First World Problems

Some years ago I managed a low-income housing co-op in the Santa Clara (AKA Silicon) Valley. I was an immigrant from Wisconsin.

First you need to understand that not everyone in the valley is a multi-millionaire engineer driving a Ferrari (or Tesla Model S nowadays). Back then, there were semi-conductor plants and factory workers making those chips in the valley. There were (are) fast-food restaurants and service workers providing for those mythical multimillionaires. There were all the usual workers that we need to keep a society humming. Those are the folks who lived in the co-op I managed.

That being said, a lot of folks didn’t consider themselves poor, they considered themselves pre-rich. The day after returning from a “vacation” building housing in the third world, I received an urgent maintenance request from someone whose clothes dryer had died. She needed it fixed now; it was an emergency. Now the Santa Clara Valley has a Mediterranean climate – it is essentially a desert. Hang your clothes out on a line and the ones you hang first will be dry by the time you finish hanging the load. That is a slight exaggeration, but if you wash a second load, you could take the first one down before you need to hang the second.

Where I come from (and in the country where I had just been) you hang clothes outside to dry. In California I found that that was looked down upon. It was embarrassing to have people see your laundry; no matter that each patio had a 6 foot redwood fence surrounding it. Only poor people did that, and these people weren’t poor, they were pre-rich. Out of 80 families, two had clotheslines; the other family was from Northern Minnesota. But we were in the first world and we were in California where nobody except those crazy folks from Wisconsin and Minnesota hang clothes, so I expedited the dryer problem – just not higher than the clogged drains and leaks.

Another urgent request came from someone who saw a mosquito on her patio. She wanted me to call an exterminator immediately. Being a dry climate, mosquitos were rare. Our usual insect problem was from termites. I urged her to keep an eye out for that mosquito and, if it returned, I advised her to kill it (by slapping it).

The complex had a pool. It took me a while to wrap my head around that. Where I came from, you swim in a lake. Only the ultra-rich have pools. Municipal pools appeared eventually, but we swam in the lake or the quarry.

Boomer Tales

Mosquitos were another matter in the upper midwest. Where I come from, the mosquito fogger made the rounds on summer nights. This was a Jeep with a tank on the back which spewed a chemical fog (most likely DDT, but I don’t know for sure). The neighborhood kids would jump on their bikes and ride in the fog, inhaling that poison. My parents urged me not to do that, because I could get hit by a car that couldn’t see me in the dense fog – not because breathing insecticide was bad for me. Being a smart kid, I stayed away because I didn’t want to breathe that poison any more directly than I had to. I figured that if it killed insects it probably wasn’t good for me. Everyone told me I was wrong and that it was harmless to humans.

I grew up in a post-World War II suburb. The area had originally been Ho-Chunk land. There was one remaining Ho-Chunk family. I didn’t know until many years later that my classmate’s dad was a famous artist – or maybe he didn’t become famous to white people until many years later. He carved this effigy tree from a hackberry that was struck by lightning. It was later replaced with a bronze casting of the original after it began to rot. (Image from

When white people came to the area, it was first to start dairy farms, and later to build vacation cottages on the lakeshore. It was a short boat ride across the lake to one’s summer home – or a 5-10 mile drive for the rich folks who had cars, as the streetcar line ended about five miles away.

After the war they quickly put up houses. The actual building sites were leveled, but the backyards just had grass seed strewn over the former cornfields – furrows and all. My mom said she would let me go play in the back yard unsupervised because she trusted that the toddler me would never make it to a road – it was about 250 feet over furrows to the back drainage ditch and another 300 feet to the next road. I would never make it that far because I kept falling down climbing over the furrows. We were home to the neighborhood baseball diamond. My dad built a backstop and the neighbor’s yard was left field, with the hedge on the far edge of their lot forming the home run fence. Right field was too big to hit it out. Nobody ever hit our house, which was the de facto right field wall. The furrows made ground balls take interesting hops. We learned early to keep our body in front of the ball to field it.

From what I hear, our furnishings would now be hip – “mid-century modern” they call it. I thought we had a formica kitchen table because that’s all we could afford. Particle board was not the greatest medium for furniture; especially the particle board from those days, which was more like sawdust and glue. Part of the cachet of those old tables is that they weren’t built to last, so any that survived are rare. Ours didn’t survive my childhood. Dad was always trying to fix wobbles with matchsticks and glue in the screw holes. Our living room furniture was “blond” wood – either unstained or maybe bleached. Ultra hip today.

Going downtown was a big deal. Mom would put on gloves for that. We had to dress up. We took the bus, transferring part way. I was 12 when we got a second car and mom could drive places. We had “school clothes”, “play clothes”, and “dress clothes”. Woe be unto the kids who wore the wrong ones at the wrong time. We didn’t wear blue jeans to school in order to show that we weren’t farmers. I got a paper route when I was 12. On Saturdays we had to take the bus downtown to pay our bill at the newspaper office. I’d take the bus with a friend who also had a route. After we paid our bill we’d go to HL Green (the low-budget drug store soda fountain) for a banana split. They had balloons hanging over the lunch counter and you picked a balloon for the waitress to pop to find your price on a tiny folded piece of paper inside. Sometimes they didn’t fold them enough and if you looked in just the right light you could see the price. We always searched for the one that said 1 cent. Once when the waitress opened a new can of whipped cream, the pressure was enough to knock my scoop of ice cream off the dish. She quickly scooped it up with her hand and put it back on top. What do you expect for a penny?

