Percy Ross was a trash-bag tycoon, a serial entrepreneur who had made millions in plastics in the 1960s and relished spending it. But in 1977 he staged an astonishing reinvention. Ross would become a philanthropist — and not just any philanthropist, but one for people like him: a “blue-collar millionaire,” as he put it. He’d give money away the way he’d gotten it, in bills small and large, and always when it was needed the most. He’d portion out his millions in cash, in checks, accompanied by the satisfying clink of a silver dollar. Percy Ross would become, as the newspapers called him, “America’s Rich Uncle.”
Ross always said — boasted, really — that he’d made and lost two fortunes. It was his third business that stuck, the one in plastics. Ross had been a fur auctioneer in the 1930s — he met the woman who eventually became his wife at a craps table in Las Vegas while in the company of Clark Gable — and an organizer of farm-equipment auctions. In 1958, the story went, Ross borrowed $30,000 to invest in a failing plastics company. He knew nothing about the industry, and within five years he’d filed for bankruptcy — but with hard work, the help of his family, and a little innovation, he eventually turned the company around. Poly-Tech, as he renamed it, made plastic garbage bags. He liked to tell people he sold Poly-Tech for $8 million on the same day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon: July 20, 1969.
The story of the trash-bag turnaround was part of Percy Ross’s pitch-perfect rags-to-riches tale. Born in 1916 in Laurium, Michigan, a small town on the state’s copper-rich Upper Peninsula, Ross was the son of immigrants, desperately poor Jews from Russia and present-day Latvia. His father was a junk dealer who worked constantly, and so did his three sons. By the age of 6, Percy had begun making weekly rounds through the neighborhood with a wagon of farm eggs his father had bought for 12 cents a dozen, which he then sold to neighbors at a 3-cent markup. He sold magazines. He started his own business rebuilding car batteries. He would have shined shoes at the country club if they hadn’t rejected him for being too poor and too Jewish.
The credit cards that once empowered many Canadians are now allowing people to bury themselves in debt they can’t recover from. In The Walrus, Raizel Robin writes about this new middle class. It’s an aspirational one that lives paycheck to paycheck, is not always willing to give up certain lifestyle choices and luxury activities, and relies on Payday loans that only compound their problems. Some financial analysts warn that the day of reckoning is approaching.
Indeed, while the largest chunk of our household expenditures goes toward groceries, transportation, and shelter, many Canadians seem uninterested in prioritizing needs over wants—according to a recent cibc poll, only half of those surveyed were willing to cut spending on non-essential items in order to keep up with bills. Our debt load is, in a sense, the result of an aspirational burden. “Middle class” once meant exactly that—the median in household net worth, or the point at which half the population has a higher income and the other half a lower one. A 2013 internal government document deemed middle-class incomes to be anywhere between $54,000 and $108,000—that’s quite a spread. Middle-class status has thus become more of a state of mind than a demographic bracket. Federal finance minister Bill Morneau recently admitted as much, defining middle-class Canadians, in part, according to the “lifestyle they aspire to.”
But it’s hard to deny the fact that such lifestyles tend to be defined by consumption, or what one American sociologist has dubbed “upscale emulation.” A bankruptcy lawyer I spoke with has helped clients in just this fix—clients such as the Toronto architect crushed by $105,000 in tax debt and $75,000 in credit card debt who still managed to vacation in the tropics four times a year with his wife. Or the divorced, self-employed Toronto chiropractor who made $4,900 a month and insisted that both her kids attend private school—until the Canada Revenue Agency froze her accounts. We spend our way into the standard of living we feel we deserve, buying stuff that makes us who we think we are, or want to be.
I worked retail, selling art supplies, when Friends was insanely popular. I lived in a tiny studio — they’d call it micro-housing now — and I got by. I quit when I was hired as a caption writer. It paid three times what my retail job paid, though it was still not a lot of money. I moved into a two bedroom duplex with a friend, and I continued to get by. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I didn’t have a lot of expenses, either.
