Tag Archives: autobiographical

What’s The Difference Between Cheap Wine and Expensive Wine?

I wrote this blog after spending three months working at various vineyards in New Zealand and asking all my bosses about the process of winemaking.

Photo of me in a Vineyard somewhere near Hastings, New Zealand

The biggest difference between good wine and bad wine isn’t age. There’s wine that sells for $100 as soon as it comes off the assembly line, and it’s grown from the same grapes that the same vineyard sells for $9 a bottle. Expensive wines aren’t made from some rare super grape either, and cheap wines aren’t made from inferior grapes.The big difference in quality comes from how those grapes were treated during the growing process.

At the beginning of the growing process, every vine is treated the same. They’re planted in long, straight rows. A wooden post as tall as a grown man sticks out of the ground between every four or five plants. Three or four metal wires run perpendicularly between/along the posts. The reason those posts and wires are there is because grape vines aren’t trees. They’re vines, obviously. So left on their own they’ll just fall to the ground and grow in the dirt, but that would ruin the grapes. So workers have to come through the rows of grape plants and tie them to the bottom wire when the grape plants are tall enough to reach. Then, as the vines get taller and bushier they’ll naturally grab onto the higher wires if their shoots happen to touch them, but a lot of the shoots just fall back down to the ground. So at some point, human beings have to walk down every row in the vineyard and pick up all the low hanging vines and tuck them up through the wires.

This doesn’t just keep the vines out of the dirt. It also gives the leaves maximum exposure to sunlight, and since grapes tend to grow towards the bottom of vines and not the top, that means when the vines are stretched upwards then most of the grape clusters will grow conveniently along the bottom wire where they can be picked without having to dig through tangled vines. There’s still work to be done before the grapes are picked though, and how that work is done will determine whether the grapes will yield premium or cheap wine.

The leaves on the grape plants need sunlight to nourish the grapes. The grapes themselves also need direct exposure to sunlight to ripen properly, but the leaves cover the grapes.  So the leaves around the grapes need to be removed from the vines, but you need to take off as few leaves as possible or else the whole plant won’t get enough light to nourish its fruit. You also need to remove those leaves without damaging the grapes. There are at least three ways to do this:

Some vineyards use sheep. If you put sheep in a vineyard when the grapes are young and sour the sheep will avoid eating them, but they’ll eat all the leaves around the grapes, and since the rest of the vines and leaves are too high for the sheep to reach they pick off just about the right amount of leaves. Inevitably though, the sheep will end up damaging a few grapes and possibly eating too many leaves.

If 100 rows of vines in a vineyard are reserved for making cheap wine then a farmer can just drive a tall, skinny tractor up and down the rows that suck or blows all the leaves off. It’s a cheap and quick method, but it damages the grapes.

The only tool in the universe capable of performing the precision task of delicately removing just the right amount of leaves is a human being. So they’re sent into the vineyards to spend all day, every day in green, roofless hallways shuffling sideways analyzing the bottoms of these walls looking for leaves that cover up the grapes and pulling them off while being careful not to bruise the grapes or remove too many leaves.

It doesn’t sound difficult to spend 9 hours walking sideways pulling leaves off of vines, and it’s true that there are more difficult jobs in the world, but leaf plucking is a unique form of torture, as every job on a vineyard is in its own way. The leaves grow just low enough that an average sized person has to bend over slightly to grab them. This doesn’t hurt if you do it once, but if you do it for 50 hours a week you’ll be in agony. That’s a fact. Once your back starts hurting from bending forward you can switch to bending your knees so it looks like you’re doing the limbo dance, except instead of going under the wall you go sideways…forever. Eventually, that’s going to hurt too. When that happens you can just fall down on your knees and pick out the leaves at chest height. If you’ve lost the will to get back up you can waddle sideways on your knees and/or crawl down a whole row that way, but you don’t have knee pads. So your knees get beat up on the rocks and twigs. And the ground is covered in a thousand doses of weed killer. So you don’t want what’s down there to get into the cuts, scrapes, and blisters in your hands and knees.

After the leaves are plucked and all the grapes are exposed along the bottom of the rows you can walk along them and see where bunches of grapes are growing at odd angles and smashing into each other. Those need to be separated and pruned. You’ll also find other bunches are growing on tiny, leafless branches that won’t be able to nourish the grapes to ripeness. Those need to be removed so the plant can nourish the grapes that are left. Sometimes there’s just too many grapes. If you remove all these extra grapes then the remaining ones will grow plump and sweet. If you don’t remove these extra grapes you’ll still get some good bunches, but you’ll also get a lot of small, under-ripe sour bunches. If simply drive a tractor down the row and harvest all the small, vinegary grapes along with the ripe, sugary ones together you’ll end up with bottom shelf hobo wine.

If your customer expects wine so pure that it doesn’t give them a headache then millions of people all over the world need to pour into their local vineyards and sacrifice the days of their youth (and/or their “golden years”) in purgatory staring at bunches of grapes, studying them, counting them, thinking about how and why to remove them so that all that’s left at harvest time are big, juicy, sugary grapes.

Once the plucking and snipping are done, then all those ripe, juicy grapes will look like a free gourmet buffet to birds. If you’ve already invested months of wages into having your grape vines groomed then you can’t afford to give your crop away to the birds. If you’re making cheap wine you might be able to afford to lose a few grapes, but if you’re making premium wine you need total security. One way you can keep birds away is by buying an airgun that’s hooked up to a tank and makes a loud blast that sounds like a gunshot every minute or so. But that doesn’t keep all the birds away all the time. Since it’s not cost effective to build a glass roof over a thousand acre vineyard, the next best thing you can do is send workers back into the wailing walls and cover the plants with nets.

Until someone invents an efficient way to put nets over plants workers will have to spend the best days of their irreplaceable lives rolling gigantic spools of nets down rows 50+ yards long in the premium section of most vineyards. Each row will have two nets, one on either side. Then two people, one on either side, will take their net and lift it over the plant where they’ll take a little plastic clip (like the ones that hold bread bags closed) and clip the two nets together. They’ll also need to bend over and reach underneath the green wall to grab the net hanging on the other side so they can pin them together underneath so birds can’t fly up through the bottom of the net. A lot of care needs to be taken to make sure the vines are wrapped up so tight that a bird the size of a cell phone can’t get in, and you can be sure they’ll try. So the workers need to end up putting five to nine clips above and below every plant. They’ll have to use more clips to patch up the holes that have inevitably been ripped in net. In nine hours they’ll go through thousands of clips. So they have to carry a big pouch full of them. It takes a lot of thought and attention to detail to clip the nets together properly. It also takes a strong back, but if you’ve been working in a vineyard for very long you’ve already got a pretty strong back.

Even with a strong back, you’re still going to go home with sore muscles every day, especially if you’re getting paid by how fast you work. As a general rule vineyard workers get paid as little as possible and get as few benefits or breaks as the law will allow in whatever country a vineyard happens to be in, and some places are worse than others. Sometimes, instead of getting minimum wage, farmers will have the workers play their own version of the Hunger Games. In this version, the contestants get paid a few cents for every plant they pluck, trim and/or cover with nets. Whoever pushes themselves the farthest past the brink of human endurance and takes the least amount of breaks and cuts the most corners will be rewarded with slightly more than minimum wage. Everybody else will get less than minimum wage, and I guess that’s the point. The only two groups of people who really win these Hunger Games are the vineyard owners (who win a new mansion) and the rich people who drink pretentiously expensive wine (who win a sweet taste in their mouth for a few minutes). You could say the vineyard workers win a job, but it’s the job of a disposable slave. You would have to be completely morally bankrupt to call the work vineyard laborers do for they pay they receive a good opportunity. It’s not an opportunity. It’s a trap. It’s a waste of life.

