customers can’t easily shop at the competition. The closest grocery store where I feel safe to get out of my car in the parking lot is three and a half miles from my house. Bicycling over the homicidal streets is out of the question, and you can be very sure I’m not walking seven miles in 110-degree heat to buy a few groceries.

There is no credible public transportation here. Buses are slow, unholy inconvenient, uncomfortable, and full of unwashed and often scary transients—the homeless mentally ill, of whom we have a large population, use the buses and lightrail as rolling air-conditioned space. They ride around and around to stay cool (or, in winter, warm) and to come out from under the oleanders for awhile. The lightrail system is a cute novelty but less than useful for commuting and shopping. Though a bus does run up to the college, the city is about to discontinue that line by way of cost-cutting, and it’s not a viable means to get there—even if the buses were comfortable and safe, I wouldn’t think of spending an hour or more to make a ten-minute drive.

Thus there really is no part of the city where a family with two adults, both of whom work, would not genuinely need to own two cars.

So the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index doesn’t tell you much, except that owning a car is expensive and that housing in the aging central part of the city is cheaper than housing in the shiny new suburbs.

Try the maps on a metro area that does have decent public transit, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, and you get a different picture. Housing costs there are so high it doesn’t much matter whether you have to drive. Another highly desirable area, one supposedly designed for sustainability, is Portland, Oregon: again, housing costs in the outlying suburbs appear to be far higher than those in the central city; add the cost of transportation, and few areas are affordable. In New York City, equipped with a large and much-used public transit system, mode of commuting seems to make little difference in affordability. Houston residents, however, pay a high premium for commuting. For people who live around New Orleans, commuting apparently is quite a burden; however, that may be a function of low incomes there. Change the demographic on the maps from “regional typical household” to “national typical household” and the cost of living looks pretty moderate, whether you drive to work or not.

So, I don’t know what all this means. It’s not cheap to drive a car. But on the other hand, riding public transportation isn’t cheap, either: riding buses and trains costs something, and cities with full-service systems have high taxes and a high cost of living. While I’m not pleased about having to pay $110 for gasoline—almost twice what I budgeted for—the cost is far from drastic enough to get me out of my car. Even if it were, there’s really no choice, and so the issue is moot.

How much does it cost you to get around your city? And if you add your typical cost of transportation to your cost of shelter, what proportion of your income does the total consume?

Decluttering for fun and profit

I’m more and more intrigued with the idea of focusing the yard’s landscaping on two or three limited outdoor living spaces and letting the rest go dormant. Why consume water and energy on elaborate plantings that you never see and that never directly benefit you?

Matter of fact, my yard lends itself to this proposed new philosophy. The large front courtyard, enclosed by a thick screen of shrubbery blocking the view of Dave’s Marina, Used Car Lot, and Weed Arboretum, makes a nice place to sit in the evenings and functions as a welcoming front entry. The back porch is a wonderful outdoor dining room when the weather is nice, which is all of autumn, winter, and spring. And the covered deck to the west, with its climbing roses and shady trees, is a lovely green bower in which to enjoy a cup of coffee and read the morning paper at pretty much any time of year.

Thinking of exterior space as living space renders about a third of my large lot redundant. The chunk of real estate to the west of the driveway, which hosts a water-intensive (and dying) ash tree, wads of asparagus ferns, nine large shrubs, three desert morning glories the size of giant squids, a pointless lantana, a struggling Meyer lemon, a mountain laurel, a bougainvillea, a sickly cactus garden, and a feral bougainvillea, does nothing for the quality of my life. Or for anyone else except Gerardo, who gets hired now and again to beat back the jungle. The narrow strip along the east wall has only one function: to grow three desert birds of paradise and three yellow cassia until they block the public sidewalk, at which point they enrich Gerardo a bit more. These plants do nothing other than to add to Gerardo’s income: they provide no privacy, they bear no edible fruit, and they’re not visible from any part of the house that I inhabit.

So: in front, west of the driveway, all the shrubs go except three cassia along the west lot line. Out with the ugly morning glory mats. Move some of the irrigation drippers over to give the lemon tree extra water and shut off the rest. Out with the moribund ash tree! Replace it with one of the infant vitex trees, potted babes of the pretty tree in back, which someday will become a nice xeriscapic shade tree (possibly not in my lifetime, but someday). Out with the water-intensive asparagus ferns. Boug stays. Mountain laurel stays. Meyer lemon stays. Turn off the water to everything else.

In back, remove three unthriving, unseen, and unappreciated roses. Turn off the water to those beds.

Remove all the pointless shrubs along the east exterior side wall. Turn off the water.

Prune the trees and shrubs that form the visual barrier between my front windows and Dave’s pig sty. Cut off the water to all these extremely xeriscapic weeds. They should do just fine without being watered all the time.

