Our first home -1966
It’s 1959 and 16 year old high school graduate Torrito attends his commencement held in a local movie theater in full view of his proud parents on a Thursday in late May and goes to work on Monday. There was no money for college.
He got a job in the mail room of the First National City Bank of New York on Wall Street, White collar; his construction worker dad, with an 8th grade education, laughed when he put on his suit and went to work that Monday morning. The additional income helped the family to replace its fast back blue ’51 Chevy with a 1957 used Pontiac. Toritto was making $52 a week.
The bank, now Citicorp provided a pension plan and health insurance to young Toritto. Pretty good job for a 16 year old kid. Toritto would stay in banking and with mentors, training programs. some luck and educational benefits would retire at 61 as a senior officer in one of American’s largest banks. I was given a nice retirement party by my colleagues as well.
Did I mention there was no money for college?
After a couple of years at the bank I decided to go to college at night. Once there was a free college in New York – City University, which consisted of a number of colleges in the five boroughs. I chose Brooklyn College, the closest to my home.
Brooklyn College was not open enrollment at the time; one had to qualify if previous education left some gaps in your preparedness o for college. I had to complete 2 semesters worth of work with a B average in order to matriculate for a degree. But it was free! One only had to buy books.
And so I started college, taking the subway and then the bus after work and two buses after classes to get home. Sometimes my dad would pick me up at the transfer point on my way back to the house after classes. I went into the service at 21 for four years and continued college after my discharge. I won a New York State college scholarship for veterans and graduated in 1975 with honors. I had been out of the Army for almost 8 years working full time while taking courses at night for free.
One can’t do that in America anymore. Banks don’t hire 16 year old high school graduates and college, even at night is no longer free. Not even in New York City. Today the first real job is apparently flipping burghers. And college usually means loads of debt even before you go to work. And most first jobs barely pay a living wage, if that.
I was still in the Army in 1966 stationed close to home and living off post with my bride. Regular readers know what I was doing. My wife and I decided to buy a house.
She too was a high school graduate working as a secretary. After my discharge I returned to the bank and between us we were earning $13-14,000 a year.
We bought a new house on Staten Island in ’66 for $24,500. Just about 2 years salary for two working high school graduates and within the confines of New York City. We put $2,450 down (which we had saved while I was in the service), got a 6% mortgage and moved in, Our monthly mortgage payment was $200 per month. I paid the bills and we ate on her money. She quit working for good in 1972 when I was finally making $13,000 a year myself and we had our first pregnancy.
My career took us around and we owned 6 different houses during my working years plus this one I purchased when she was gone.
Show me two high school graduate kids today who can buy their first home at age 24 and 21 for twice their annual combined salaries. That first house we bought recently sold for three quarters of a million dollars. I should have kept it.
Something has died in America since I was a young man.
Once upon a time, like when I was born in the first year America entered WWII, most people didn’t expect to “retire”.
You know. Retire. Stop working. After a lifetime of working. Like I’ve done.
Retire. Sit home on my ass blogging for you precious readers who waste your valuable time reading me.
I get up when I wake up. Go to bed when I’m sleepy. Eat when I’m hungry. Keep doctor’s appointments. Run errands. Shop for groceries. Do laundry. Clean the house. Cook for myself. Read. Write.
I can do this because I have an income.
I have social security. I started collecting when I was 62, now more than sixteen years ago. On the second Wednesday of each month there is a deposit to my account from the Feds.
But it is not enough to live on.
In addition to my social security checks I receive pension checks.
I was lucky.
During my working life my employers provided excellent defined benefit pension plans, all the while still making substantial profits. Eventually 401K were added to the mix. In return they got a loyal, hardworking staff.
Working for a corporate employer for 5 years (it was 10 years when I started working) meant locking in a pension when you retired. The amount depended on how long you worked for the company and your average salary. When I retired each of the firms where I had vested pension benefits offered me (a) a lump sum of cash or (b) a fixed monthly amount for as long as I lived.
I took the monthly checks. Taking the monthly checks insured an income for life, so that I would never be a financial burden to my children. Additionally I would not have to worry about investing the funds or outliving the money.
