July 31, 2008
The more crackerjacks,
the more prizes.
UNPACKING UNMARKED BOXES
of treasures or trash, I run across a wooden box of miscellany, a carved parrot on the lid. Contained therein are a flattened penny and quarter, that my true-blue buddies Pete and Tom, at Union Station Portland to see me off, had placed on the tracks of my departing train, No. 26. They gave me the 26 cents worth of smooth metal ovals upon my return. The train really has ridden over them; I feel like I have the power of the train in my hand. They make me stop to daydream about the wonderful trips I took on the now-defunct Pioneer—from Portland starting on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, down through southeastern Oregon, Baker and the Blue Mountains, through Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, through Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Mountains, up the switchbacks to Soldier’s Summit, to Denver through the Rockies, Nebraska, I-o-way, and in to Chicago. It was Amtrak’s greatest line, ask me, though the California Zephyr gives it a run. The not-so-shabby Empire Builder still serves the northern route to Seattle. It was on my first trip on the eastbound leg of the Pioneer that I saw, unprepared for it as I was, the most astonishing sight I ever did see.
THE 26 WAS RUNNING LATE
and I awakened to a chalky blue early dawn. I had my face pasted sleepily against the window holding my head up, looking lazily sideways out of half-lidded eyes. Had the train been on time I would not have seen, in darkness and no doubt asleep, the train creeping along until a sudden, hair-raising drop in the scenery expanded into the bowl of this completely unexpected dam. Damn! The tracks were on the damn rim of the thing. What if you were standing next to a crack in the sidewalk and the bottom fell away from everything on the other side of it? When the Big One comes, you very well could be. The Pineview Dam outside Ogden, Utah became the highlight of any trip east on the Pioneer. I can’t think of anything else, manmade or natural, I have found so breathtakingly and overwhelmingly spectacular. My mouth dropped just like the ground had from the side of the train. As far as I know, there’s no other way but train to see the dam from that angle. There’s also a rock painted Nebraska / Colorado, that marks the dividing lines between the states as you speed by, that we may never see again. I managed to snap a picture of it, but the film was in my luggage, which was stolen from the trunk of my friend Larry’s sister’s car at South St. Seaport. Also lost was my first cross-country train journal. At first I was just glad to have my money and train tickets—but when I realized I’d lost a piece of writing, probably lying among wilted lettuce at the bottom of a dumpster, I cried. It would be trippy if the book still existed.
Recently, during the staging of my flat, I was checking out my denuded fireplace empty of art objects, plants, Tibetan flags and the Chinese screen in front of the useless firebox (decorative only). I remarked to the stager that in this humble state it reminded me of the Magritte painting, “Time Transfixed,” of a modest fireplace with a clock on the mantel, and a locomotive steaming out of the top of the firebox.
Then I got an email from Laughing Squid about comic book artist Scott McDonald, who referenced Magritte, and was writing about it (in my last column) at Café International. Just as I was packing up to go, I got an email from Amtrak Guest Rewards announcing special fares, and when I stood up, on the table in front of me was a coffee cup and 26 cents, a quarter and a penny. A trip on Train 26, 26 flattened cents, many more trips since, the reappearance of the squashed coins, then Magritte’s train, The Long Now, Scott McDonald’s Magritte, the Amtrak message and another 26 cents. What is this all about?
GIRL, IT’S TIME TO TAKE A TRAIN TRIP!
I have plenty mapped out, but I’ll have to be mature and wait. How unlike me. First, there’s my kitten. I don’t want to leave and find her three times as big when I come home. Then, no indulgent spending until all the money gone out in the last year and-a-half, comes back in the form of a settlement check.
I AM ONE LUCKY, LUCKY WRITER
to have put myself in this position. I can follow my bliss to the moon and beyond. Want to hear my real estate story? It’ll make you sick. I was a worker bee in various offices, mostly architectural. I never earned anything that could amount to much. But in 1989, loving domesticity, I gathered up enough green to put a deposit on a beautiful 4-bedroom home in Portland, Oregon. There are plenty—and they all have side yards! I had fled gentrifying N.W. Portland and, like so many of us exiles, moved over the Bridge to S.E. Hawthorne and got in on the ground floor before prices started rising in lovely Mt. Tabor (that was the neighborhood volcano). I was 34.
