The Noir Hack

Met a hack on her back in the sack lovely but no ears
lugged a sack of socks as winter uncoiled into spring
all summer long rolled up socks & stuffed her bag
till full it was wool tossed socks fool me going barefoot
sandaled sock-less the warm early grasses of summer
by the sidewalks along the seashore in a summer
the weather news said would never end the waves
the summer the ocean beaches & solid gold weekends.

Noir fall & fell fall hard that year markets failed
& on socks tariffs hit feet cold wet & sore toenail
fungus infestation & the wooly cooly hack kneed
trumpet ear tinkered her socks along the esplanade
& came the coldest winter lemonade stands closed
nary a beer at the end of the year she was rich
& to boot boasted the warmest toes so near
impressed in silk slippers she was when I left her.

Signs of Summer in the Offing

Last week, I saw a guy wheeling a couch down a sidewalk over near SE Woodstock. He had the full size living room couch balanced on an office chair on wheels, and was pushing the makeshift vehicle along the sidewalk, away from a garage sale, a clear sign summer is in the offing in Portland. I mentioned the couch on wheels to Susan, and she said let’s set sail for the new garage sale season come Saturday morning, foraging afield, stopping whim-whamfully, burying our treasure in the back of our little wagon. Yes, I added, and thence to the basement to add to our pile of previously purchased garage sale items that we will no doubt put out in our own garage sale later this summer. There you go again with the negative vibes, Moriarty, she replied, but come Saturday morning, off we jibed, cutting a course from Mt Tabor zigzagging northwest through uncharted garage sale waters.

Never mind, for the moment, why we keep stuff; why do we acquire the stuff to begin with? But what did we acquire on our Saturday garage sailing adventure?

Our first disembarkment came just a few blocks out of harbor. We looked at an ironing board (does anyone iron anymore? I asked Susan). We looked at a large, thick piece of glass and considered it for a table top. There was a DVD player for sale, a few books, and a treasure trove of old, vinyl albums, out of which I picked, for 50 cents, a Peggy Lee with George Shearing recording. I would have brought home a few more old, folk albums I saw, but most of them looked like they had served as scratching pads for a family of catastrophic cats. While I was thumbing through the albums, Susan picked out a shoe tree for her closet, and I wondered if this was a portent of an organized summer. Our garage sale hosts were themselves disembarking for adventures elsewhere, pulling up anchor, moving.

We stopped at a church rummage sale over on Burnside. Susan picked out a tiny, wire jeweled Christmas tree, though Christmas seems an ocean away to me. Things were half off at the church sale, and I showed Susan a lemonade sign leaning against a rail outside the vestibule. We could hang it somewhere, I said, assuring her I had no immediate plans to sell lemonade. The sign was marked $2.50, so we got it for $1.25, and Susan said churches often have the best garage sales.

But even half price was no match for Susan’s find at our next stop, an old, maple director’s chair at a garage sale off of Stark – in the free box pile. It had no seat nor back, and was missing the dowels that hold the seat fabric under the arms. If you can find any logic to buying a lemonade sign at half price, you can understand having to lug home the priceless, broken director’s chair. But on the way home we stopped by a specialty store where we got a director’s chair seat and back fabric replacement kit, on sale for three bucks. We were in favorable trade winds.

We stopped here and there, browsing more than buying, listening to a seller’s story here, a buyer’s tale there. Then we landed at the most enjoyable sale of the day, where three ladies joyfully called our attention toward multiple kitchenware items, a mirror, homemade stuffed toy animals, blankets and quilts, dishes, knickknacks, tools – these and more sundries arranged neatly on tables and blankets and leaning against a tree in the front yard. And I made my third purchase of the day. For 50 cents, I bought a little Singer box of sewing machine parts, but I got it for the tiny, specialized screwdrivers it contained.

I’m the kind of garage sailor who vows every voyage is his last, though it’s not the long run on the open sea I want, either, instead of tacking through neighborhoods, but I’ll probably sail through the summer stopping at garage sales if I see books, albums, tools, or guitars. The sailor on land wants to walk. And if I find myself some distance from the mother ship wanting to haul a garage sale item home, I can always ask if they happen to have any office chairs on wheels for sale. The garage sale offers a unique barometer of local economic conditions, windows of interest into local communities, and the stories one hears surely fill part of the void left by the disappearance of newspapers. In any case, there’s always the chance of the odd lemonade sign showing up.

Click any photo for gallery view:

Becker, Posner, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Don’t miss the Chicago Two waxing on happiness in the latest posts at the Becker-Posner blog; the January 10 posts are impoverished economic analyses attempting to explain why Americans are unhappy. Neither the Nobel economist nor the federal judge seems happy with his conclusions.

Even as they both begin to move away from the Chicago School’s famed ignorance of psychology, the problem still seems to be with their approach, as John Cassidy explains in his January 8, New Yorker article, “After the Blowup”: “A useful new economics will need to integrate an awareness of human nature with extensive practical knowledge and high-level mathematical expertise” (32). It’s not that an attempt to explain human nature is lacking in the Becker-Posner posts. They both conclude that the pursuit of wealth is the paramount claim of value for Americans, but they ignore their colleague Rajan’s argument “that the initial causes of the breakdown [the recent crash] were stagnant wages and rising inequality” (32-33), that upward mobility, in other words, is a metaphorical, ultimately unreachable carrot, for as one moves upward, so does the top.

Their analyses do not mention half-day commutes in mortgaged, gas-expensive rigs to institutionalized jobs (public and private) so Dad can pay the mortgage and Mom get the health benefits and pay for daycare until the divorce where everyone gets the Community Chest card that says “Return to Go.” Posner argues in his conclusion that “People have a strong preference for more income over less and thus for a rising standard of living. Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that people fooled themselves in thinking they would be happier with more money. Maybe so; but as long as people do have this strong preference, economics can explain a great deal of human behavior.” The faulty assumption in Posner’s argument is the claim that more income leads to an improved standard of living. Rising income results in rising costs of living and a breakeven that continues to move upward, like the unreachable carrot.

Becker seems closer to reality: “My conclusion is that happiness data have been useful, and the relation with income is plausible. Yet happiness data do not enable us to directly measure utility and wellbeing. I admit I do not know why average degree of happiness has not risen in recent decades in the US as incomes rose.”

Posner gives Adam Smith short shrift, for Smith is much more devastating in his argument than merely suggesting that “people fool themselves”: No doubt we do fool ourselves, about many things, but about money buying happiness the fooling is an aggressive and dynamic belief, not passive and benign, a belief that requires as a tenet a dichotomy of human worth. This belief is what allows some of us to live comfortably in mansions paid for by the labor in sweatshops of people who live in shanties: Smith says, “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.” This is at least evident in the gated communities that sprung up in response to a new age of fear fostered by the holders of the carrots to secure their own positions of power and wealth, increasing the gap between the claim of value and its reason and exposing the underlying faulty assumption that wealth buys happiness, for as Tennessee Ernie Ford sang in Merle Travis’s classic “Sixteen Tons” (1955):

“You load sixteen tons, what do you get / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”