Monday, March 30, 2015

Life's Little Injustices (Take VI): The Customer Is Always...Last In Line

I remember poring over the images in my sixth-grade social studies textbook.  Our latest unit, "Life Under Communism," offered no lack of photos to distract a young boy like myself: the cardboard grey tract housing, the supermarket shelves looking so threadbare and empty, the never-ending lines to buy basic items created a pretty striking visual that suggested, "The Soviet Union? Not a cool place to visit, and you definitely don't want to live there."

The images of those serpentine lines piqued the most curiosity. If you grew up with a fully stocked refrigerator during the '70s, as most of us did, you couldn't imagine lining up to buy staples like bread, milk and eggs. If you wanted something, you asked Mom for it, and hoped that she'd remember to put it on the shopping list...that's how it seemed to work, anyway.  
So why, we asked our teacher, did our Soviet counterparts line up for hours to buy goods they couldn't afford, or wound up being unavailable? 

"Well, that's because..."  Our teacher ventured.  "Everyone knows there isn't enough to go around, and most folks don't make enough money, but they still need certain they line up for them, anyway."

My mind drifts back to the late '90s.  I'm cooling my heels in a pastel gray suburban Illinois DMV office, in an equally pastel gray suburb...where strip mall after strip mall after strip mall zips by your window, and the main streets run indefinitely, to little effect.

I have no choice, though. I'm taking the postal exam next week, and -- having moved from another state -- need a license with the Illinois seal on it. Otherwise, my chances of driving one of those blue and white postal trucks might look pretty iffy.

The line snakes out of the DMV office and onto the sidewalk outside. It's like those scenes I often witnessed in college, when folks camped outside the hip record store, hoping to snag a ticket for the tour of their choice...why did all the good shows seem to happen in the middle of winter?

By 10 a.m., we're finally inside, but the line barely moves an inch, because only three stations are open. But the employees don't allow us to cramp their style. We see them fill in for each other, so they can take their 15-minute breaks. Still, the line barely moves.

An older guy behind me starts making conversation. "I've just moved here from Iowa, and it doesn't take nearly  as shouldn't be this hard." He rolls his eyes, and so do I.

Around 11:30 a.m., I finally get my turn. Apparently, my old license is suspended over an unpaid ticket, but never got a notice. This is Chicagoland, after all, whose mail service is renowned for sucking like a wind tunnel.

The doors close behind me at noon. I have some detective work to do, it seems, but that'll have to wait till Monday. I catch a bus to the farthest available point, and end up walking the remaining mile or two home.

Unlike in Chicago, bus service is a more limited proposition here, because the suburbanites don't want to make it easy for the riff raff to show up. This means me, I suspect.

[Sorry: This Space Reserved...

...For Someone Standing In Line.]

Fast forward to last Saturday, in my old hometown.  I have to mail a payment to the IRS, and I need the postmark showing it's gotten out by the due date. It's the bureaucratic version of Willie Wonka's Golden Ticket...minus the chocolate.

I tell The Squawker to stay home. We're going out for lunch somewhere, but it's 11:45 a.m., and our local post office doesn't close until 12:30 p.m. Plenty of time to bound in and out, right?

No such luck. The scene looks eerily familiar as I walk inside, where just one postal clerk -- there's three windows here -- struggles to expeditiously tackle the needs of these dozen-odd customers, myself included. She's pretty efficient, but hard-pressed.

At one point, a woman struggles to lift an enormous box back onto the counter for processing to its destination.  "You can put it there," the clerk says, pointing at the second window. "I've almost thrown my back out once already."

Another woman exiting the line stops to rattle off a number at the bottom of her receipt: "Call this line and tell them to get more people in here on Saturday!"

Nobody bothers to scribble down a digit. We've all seen that movie before, haven't we? I tell myself. Their teeth click-click as they cluck in sympathy, but nothing ever seems to happen, so... 

I stand on tiptoes as the line inches closer. Normally, I can see the clock positioned behind the clerk...but not today, though. It's gone, taken down by the painters working inside the building. Damn! 

When my turn finally arrives, the clerk glances at the envelope that I've dutifully pre-stamped. "Next time," she says, "you can just walk up and hand it to me."

I flash a weak smile.  "Now I know, I guess."

I walk down the ramp outside, and pause to look at the bank clock across the street. It's now around 12:20 p.m. "Squawker will love this one, I'm sure," I mutter under my breath.

[Keep Calm...Hurry Up And Wait.]

Over and over again, government agencies and businesses remind us -- in the same crisp, solemn tones that Winston Churchill used to reassure a wear-weary British nation -- that the customer is always right, your satisfaction is the number one priority, and so on.