This raises an interesting question. Who would willingly agree to this trap? Who would take seasonal work that pays as little as possible leaving you jobless halfway through the year with as little money as possible? There are all types, and most of them are more or less homeless. That’s why they can move with the season, and that’s why they’re desperate enough to put up with being treated like an animal.

You could say, “Yeah, but at least they’re getting paid.” The thing about that is, vineyards are making enough money for the owners to buy mansions and sports cars. If there’s that much money left over after operating costs then there’s enough money to pay the workers enough to see the dentist. If vineyards truly aren’t profitable enough to pay its workers more than slave wages then that means premium means wine can only ever exist in a society where income inequality is so bad that the poor are desperate enough to accept being treated and paid like disposable slaves.

Either way, the main ingredient that goes into making premium wine (and which is largely missing in cheap wine) is the tears of the poor. The two main ingredients that go into making cheap wine (and which is largely missing in premium wine) are vinegar and pollution.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like these:

My Goals
My Life Stories (in chronological order)
The Life of the Poor

An American Expat Visits The Occupy Auckland Protest: Part 2

 

I visited the Occupy Auckland protest a few weeks ago when it started and wrote about my initial impression in another post. Yesterday I went back with my tent and spent the night. I participated in the general assembly and offered to teach the protesters how to use my formula plot template to write stories about the issues they were trying to raise awareness about, but nobody took me up on the offer. I ate a fantastic meal from their excessive kitchen facilities and spent the rest evening talking with the other campers. Here’s what I took away from the experience.

The “Occupy Auckland” camp is basically a homeless shelter draped in protest signs, and most of the non-homeless occupants seem to come from very low socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. I’m not saying this to be judgmental. I’m pointing it out as an objective observation, and it needs to be pointed out because it has some important implications.

Don’t go to “Occupy Auckland” to meet the people who are going to change the world. Go there to see why the world needs fixing. If you see mentally ill vagrants and dirty hippies there, don’t jump to the conclusion these are irresponsible, clueless moochers who came to Auckland to blow off steam before getting back to their normal lives. Those irresponsible-looking human beings have been occupying one city or another their entire lives. It’s just that nobody ever noticed them before because society kept them kicked in the gutter out of sight of the good shoppers and rugby fans. Now that the human beings the system has failed have come together in conspicuous numbers and occupied a highly-visible public space the world can’t wait to find any excuse to dismiss them again and sweep them back into the gutters so they can get back to their luxurious shopping sprees, binge drinking, mindless television-viewing and whatever other diversionary activities they can come up with to try to make themselves forget that they’re throwing their lives away in a high-stress rat race to nowhere.

What do the protesters want? What would the government have to give them to get them out of the public eye again? On the most basic level, they just want a chance, not just for themselves but for everyone alive today and everyone yet to be born. The only problem is they don’t have the educational or professional background to articulate how to fix the system that failed them and is setting up a whole new generation of unsuspecting human beings to fail as well. That’s why they’re not in politics. That’s why we rely on politicians to manage the system for us. The only problem is that the politicians don’t have the educational or professional background to fix the system either. These days politicians are professional campaigners. They get elected because they can convince naive voters that they’ll represent their needs and interests, but once they get into office they need someone to tell them how to do their job, and the only people with access to the halls of government are professional lobbyists and campaign financiers who have a vested interest in twisting politicians’ arms to represent the interests of the rich, who have a vested interest in exploiting the common worker/voter.

Why is there economic inequality? Because the only way the rich can get richer is by taking a bigger share of the poor’s income, which the top 1% have made legal by buying out the majority share of representation in government. That’s probably the crux of the protester’s message, but then the heads of state knew that before the protesters did. John Key, the prime minister of New Zealand, could walk down to Aotea Square today, set up a tent and sleep on the ground with the protesters tonight. He could raise the minimum wage, make profit sharing mandatory, raise taxes on the rich and make education free. The fact that he hasn’t acknowledged much less addressed the plight of the bottom 1% should be taken as evidence that (just like Barack Obama) he has no intention to….not until they twist his arm like the top 1% have done.

Unfortunately, the protesters don’t know how to do that. To their credit, unlike the top 1%, they’re committed to nonviolence, which is just as well because they’re so disorganized that any attempt at a violent revolution would just result in fruitless rioting. In lieu of that, they’ve resorted to blowing bubbles in banks and harassing bank clerks, who are obviously, downtrodden members of the 99% themselves. At this rate, all John Key needs to do to shut down the protesters is stand back and let them make such a nuisance of themselves that the public asks for the police to evict them back to the gutters they came from.

I saw one beacon of hope at the Occupy Auckland protest, a professional academic from the Auckland University of Technology who has been trying to inject the voice of reason into the general assemblies but getting hopelessly blocked by obstinate factions and individual, attention whoring naysayers within the assembly. If that professor (or the person who takes his place after he throws up his hands in frustrations and quits) can structure the camp into a professional public relations machine then the protesters have a chance at waking up the rest of society to the fact that the homeless and hungry are not anomalies; they’re an inevitable product of a broken system and are only a taste of what’s to come if business continues as usual.

But the protesters aren’t going to be able to do that on their own because they don’t even have the skills to secure meaningful employment for themselves. But rather than faulting them for that, we should learn this valuable lesson from them: The people most oppressed by the system are not the people most responsible for fixing the system. The people most responsible for fixing the system are those with the most power. Everyone knows money is power, but the wealthiest 1% have already drawn a line in the sand to stand against their fellow man. Luckily, money isn’t the most powerful force in the world; knowledge is.

The people with the most responsibility to speak for the poor and uneducated are the professors and university administrators. The derelict campers shouldn’t be picketing outside banks begging clerks to change the system. They should be picketing in front of the universities and begging the academics to come down from their ivory towers to accept their responsibility as the voice of reason, the voice of history, the voice of the people.

 

If you enjoyed this story, you’ll also like these:

 

Protesting
My Life Stories (in chronological order)

 


An American Expat Visits The Occupy Auckland Protest: Part 1

Photo of protesters sitting on park benches, surrounded by tents and signs at the Occupy Auckland protest

I had a surreal experience the other day. To understand why it was surreal you need to understand that I was born and bred in the Bible Belt of America. I’m a white, Caucasian male who was named after a white, American, Caucasian, male war hero. I’m an honorably discharged veteran of the Iraq war with three rows of ribbons on my ribbon rack. I’m also an expat who just celebrated my two year anniversary of emigrating to New Zealand, and I left America for all the reasons people are protesting on Wall Street today.

Coming from that perspective, I went to the “Occupy Auckland” protest the other day. For those of you who don’t know or couldn’t guess, the “Occupy Auckland” event was inspired by and is being held in solidarity with the “Occupy Wall Street” “movement.”

