Thursday, July 19, 2018

First House

First House 
Ann Arbor, Michigan - 1973

I loved my coffee shop. Instead of an upholstered polished bar, there was shiny chrome strip around a Formica surface .  20 stools ringed the counter. There were no tables. When I entered the shop, there was a genuine little bell hanging on the door. It  rang with very happy sound. No matter how you felt, the bell was happy.

This was the kind of place where the waitress called me honey and sweetheart.  Instead of a mixed drink, I bellied up to the counter for my coffee and grilled cheese. Now that was comfort.   The grill itself was just behind the counter and I could watch the cook slather butter on the bread and slap the sandwich down on the black grill. The smell of cooking butter, bread, and melting cheese dripping on the grill was overpowering. 

Yesterday had been eventful. It was a big day. In just one day, Sarah and I had put down a payment on our first house. We signed the preliminary papers allowing “them” to check out our credit and general honesty.  That had gone well. It was routine for the bankers but it was not routine for us.  Sarah and I were thrilled. 

We giggled in our Ford Pinto as we drove back through the snowy streets of Ann Arbor.
“Each of the girls will have their own room.”
“I can’t wait to show it to them.” 
I love the big basement. Those stairs near the kitchen seem pretty scary. We can keep the laundry down there and eventually fix it up as a play room.  All the toys can be dumped down there.”
“It even has a dishwasher. Can you believe that? A dishwasher that is built-in.”

I dropped Sarah off at the University. She waded through a snow drift.  Her ancient bike was chained to a No Parking Sign.  She wore a parka and boots. I had on the same  outfit.   This was Michigan in the Winter.  We didn’t care:  We were buying our first house.
 I drove back to work. Although still in graduate school, I worked for a small consulting firm.  These kind of businesses grow around major universities like some type of parasite.  Or were they like barnacles that attach to the big graduate schools?  I was working on my Ph.D. and the company was busy harvesting federal money.  It was all very efficient.

The company was run by Mary and Bill, two young Ph.D.’s who had created their own business: OASIS (Organization for Applied Science In Society).  Despite the big name, it employed about 5 people.

OASIS was on the second floor above a retail business in Ann Arbor. I walked in stamping the snow from my boots.  I chatted with Mary in an empty conference room.

“Mary, how do you set the price for something like this project?  We don’t know how many hours it will take.”

“Don’t worry we will just double the estimate.  Remember these contracts are called COST Plus.  (I remembered the store back in California with the same name: Cost Plus)
“How does that work” I asked..  “It seems weird, I know you told me, but…”  I was honestly confused.

“Well, we put in our invoice each month and then we are allowed to tack on a 25% mark-up. That is the pluspart of cost-plus.  So the more we work and the higher our costs, the more money we make. Pretty cool? We are guaranteed profit.

It still didn’t seem quite right to me.

On the other hand, I was a young graduate student with a wife and 2 kids who was about to buy a house. This contract was a very good thing, indeed!

Mary invited her business partner, Bill to join us in the conference room.  He shut the door.  “Oh, Oh.,” I thought.

“Mike, we know you are buying a house, but we can’t give any more salary until you get your Ph.D.”
“What!”  “But your other partners only have BA’s. Why do I have to finish.”  I was getting wound up. 
“So do you give me less work or less responsibility without my degree?” 
“No” they both replied in unison. “We expect the same from you.”
“We are doing this for you, Mike.” “Trust us.” If you earn too much, you might never finish.”

I was now  flushed with anger.  I felt quite righteous.

Graduate school folklore did indicate that the more you earn before you finish school the less likely you were to finish. But, I was enraged. I thought: “Folklore be damned. These two are cheating me.” 

“This is not fair”, I said aloud.”  
I stood up and left the room slamming the door. I rushed to my office gathering my coat and a few belongings.
I stumbled back into the conference room. 
“OK, if my work is somehow inferior because I don’t have a Ph.D., then I quit.” 
Mary said, “Oh come on Mike, you don’t mean that.”
“Yes, I do” and with that I walked out of the building.

I believe it was the poet William Bendix who said: “What a revoltin situation this is.”

In one day, I had signed to buy a house, and the same day, I quit my job.


Sarah and I were living in a rented house. It was quite inferior to our potential new home.  It had only 2 bedrooms and a special feature. It was tilted. If you set your child’s ball down on the living room floor, it would roll of it’s own volition.  The whole place tilted.
We sat on the high end of the room in our thrift store couch and tried to figure out what to do.

We sat quietly.
“Jesus, what arewe going to do?”
“They are going to want to do an employment verification?”
Sarah said, “My job won’t be enough.”
We sat silently, worrying together.

It was the very next morning that I sought solace at the cafe with my grilled cheese.

Gloria,  who I casually knew came in and sat down next to me. I was clutching my coffee mug.  I pressed the warm cup against my face.  I did that when feeling anxious.  I was worrying intensely about money and the new house. I was off in anxiety-land when Gloria turned her stool toward me.

“Hey, Mike,  do you know anyone looking for a job?”
If there had been an orchestra they would have played a great crescendo. Or perhaps a couple of trumpets could have sounded.

“Well, yes, in fact I’m looking for a job.”

“Well, you know Saul Cooper who runs the mental health center. They are on the top floor of this building. Why don’t you just go up and apply. You are more than qualified. I think he likes you.”

I dropped my sandwich, threw some money down and walked to the bank of elevators.  I shot up to the 8thfloor and asked to speak with Saul.


As fate had ordained, we set the girls up in their own rooms. We filled the basement with all the stuffed animals.  The stairs to the basement were still scary. The stairwell light was poor. But we could fix all that.



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