I must have grown up with smart people. I just learned that my high school reunion has been postponed for a year due to the pandemic. I don’t have to be a party pooper. There is no party to poop out on. (Or should that be “out on which to poop”?)

On of these days the temperature will rise above 45 degrees (7 C), the wind will die down, the sun will come out, and I will return to riding for fun and not just for transportation. Then maybe I’ll write about bicycling again.

The bike clubs have started their spring season but I don’t know who is riding. It’s one thing to ride in April snow flurries to get to work. It is a different kind of crazy to do it solely for recreation. See ya on the road.

Bare Necessities

Growing up, I was taught that the necessities of life were food, clothing, and shelter. Going to work, I found those definitions changing. This is another story alluded to in an old post – “a story for another time”. Here we are, in another time.

So what are the bare necessities in my book, and how did I find them? My first full time job was in a restaurant – preparing food for people. My first “career” was in a grocery co-operative – providing basic food via the Willy Street Co-op. I was pretty sure food counted as a basic need.

After 10 years I left the co-op and moved to Northern California, where I was Maintenance Director (then Financial Manager and General Manager) of the Twin Pines Co-operative Community, a community of 79 families that jointly owned an 80-unit low-income housing co-operative (the 80th unit was a rental reserved for an employee and I was the sole renter for part of my time there). I learned that the Silicon Valley was not filled with Yuppies. Before it became the Silicon Valley, the Santa Clara Valley was The Valley of Heart’s Delight, a vast area of fruit orchards. Now I knew why the supply of apricots had dried up back when I was in the grocery biz – the orchards were being ripped out for factories, office buildings, and housing. (The apricot supply has since recovered somewhat.) There were people who worked in those factories and were the secretaries in those offices and who fixed the fancy cars of those over-priced engineers. They were the people I worked for, and they needed a place to live. Yup, housing made my list.

I’d always had a side job or two. While at Willy Street I was a volunteer programmer at WORT-FM, a listener-sponsored community radio station. I was a patient advocate at the Near East Side Community Health Center, and I was the local representative of FLOC (the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a farmworkers union started in the tomato fields of Ohio – they later merged with the UFW). In California my side job involved co-operative housing in Nicaragua.

In Nicaragua I found that the Matagalpa River (where we cleaned up after a work day) was also where everyone did their laundry and drew their drinking water, as well as where towns discharged their raw sewage. We found a mountain spring, had the water tested, built a dam and a pipeline, and supplied pure water to the houses we were building. (Fred Colgan deserves the lion’s share of the credit for that.) While we weren’t big enough to set up a sewage treatment program, we dug outhouses so sewage from our little community would not go straight to the river.

When my second visa expired I moved to San Francisco and became a plumber (after a side trip for the Mole Poblano tour, o quiere decir La Vuelta de Mole Poblano). It was pretty clear that clean water and sewage treatment made the list of bare necessities, so I made my living doing that. I mostly did residential service work, but also some remodeling and work in bars and restaurants. I used to tell people that my job involved hanging out in gay bars at 9 o’clock in the morning.

Life being what it is (and a story that I probably won’t bother telling here unless shelter in place lasts a really long time), my plumbing career came to an end. I became a college student and then an occupational therapist. Before I became a patient, I had never heard of occupational therapy. My sister (a Speech and Language Pathologist) defined occupational therapists as the people who come up with a simple commonsense solution to a problem; a solution that seems obvious in retrospect. Then she’d realize that she hadn’t though of it. When people ask me what the difference between a physical and an occupational therapist is, I sometimes say the PT’s job is to make sure you can move around, and my job is to make sure you can do all the things you want to move around for. It is a job that varies widely depending on the setting you are working in; and the lines between what I do and what my PT partner does are sometimes pretty blurry. (If you really want to know the gritty details, I have a 13 hour online course for you. Someday I may be able to do it live again.)

I saw firsthand how much access to healthcare depends on money, and how the US, unlike most industrialized countries, lacks a healthcare system. (I work in a hospital that provides care to all regardless of ability to pay – but that doesn’t mean they don’t get billed later, and it clearly affects the care they get after discharge.) Other countries have a healthcare system. We have an insurance system. Healthcare was now clearly on my list of bare necessities.

A common thread running through these, and made clear by our shelter at home situation, is community. I realized I had found my personal definition of the bare necessities: food, housing, water and sewer, healthcare, and community. I hope my list is complete because I’m closer to 70 than to 60 and I probably don’t want to start another career now. I’d like to pretend I had the forethought 50 years ago to build a life based on the necessities and pretend that my life and career trajectory was planned. Never mind, I don’t even want to pretend that. This was a case of going where life led me, then looking back and seeing what the path looks like. Or, as Robert Hunter said:

There is a road, no simple highway, between the dawn and the dark of night…

Le Tour de France/La Vuelta a España/Il Giro d’Italia

The French tour has been postponed and is now scheduled from 29 August to 20 September. The Spanish tour is still scheduled from 14 August to 6 September, but there is talk of moving it to the fall. The Italian tour is being run in a virtual format and the real version may be moved to late fall. The World Championship is also scheduled in the same timeframe as the rescheduled tours.

I think the only answer to scheduling anything right now is “Who knows?” I know of one cycling event scheduled for June that is still scheduled and another in July that has already been canceled.

Stay safe out there…ride alone and enjoy the scenery.