There’s a lot of forensic accounting going on at my place. Out here in the Wash Basin Road neighborhood of Unincorporated Our Town, it started feeling like a Third World country long before the recent economic breakdown.
For example: though the road to my farm-ette has been paved and re-graded to accommodate the new housing developments, it is still unlevel, uneven, and exhibiting symptoms of small pox. But since Wash Basin Road, which was closed for months for widening, resurfacing, and sidewalk installation, has finally re-opened, I put that in the “gains” column. The developers, for whom this road was improved, and for whom a luxurious sidewalk was sculpted, have fled to Florida or vanished in bankruptcy court. That has proved to be an additional gain for me: I no longer worry about my eye being assaulted by another 50 acres of standing timber suddenly turning into something approximating a battlefield near Khandahar. Though the developers are gone, they’ve left behind what has come to be called ghost subdivisions. Where once there were maple and alder, there are now vacant houses, landscaped with For Rent and For Sales signs; or worse, lovely paved roads meandering to electrical poles for houses that were never built. Clearly, I’ve lost a landscape; but I’ve gained a novel vocabulary.
As the lexicon of the New Economy crept up my road and three distinct social entities emerged, the Haves, the Have-nots, and the Homeless; my accounting got fuzzier. Do you remember when there used to be various gradations of the middle class: upper-middle, middle-middle, lower? All of these stratifications seem to have conglomerated into the Have-not category. Now it’s the classification of Homeless that appears to be stratifying: traditional street person, squatter, car dweller, couch surfer in the home of a friend or relative, camper in a State or National Forest, snowbird, resident in a charitable shelter, incarcerated--to name a few. I can’t decide, is this shifting of economic gradations a loss or a gain?
Some definitions might help. Let’s say that the Haves are those whose incomes support homes (plural and trophy) in safe neighborhoods, healthy food, designer clothing, private medical care, private transportation, private education for one’s children, and luxury pastimes; and that the Have-nots are those who earn incomes enabling them to barely hang on to the dream of home ownership, medical care, food, clothing, private transportation, some kind of higher education for one’s children, a hobby, and a staycation that isn’t permanent. The Homeless aren’t necessarily the unemployed, just those whose incomes can’t support the roof over their heads as well as the debts incurred when they were members of a higher stratum.
Incorporated and Unincorporated Our Town is largely an area of Have-nots with a smattering of Homeless squatting on public lands. Unlike a nearby suburb of Microsoft McMansions, we are a community of people who know exactly how many houses we own. And many in the Wash Basin—as my neck of the woods is called—are trying to sell that one home before it is foreclosed on. Across the lawns in my neighborhood there are more For Sale signs than mole mounds. We have always been a magnet for a certain homeless population, the perpetually jobless who camp along our wonderfully scenic bend-in-the-river. But due to climate change and the surprise gain of four distinct seasons, these squatters have had to move up from the flood plain of spring and the drifting snow of winter to the veranda of a derelict Pizzeria positioned along that part of the state highway that serves as Our Town’s main drag, more main than our actual Main Street.
This aging two-lane conduit, known as the Highway of Death, needed to be converted to a four-lane divided expressway long before any Our Town city councilman with a cow pasture to sell thought of annexing it into the city limits and then inviting in the developers. Along this stretch of asphalt, fifty people have been killed in the last fifteen years, more if you add in the fatal accidents on feeder arterials. This thoroughfare is lined with white crosses, weathered unpainted crosses, and crosses both painted and unpainted wreathed in plastic flowers, ribbons, and mementos to the lives of Sharon, Donna, Mike, to name but three. Last year, the state somehow found the funding to groove the entire length of the double yellow line at the cost of I-forget-how-many-millions. This year six miles of the Highway of Death, stretching from Our Town to the next hamlet to the west, was repaved, the just-installed center groove jack-hammered up and then replaced, all at a cost of 1.4 million, or so a highway improvement sign informs me. Now this silky, black put-your-pedal-to-the-metal tarmac is an immense pleasure to drive, or would be if the improvements didn’t encourage more speeding and passing. Lower (than last year) gas prices encourage more traffic; falling incomes encourage more people to vacation by car or mobile home or motorcycle. All this adds up to more accidents (four fatalities on an overpass near the fair grounds in a single wreck just last month). So I can’t decide, is this heavenly stretch of spanked satin asphalt with which I have fallen in love a loss or a gain?
Here’s a hurrah: the Wash Basin neighborhood is no longer without the key amenity of police protection. Because Our Town can no longer afford to police itself, the sheriff’s deputies have been called in to supervise. Speed limit violators in the unincorporated zones are ticketed, whereas they never were previously due to the glitch of falling under neither Town nor County jurisdiction. The meth kitchens are gone, but not because of anything the sheriff or the DEA’s drug hotline accomplished. More likely it’s due to market conditions: Mexico produces a superior product at a better value. But I digress. The puppy mills are gone and I credit this to the activity of an outspoken group that runs an animal sanctuary. Alas, that too is gone as is a small segment of our teenage population. Even before the police chief was fired, Our Town had gang activity. This spring, we added to the list of our gang related woes, a murder on Main Street of one teenager by several others, caught on video tape in broad daylight by a surveillance camera positioned in front of the library’s return books depository.
Here’s a gain: most of my neighbors have finally taken down their McCain-Palin for President signs. And just where will the fancy new sidewalk along Wash Basin Road take these Republicans when they participate in our Walk a Mile in My Shoes Day? To town, to the Fast Gas Mini Mart, to MacDonald’s, to a ghost subdivision turned ATV park, to the illegal shooting range at the gravel pit? None of the above: it will dump them out on the state thoroughfare sans sidewalk, the Highway of Death. Turn right and the bus stop is a short hike down the shoulder and across the road at the Park & Ride—there’s no crosswalk, so mind the traffic. Are you wondering where those painted and unpainted crosses can be purchased? Take a left and it’s a short trek east along the highway to the lumber yard, one of Our Town’s most prosperous businesses—if you don’t count the liquor store.
So where’s the bottom line to all this forensic valuation analysis? Any minute now I hope to pin it down with the use of the nether-words of Business Process Re-engineering; somewhere, say, between a Troubled Debt Restructuring and a Lifetime Learning Credit. And what of all the other silk purses recently turned into sow’s ears? In Issue #15, Switched-on Gutenberg takes an accounting. --Jana Harris