Of course, it all rings hollow when they pass the inconvenience to you in a heartbeat. How many times have you fidgeted at the automatic checkout in some chain grocery store, only to find yourself standing in line -- yet again -- when the machine's whistles and bells don't work as they should?

I never did get around to driving one of those blue and white postal vans. I wonder what it would have been's too late to find out now, of course.  Ah, well, I tell myself, at least we can still make our lunch date.

I switch on the ignition and try to push those grainy social studies textbook images out of my head. I've seen enough graying bureaucracy for one day.  --The Reckoner

[Congratulations....You've Just Finished This Post. And You Didn't Need To Stand In Line To Read It!]

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

I Wanted Everything (Not Supermarket Sticker Shock)

I heard about the Easter bunny
Presents under a Christmas tree
It was dreaming and fantasy
There was no Mom or Daddy
I wanted everything
I wanted everything
I wanted everything
--"I Wanted Everything" (The Ramones)

I remember the impact 
that this song made on me, so long ago, when it first appeared on Road To Ruin (1978). Like so many of the late Dee Dee Ramone's lyrics, the mood is one of an emotional ice age and isolation. There's no pulling of any punches, let alone any light relief. The narrator knows the cavalry isn't coming. All that's left is disappointment curdling into icy despair. The answers that he reaches are anything but comforting...which is what made him such a great lyricist, then and now.

I thought about that song again during one of my latest grocery shopping trips. With The Squawker sidelined by health issues, the task fell to me, and the $70 I'd transferred into our bank account last week. So I duly went out and did my duty, figuring that -- while I'm waiting on payment for a couple recent editorial projects -- I can at least acquire the building blocks needed to make our kitchen table hum a little bit.

By the time I finished, I ended up with 59 cents...cue up the cost of living jokes, right? But when the issue hits so close to's really not that funny, especially when you feel that canned laughter being aimed in your general direction.

I had the world on my shoulder
But I was getting older
Knew I was ready for it
Some kind of employment
I wanted everything...
I wanted everything...I wanted everything...

Then again, I wasn't terribly surprised by that outcome. The continued upward spiral of food prices -- and downward pressure on pocketbooks -- isn't a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is seeing the tactics that mainstream grocery stores are adopting to scoop up the few pennies that you're still allowed to take home. For instance...

...on this trip, I noticed a new trend: fewer and fewer choices, with "all or nothing" emerging as the dominant pricing strategy. You either buy that 30-ounce mayonnaise bottle for $3.58 and up, or settle for its piddly, half-size cousin that still winds up costing around $2.39.  Want carrots? Well, two-pound bags run around $2 -- although I've seen some stores in my town pushing the $2.50 envelope -- but you can't get around by buying a one-pound bag. That's now $1.29, instead of 99 cents (quite a steep markup, by any measure). Might as well just cough up that two-dollar bill, eh (if that museum piece is burning up your pocket)? To add further insult to injury, you'll typically see that item going on the old price.

Another phenomenon is the increasing empty air that you feel in most packaged items. A 28-ounce bag of French fries, for example, is only about 75 percent full; same goes for a bag of rippled potato chips, or chicken strips...if you go in for that sort of thing. Other times, I've noticed the actual sizes being downsized, particularly on in-store brands (such as from 28 to 26 ounces on those French fry bags).

Watch your life flash
before your eyes...along with your food budget...

All day working on a truck
Bringing the groceries up
Not much of a salary
No tip for the delivery
I wanted everything
I wanted everything
I wanted everything...

There's no success for me
Involved in a robbery
There's money in the supermarket
And I'm going after it
I wanted everything...

Like most shoppers, naturally, the Squawker and I have had to rethink some of the strategies we used to beat previous price spikes. The presence of more grocery stores doesn't necessarily translate into a break for your pocketbook, as we saw a couple of summers ago when the Meijer chain opened a new store within six miles of our home -- sparing the need to trek across town and shop at its sister location. However, the highly-anticipated pricing war never materialized (despite a lot of tongue wagging around town). A couple years ago, someone tried to start a food co-op here...only to abandon the idea when she couldn't get enough people to sign up. Apparently, not enough of our fellow townies are fed up enough with paying $1.69 for a 15-ounce can of stewed tomatoes...but I digress.

Meijer and its local rivals seem to have reached a gentleman's agreement to keep their prices within line of each other, and most of their sale items are typically focused on the processed crap that Squawker and I can't absorb into our gullets. For example, I always see Ekrich bologna on sale...always, always, always...but never any of the higher-grade meats, whether they're packaged or cut at the counter. In those cases, you'll either cough up $4.50 to $7 per pound, depending on your needs.