Several years later, in 1996, I got bored, and at age 41 rented the house out and moved to Berkeley. I shared a house with artist Richard Congo, drummer and painter. Rent was $350. A year or so later, he visited a former girlfriend, a difficult relationship, and when he came back I asked, “Who’s moving, you or me?” I did not relish entering the East Bay housing market, especially in September after college students had snapped everything up, and one day I saw an ad that said, “If you’re paying $XXX in rent, you can afford a home of your own.” I called the number. I told the agent I needed an income property and we scoured the MLS.
THE FIRST DAY
we went out looking, we drove to a listing in West Berkeley, and, parked at the curb, I said to her, “Is that what I think it is? A fourplex apartment building with a separate stand-alone cottage next to it? Make an offer!”
Of course, still a worker bee, I had to refinance my Portland house to raise the money to make this happen. I didn’t give it a second’s thought or doubt, I was just going to do what I was going to do. I think I had a $28,000 mortgage at the time, my payment something like $327. This was 1997, and the house, in eight years, had quadrupled in value. I took part of the money and made a deposit on the complex and moved into the cottage. After six miserable years of landlordship under rent control (I had to take a second $100,000 mortgage to pay off my debts and establish some cash flow), I rid myself of the albatross, which had nevertheless more than doubled in value. In 2003 I cashed out and bought my Lower Haight flat.
In 2006, I lost my long-term Portland renters, got a line of credit on my flat and undertook to renovate the house and re-rent it.
“THE MAGIC CHECKBOOK,”
I called the credit line. But there wasn’t magic enough to cover my butt when the $60,000 job unexpectedly, with the surprise addition of a new foundation, became a $90,000 job. I struggled mightily with whether to sell the house or my flat. Sell the flat, go back to Portland, and I can afford to complete the renovation at my leisure, buy down my mortgage and live cheaply enough to not work for quite a while. Important for a writer.
I don’t want to live in Portland again. Nah. Not enough stimulation. More important for a writer. I found my city and Portland ain’t it, though I have nothing but good things to say about it. Just too slow and laid back for me, and after 15 years of overcast and rainy winters, I’d had it. So what’s the conflict about, bitch? Sell the damn thing! Easier said. Why? Because of the San Francisco cost of living and the rental market. There is NO housing security here. The City can overpower you any time. To have the option, “I can always go back to my Portland house,” was an excruciating thing to give up. But I was determined to stay here (I can out-bitch you, San Francisco, you bitch), and eventually sold the house, at close to ten times its original price, which in 1989 had allowed me to put down a 20% deposit…a 20% deposit on a $41,000 house.
An initial investment of $8,000 eventually gave me the means to buy a two-bedroom Victorian flat in the Lower Haight of San Francisco. Strangely enough, when I first came here looking for housing, I stayed at the Easy Goin’ Hostel at 555 Haight St., and ended up buying a home right around the corner from it.
People always say, oh, you’re so smart, why didn’t I do what you did…but there was no plan. I didn’t think this out and form a strategy for my life. I barely consider myself an adult. In each instance I was simply doing what I needed and wanted to do at that time, all the while working full-time and having nervous breakdowns. Oh, I want to buy a house. Oh, OK, now I want to leave town, then, OK, I want to buy another house, and another. I ask myself, what do I have to make this happen? Can I do it, and will I do it? When I decided to leave Portland, I started by renting my house out. I’d have to go somewhere! The rest was like dominos.
One thing is for certain, you can’t be afraid to take risks and maybe losses. I never allowed that to intimidate me. And you have to feel free to ask the universe for what you want. As George Carlin put it, “You need a little danger in your life. Take a fuckin’ chance once in a while, will ya?” But if I’ve done so well at this game, why, with all these assets, have I been mostly cash-broke and often in debt? The cost of housing and living in San Francisco. Even if you get in like I did, you have to fight to stay there.
someone called me the other day. But make note, I am 53. I just happen to be old enough to have been there when such a thing could still happen. No one is going to be able to cop the kind of deals I made in ’89, or’97, or ’03, not in Portland or the Bay Area.
