Published on September 17th, 2019 | by Cheryl Klein1
Squeezed: Almost Making Ends Meet in American Cities
Rick’s third attempt to fix our air conditioning coincided with our first day back from a trip up the coast for my sister’s wedding. Even on my best days, I have a skittish, Mrs. Dalloway-esque relationship with people servicing our house. Today, I’d waded through 51 new work emails, spent three hours driving, and was now trying to cook turkey hot dogs and tempeh while hosting a play date with the girls next door.
I nodded along with Rick’s hypothesis that an electromagnetic field killed the motherboard, or something. Yes, definitely that, please god let me take a nap.
My son Dash and the older of the two neighbor girls stood in the kitchen, holding lemons retrieved from our back yard, castoffs from another neighbor’s tree.
“We wanna make lemonade again,” Jasmine announced. “I want to squeeze the first one.”
Thanks to Rick’s multiple visits, I knew that he’d grown up in Brooklyn, back when no one there had central air, and come to Los Angeles because he thought California would be better for his daughter’s asthma. He was Black with a French surname. He drove a shiny blue car that Dash now recognized.
“Jasmine asked first,” I said. I fished the juicer from a drawer of miscellany.
Dash dragged his step stool to the kitchen counter. “I want to go first.”
Six lemons, six squeezing rotations, and one trip (Rick’s) to Home Depot later, we had functioning air conditioning and lemonade. It was after nine o’ clock, and the house was still hot, and Jasmine’s mom wasn’t back from her walk. I was melting inside and out.
I poured a glass of lemonade for Rick. “Um, I’m sorry, but I don’t have a check for you this time. Would you be able to send us an invoice, and we’ll mail one to you right away? Or Venmo?”
Rick’s face, so open when Dash had presented him with a crayoned portrait, seemed to lose its muscle tone. “Sure…okay. I don’t have Venmo. I’ll get your email address and send you an invoice tonight.”
What I did not tell him: Earlier that hectic Tuesday, I’d gotten an overdraft notice from my bank, coupled with a $35 fee. I had two small checks in my purse that would have prevented the last small check I’d written from bouncing, but I hadn’t had time to deposit them. I’d been busy racing across town to pick up Dash from daycare. I hadn’t gotten there before closing, so I’d wracked up $15 in late fees.
I am an adult with a master’s degree, a manager-level job, a working spouse, and very reasonable rent because my dad is our landlord. Yes, my dad is our landlord, an owner of capital. But somehow there is no wiggle room when it comes to money and time and their many intersections.
Everything in this paragraph and the previous one sends little shock waves of shame through my body.
I imagined one those viral horror stories: The white lady who tried to pay me in lemonade.
C.C. got home from her second job and wrote Rick a check.
I promised myself that starting tomorrow, I would…what? Buy less coffee? Save for my next car repair in $4 increments?
The pressure and the shame cohabit in my body, so it’s hard to disentangle one from the other. My only solace, the only vague proof that I’m not doing everything terribly wrong, is that most of the four million people in Los Angeles are struggling too, many of them much more than my family. Jasmine’s family of five lives in a one-bedroom apartment with a nook carved out for her older brother between the hallway and the back door.
Cities are gleaming and gritty gathering places, blooms of blue in a sea of red. Cities declare themselves places of sanctuary, literally and subtly. I fell in love with LA in college, but lately I’ve been wondering how much it loves us back.
A person earning minimum wage in Los Angeles would have to work 79 hours a week to afford (i.e. spend 30% of their income or less on) a one-bedroom apartment. I found this statistic by Googling “Los Angeles housing crisis,” but the tents under every freeway overpass tell me most of what I need to know. I recently read an essay by a high school student who lived with eleven family members in a trailer; they put a board over the sink to turn it into a bed.
“How do you do it?” I asked Facebook un-rhetorically. “Do you live with extended family? Did you buy in 1998? Do you work three jobs?”
Answers poured in from LA, New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area, but not just those places. Many if not most of my friends and acquaintances are middle class. But what does that mean when almost no one seems to be comfortably raising a family on one or even two incomes without some sort of big concession or loophole? After adjusting for inflation, Americans’ hourly wages peaked more than 45 years ago. Millennials are downwardly mobile compared to Gen X and Boomers. (I am on the younger end of Gen X.) So how, specifically, are we making it all…sort of…work?