And that's what makes those extreme couponing shows so annoying -- watching all these perpetually bubbly suburban moms racing to fill up an armada of shopping carts with boxes of macaroni and cheese, jars of peanut butter and other questionable choices is a surreal experience, to put it mildly. Fed up with the whole spectacle, the Squawker and I have turned to Asian and Mexican groceries as an alternative -- which seems to be paying better dividends (so far, anyway). Instead of worrying if we can splurge $7.70 on a cooked chicken, we can easily get about 2.5 pounds for the same price....which lasts a bit longer, and allows us to plan two (or even three) meals. On the flipside, it means quite a lot more cooking from scratch, which ensures a longer evening.

The Oxfam blog link below lays out the big picture pretty well, for those who are paying attention: "The early research suggests price rises are bringing about social change by stealth, as people and their relationships to food (and each other) are being commodified faster than ever before.  Policymakers seem oblivious to these changes, obsessed as they are with changes they can measure."  That last sentence is overly charitable...personally, I suspected that they were half asleep.

It's tempting to imagine how Dee Dee might react to these pricing trends today, if he were searching for a few items to inspire his latest  songwriting...judging by the scenario that he lays out in the last verse, it's fair to say that minimum wage work and the cost of living didn't quite agree with him. The Squawker and I will continue to strategize as best as we can, but it's fair to say that we're not looking at a pretty least, in the short run.  -- The Reckoner

Links To Go (The Cost Of Living Strikes Again)
Oxfam: From Poverty To Power:
Squeezed: How Are Poor People
Adjusting To Life In A Time Of Food Price Volatility?:

USA Today:
Rising Food Prices Pinching Consumers:

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Elites Ripping Off the Willing

$950-2000 a month to live in a closet? Are these people nuts?

Soon they'll have everyone living in pods the size of caskets to sleep in just like they have in Toyko but there they consider them "pod hotels".  

The elites will sell it as having a "low" carbon footprint to deceived millennials who know and demand nothing better. Think about the things the greedy normalize, it is sickening. Such a thing would not have been acceptable 50 years ago, all they are doing is forcing the serfs to live more compressed. By the way, a low income's micro-apartment won't have all the fancy space-savers.

 Imagine what your life then becomes paying half or more of your income for a box to live in, where you can't even have a stack of magazines or an art easle because space is so small, you may as well take the cardboard for free that's in the street--The Squawker

To Prison For Poverty

"So when profit becomes the driving force, civil rights get thrown under the bus"

Being poor is criminalized. Warn your young people to be careful, one misstep or mistake in this society and your whole life can be ruined.

One thing I have noticed about the South is life is much more unforgiving for the poor down there and the police state seems to have a firmer and tighter grip around people's throats.

Private companies getting involved with our justice system is scary because their focus is on profit and more prisoners means more profit.--The Squawker

Everything Costs Too Much

When you are poor, you can't get anything done.

We paid the electric bill and internet bill--remember, The Reckoner needs it for work, and
bought a few days of groceries. I am cooking from scratch constantly. This includes  soups, beans, peppers, stuffed cabbage. If we eat out it has to be under five dollars a meal which is very rare. I wish my church had more potlucks.  I can't afford the GMO laden rot your gut out crap they are unloading on most Americans.

How is one supposed to actually have a life when there is no money?

When you are poor you simply can't get anything done. Everything is for tomorrow. The response to everything is No. The spoiled yuppies of the world would never imagine this. They put their hands on their hips in their niche full lives and judge people like us.

The car needs a new exhaust system and a new windshield.

The oil needs changing. Hopefully I can come up with it in the next few weeks.

The carpets need steam cleaning [we would do it ourselves if our bodies were in better shape to use the rental one but I've used those before and it just doesn't get it as cleaned when I was able to do it]

We need to pay the car and renter's insurance, The Reckoner may have it at the end of the week.

I paid two small medical bills. I had the years where I had no insurance and it almost cost me my life. We paid rent which grows higher as the money coming in grows lower. They added the water and sewer on last year which made the bill automatically 20-30 higher a month.

We don't even have money to go on a 30 mile day trip. Vacations never have been on the table.

Both of us need glasses, I may be able to get some if I can come up with 160 bucks. How many months will that take to save?

I need new medical supplies for one of my health conditions.

We both need new clothes, underwear. We each own one pair of shoes. A lot of our clothes are from thrift but those are hard to find if you wear over a skinny person's size.

The apartment needs painting. Neither of us know how to paint. I'm disabled and at our age and health, we are looking at broken legs trying to teeter on a step ladder. They want $200 to give us a new rug, a fee for moving furniture. I don't see me ever having it.

I wish I could replace the computer table with the broken leg.  Even the thrift store wants money.

Many friends are kind, giving me little treats, and books to read and other caring gestures. I wish I could do more for them from my end.

All the prices are skyrocketing for everything, and well, it's getting scary out there.----The Squawker