But it was not New York City, it was Seattle on the front edge of the tech boom, and it was still cheap. It always bothered me that Monica, a line cook, and Rachel, a barista — and not, I think, a very good one — had that spectacular apartment. Joey and Chandler’s place seemed a bit more believable, though I imagine Chandler was always having to front Joey at least part of his rent.
And now I’m on about Friends, when I mean to be on about Girls, which has the same maddening practical issue. How do they pay their rent?
Dunham has never been a struggling artist. She has played one on TV. This may be one reason that Girls is not remotely realistic about the earnings of a freelance writer — no one involved in the making of the show has ever been, or even bothered to talk to, one. The real Dunham has published frequently in the New Yorker, and got a multimillion-dollar book deal in her mid-twenties. Still, she imagines a different existence.
In the episode in which Hannah decides to have the baby, we see her type on her computer a list of reasons not to do it, among them the fact that she earns “$24K” a year.” I publish with a frequency similar to Hannah’s, in similar publications. I would be thrilled to earn twenty-four thousand dollars a year from my writing, but I earn barely a tenth of that. Like most writers, I support my writing by doing another job. (Over 90% of my income comes from a tutoring business I have run since I was twenty-one.)
When Switzerland’s Saturday rush comes, Grübel will often head in the other direction. To save cash, she’ll pack a lunch and a thermos full of tea, and take the train right through Kreuzlingen, to the nature that is Switzerland’s most affordable draw. She cross-country skis the forests surrounding Kreuzlingen when there’s snow and hikes them when there’s not. Occasionally, she’ll splurge on a coffee in town and find someone from Konstanz doing the pouring, earning entry-level francs to spend like the Swiss back home. “The servers are German, and the cafés are empty,” Grübel says, “because everyone Swiss is in Konstanz.”
In addition to the opportunities for bucolic jaunts and barista jobs, there may be more and more reasons for Germans to spend time in Kreuzlingen again. “Money wins in Konstanz,” says Benni Kreiblich, a 33-year-old native of the city. “Unfortunately,” he adds, “there’s no value placed on quality and culture.”
Brett Scott explores the emerging cashless economy in Aeon magazine. Is ubiquitous digital payment the harbinger of a glorious future, or a smokescreen for powerful interests that want to control (and undermine) choice and capitalism?
This is no longer a deal between me and the seller. I am now dealing with a complex of unknown third parties, profit-seeking money-passers who stand between us to act as facilitators of the money flow, but also as potential gatekeepers. If a gatekeeper doesn’t want to do business with me, I can’t do business with the seller. They have the ability to jam, monitor or place conditions upon that glorious core ritual of capitalism – the transfer of money for the transfer of goods. This innocuous device exudes mechanical indifference, reporting only to invisible bosses far away, running invisible algorithms in invisible black boxes that don’t like me.
If we are going to refer to bank payments as ‘cashless’, we should then refer to cash payments as ‘bankless’. Because that’s what cash is, and right now it is the only thing standing between us and a completely privatised money system.
He wore tan work boots and rough jeans. He told a friend in the waiting room that he had a couple hours off work and thought he’d stop in for some extra cash. The receptionist told him the names of that day’s phlebotomists. He paused. Sliding a 16-gauge needle into someone’s arm is tricky, and the man reconsidered. Instead of signing in, he announced to the room that he’d come back tomorrow and try his luck.
I’d driven 107 miles from my home in Bangor, Maine to the BPL Plasma Center in Lewiston to collect $50 for having my arm punctured and a liter of my plasma sucked out. The actual donation takes about 35 minutes, but the drive and its attendant wait makes for an eight-hour day. I clocked in for that trip five times this summer.
I’m a professor at the University of Maine. My salary is $52,000, and I am a year away from tenure. But like everyone else in that room, I was desperate for money. Read more…
I call people, but I don’t want to ask for help. I want them to think of it as a humorous anecdote but not that it’s real, that my life is that difficult. After all, certain friends who are not involved in publishing think I am rich and famous. Why burst that bubble?