“One child, no car, small apartment, rent in a slightly less fancy area, credit card debt, family help,” summarized Abigail,* whose husband was just laid off.
“I live in Berkeley, California,” said Mara. “We bought the cheapest home we could find back in 1997 and we’re still trying to afford to fix it up, one improvement at a time. I imagine that both of my daughters will be living with us, at least part-time, well into adulthood. I work as an editor and don’t earn enough to afford to live in the Bay Area, but I’m also married to a white man who has access to the old-school professional hierarchy.”
Meadow wrote: “Had to move outside of DC area. Currently live in a home [in which] we refinished the basement, had tenants in it for three years. Now my mom lives in the basement and we use part of it as in-home daycare (so I can work, but also be home with my kids).”
From Staten Island, New York, Vanessa broke down her family’s stats: “Two city employees: an elementary school teacher and college professor. Massive student loan debt: one laying down almost $1K a month and one ignoring it. We rent an apartment–three bedrooms, one bath–from my parents in the house they own, that my great-grandparents built in 1962. We pay $1,500 a month, plus electric and cable. We are raising two kids in less than 800 square feet. It’s hell…. ‘Starter’ homes are currently about $770K.”
My college friend Aimee Phan, who shares a home with her mother, husband, and two kids in the Bay Area, wrote in the New York Times a few years ago about plugging her family’s income into a budget calculator tool: “The rent estimate was half what we pay, the grocery stipend looked like a typo.”
And then there was Iris, in the comparatively affordable town of Santa Maria, California: “We are shifting from living with family and working multiple jobs (I personally have four jobs right now, [my husband] works 50-60 hours at his–this part is hopefully temporary) to an unusual situation where we will have subsidized rent through an organization that facilitates greater community within apartment complexes. We’ll have 10-15 extra hours per week of community engagement work and reporting in exchange for well over 50% what we would have owed in rent.”
Colleen, a queer single mom of three said: “We moved from Seattle to a cheaper area partly because it was cheaper. It turned out to be a horrible fit for us (not progressive at all, despite claims to the contrary), and now we are moving back to Seattle and will make it work however we can because my kids and I need to be in a progressive space. My kids, especially my gender-nonconforming kiddo, were bullied for their gender presentations repeatedly, even by adults. No way I will stay there, no matter how cheap it is.”
How do families do it? Find a unicorn. Find parents with capital. Move constantly or not at all. Pay for your queerness, literally, so that you won’t have to pay with your life. Or your child’s.
My grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-aunt all lived in Hollywood back when there were movie studios there. My grandmother drew Woody Woodpecker, over and over and over, for Walter Lance Studios and filled her diary with swooning entries about the movies she’d seen and the stars she adored.
I don’t know why or exactly when the city lost its sparkle for them, but my parents grew up in suburbs to the south. My mom talked about how “When your grandmother was young, she could walk down the street in Hollywood. At night.”
When I was in college, dancing in dingy clubs off Hollywood Boulevard, I laughed at my mom’s alarm. During the day, I photographed empty lots, graffiti, and tacky gift shops. I saw my mom as the product of white flight, but I didn’t see myself as the beginning of gentrification. I didn’t know the word. I was trying to live inside a Francesca Lia Block novel, grit and queerness and fairy wings.
It’s strange watching yourself ride the arc of history. It’s strange to fall in love with a city that both is and isn’t your ancestral home, to displace others and then be displaced. To worry that your city is dying in your arms, choking on its own dubious success.
It’s strange to know that if your son doesn’t live with you as an adult, he’ll probably have to live at least a state away, miles of scrubby high desert between you.
The air conditioning works now. Our house is cool, but I can’t stop thinking about the thick heat in the attic where Rick did most of his work. I don’t remember LA being this hot when I was a kid, but I grew up near the beach and now I live near the foothills, so it’s not a scientific comparison. After years of baking beneath glass, plastic parts of my old car’s interior crumble in my hands. I crank up the AC at home and on the road, a bubble of false cool.
*There’s no shame in struggle, or there shouldn’t be, but I changed all my friends’ names anyway.