At the time there were 40 tents camped in a public park directly off of Queen St., in downtown Auckland, which is sort of like a smaller scale version of Times Square. There were two extremely bored police officers wearing neon green reflective vests loitering in the vicinity of the protest grounds. All they had to look at to amuse themselves was a bunch of empty tents (the residents were at professional jobs and would return in the evening), a few bored hippies and a meandering stream of passing rugby tourists.

In a lot of ways, the protest was anticlimactic. The protesters I spoke with said that most of the pedestrians who stopped to talk with them were either mildly curious what the protest was about or wanted to express their support for the movement. The protesters also told me that on the first day of the occupation they held a march down Queen St, which drew an estimated 2000 participants, and they received $2000 in donations in their first weekend, and there has been a regular stream of old women stopping by giving them free home-cooked meals….not that they seemed to need the food because by the time I arrived they had set up a better kitchen than I have in my house.

I literally paid $160 over the past weekend to camp at a campground for 4 days, and I had access to fewer amenities, less camaraderie, less excitement and fewer picture opportunities than I would have had if I would have camped with the protesters on Queen St.

Now I’m thinking about taking my tent over there and going camping for the fun of it. Needless to say, there are a lot of Kiwis hold that the fact the protesters are so comfortable is proof that they have nothing to protest in the first place and should just go home. Even though life in New Zealand is far from perfect, but it’s a lot better than in America. Kiwis are happier and have a quantifiable better standard of living than Americans because the system works better in New Zealand.  There are fewer problems, and the problems they do have, they’ve responded more effectively to. From this perspective, some Kiwis feel the people camping on Queen St. should be celebrating instead of protesting.

Superficially they’re right, but if you trace the problems the Queen St. protesters are standing against below the surface to any depth at all, you’ll understand why all the Occupy movements are relevant and even vital. The root of the problem that all the Occupy movements are protesting against trace back to income inequality. All around the world, it’s the norm for political leadership positions to be given to those with the most money. Laws are passed that maximize profits at the expense of human life. Every business pays their workers as little as possible and charges their customers as much as possible. You literally can’t shit without being taxed or fined or otherwise billed. Poorer people pay a higher percentage of their income to shit. You need a fortune to get an education, and you need an education to get a fortune. People are even getting charged to save their money now, and it’s illegal not to pay the government whatever bizarro number it tells you that you owe the tax collector.

These are universal themes that are getting worse everywhere. Those statements may be less true in some countries, but “as America goes, so goes the world.” If the economic/political climate continues on its current trajectory then every country in the world will end up in the same dystopia within a lifetime. Soon we will all live in cookie cutter houses doing service level work for no benefits and no securities for our entire lives. We’ll have no medical care, no education, and everything we buy we’ll have to go into debt for. The only legal options we’ll have for escaping the monotony and anxiety of our lives will be tobacco, alcohol, sports, and television. Then we’ll numb ourselves to our numbness and kill ourselves as quickly as possible, not because we’re irresponsible, but because we’re unfulfilled and miserable with the unnatural, inhumane environment we’ve been forced to grow up and live in.

Even if none of that happens to any of us, it is happening to billions of people all over the world right now through no fault of their own. Every country uses varyingly modern versions of the caste system, and they’re all moving towards the American model of corporate dependency.

The Pacific Islanders have a long literary history of complaining about how colonial forces took their islands and gave it to foreigners. Well, American commercialization is the new colonialism. If you want to see what Tonga is going to look like in 30 years, just visit Oahu. It’s going to be ghettos and strip malls separated from ultra-wealthy subdivisions by dull grey roads and concrete walls. The entire world is devolving into Office Space under the American economic model. That’s not the society humans have the potential of building. That’s not humane, and that’s not how anyone wants to live.

It may not look like the protesters are changing the world yet, but they’re already changing people’s minds, and the more time they have to get organized the clearer and more persuasive their message will become. The more that message spreads the harder it will be for any single government to silence the overall movement. The protesters are planting seeds right now that may not bear fruit for a while, but the check’s in the mail, and they may prevent all of Polynesia from getting completely turned into internationally owned chains of strip malls.

 

 

If you enjoyed this story, you’ll also like these:

 

Protesting

My Life Stories (in chronological order)


The Evolution Of My Definition Of Love

"Love is just a word until you find someone to give it a definition."

 

Dictionary.com defines “love” as:

1. a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.

2. a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection, as for a parent, child, or friend.

3. sexual passion or desire.

4. a person toward whom love is felt; beloved person; sweetheart.

 

That definition is nearly vague to the point of being useless. It doesn’t tell us how long it takes to fall in love, what you have to do to get there or how to be sure your feelings are more than just an infatuation. Does it only take a few weeks to fall in love? A few months?

When I was seventeen years old I didn’t know what love was, but I believed it had to be forged by stronger, more meaningful experiences than could be had in a few months. I believed this so strongly that I refused to kiss my high school sweetheart until I was sure it meant something very, very serious. I was even more reserved about telling her I loved her. I didn’t want to undermine the value of our kiss or our words by throwing them around loosely. In the end, my high school sweetheart and I broke up, and I never did tell her I loved her. For years afterward, I congratulated myself for make the right choice because, in my mind, the fact that we broke up proved our love wasn’t real.

Yet, during the time we dated she was all I thought about all day. Seeing her took my breath away every time. The sound of her voice was like an angel singing. When I was in her presence I felt like I’d been let into Heaven early and unworthy. Most of my peers would have called that love, and though I wouldn’t have agreed with them at the time, looking back on that relationship I can say that even if our feelings for each other weren’t forged by the test of time, they were still sincere. I’ve often wondered if I could articulate a reason why my feelings for her weren’t love.

I had a hard time answering that question without a usable definition of love, but my next relationship taught me a few things that helped me better define the concept. Several years after graduating high school I moved to Italy where I dated an Italian girl who introduced me a novel way of defining and measuring love.  She pointed out how, in the English language, you can tell a romantic partner that you either like them or you love them. That only gives lovers two ways to define their relationship.

In the Italian language, new couples can tell each other, “Ti voglio,” which means, “I like you.” Just as in English, this statement implies there’s a limit to how much you like the other person. If you like someone more you can tell them, “Ti voglio bene,” which means, “I like you good.” You could escalate that by saying, “Ti voglio tanto bene,” which translates, “I like you good, a lot.” If you’re crazy about someone you can tell them, “Ti voglio tantissimo,” which means, “I like you most.” The final, strongest statement of affection would be, “Ti amo,” which means, “I love you.”

 

"Keep calm and ti voglio tanto bene"

 

English speakers are free to use the same terms to describe a progression of affection, but the tiers aren’t as institutionalized in the American vernacular/dating customs as they are in Italy. I certainly didn’t see the distinction growing up in America. I wish I would have had the words to tell my high school sweetheart, “Ti voglio tantissimo” at least.

In my early twenties, I found this tiered perspective of love slightly more useful than my original “all or nothing” point of view, but it raised more questions than it answered. In order for this paradigm to be useful to me, I had to define all the stages of a relationship leading up to love in addition to defining what love itself is.

