THE RICH GET RICHER

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[Nothing new in that. A cliche, actually. But nonetheless true.]

The parking pass machines at the Princeton Municipal Parking Garage are being replaced.  Parking passes are sold at the two entries, for either $20, $40 or $60; the incentive to invest in the larger amounts is that when you do, you get an extra $4 or more added to the card, over and above what you purchased. The incentive to keep a pass in your car at all (rather than take a ticket each time you enter) is the ease of getting out of the garage when you leave; you slide your card in a machine at either of the two exits, the cost of your parking is subtracted from the amount left on the card, the gate lifts, and out you go. You don’t even notice what you’re paying, especially if you can afford to load the card with $60 at a time (plus the additional dollar incentive); the amount left after each exit drops so slowly it seems quite a while before you have to reload the card.

Now for six weeks, while the replacement of the machines takes place, pass holders like me have to take a ticket when they enter anyway, and later pay in cash or by credit card at another machine near the entrance before getting back into their cars to exit.  For this reason the other day I found myself in a line at the machine where you pay the ticket before exiting. The line was short but the waiting time long.  The woman ahead of me was having difficulty figuring out which slot was which.  She complained loudly that the machine wasn’t giving her any change.  Then she shrugged and began to walk away, as if that’s what you might expect these days, when it seems every corporation and institution and merchant one deals with is trying to squeeze a bit more profit out of each transaction in which you engage with them.  In this instance she was wrong. Not giving change without prior notice would have been blatant fraud, and the subject of all kinds of indignant letters to the editors of Town Topics. Just as she was about the enter the elevator with her paid ticket, the machine made gurgling sounds and vomited out a handful of change.

I was next.  I used a credit card and the machine reported digitally that I had paid $6.50 for my three hours in the garage.  The woman behind me noticed.  “It’s gotten so expensive,” she complained. “It shouldn’t be so expensive.  It’s a town garage.”

“Of course, it’s expensive,” I said.  “What do you expect? We’re in Princeton.”  Then I rashly continued this line of discourse, channeling the economic observations of Richard D. Wolff. (You can find him on YouTube if you’re interested; he’s very funny while being dead serious. In my view, he’s also 95% right.)  “And why do you think your Princeton real estate taxes are so high?  Double what they are one county north of us!”

She was holding a box that from the look of it may have contained a small pizza.  She clutched it more tightly, as if I were about to suggest something subversive.  She was right.  I was.  But since she said nothing, I went on.

“It’s because of the university,” I said.  “Rich and famous Princeton University, a private educational institution that holds title to about a quarter of the real estate in the township and also owns millions and millions of invested dollars generating  more millions every year in unearned income — yet pays no real estate taxes at all, much less any state or federal tax on what its investments produce.  Who do you think is paying to run the town?” I went on. “Who is paying to send firemen to put out fires on campus and to deploy policemen for redirecting traffic while the university builds and builds? You are!  If Princeton University paid real estate taxes, our personal real estate taxes would drop way down, and yes  — the cost of tickets to park in this municipal garage would too.  If you think about it a slightly different way,” I concluded, “at least half the cost of your parking ticket is going into Princeton University’s pocket.

“But, but…” she sputtered as I turned towards the elevator.  “If there were no university, there wouldn’t be a need for the garage. And then where would we be?”

She hadn’t gotten it.  “Who said there wouldn’t be a university?” I exclaimed.  “Of course there would be.  It would just be paying its fair share like the rest of us, instead of getting richer and richer year after year. So it would grow a little more slowly. So what? Many of the rest of us wouldn’t be tsk-tsking in the garage, and pinching pennies to go on living in Princeton.

I didn’t know that woman.  I shall never see her again.  And I shouldn’t have said it. Imposing real estate taxes on private universities, colleges and posh secondary schools is not going to happen, at least in my lifetime, and what’s the point of talking about things that aren’t going to happen?  But as I rode up to the third floor where my eleven-year-old two-door Honda Civic was parked, I felt like a heroine. Perhaps the woman with the small pizza will remember what I said — if not the next time she parks, then the next time she gets hit with an installment of her annual real estate tax.  Great oaks from little acorns grow. Another cliche that’s true.

