Thursday, July 19, 2018

First House*

First House
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Yesterday had been eventful. It was a big day. Sarah and I had put down a payment on our first house. We signed the preliminary papers allowing  the bank 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.  It thrilled Sarah and me.

We giggled together in our little 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 scary. We can keep the laundry down there and eventually fix it up as a playroom.  We can dump all the toys down there.
It even has a built-in dishwasher. Can you believe that?”

I dropped Sarah off at the University. She waded through a snowdrift.  She had chained her ancient bike 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.

drove back to work. Although still in graduate school, I worked for a small consulting firm.  These kinds of businesses grow around major universities like parasites.  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 quite efficient.

Mary and Bill ran the company. They  young Ph.D.’s who had created their own business: MAGNUM .  Despite the big name, it only employed about five people.

MAGNUM was on the second floor above  retail stores in downtown Ann Arbor. I climbed the stairs wearing my Air Force parka.  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.  Remember, they call these  "COST Plus" contracts.  

“How does that work?”I asked.  “It seems weird, I know you told me, but…”  

Well, we put in our invoice each month for the hours we work on the project.  Then we are authorized to  tack on a 25% mark-up. That is the plus part of cost-plus.  So the more we work and the higher our costs, the more money we make. Cool? They guarantee us profit.

It still didn’t seem right to me.

I was a young graduate student with a wife and two kids.  I was about to buy a house. This job was a very good thing for me and my family!

Mary invited her business partner, Bill, to join us in the conference room.  He shut the door.  “OhOh.,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!”  I stood up. 
“But your other partners only have BAs. 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.

My face flushed with anger.  I felt righteous.

It was indeed graduate school folklore that the more you earn before you finish school the less likely you were to finish. But I was angry. I thought: “To hell with folklore.  These two are cheating me.” 

“This is not fair,” I said aloud.  
I stood up and left the room slamming the door. I loudly clumped down the hall to my office gathering my coat and a few belongings.
I burst back into the conference room. 
“OK, if my work is 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 inferior to our potential new home.  It had only bedrooms and a special feature. It was tilted. If you set your child’s ball down on the living room floor, it would roll on its 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 are we going to do?”
“They will want to do an employment verification.”
Sarah said, “My job won’t be enough.”
We sat silently.

It was the very next morning I sought solace at my favorite cafe with my reassuring grilled cheese sandwich. I sat at a long counter with red vinyl swivel chairs.

Gloriawho I casually knew, came through the swinging door of the cafe, ringing a tiny bell. swinging a tiny bell in the doorway.  Gloria's arrival let in a huge blast of snow and freezing wind.  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 totally off in anxiety-land when Gloria turned her stool toward me.

“Hey, Mike, do you know anyone who is looking for a job?”
If there had been a soundtrack orchestra, they would have played a great crescendo. Or perhaps two 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 fork, 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.