After five years, I found I could no longer maintain my flat on my own. Even working full-time and taking two roommates would still not cover my expenses, which include debts to the IRS and State of California for the capital gains tax on the Portland house, which I have been living on instead of paying. It’s heartbreaking to enter the SF real estate market through the narrowest crack even water couldn’t penetrate—I could not have supported the place for five years without the income and equity of the Portland house—and not be able to say with confidence, “OK, I’ve got my niche.” I haven’t even built any equity, I could barely afford the interest.
And even though I realized that if I moved back to Portland I would at least have my house, and if I stayed in San Francisco I would likely end up with no house and no flat, and perhaps no San Francisco, I simply didn’t care. I was just going to do what I was going to do. I would not settle for less of a life than I want for myself. The secret of happiness is needing less and less to make you happy. Having less stuff, less crackerjacks, was essential. The more stuff you have, the more space you need to store it in. And space in San Francisco = money. It turns out that the prize is a booby-trap.
AFTER MY EPIPHANY
in “Contemplation Central,” my claw foot tub, described in “All I Needed Was a Train Ride,” where I decided that if I sold my Portland house and quit my job, which my bipolar disorder was making intolerable, and didn’t sell a book before the money ran out, I would simply sell the flat, no problem. It was supercallifragilisticexpialidociously obvious. I can practically put myself back in that water and sigh the same sigh of relief I sighed when I mentally let go of the house, and the flat, if need be. Now that the flat is on the market, I wonder why I waited so long. But it has taken me the best part of this year to get myself out of there.
THOUGH I HAD NOT A DIME
of unsecured debt, the flat was beyond my means and in a manner that was twice what I needed. I should have taken in a dozen comrades from the streets, like Dr. Zhivago. It all fell into place in that tub, because I knew that I was never going to allow myself to work again, that selling the flat was inconsequential compared to having to go back to work just to pay the mortgage. I don’t see how I could anyhow. Between bipolar and ADD—don’t call me irresistible; call me unemployable. Full-time worker bee is just more now than I can take. I simply can’t keep up with the normal world. I can’t think clearly. I can’t on-the-spot unravel my brainwaves and interpret them (talk, that is). I can’t add or subtract. I can’t manage my exhaustion. I have a hard time retaining information. I think I’ve missed 5% of every conversation, lecture, speech, movie I’ve ever tried to listen to. At this point, I can barely file. Luckily, I can write. In that I am blessed. It’s about the only way I can order my mind (besides the drugs).
I have before introduced, in “Pardon My Crude Mind,” psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel’s concept of the polyphony of thought, many different themes weaving together to form a whole, with some themes predominant, such as what you’re thinking right now—you might even be iterating it, reading it aloud in your mind to yourself in English—some themes harmonic, others dissonant—and others a mere whisper, but nevertheless articulated in some way and part of the mix.
I am constantly in the process of translating all this into English, into written language. I spew out whatever happens to be foremost on my mind, half a sentence here, a completely different theme there, switching quickly to something else, impatient that I can’t articulate everything at once, until I manage to massage the whole thing into some coherent flow. It can take hours, or days, whatever I need.
JUST AS YOUR CONSCIOUSNESS
has many layers of thought and remembrance occurring simultaneously, the human universe is richly populated with all the nations of the world, their cultures, religions, languages, dress, music. There is so much energy in the air, vibrating between one and another possibilities, conflicting energies as well, passing through everybody, it’s astonishing we’re not all tapped into it, zapped by it. When I’m in The Zone, when I hit it just right, I can actually see the stuff. It’s like radiating auras of energy.
Ever notice how cats seem to be awake while they’re sleeping? They lift an eyelid, their ears rotate like radar picking up a passing car here, a distant bark there. They are vigilant. They are sucking up vibes and recording information. A passing fly registers. Still they purr and dream. We would do well to be so alert, so tuned to our surroundings, even as we dream.
Park the car, forsake the plane
I’m innocent when I dream
Keep your eyes on the real prize
copyright Alexandra Jones 2008