WHY WE MOVED FROM ONE UNIVERSITY TOWN TO ANOTHER IN 1,000 WORDS OR LESS

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1.  We met in Cambridge (Massachusetts).  He was a 73 year old psychiatrist with a private practice. He also taught one class a semester at the Harvard Medical School.  I was a 69 3/4 year old civil litigation lawyer by then practicing at a small firm in Boston that permitted a four-day work week.  The other day a week I would trundle my laptop to the Boston Writers Room (where there was no laundry or internet to distract me) and try to write something that wasn’t a brief or a memorandum in support of a motion.

2. He hated Cambridge because it reminded him of his marriage to his second wife, who still lived in their Cambridge house,  which she had obtained during an acrimonious divorce.  Everywhere we went reminded him of something that had occurred during the marriage, or someone they had met when they were still, as it were, “together.”  So from the day I first knew him, he wanted to leave.  A psychiatrist can practice anywhere, once he obtains a license from the state he has moved to.

3. I didn’t hate Cambridge at all, but would have been willing to leave except I was chained to Massachusetts as long as I needed an income stream.  It’s not that I loved my law practice  so much. (I didn’t, really.) But I still needed money, having begun life as a single woman after a second divorce with a net worth of zero at the age of sixty. Moreover, my right to practice law wasn’t portable without sitting for two days of bar exams all over again, except to a few states that had reciprocity arrangements with Massachusetts. And even then, who would want to hire a 70-year-old lawyer without a book of business or knowledge of state law? So we stayed put where I was licensed.  In my condo on Brattle Street.

4. There are lots of interesting foreign movies, concerts, exhibits and lectures open to the public when you live where Harvard is. (Moreover it sounds very classy to have a Cambridge address, especially on Brattle Street, if you care about that sort of thing. And yes, I confess, I did care, at least a little bit.) Right across the river in Boston — take the Red Line to be there in no time — is also Symphony and the Boston Ballet and three theaters showing road company versions of New York plays and musicals. Not to mention outposts of Saks, Lord & Taylor, Neiman’s and Barney’s, where it’s much easier to shop than in the mother stores in New York and Dallas.  So it was really great to be in Cambridge, if it weren’t for the black ice in winter, and the miserably hot and humid summers, and Bill complaining loudly about how the grass would be greener somewhere else.

5.  Then three of our combined five adult children wound up living in New York. Also both my financial advisor and accountant opined that I had frugally put by enough so that if I remained frugal I could retire and live till 102.  (After that, if I were lucky enough to have an “after that,” I would need to get by on Social Security.)  We could leave! But where should we go?

6. Clearly, New York itself — secretly in my heart for all those many years since I’d left it — was out of the question.  We could probably afford no more than a studio in a good Manhattan neighborhood or a small one-bedroom in a not-good one.  And we needed more space than that, so that we could get away from each other for a while.  Where then? For reasons best known to himself, Bill suggested New Mexico or North Carolina, arguing that if we lived near a university in either of those states it wouldn’t be so bad to be so far from the Northeast where we both had grown up.  For reasons I made perfectly understandable — the three children in New York, one of his in Switzerland, and one of mine in Florida — New Mexico was a geographically bad idea and North Carolina had nothing going for it as far as I was concerned except girlhood memories of having read Thomas Wolfe, who had left the state himself as soon as he could and was now, in any event, dead.

7.  Then one sunny afternoon during our 2004 summer vacation on a tiny Greek island in the Dodecanese, Bill mentioned Princeton, New Jersey. Eureka!  An hour and a half from New York and 3/5 of our children (not to mention my soon-to-be first grandchild).  Home to a major university (think Princeton),  the Institute of Advanced Studies (think Einstein), Westminster Choir College (think free concerts). Home to McCarter Theater, which brings in five plays a year, plus ballet, concerts by world-class instrumental soloists, jazz, and three operas. The university has its own art museum, theater, and Richardson Auditorium, a perfect acoustic venue for Princeton’s resident string quartet, for free concerts by the University Orchestra and for not very expensive subscriptions to the Princeton Symphony Orchestra). And New Jersey is historically a blue state.  (We didn’t know Chris Christie was coming down the pike.)  It even had a Whole Foods!  How could we go wrong?

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Princeton University in the spring.

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This is the historic (and picturesque) part of campus. There is strikingly modern architecture elsewhere.