The Italian girl and I eventually broke up, and we both went on to explore new relationships. I studied mine closely to try to pick out their turning points as if I were picking out plot points in a Hollywood sitcom. I could tell there was a definite progression to real-life romances, but the lines between the stages were blurred. I stared at those blurred lines until I accepted the obvious truth: Love doesn’t evolve like a Pokemon. It doesn’t level up into a new and improved creature in a bright flash of light after racking up enough experience points. It grows gradually, but no matter how big or small it is, it still is. On one level there’s no need to label arbitrary points in its growth. Love doesn’t need labels. It can still mature between two people even if they never change their Facebook status or say the magic words. And as I learned the hard way with my high school sweetheart, spending too much time worrying about labeling the stages of your relationship’s growth can hurt it.

Having said that, you can watch the love lives of the couples in your own life and see that relationships do follow fairly predictable patterns, and understanding them will help you get through them. They’re not profound, mystical or based on tiers of obsession. The most successful couples are the ones who have the deepest friendship, not the strongest case of codependency. In a lot of ways, falling in love is simply the process of becoming best friends. So the stages of falling in love are basically the same as the stages of friendship. But long-term romantic relationships are more involved than simply getting to know someone you enjoy being around. Moving in with someone and intertwining your life with theirs effectively makes you business partners. Integrating two people’s lives isn’t easy, but the process follows a logical and predictable series of stages that Disney doesn’t teach children about.

If you’re looking for a time frame for when it’s reasonable to tell your partner that you love them, you can reference the stages of friendship or relationships. But when do you tell other people you love them platonically? Does the evolution of that kind of love follow a different route? How differently should we love others (if at all)/ Should we have a different name for other kinds of love? And does love have to be so confusing?

The Greek language has five different words for five different kinds of love. They’re more nuanced than I’m about to describe them, but for the sake of brevity, we can say that “Mania” is obsessive love. “Eros” is romantic love. “Philos” is platonic, brotherly love.  “Storgy” is the bond between providers and dependents, and “Agape” is unconditional, selfless (and potentially spiritual) love.

Every other language humans have invented contain their own nuanced definitions of love. It might seem like all these competing definitions would make the task of defining love more complicated, but actually, all the extra data helps us simplify the problem by revealing a common denominator. Regardless of how intensely you feel or show your affection towards any person or group, you’re ultimately doing the same thing for the same reason: you’re valuing them.

If I had to define love, I would say love is valuing something. Who, when, where, why, and how much are just details.

Using this definition, we can answer the question, “How do you love someone?” One way is by valuing them in your heart and assigning emotional weight to the thought of them in your mind. If your feelings exist, then there’s love in them, and that’s worth something. At the same time, anything you do that helps another person fulfill their potential is functionally equivalent to an act of love regardless of your intentions. If you tell someone you value them and then turn around and mistreat them, the love you feel may be sincere in your heart, but functionally your love will be hollow at best and destructive at worst.

We all live according to our unique understanding of the value of life. So we measure and express value slightly differently. This means everyone lives according to slightly different definitions of love. This makes it hard to know when you can believe the words, “I love you?” It also makes it hard to prove to someone else that even though you’re not meeting their criteria of love, the love coming from you is still genuine.

If you can honestly say that you value the other person enough to commit to making them the happiest and helping them fulfill their full potential unconditionally for the foreseeable future then you fully love that person. Even if you can’t commit unconditionally, every bit of commitment you can give is still love by degrees. If your commitment ever waivers or ends, that has no relevance on the value of past love; since it was genuine when it was given it stands on its own.

So when is the right time to tell someone you love them? Well, if you can commit to a person, then sure, go ahead and tell them you love them. Likewise, don’t tell someone you love them unless/until you’re willing to commit your mind, body, resources, options, and emotions to them.

 

"Love is not maximum emotion. Love is maximum commitment." Sinclair B. Ferguson

 

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like these:

 

Sex positions and techniques
General Sex Advice
Dating Advice
Relationship Advice
Philosophy of Sexuality
Friendship
My Tweets About Romance

What It Was Like In Houston During Hurricane Harvey

My name is Travis, and I have an identical twin brother, Eric. We were born in Bryan, TX and spent our childhood bouncing around different small Texas towns. Having grown accustomed to the nomadic lifestyle, we spent our twenties and early thirties hopping cities around the world, sometimes together, sometimes solo. No matter how far we ran, somehow Texas kept sucking us back in, like roaches trying to climb out of a public toilet. A year ago, we moved into a house together in Houston. Three days ago, God decided to take the metaphor of our lives to the next level and give us a Hurricane Harvey-sized swirly.

If you’ve seen the news, you know I’m not exaggerating when I say God didn’t just take a piss on Houston. He waterboarded it. Major freeways are underneath lakes that are still expected to double in size. Two million people are under self-imposed house arrest, huddled behind boarded-up windows, living like there’s a full-scale zombie apocalypse going on outside. The meaning of life has basically been reduced to one goal: Don’t go outside.

You may be wondering, why we didn’t just evacuate when we had the chance. The answer is, evacuating was never a realistic option for most of us. Eric was here for Hurricane Ike in 2008, and he tried to evacuate, but after sitting in traffic for thirty-six hours, he finally turned around and came home. This time, we knew it’d be safer staying in a brick house than getting stuck on a sinking freeway, and we weren’t wrong.

Eric and I have family and friends all over Texas. So if we could have left, we would have had a lot of free options, but most people in Houston don’t have contacts all over Texas. Anyone living paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford to go out to eat, can’t afford to drive a hundred miles and stay at a hotel while they miss work at their hourly-wage job. I believe the main reason most people didn’t leave was because they were too poor.

We didn’t leave Houston, but we did flee our home because we live in a trailer house. Even if it could survive a flood, it wouldn’t provide any protection from the tornadoes created by the hurricane. So we packed up our most valuable possessions immediately and went to stay with a friend who owns a brick house.

The entire Houston area is in a floodplain. So over the years, the city has spent millions of dollars building a vast maze of drainage channels that you can see everywhere. Until a flood tests them, you don’t know if the ones near your house are reason for alarm or relief. By sheer luck, we ended up in a neighborhood with a fantastic drainage system. If the rain continues at its current pace, our host’s carpet won’t even get wet. Honestly, for us, this week has been a morbid vacation, which will be followed by lots of work opportunities.

Friday Night

Saturday Morning

Tuesday Morning

Part of my subconscious feels like I should have survivor’s guilt, but I didn’t ask for this. It is what it is. Plus, I have no idea if my house still exists. We tried to drive over there today to check on it, but the road into our neighborhood was completely flooded, and rescue crews were boating people out. So our week of white privilege may end with us discovering we don’t own anything anymore. At least we didn’t have much to lose because we perpetually own barely more than will fit in a truck since we’re constantly moving.

Another reason not to panic is that our landlady is a psychotic bitch who lives across the street and spies on us, looking for any excuse to take her anger out on someone she knows can’t give her the punch in the face she deserves. She overcharges us to live next to a railroad track, where train horns scream at 150 decibels all day and night like the souls of the damned being dragged to Hades at 60 miles per hour. If our “home” got swept away, it would set us free more than set us back.

Even after the rain stops, which won’t be for at least another three days, water levels are still expected to rise in low areas as it drains down from higher grounds. It’s a good thing I had the foresight to bring my work clothes with me, because I’ll probably have to go back to work before I get to go home.