I think of getting rid of the overgrown and redundant plantings as a variety of decluttering, one that should work to frugal effect. It will shut off the watering system to a third or a half of the yard.

Will the plan save money? Dunno. It stands to reason that turning off a third of the watering system would cut my bill by 33%, but it’s not that simple.Part of the city water bill goes to pay for trash pickup and sewer service.Some of the water, of course, is consumed by dish- and clothes-washing and by bathing. In the heat of summer, all the potted plants clustered on the deck and back porch have to be watered every single day, or they will die. The 18,000-gallon pool also draws a fair amount of water, particularly in summer, when it loses two or three inches a week to evaporation. The time I wandered off and left the hose running in the pool, almost overflowing the darn thing, did not help matters.

Let’s say it saves 25% on the water bill. My highest bill this year (so far) was $208. My lowest bill last winter was $63; at that time almost none of the exterior plantings got any water, nor did the pool need refilling. Assuming the base cost of water, sewer, and trash pickup is $63, the summertime cost of watering the yard and potted plants must be around $145 (i.e., $208 – $63). Twenty-five percent of the hot-weather exterior water bill would be $36.25, a modest but respectable saving that will grow as the city jacks up the cost of water.

In addition to closing down all the flora that doesn’t bear food, cast significant shade, or contribute to livable space, I’m also putting timers on the hose bibs. These will shut the water off after a specified time, obviating another pool overflow fiasco.

This is stage one of a larger project to cut the costs of living in the house, hopefully to the point where I can stay in my home during retirement.

Tomorrow I plan to call the air-conditioning company and ask them to install a programmable thermostat, and also to find out if they can restore the rusted-out swamp cooler so it will run next summer without my having to replace it. A new swamp cooler costs as much as a new refrigeration unit. While a swamp cooler runs much cheaper than a regular air-conditioner, it would take several years to pay for itself in savings. The one I put on my old house made my allergies kick up so badly it gave me excruciating headaches. Coolers at other people’s houses haven’t had that effect, but since Proserpine said she and Satan never used this one because it gave her headaches, I’m not springing to install a new one.

I’m also going to find out if it’s possible to shut off the central air conditioning on summer nights and run only a room air conditioner in the bedroom. If doing so wouldn’t cause any harm (I’ve been told that closing off a single room in summer is counterproductive, and so this could be, too), then surely cooling just one room instead of ten (twelve, if you count the bathrooms as “rooms”) would save a ton of money.

This winter I’m going to buy space heaters and heat only the room I’m sitting in. I hope to avoid running the central heating altogether, or at least limit its use to the few days when temperatures are close to freezing and it’s raining, too. Even on cold nights, the sun usually warms the house to tolerable levels by ten in the morning. Cassie has a natural fur coat, and I can wear sweatshirts.

It will be interesting to see if these strategies work to bring down the cost of running the house. If they don’t, I will not be able to stay here after my job ends.

Thank goodness! And . . . gasp!

Two scary envelopes arrived in the mail today: one from the county tax assessor and one from my financial manager. I figured both would bring bad news.

And yea verily: even though the sale value of my house has dropped $50,000 over the past couple of years, the assessor’s biannual estimate of its value has gone up by $33,000, raising my taxes from the $1,500 I paid when I moved in about four years ago to almost $2,100.

However, this moment of gloom was relieved by a report from the redoubtable Stern and Reimer, who, despite the drumbeat of unnerving economic news, contrived to make my investments earn $2,265 in August.

LOL! Just about enough to pay the taxes!

In fact, I have the tax money in hand, accumulated by dint of a $300-a-month setaside from my paycheck. So I can pay the assessor this year. But next year: ????

The $3,600 annual impound into a savings account is to cover property tax, homeowner’s insurance, and car insurance. It used to cover annual car registration, too, but because my car is now eight years old, I can pay that out of cash flow. If my car were newer, I couldn’t do that.

Now the problem is . . . the combined cost of 2008’s property tax, homeowner’s insurance, and car insurance will come to $3,700.

And three hundred bucks a month is pushing the envelope of what I can afford to set aside. State employees received no merit or COLA increases this year, and will not as long as the economy is in the toilet. In the past, we’ve gone several years at a time with no raises whatsoever. So: they raise our taxes, but they don’t raise our pay.I haven’t retired yet, and already the basic cost of keeping the government from confiscating my home or my car and providing enough coverage to rebuild if the aluminum wiring sets fire to the joint is passing my ability to pay it.

What this demonstrates is what I’ve already begun to suspect: I will not be able to stay in my home in retirement.

If there was any question about that, this tax bill answers it, plain and clear.