8. It took us over a year. (Selling Cambridge real estate, buying Princeton real estate, and like that.) When we finally moved, he was 78 and I was 74 1/2, which people sometimes say was brave, given that we knew no one here. But would it have been less brave to go on slipping on black ice at the risk of breaking elderly bones, and (in his case) go on being reminded of an unhappy past lived in Cambridge neighborhoods?

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University Chapel. Convocation and Commencement ceremonies are held here. There are half-hour organ concerts open to the public at noon throughout the academic year.

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A late April flowering. Outside a reading room of the library. (I think.)

9. Anyway, what’s done is done and here we still are, nine years older.   When people ask why Princeton, I sometimes say — because it’s easier — we just threw a dart at a map.  If we really had, it would have been even braver of us.  But I guess it’s too late to try that one.

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Between Firestone Library (left) and the University Chapel (right).

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McCosh, where English and American literature classes meet.

LOOKING AT THE WORLD FROM THE INSIDE OUT

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[No more re-blogging.  This one’s new!]

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What’s been clamoring for attention these last two weeks is that usually very boring topic you bring up with people you don’t know well but have to converse with while waiting for something else to happen.  (Nurse in doctor’s office comes to mind.)  It’s the weather!

Right now, for those of us on the northeastern seaboard of North America, the weather’s not so boring.  We may be used to bad winters, but this one is turning out to be a doozy.  No sooner had we survived record downfalls of snow last week (10″ in one night), than it became unseasonably warm for a couple of days. Unwind-your-scarves-and fling-open-your-coat warm. The crazy sun melted the snow on rooftops and the mountains of snow banked against the sides of the roads so that water ran down onto front walkways from the roofs, and flooded driveways and streets and parking lots from the melting snow piles left after snow-plowing. Suddenly everything everywhere outside was grey slushy water or grey watery slush, so that it became an ordeal to slosh from your car in the parking lot to the supermarket door, or even to clomp down the street about 300 feet from your own front door to your mailbox.

And then, just as everyone was telling everyone else that it couldn’t last, it didn’t!  The return of bitter cold temperatures froze the water in the driveways and on the streets and parking lots into uneven patches of slippery ice and, more dangerous yet, unseen patches of black ice.  After which it snowed again (only 5″ to 8″ inches this time). Fine powdery white snow that covered all the ice, black or not, from view. It was very pretty, until you tried to hobble out for any reason at all, such as digging out your car to go to work after the “snow emergency” was over.

Which is where the advantages of getting old kick in.  [If you thought there weren’t any, I’ve been failing miserably with this blog.]  No more going to work!  No more taking the kids to school! No more need to go anywhere at all, as long as the kitchen is stocked and the freezer is full!  Just be sure you have enough candles and batteries of all sizes to keep you going when the next high wind or heavy accumulation of snow on branches knocks a tree down across a power line, plunging you into the dark until the utility company can get their men and high ladders out to those felled trees and fallen wires to electrify your life again. Which might take a couple of days.

[No, Florida is NOT an option.  They’ve got hurricanes, and tornados, and boarding up windows to contend with. Don’t get me started, or we’ll be in an entirely different post.]

In short, when you’re getting old, you can put on a pair of yoga pants and warm socks, turn up the thermostat, make yourself a cup of hot tea or cocoa, look out your windows at your neighbors trying to get their cars started, and just admire views about which the word “magical” might appropriately be invoked. [Bill did indeed invoke that very word yesterday.  I myself thought it a bit cliche, but better than “winter wonderland.”]

For instance, this is what I saw last week when I looked out my office window on the second floor of our condo unit.  It faces an acre of dedicated land on which nothing will be built.

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Going downstairs to the kitchen, where sliding glass doors look out onto a deck, the cats and I got to admire the same dedicated land from a slightly different perspective:

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What did we see from the downstairs front windows?

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And:

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And then, venturing timidly into the driveway for purposes of thorough photographic reportage:

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And:

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But it was much too cold and slippery to stay out long.  So we hurried back inside for some last looks at the outside front walkway:

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Today it’s not so bad.  But I hear there’s more coming. Winter wonderland or no, I think we’ve all had enough of that, don’t you?  I can hardly wait till Spring.