In the meantime, we, and most of Houston’s residents have nothing to do but wait. The endless monotony is torture to some people, but I’m an extreme introvert with a passion for writing. I already cut activities out of my schedule to spend more hours typing in solitude. I work at my day job as few hours as I can afford, not because I’m lazy, but because I’d rather spend my life working on my passion than making the rich guy who pays me the bare minimum, richer.

I still have to keep my nose to the grindstone at least twenty-three hours per week. I can do this financially responsibly because my job pays well, but it’s also very physically demanding. So my body always hurts. Since American workers get the least vacation time of any first world country, Hurricane Harvey has been a golden opportunity to have my life back for a full week. I’m sure there are hundreds of thousands of wage slaves in the Houston area who are suffering worse than me but are still relieved to get a break from working themselves to death in 100-degree weather at a thankless, soul-crushing job.

The novelty has probably already worn off for Houston’s extroverts, who are going mad with cabin fever. The past few days have taught many of us that in a long, slow, scary situation like this, you have to find ways to stay active and positive or you’ll go insane.

There are already Youtube videos of people swimming in the streets, which is life-threateningly dangerous. The water is infested with flesh-eating bacteria from human sewage, a hundred tons of pollution, sharks, and alligators, which makes the idea of your house filling up with water a whole lot scarier than it already is.

Once all the flood water drains into the Gulf of Mexico, it will be weeks before it’s relatively safe to swim in the ocean again. Most Houstonians who lived through Hurricane Ike, Katrina, Alicia or Rita already know this, and television news reporters have been warning the Hurricane noobs to stay out of the water. Hopefully they have better luck convincing Americans not to hurt themselves than they did last week when they urged Americans not to look directly at the solar eclipse.

I’d be surprised if by next week, there isn’t a Youtube video of red necks slaloming downtown on jet skis, weaving around gangsters on inner tubes. Texas already has a, “Hold my beer and watch this!” mentality, and the only major city I’ve been to with worse drivers than Houston, is Cairo, Egypt. There are a million bad decisions made on Houston’s roads every day, and two million tigers aren’t going to change their stripes overnight just because of an apocalyptic flood.

Over a dozen helicopters and fifty boats are working twenty-four hours a day rescuing people stranded on top of cars and houses. Fortunately, since Houston is right on the Gulf of Mexico, and Texan culture has a fetish for buying really big toys you don’t need and won’t use very often, like boats, every middle-class neighborhood in the entire metro area has at least one driveway with a boat parked in it.

For such catastrophic flooding, it’s amazing the official number of deaths hasn’t reached double digits yet. There’s no telling how many lives have been saved by Bubba down the street ferrying his neighbors to safety. This is a blessing for Bubba too, since he gets to take a break from the rat race to be a genuine hero while simultaneously getting to live the dream of running red lights in his speedboat and doing donuts in parking lots.

 

I have this theory that the reason Houston drivers are so reckless, aggressive and violently entitled, is because you can only sit in demolition derby traffic for so long before everyone else’s stress rubs off on you. Well, Mother Nature put a stop to all that madness for a week and reminded us we’re not at war with our neighbors. We’re in this together.

I predict for the next month, we’ll be able to feel the same buzz in Houston as New Yorkers did after the Twin Towers collapsed. They were in pain, but for a short while, it brought the most notoriously rude city in America together. People who used to flip each other off and shout, “I’m walkin’ heeear!” put aside their differences and treated each other like family.

The post-traumatic euphoria will wear off sooner rather than later as everyone files back into the rat race and re-experiences the same stress and disrespect that turned them into road warriors in the first place. The first major tear in the social fabric will come when insurance companies remind a million homeowners and another million renters that our economy is designed to take more from its customers than it gives.

When insurance claims officers start explaining to Houston customers how dedicated they are to not helping them, Houstonians will have to direct their pain somewhere, and since they can’t fight the system because they’re too busy working to pay off all their debt, they won’t be able to direct their anger at the source of the problem. So they’ll take it out on the first person who cuts them off in the morning. It won’t take long before we all go back to force-feeding each other rage pie.

I’m not a Houston native, and if you didn’t catch it, I hate this city. The only reason I’m still here is because I’m waiting for my girlfriend to be in a position to move away with me. I’ve cursed the people here almost every time I’ve driven on the freeway, but so do they. Hurricane Harvey taught all of us different lessons. For me, it put my metropolitan stress rage into perspective.

I’ve made a surprising number of life-long friends in Houston in a very short amount of time. It’s full of good people, but there are a critical number of bad apples in the basket. A lot of those assholes were flood victims.

After driving around town (such as you can), and seeing the cosmic indifference and hopelessness of water covering all our accomplishments, possessions, goals, opportunities, like God just took a dry erase marker and wiped away everything with an indifferent flick of the wrist… I saw a punishment nobody deserves, no matter how big of an asshole they are. But it did happen to them. That’s a mind fuck I can’t unsee.

As much as I hate to admit it, I feel like this experience has made me more of an official Houstonian. For the rest of my life, anytime I meet someone who also lived through this watery nightmare, we’ll be able to nod at each other meaningfully and bond over the fact that we were both there when the shit went down, and we pulled through together.

Having said that, I’m getting the hell out of this death trap as soon as humanly possible, and God willing, never coming back.

 

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Build a Better World

 


The Aftermath of Hurricane Harvey In Houston

The last week of August 2017, Hurricane Harvey dropped 33 trillion gallons of water on Texas. 9 trillion of that landed on Houston, where I live with my twin brother, Eric, in a humble trailer house. We didn’t try to evacuate because Eric did that in 2008 during Hurricane Ike. It took him 36 hours to drive 30 miles in bumper to bumper traffic before he gave up and turned around.

So we fled our trailer to spend the next five days of rain at a friend’s house, in a neighborhood with good drainage. The lawn flooded, but it never made it to the house. So we just had a morbid vacation, and we didn’t think the flood was that bad until the rains stopped and we finally ventured out.

What we saw was surreal. Most of the roads were open, but they were littered with abandoned cars at odd angles, and flood waters still blocked off random access points. So finding routes could be tricky or impossible.

If I had to summarize the nature of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction in a few words, they would be, “random and polarized.” One street would be completely underwater and inaccessible. The next road over would be completely fine. One house may be sitting in two feet of water, and their neighbor may have gotten four or none. Some businesses were open pretty much throughout the storm, and some won’t ever open again.

Even if you can’t see a waterline on the buildings, you can see how bad each neighborhood got hit by the amount of trash on the side of the road. Blocks that just have carpet and drywall set out by the curb only got a foot or two of water. When you see a yard covered in furniture, you know they got it bad.

Picture of furniture, carpet, drywall and insulation piled in front of a house in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. On the curb are two signs that say, "YARD OF THE MONTH" and "GARAGE SALE"

Keep a good sense of humor and carry on, Houston.

The house I stayed in through the storm didn’t suffer any problems. It never even lost electricity or internet. Technically, my trailer house didn’t get flooded, since it’s propped up on cinder blocks, three feet above the ground, but the water came all the way up to the floorboards, soaking them, the carpet and the air conditioning ducts underneath. So now the entire house is an unlivable toxic mold trap.

