Open Mike: The Old Fiberglas Boat


This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer

Thanks for the tips and pointers yesterday. My reply: big sigh.

I wish I were rich enough to simply clear out the house. I should point out that I’m plenty prosperous by any reasonable standard, especially by world standards, and I’m not b*tching…but I do have a tendency to think that I can’t simply throw something away because I could probably get something for it. That could be partly due to my “hoarding gene,” which I generally don’t indulge but which I know I have.

Here’s the reason actual poor people are usually surrounded by junk, including old vehicles and appliances in their yards: because they have money invested in whatever it is, and they have either an expectation or a fantasy that they ought to get some money back out of it, whatever “it” is. Clearing away old crap is usually the privilege of people wealthy enough to not worry about the residual value of incidental objects. So that guy in rural Vermont with the hopelessly ancient Fiberglas boat and three old dryers and a rusty old piece of unidentified machinery in his yard? He fixed up a broken dryer once, so in his mind he could do the same with the three he’s got hoarded; the boat belonged to his late uncle who told him he could sell it and keep whatever he got, but that was 27 years ago when the boat might possibly have had a few hundred dollars in it still; and he thinks the rusty machinery has value as scrap metal—he’s just got to find a place that pays for scrap and haul it there, which will probably take a day and result in either no cash offer or not enough cash to cover the gas he burned to get there and back. The richer man a mile down the road has $300 of annuals in front of his house, and no dryers. And so it goes.

Coats of paint

I had a friend in Chicago who took great umbrage at the messy domiciles of the have-nots. He would say things like, “anybody can throw a coat of paint on a house!”

Oh, but I beg to differ. In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich set out with $1,500 (and that was 1998 when a dollar was worth $1.92), intending to try to experience economic survival like poor people do—in her case, without using any of her credentials, connections, or established upper-middle-class skills. “Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly ‘unskilled,’ that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you want to live indoors.” She tells the story of having to stop at a laundromat between jobs to wash her pants because she couldn’t afford two pairs of “good” work pants. And have you priced a gallon of paint lately?

Again, not my situation. Not complaining. For the “good” stain for my deck, Sherwin-Williams wanted $50 per gallon x 3. I cheaped out and bought the $20-per-gallon stuff, with the result that I now have to do it all over again three years later. And I should have put that fresh coat on last summer, not this. Not springing for the good stuff was foolish. But at least I could afford it.

The wealth of the world

On the other hand, consider—if you can even wrap your head around it, which a lot of Americans, Europeans, and Australasians can’t—the standards of wealth in the world. If you divide the entire world population into quintiles—five groups of 20% of the population each—the lowest quintile worldwide gets by on less than $2 a day. But that’s not the amazing statistic. The amazing statistic is that the top quintile earns an average of about $50 per day. And that’s including Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and the all the rest of the top .01%. Now, I don’t actually know what the statistics I found meant by “a day.” Do they mean all 365 days, or all the work days, the ones for which you get paid? Assuming a 40-hour day and a five-day week, 50 weeks per years, that’s 250 working days in a year. Whichever it is, consider that the per capita income of the Philippines in 2022 was $3,500. That’s $9.60 per day for all days, or $14 per day for the work days. $50 per day for 250 days is a princely $12,500 per year.

I’m guessing all of us here today do better than that. For just the US*, the lowest quintile has a mean income of $16,120 and an upper limit of $30,000. Although they also have a negative net worth, because they’re in hock up to their nostrils, “crushed” with debt. I’m in the middle quintile in the US, with zero debt aside from my mortgage. Again, doing well, comparatively. So here we all are, beating the pants off the top quintile of incomes worldwide. Honestly, we should all be grateful for that every single day of our lives.

So I won’t complain, um, formally, just because I have a bunch of stuff I have to sell. But it’s a pain in the Katuschka all the same.