In the end, I borrow money from a friend of my boyfriend and take that walk of shame to a yellow cab, when I know there are buses and shuttles and subways and all sorts of only semi-impossible ways to get back to Brooklyn.
Later, when my publicist finds out, she is shocked. Why didn’t you call us?!
I give her some gloss-over answer, but I want to say, I don’t know whom to call, when to call, why to call. I am learning everything over again. I have become what the publishing world and media suspect of a debut novelist—suddenly, I am new to the universe, not just to being a novelist. I suddenly don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
Weeks later, I discover during another bad moment—as the value of the dollar plummets and oil is sky-high—that gold is at its peak. I sell what is left of family heirlooms to an old Iranian man in the Diamond District, who listens to a fraction of my story, gives me a decent deal, and tells me, “My boy in medical university; my girl, married and with baby. Your fault for being a starver of an artist, daughter.”
Rick Paulas | Longreads | August 2016 | 12 minutes (2,986 words)
The storytelling show Mortified was created in 2002 by Dave Nadelberg, and the show has a clever angle: Performers share “their most mortifying childhood artifacts,” along with a running behind-the-scenes commentary from their younger selves. It’s show-and-tell meets #tbt, and the results are hilarious. The show’s so beloved by performers and audiences that there are now nearly a dozen Mortified shows performed each month throughout various “chapters” around the world: eight in the U.S., eight abroad. Tickets range between $10 and $20-plus.
They also don’t pay performers, at least not in money. Mortified, like The Moth, Upright Citizens Brigade, and even TED Talks, is one of the hundreds of live events around the world that have sprouted up during an era in which experiential entertainment, or the IRL economy, were supposed to grow more cherished (and more lucrative) as entertainment products became digitized and commoditized. There’s just one problem: Live events exist in the same way many independent publishers exist—on a shoestring budget in which the performer is usually the last to be paid. Read more…
Nothing is less material than money. . . . Money is abstract, I repeated, money is future time. It can be an evening in the suburbs, it can be the music of Brahms, it can be maps, it can be chess, it can be coffee, it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold. Money is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the island of Pharos.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Zahir”
I fell in love with Jorge Luis Borges when I was a freshman in college. That year, full of hope and confusion, I left my hometown for the manicured quads of Brown University, desperately seeking culture—art, beauty, and meaning beyond the empty narrative of wealth building that consumes our world. It is easy to look back and see why Borges spoke to me. The Argentine fabulist’s short stories were like beautiful mind-altering crystals, each one an Escheresque maze that toyed with our realities—time, space, honor, death—as mere constructs, nothing more. With the beautiful prose of a poet-translator-scholar, he could even make money seem like mere fantasy. It was precisely the narrative someone like me might want.
Yet, money is real. We live and die by the coin. Money tells us how many children we can raise and what kind of future they can afford, how many of our 78.7 years must be sold off in servitude, and what politics we will have the luxury of voicing. As a college freshman, I still knew none of this, and I had the luxury of not thinking about money. These days, it seems all but inescapable.
I am still full of hope and confusion, but at 35, practically nothing concerns me more than the coin, a metonymic symbol representing my helplessness. The coin represents this desperate need to support myself and my writing when, in the very near future, I start a family. My mind has changed; all my journal entries turn into to-do lists and career strategizing. Money, planning, and money. I think of little else. Read more…
If there are two things Americans are good at, it’s mishandling our finances, and using Twitter to judge those who are in worse shape than us.
Thus we have the perfect Atlantic cover story this week—a refreshingly honest and desparingly relatable personal essay by writer Neal Gabler about his many financial mistakes, as well as a look at why even high-earning families in the U.S. are still living paycheck to paycheck. Gabler told me the piece “wasn’t an easy one to write.” Read more…