Photo the street in front of the house I stayed at during Hurricane Harvey. Water is covering the entire street but hasn't reached the sidewalk

This was the street in front of my friend’s house, where I sat through Hurricane Harvey. No problem.

Photo of the street to my house the day after Hurricane Harvey. Water has completely covered the road and surrounding fields several feet in water

This is the street to my house. Big problem.

Photo of my trailer house the day after Hurricane Harvey. Water is almost to the floor of the trailer, which is 3-4 feet above the ground

My house after the first day of flooding.

 

Photo of my landlady wearing waders, standing shin-deep in water on our front porch, looking at fish

My landlady and brother looking at fish on our front porch a few days after the rain stopped.

Eric and I moved out of our man cave, and now we’re staying with our girlfriends, who are ecstatic to have us closer to them. Thus continues Hurricane Harvey’s Twilight Zone-esque theme of polarized randomness. Everything is a cursed blessing or a blessed curse.

Disaster seems to have brought the best and worst out of the people here. When Harvey was still sitting on top of Houston, the owner of a furniture store opened his doors to anyone who needed a place with a bed to sleep on. At the same time, the owner of a mega church, Joel Osteen, locked the doors of his stadium-sized church until he was publicly shamed into letting refugees in. Then, he asked the refugees to give him donations, even though his $10.5 million mansion weathered the storm just fine.

Arial photo of Joel Osteen's mansion, with three separate multi-room, multi-story houses and two large swimming pools

This is where Joel Osteen lives (tax-free).

Photo of a suburban street with small houses. All the yards are covered in furniture and trash from gutting houses after Hurricane Harvey

This is where the people Joel Osteen is asking for money live.

My landlady is just as greedy and sociopathic as Joel Osteen, and she has the permanent disposition of a drunk biker in a dive bar at 3 am looking for stupid shit to fight about. She won’t let me break my lease because she says my house is livable. She told me when we moved in that if we didn’t have rent on the first of the month, she’d throw all our stuff out to the curb by the end of the night, which is illegal. I could fight her on this, but I’d pay $900 to not have to spend months fighting her in court over $900.

So we paid rent like little bitches, but we get to take our time moving out and figuring out what to do with all our stuff. Most of it came from flea markets and estate sales anyway. We’ll probably just put it out by the side of the road. There are a lot of people driving around in trucks, grabbing all the free stuff they can. For the next year, Craigslist is going to be exploding in Houston with great deals on expensive furniture and household goods with mild to severe flood damage. A lot of people are going to die from the mold.

On a lighter note, both my electric company (Summer Energy) and internet provider (ATT) let me cancel my contracts with them without punishing me. I didn’t expect that, since the whole point of early termination fees is to fuck you in the first place, and ATT didn’t let my older brother, Stephen, out of his contract when he deployed to Afghanistan. Apparently, corporate greed isn’t completely bottomless… when the public is watching.

It seems if you’re more than 50% bad, disaster makes you worse. If you’re more than 50% good, disaster brings out your best. For example, an Army Ranger veteran’s house got F.U.B.A.R. flooded in Dickinson, TX, on the outskirts of the Houston metroplex. So he made a post on an unofficial Army Ranger Facebook page asking for help. Stephen and a bunch of other Ranger vets and their friends and family, drove down from San Antonio to help him fix his house.

Photo of a circular military patch that has an outline of one soldier carrying another on his back. Around the edge of the patch are the words, "HE AIN'T HEAVY. HE'S MY BROTHER."

This is the first time Stephen has been to Houston since I moved here. He never got to see my old house, but he got to see my new one, where he got to spend the night instead of. sleeping in a stranger’s home with nine other people. You can cut yourself to death with all the silver linings in Houston right now.

My twin brother, Eric, is helping our old neighbor gut his mom’s house, which flooded badly. I feel guilty because I haven’t been volunteering, but my boss put me back to work before the rain stopped. He didn’t even give us one day to pick up the pieces of our lives before sending us back to the salt mines. The joke’s on him though. He didn’t get any customers the first day or two because they were all busy picking up the pieces of their lives, unsurprisingly.

One of my coworkers asked our boss if we’d be getting paid for the time we missed, and he sent us the link to the FEMA website to apply for benefits. I hope he’s not surprised by the loyalty his employees show him in the future. I have a feeling half of them already lied to him and said they were cut off by flood water and couldn’t come to work for a few days, just so they could have a few more days of their lives to themselves.

I started back immediately, mostly because I was bored. Since I choose to work nights, my mornings are free. So I had time to drop Stephen off at the house he was clearing. My jaw dropped when I saw the next door neighbor had a sign in his front yard, facing the main highway in town that said, “You Loot We Shoot.” When I went to take a picture of it, the owner came outside and glared at me. So I took the shot real quick and left him alone, just like all the police who drove by and didn’t tell him to take it down. They didn’t turn a blind eye to it. Texas has “king of the castle” laws, which let you shoot any threatening intruder on sight.

Photo of a spray-painted sign sitting on a pile of debris by the side of the street in Dickinson, Texas after Hurricane Harvey. The sign says, "YOU LOOT. WE SHOOT."

I hoped the sign was just being dramatic until I picked Stephen up at the house where the rest of the volunteers were staying, which had a gun in every room, literally. As I got out of my truck, a lady in a minivan stopped me on the street and asked if I’d seen two young, dark-haired men run by. She said they just stole all her computer equipment. I told her I was sorry for her loss.

I’ve even heard rumors thugs have just started knocking on doors and robbing people at gunpoint. I don’t know anyone who that’s happened to, but I do have a Mexican friend who found out the liquor store next to his house got flooded. The owner couldn’t sell cases of beer in water damaged boxes. So he just put his stock on the back porch and told people walking by they could have it… but to drink at their own risk. Low-class people of every color lined up to help him clear out his damaged property.

Since the boxes were water damaged, a lot of beers fell out the bottoms and smashed on the concrete. After the frenzy, my buddy helped clean up the broken glass. So the old Asian guy gave him an extra three cases of top-shelf Texas honey whiskey. He doesn’t even really drink alcohol, but he took it because it was free. Then he showed up at my new house with a truckload of random beer covered in a thin layer of mold, which washes off easy with soap and water… hopefully.

I gave a few cases to Stephen to give to the Rangers in Dickinson, but for some reason, he didn’t. Maybe they didn’t want it. He ended up giving it to a random black who was also repairing flood damage.

Photo of a random African American dressed in dirty work cloths, holding a cardboard box containing 30 Corona beer bottles

I hope Stephen warned him to wash the bottles.

Photo of an ice chest full of random brands of beer bottles

This is what I kept. It’s about 1/5 of the original truckload.

In the blog I wrote during Hurricane Harvey, I said this disaster would make me think twice about cussing at shitty Houston drivers, and I hoped our shared experience would teach us all that we’re on the same team. Now that danger has passed, Houston drivers are shittier than ever. If they don’t care about anyone on the highway but themselves, I see no reason why I should care about their feelings. That’s a horrible way to look at reality, but that’s what I call, “The Houstonitis.” Everybody’s shit rubs off on everyone until we’re all covered in shit and angry about it. If everybody’s guilty, is anybody?

Yesterday, a man asked me to help him settle a debate he was having with a coworker. He said the mayor should have ordered an evacuation and issued better instructions. His opponent disagreed. I said it wouldn’t have made a difference because nobody cares what the mayor thinks. Most Houstonians don’t even know his or her name, including me.