By the way, that guy in Vermont has precious memories of learning to water-ski behind that old boat, one gloriously clear Summer day when all of his parents’ generation were still alive and he was a boy. His sister Marla skied too, that day, because that was before the accident and her wheelchair, and he fell asleep immediately that night, despite his sunburn, because sleepiness came over him all of a sudden. And when he wanders over to that old boat on a foggy, still day after all the leaf-peepers have gone back to their cities, and rests his arms on the gunwales thinking of Uncle Jerry and how he should just tow the old boat to the dump, he can still pick up just a whiff of the way it smelled out on Lake Champlain that wonderful day, in the warm breezes and that otherwordly sunshine, with everyone laughing and his mother so happy. The faint scent brings the memories back. He still thinks he can water-ski, although he has not done so since that day, and that was 54 years ago. And that’s one other thing that helps keep that old hunk of sun-bleached junk moldering away in the farmyard.

Mike

*According to the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution

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Featured Comments from:

John Krumm: “So true. The other odd phenomenon of having once been poor: my wife, who grew up in a trailer park, with a usually unemployed, alcoholic father, still thinks ‘poor’ in some ways. She hates to think about money as it just causes stress. She likes to buy vast amounts of food, too much, that we stuff in our fridge and cupboards. It’s comforting, but wasteful. And she earns an elite level salary as a professor, physician and Dean at a medical school. As Marx said, ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’”

Albert Smith: “In the mid ’80s, I lived in the Philippines for several years, right at the transition from Marcos to Aquino. In my area (not Manila), the yearly income was under $1,000. It really made it hard to complain when I was walking around with a camera that cost more than the locals made in year. People there were happy, and ‘rich’ Americans always found something to complain about. It’s always about perception.”

Malcolm Myers: “I have some old folding cameras I’ll never use again. Tried to sell them to a film camera specialist in the UK, but they ‘have a stock room full of them and they sell slowly.’ So I will try eBay and see how I get on. We have too much stuff in our house that is ‘worth something, so we can’t just dump it,’ but it sure clutters the place up. Hopefully your post will stir me into action.”

Kye Wood: “Hoarding is the worst of the mental illnesses. My wife’s father is a full-blown TV-documentary category hoarder. The strangest thing is that he’ll watch TV shows on hoarders and make zero connection to that being exactly the same as he is. My wife has made it plain that after he dies she’ll be hiring a crew with skips and end loaders. No looking for nuggets among the garbage. It’s all going to landfill. Maybe then my wife’s mother will finally be able to use the washing machine without first lifting a rusty toolbox off its lid.”

Mike replies: Many mental illnesses are very bad. I once got curious about the common overuse of the term “OCD” meaning someone who is persnickety about something, so I read a book about OCD. My god—I will never again use the term “OCD” casually. If a person is picky about stuff or tends to get passing fixations, that does not mean they have OCD.

Robert Roaldi: “People who are not or have never been poor sometimes make assumptions about the behaviour of others who are. It’s true that people often make bad choices in life but there are plenty of others who never put a foot wrong but still end up in bad circumstances. Sometimes all the available choices are bad and I’d say it’s incorrect to criticize people for picking one of them.”

Sean: “My family and I grew up in social housing in one of the poorest inner-city neighbourhoods of the UK. Crime, addiction, deprivation, and post-industrial decline all featured. It wasn’t an easy place to be sentimental about—no rusting boats but plenty of empty factories. The Catholic Church, which had a good grip on the neighborhood and schools, were on hand to remind us of God’s love for the poor and that there were worse off than us in the world, so be thankful for his mercy and bear your poverty with grace. ‘Yes, your parents are out of work, depressed, and addicted to alcohol, but could you imagine being all those things in Africa?’ Sister, unsentimental, black and white, Lavinia there, helping me lose my religion.

“A sister doing actual good work: Anna Rosling Rönnlund.”

Mike replies: That link is quite a find. I spent a lot of time there. Fascinating glimpses into the real lives of real people. I’m glad to know about Gapminder and Dollar Street. Thanks for that.

Dillan: “Thank you for reminding me to be grateful for what I have.”

Mark P Morris: “You made me cry with that last passage. Thank you.”