A friend recently (2018) sent me an article about a small vacant lot zoned for a single-family dwelling in Palo Alto, California, just a little plot of land, selling for seven million dollars. In another article about a housing development the San Francisco Giants are financing in San Francisco near their ballpark, the big excitement about the project is that 40% of the 1300 units of housing will be rented to working-class families only earning 80-150 thousand dollars a year.
Hmm. I have never been a big fan of science fiction. As a teenager I enjoyed I, Robot and a few other classics, but in general sci-fi has never been my cup of tea. For one thing, we can’t go faster than the speed of light, so we’re stuck here. Why can’t we just accept that and fully embrace the here and now and figure out how to live sustainably on this planet instead of dreaming about going to other planets we will never get to? For another thing, who can relate to a reality in which a family with an annual income of 150 thousand dollars is thought to be working class? In that reality would a homeless person be pulling down fifty grand a year?
In any case, these nutty financial figures got me thinking about my youth in Palo Alto and San Francisco, when seven million dollars would have bought you two hundred nice houses and their lots in Palo Alto, and a hundred grand a year would have made you filthy rich in San Francisco. Yes, I know, inflation and all that, but not really. According to our government, and you’ll know this if you depend on Social Security income as I do, there is no inflation to speak of and hasn’t been any inflation for the last decade. (Oh, that’s right. They don’t count food prices or rent or much of anything in their calculations. I wonder why not.)
When I attended Woodside High School, my pals Rico and David and I put out a mimeographed counter-culture magazine called Lyceum. We had several dozen subscribers and sold copies at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, and when, after eight issues, we folded up shop because David and I were going off to college and we’d run out of things to say, Rico reported we had amassed a profit of eighty dollars. We decided to celebrate by taking three lovely young women for a day and evening of fun in San Francisco.
The year was 1967, the month was June. Our budget was eighty dollars. For the six of us. The three writer editors dressed as wannabe North Beach poets, the three lucky women, under the command of my girlfriend, wore saris. By the end of our long day, the gals would regret that clothing choice. We took the train from Menlo Park to San Francisco, took the bus from there to Chinatown, and after a splendid meal in a Chinese restaurant, we wandered around for a few hours shopping for volumes of poetry and gaudy scarves.
Exhausted by our wandering, we had lattes and biscotti at Caffe Trieste in North Beach and then went for all we could eat supper at the Spaghetti Factory. Well-stuffed, we waddled across North Beach and saw The Committee perform. And though I didn’t understand most of what those witty people said or why the audience found them so riotously funny, I felt sophisticated and worldly and adult and hip. Then we caught a bus back to the train station and rode home triumphantly out of money, our eighty dollars covering everything the six of us did and saw and consumed on that day.
Over the ensuing fifty years, I have only twice earned more than a hundred thousand dollars in a year, my average annual income being in the fifteen to twenty thousand dollar range, some years less, rarely more. I have scraped by, so to speak, yet whilst scraping by I lived in a beautiful room in a big house right on the beach in Santa Cruz and my rent was thirty-five dollars a month, and I lived in a lovely house in Ashland, Oregon, my rent sixty dollars a month. And fairly recently I lived in a nice house in a quiet neighborhood in Berkeley before the erasure of rent control ended the era of reasonable rents. And Rico lived for many years in a prime location in San Francisco and paid 270 a month for a spacious two-bedroom flat.
When I dropped out of college in 1969, I didn’t worry about money, though I had almost no money. The reason I didn’t worry was that in those days it took very little effort to earn enough money to rent a room and buy enough food to eat, and by very little effort I mean a few hours a day earning a couple bucks an hour covered my expenses. A visit to the doctor was ten bucks, and if he or she prescribed antibiotics, a few dollars more. For some years I made my living playing the guitar and singing in taverns and cafes. Ten bucks and a hearty meal and free beer plus tips amounting to another ten bucks all for a few hours of strumming and singing. Three such gigs a week meant I was making around sixty dollars a week. I was rolling in dough!
I was able to pursue my writing and music because things, the necessities of a decent life, did not cost much. Money was important, but not all important. Today, however, when a loaf of bread is seven dollars and brown rice is $2.50 a pound, and when we visited Portland and saw vast armies of homeless people living in the streets, and when I stand in line at the grocery store and watch the high school kids spending ten dollars for a bottle of pop and a bag of chips and a candy bar and my friend’s daughter pays 1200 a month for space in a house in Berkeley she shares with five other people, I wonder what the young Todd I used to be would do in today’s world to survive and still be able to work at writing and composing music.
I have no idea what I would do if I was twenty today and embarking on my life as an artist. Everything I did in my life was predicated on being able to live on next to nothing. I travelled by hitchhiking or bus, I never went to Europe, I rarely ate at restaurants, I didn’t own a car or have health insurance. I just got by. And that was enough for me so long as I had time to make my art. But what if I hadn’t been able to live on next to nothing. What would I have done?