The guy I was talking to went on to complain about how flood victims didn’t do enough to evacuate and prepare, themselves. He was angry that some people could have left but didn’t. Then the government had to waste resources rescuing them. I explained to him, if you’re too poor to go out to eat, you’re too poor to go anywhere but work, ever.

If any human is to blame for the cost of Hurricane Harvey, it’s the same city planners who saved us all with the world-class drainage systems woven through the Houston metroplex. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t need a multi-million dollar drainage network and disaster response teams hopscotching in and out of flooded areas, if the city was built efficiently in the first place. Houstonians wouldn’t be rabid with Houstonitis if the city wasn’t a clusterfucked maze of economic dead zones connected by congested streets.

The supreme inefficiency of Houston’s city layout makes it necessary for humans to consume tons of resources to survive. Now that flood waters have destroyed half of the infrastructure in town, it’s going to have to be thrown into a landfill and replaced, depleting more of the earth’s resources and creating more pollution, leading to more global warming, leading to more hurricanes, which will lead to more flooding and more waste until we’re all dead.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Hurricane Harvey, it’s that we need to build more sustainable megacities if the human race is to survive and thrive. It’s not that complicated. I can draw you a picture:

1. Buy a field. 2. Mark out circles in the field. 3. Divide the circles into compartments. 4. Build reinforced sandbag walls on the lines. 5. Build a roof and install doors. 6. Install a greenhouse on the roof. 7. Live, work and expand. 8. Build outer rings connected by trains. 9. Replace suburbs with sustainable eco-rings. 10. Build eco-rings in underdevolped areas.

 

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This Is How We Live Now: Part 1

Financially, 2016 was the worst year of my life financially. It hurt so bad I had to write three blogs to vent some of the emotional trauma. The disasters I experienced aren’t unusual, but that’s what makes this story poignant. My life is so normal, it’s a metaphor for every American who lives near the poverty line, who, no matter how long and hard they work, are perpetually having their life savings drained back to zero by predatory business practices.

The story of why 2016 sucked for me begins in 2008, with me being a hypocrite. Newly married and separated from the Air Force, I moved from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii to Austin, TX, where my wife and I bought a duplex for $250k.

I didn’t want to pay a realtor. So I researched how to buy a house without one and immediately learned why realtors exist. There are so many laws around buying and selling houses it’s impossible to do it without having an associate’s degree worth of knowledge. After a few days of mind-numbing reading, I laid my head on my keyboard and muttered, “Why does this have to be harder than buying a car?”

Very complicated infographic of the process of buying a home. It's too long to describe, which implies you need to hire a real estate agent to buy a home.

The next day my wife and I met a realtor who came highly recommended from a distant relative. Our agent looked like a model and talked like an auctioneer. She picked us up in a brand new BMW equipped with space-age technology. After our first conversation, I felt like I was hiring a scout to take me on a treasure hunting expedition.

Over the next week, she showed us two trashy properties below our price range, two giant, expensive houses, and one solid option just above what we wanted to spend. So we picked that one, which in retrospect, I don’t think was an accident.

The only type of houses we looked at were duplexes, because we thought the tenant’s rent would cover our payments, and it would have if the cost of a mortgage equaled the listing price of the property, but after taxes, interest, and fees, the final price of a 30 year mortgage is double whatever the property is worth. So, after we picked the house, we learned we’d need to take out a $500k loan for a $250k property. Plus, most of the first fifteen years of payments would go to whittling down the interest, not buying equity in the house. Why do lenders have to structure loans that way? Because fuck you. That’s why.

Normally, home buyers have to put down a 20% down payment to qualify for a loan, and we didn’t have $50k. However, the Department of Veteran Affairs offers a special service to veterans. In exchange for $5k, it will vouch to pay the 20% down payment if the vet fails to pay their mortgage and the house gets foreclosed on. At that point, the VA will give the lender the 20% down payment, which in my case was $50k. So if my house got foreclosed on, I’d have to pay the VA, $50k.

This is a great deal, in the sense that it removes one of the glass ceilings stopping renters from becoming homeowners, but it’s a scammy solution to a problem created by the government. Think of it this way. The government enforces laws which make buying a home impossible to do without hiring legal representation to walk you through all the laws that inflate the cost of a property so high you can’t afford it. The government’s solution to the problem it created, is for homeowners to buy the lender an insurance policy to cover their losses if/when the veteran can’t afford to pay twice the advertised listing price of a property plus another $5k.

"You served your country with honor... now let the VA loan program honor your service."

My real estate agent and the lender she referred us to explained all this to me and acted like it was completely normal… because it is. So I signed the paperwork and went on with my life, which consisted mostly of spending 10+ hours per week sitting in Austin’s notorious traffic and working 40+ hours per week at a computer helpdesk job getting yelled at for problems other people created.

I told myself it would all be worth it when I finally beat the game and could live life on my own terms. Seven years later my wife and I divorced and sold the house. Luckily, the divorce was “no contest.” So we didn’t have to spend $5k each for lawyers. Since we filed the paperwork ourselves, it only cost a few hundred dollars in government fees and having to stand in front of a judge who didn’t know us to beg him to let us get on with our lives.

We had already moved away from Austin halfway through our marriage and rented out both duplex units through a property manager who sent us “repair” bills for $300-$1000 almost monthly. We finally terminated our contract after he charged us $90 to replace a smoke detector battery and another $90 to look in the chimney and tell us there weren’t any birds in it. Wanting to avoid confrontation, my wife told them we were moving to Samoa and had to sell the house.

The next property management company we hired never sent us any absurd charges in the two years we used them. Since they rarely did anything to the house, effectively, we paid them $240 per month to deposit our rent checks.

Our contract also stipulated that if we sold the house, they would act as our real estate agent and take a higher-than-normal percentage of the sale. I didn’t care at the time because I wasn’t planning on getting divorced and selling the house.

When we decided to sell in 2013, Austin was experiencing a housing bubble, which means houses are overpriced. So sellers make can make a lot of money, but buyers get screwed paying inflated prices that could drop by the time they get divorced and have to sell their house.

There was so much demand for duplexes, our property manager/realtor was able to sell the house in two days for $60k more than the original listing price, which sounds great, except we’d spent at least that much on the mortgage, upgrades, fraudulent repairs and property management dues.

In the end, my wife and I received $15k each, and my realtor took $30k for doing less than ten hours of work. Just to be clear, I didn’t make $15k profit. I got a $15k return on a $60k investment. In the grand scheme of things, I lost $45k.

After signing all the paperwork, the realtor handed me my check and said, “See? It wasn’t that painful, was it?”

I wanted to tell him, “The only painful part was when you pocketed $30k I spent seven years working my ass off for in exchange for ten hours of your labor. But that’s okay because it’s normal, right? Enjoy your normal life, sending your kids to college and buying them sports cars. I’ll enjoy my normal routine of not having a retirement.”