The future of those currently in the prime of life does not look as bright to me.
Today the nation’s largest and most profitable institutions no longer provide defined pension plans for their employees. If you don’t save it yourself and stash away that “matching contribution” in your 401K you ain’t gonna have anything. And even if you do you may not have enough. Assuming of course you have a 401K. Or health insurance benefits. Hundreds of thousands in my own state earn ten bucks an hour with no benefits and no pensions. The corporate barons looted the over funded pension plans years ago, pushing the entire responsibility of your retirement on you. After all, the company owes you nothing but a pay check and corporate responsibility to the shareholders requires that the pay check be as little as possible.
It doesn’t take an oracle to predict that millions will never “retire”. Why do you think you see those old “greeters” in Walmart? It’s not because they want to “keep busy” – it’s because they need the money stupid!
I have two married daughters – the four of them work. Only one, a government employee, has a pension plan.
Our young begin their working lives saddled with school debt and spend their days as- what is the term? – “wage slaves” and when they are too old to work they will have nothing to show for it but the years and wha they saved.
Which brings me to changes in education. I went to a high school where kids were actually taught to think for themselves. . I went to high school at Lafayette High – once one of the crown jewels of public education in New York.
Lafayette High was located in the working class area of Bath Beach and the school’s students consisted of children of Italian immigrants and children of Jewish immigrants, many of whom escaped the Holocaust. Our parents valued education and the kids wanted to learn – well most of them did anyway.
When you left Lafayette you were fully prepared for college if that is what you wanted. Sure, lots of Italian kids left school and took jobs on the docks but most didn’t. Graduation rates were high and the teachers genuinely cared about the kids. They were teachers who actually majored in and mastered the subject that they taught; they didn’t major in “education”. They were respected – indeed many were loved by the kids. Lafayette taught you how to live, how to think, how to be a well rounded man or woman.
We received what I can only describe as a “classical” education, which included sports, arts and music. I could play a mean string bass when I left high school besides the fact that I could write two coherent paragraphs, my handwriting was legible and could locate Greece on a map. I read the Iliad and The Red Badge of Courage.
Ever watch “Glee?”. We had “Sing” before it was popular. Sophomores, juniors and seniors had to put on a musical annually – each class had a night.
What kind of kids did we have at Lafayette?
Well some 21 of them went on to be major league baseball players – including the incomparable Sandy Koufax. I would see him pitch in Ebbits Field before the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. Ken Aspromonte and his brother Bob were also Lafayette alums.
Larry King went to our school as did Vic Damone, the singer. Michael Lerner the actress and Peter Max the artist. Rhea Perlman of Cheers and Goodfellas Paul Sorvino. Freddie Wilpon, who pitched with Koufax on the school baseball team, saved his pennies and bought the New York Mets. Maurice Sendak wrote children’s books. Jerry Della Femina and Larry Merchant. Look ’em up and read of their accomplishments. And of course that internet sensation, Toritto!
With a list of alumni like that one would think of a posh private academy; nope. This was public education in Brooklyn. And Lafayette was not the only jewel – there was Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Bay Ridge, Fort Hamilton, Erasmus Hall.
Several years ago Lafayette was closed for good – a “low performing” school over run by gangs and crime.
I attended high school several years before the coming of Albert Shanker and the teachers union to New York City, concerned about “professionalism” and “the students”. Unfortunately few believe that the teacher’s union is all that concerned about the students any more. Public education is being systematically destroyed IMHO as an unforeseen development of our political divide – the right wants to crush unionism anywhere it raises its ugly head, sees privatization as the way to do it and our kids are paying the price. Schools have certainly gone down hill dramatically in the last 25 years. Not only do you not learn how to think; they are not even safe. Those who can afford it flee to private schools.
Life is a lot harder for working families today. The cost of everything, housing, medical insurance, education, drugs, retirement, have gone up dramatically. Everything except wages. Corporate profits on the other hand have never been higher. The gap between the haves and have nots has never been wider and is getting worse, impeding social mobility — once America’s great strength.
Our kids will not live better lives than we did and will not have the same chances we had.
If I were younger I would fear the future.