“Why do you write about your family…and about fixing up houses and so forth,” asks a Dear Reader. “What’s that got to do with finance and economics?”
We don’t know. But we have a feeling that it all fits together somehow. Why do we bother caring about money anyway? Warning: what follows is merely another windy ramble. Direction? Unknown.
In our life, we’ve been rich and we’ve been poor. When we were young, we had no money…
Have we told you this, dear reader?
We lived in a ghetto-house in Baltimore…one we bought for $27,000 in the early ’80s. Your editor scrapped off the old wallpaper, replastered and painted…he tore out old plumbing and put in new pipes and fixtures…he repaired doors…he built kitchen cabinets…he sanded floors – he did practically everything. After two years, the house was a respectable place to live.
But the neighborhood was never respectable. Most of our neighbors lived on welfare checks. Out on the streets, it was noisy, dirty and dangerous. Once, in the middle of the night, our next-door neighbors called.
“Someone’s broken into our house…”
“Call the police…I’ll be right there…”
We jumped into a pair of jeans and picked up a hammer. Arriving at the front door, we found a young fellow with a TV set in his arms on the way out. We raised the hammer.
“Put the TV down…”
“All right…all right…I didn’t mean no harm…”
The police came a few minutes later and took him away. But he was back out on the street a few days later. That’s the way it went in the Baltimore ghetto, now portrayed, very well we’ve heard, in a TV show, The Wire.
Meanwhile, our group of children grew…from three…to four…to five…to six.
At night, the noise seemed to grow louder…and the trash cluttered the alleys.
We got in a fight with a neighbor over it. He was dumping trash in the alley, next to our house. We told him to stop. We were about to come to blows when a gang of his friends got the jump on your editor, knocked him down and bloodied his nose. We sat on the curb. A police car came. By then the gang had run off. We decided it was time to move.
After such rough handling in the black section of the city, we decided to move to the white countryside. This time, we decided to build our own house. But we didn’t have the money. So we built a barn instead…with tractors and farm equipment underneath and a rustic apartment under the tin roof. This was probably the mid or late ’80s…we’ve lost track. It was a remarkably nice place, lined with rough-sawn poplar boards, inside and out.
The whole thing cost us about $15,000. We paid for it in cash, since it was the local banking community was sure we were a bad credit risk. Besides, who was going to lend money for a live-in barn? And if the county had known what we were up to, they never would have allowed it anyway.
We lived in the barn for a couple years. But it was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. We heated with a wood stove and cooled with fans.
But by then things were starting to look up. We had entered our 40s. Business was improving, mostly because we were getting better at it.
Anyway…that’s more than we intended to write on the subject. The point was only that when we look back on those days…they were the happiest days of our life. We were “making do.” We were improvising. We were short on cash…but long on energy and imagination.
And now…is it the other way around? We don’t like to think about it that way…
Today, we still don’t mind painting windows. It’s the loneliness that bothers us. For a quarter century we’ve had helpers – children, who followed us around whenever we put on our working togs.
“Hand me a hammer…bring me a chisel…stir this up…hold this for me…” The work probably went more slowly when the kids helped. But it was more fun for their father, if not for them. (Having grown up with weekends devoted to construction and repair, they will probably all live in furnished, rented apartments…and never touch a paintbrush again in their lives.)
But as we were ordering our little army of helpers around, we imagined that it was good for them. Sitting in school all week…we didn’t want them watching TV or playing computer games on the weekend (this became much more difficult to stop when we moved to Paris and London…where it was hard to get away for the weekend.)
But now pater familias has a new project. A very large house has fallen onto his head. He has to fix it up…he has to take charge of it…he has to exercise dominion over it. He has to pretend that he is 30 years old and it is a house in the Baltimore ghetto…or a barn in the Maryland countryside… He has to go forward, but his thoughts turn back…
We attended the local church on Sunday…after a long absence. In his sermon, the priest seemed to be talking to us…
“What is a flock of sheep without a shepherd? It is lost, in danger…subject to attack by predators… Sheep need a shepherd.”
Later, after church, a neighbor said, “We haven’t seen you in a long time; we thought you’d abandoned the house.”
“Well, it was like a flock of sheep without a shepherd,” we replied. It was a disaster in many ways. But it wasn’t the fault of the house itself. It was the fault of the shepherd, who was absent. After we bought the house, we moved to London, for business reasons. We weren’t able to keep up with it.
So, now we’re back. But we’re back without our tribe of little helpers. All but one have grown up…moved away…or have their own lives to run. The oldest has his own house to fix up. And the youngest, still with us in Paris, has other plans.
Maybe we should adopt.
Markets and Money