Cartoon of a giant, fat rich man in a business suit sitting at a table eating a huge pile of money. Next to him is a tiny, skinny poor person sitting in front of an empty plate

Pictured above: My real estate agent and me at the closing table

At least I had $15k to start my new life with when I moved to Houston, TX to live with my identical twin brother. I didn’t make it out of my marriage with a vehicle but was able to pay cash for a used truck, which I bought from a small car dealership, owned and operated by a sweet, old Southern country farmer type who prided himself in his old-fashioned honesty. He won my trust and sold me a 1997 truck with 50k miles on it for $7k. It had been owned by an old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays. So even though the truck was almost twenty years old, it was practically new.

Now that I had a vehicle to drive to work, I turned my attention to job hunting. Most of my adult life, I’d worked in IT, but halfway through my marriage, after my wife and I left Austin, I couldn’t find work in the IT sector. So I worked a series of odd jobs until my IT experience became obsolete and unusable. I’ve never complained about or regretted letting that door close because I absolutely hated IT work. What good is making money if you spend your entire life doing things that make you miserable to earn it? That’s wasting the present, not investing in the future.

Theoretically, that’s true, but in America’s economy, chasing your dream is shooting yourself in the foot. Without a college degree, training certificate or relevant experience, my job options were staggeringly limited. I didn’t sit around crying about this. I drove straight to a staffing agency I knew could hook me up with “an exciting job opportunity.”

For the next few summer months, I spent 9 hours per day in a warehouse digging through vats of marble-sized ceramic balls, picking out any that were tarnished, broken or disfigured. The only break I got was an hour for lunch, and my bosses monitored me closely via the security cameras. At first, I was happy because I felt lucky to be getting paid slightly higher than minimum wage, but it didn’t take long to realize my assessment of life was wrong. In reality, my life was actually quite shit.

I had 9 hours per day to think. So I used the opportunity to weigh my options and decide how to save my life. About the time I got laid off, I convinced my twin to move to Colorado with me, where he could work, and I could attend a year-long trade school for free using the M.G.I.Bill, which would also pay me a $1,200 per month living stipend.

He agreed immediately because Houston sucks. So we settled our affairs in the local area, loaded everything we owned into our two trucks and drove to the cheapest hotel in Denver. The first night we celebrated our new beginning with overpriced legal weed and a box of Franzia. It seemed appropriate since the hotel was so low class, the Denver Police Department had a permanently reserved parking spot directly in front of the lobby.

Before leaving Texas we’d searched for apartments in Denver and made a list of places that have vacancies within our price range. There were enough options that I wasn’t worried about finding a place. My only fear was settling on the second or third best option because it’s closer to my school. After spending thousands of hours in Austin traffic, not commuting had become a priority of mine.

My brother and I spent the next week touring Denver’s ghetto-est apartments and getting turned away by every slum lord. Come to find out, Denver has a local law, which says in order to qualify to rent a property, you must either have three months of paychecks from a local business or a co-signer who makes three times the amount of rent, neither of which we had.

The apartment managers were unswayable. No matter how much we begged, nobody would bend the rules for us. At our last apartment viewing, I put $7k cash on the table and offered to pay an entire six-month lease up front. The apartment manager scowled at me like I was a hillbilly offering to pay with a bag of dead possums. He looked me in straight in the eye and said with dead seriousness, “That’s not good enough.”

Since when is having enough money to buy something, not good enough to buy it? When did the American Dream turn into The Twilight Zone? My money was good. The problem is Colorado lawmakers want to prevent poor people from immigrating to their state. So they invented a disingenuous rule that all the local apartment owners agreed to go along with. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was written by wealthy apartment moguls who made campaign contributions to the politicians, who signed it into law.

Unable to legally rent an apartment, we looked on Craigslist for people offering to rent out spare rooms in their private homes, which is actually illegal under Colorado’s anti-boardinghouse laws. Luckily, this rule isn’t enforced, because Denver police have better things to do thank kick poor people out of their houses. And by “better things,” I mean, “legally robbing motorists to meet their ticket quotas.”

My brother and I spent the next two weeks viewing rooms and begging people to let us pay $900 per month to live in the cupboard under their stairs. It wouldn’t have taken so long, but most landlords required a $50 non-refundable, non-binding fee just to fill out an application, in addition to paying another $30-$50 to run a criminal background and credit history check on you, which requires you to give out your social security number, date of birth and bank account number.

We refused to apply for any of those rooms, which drastically limited our choices, but it was worth not risking paying $50 to have our identities stolen. After a long, discouraging search, we finally moved into a large, trashy two-story house containing five other tenants.

Our landlady was a semi-obese, bedridden hoarder whose husband had recently died of cirrhosis of the liver, and she was dying of cancer. Since she couldn’t work, the only way she could afford rent and groceries by sub-leasing her extra rooms. Her situation wouldn’t have been so dire, except she lived with two of her children, who were both in their early twenties, didn’t pay any bills and refused to get jobs.

All three were drug addicts who took whatever narcotics they could get their hands on. The son would steal his mother’s morphine, forcing her to send the daughter to buy more off the black market when the pain of dying became unbearable. When the mother confronted him about it, he bitched her out in front of the whole house for playing the cancer card too much. She died four months after we moved out.

One of her tenants was a 20-something-year-old black, gentle giant who moved to Denver to escape the apocalyptic ghetto in Chicago where he grew up. The other housemate was a white 20-something-year-old Texan who moved to Colorado for the weed. He’d been in Denver for several years and had moved into our “boarding house” after getting kicked out of his last apartment for overdosing on a psychedelic designer drug and diving out the second-story window naked and then fighting three police officers in the parking lot until they tazed him unconscious.

Gif of a man jumping out of a window

My brother and I shared a room and a bed for three months until we talked our landlady into letting us convert the basement into bedrooms. She only charged us $800 per month for two rooms, which is made it the cheapest price we’d ever find Denver.

We had some good times in that house, but most of them were bad. We moved out the day the landlord’s son blasted his stereo at 7am for the hundredth time and then threatened to “fuck me up” with a golf club if I tried to turn his music down. At that point, my brother returned to Texas, and I rented a camping spot outside of town and lived there until I found another room on Craigslist.

I finished out the school year living in an elderly couple’s house, paying $700 per month. At first, I lived in a tiny room on the ground floor but was able to move downstairs into the much larger basement after the landlady found her other tenant’s crack pipe in the drier. They’d already been planning on asking him to leave anyway because he was literally insane and thought government agents were following him at all times. Other than being a moocher, he never bothered me, but I was glad to see him go because after he learned I’d worked for the NSA during my military service, he assumed I was a government agent sent to spy on him.

After graduating from school, I decided to move back to Houston as well to be with a girl I’d met after my divorce and stayed in touch with. I moved in with her at the beginning of 2016, flat broke again.

The whole trip had been an asteroid shower of unexpected expenses. I expected Colorado to be Candy Land, but it turned out to be more like Chutes and Ladders. Every time you think you’re getting somewhere, you slide back down to where you started.

The problem isn’t that Colorado is worse than the rest of America, it’s a metaphor for the rest of the country. One of my friends from the military recently moved to San Antonio and was unable to rent an apartment for the same reasons I couldn’t. In the end, he bought a house using the same VA home loan program I did, because it was easier for him to qualify to buy a house than to rent one. My friend and I didn’t do anything wrong to deserve the moving nightmare we experienced. This is just how everyone lives now.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like these:

My Goals
My Life Stories (in chronological order)
The Life of the Poor

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