Someone asked the other day if I was thinking of selling my house.
"Never," I replied with a passion that surprised me. "I intend to die here and have my ashes buried in the back yard under the clematis." I should have added, "But only if I can continue to pay the property taxes."
"It takes a heap o'livin' in a house t' make it home," wrote Edgar A. Guest, and Ogden Nash replied that it also "takes a heap o' payin'."
I love my home, as I'm sure you love yours. Here I write, here I stoke my wood stove, here I enjoy the playfulness of my marriage, here I try (and fail) to get rid of squirrels by putting pepper sauce on the bird seed, here the cat curls up in the sun, here the full moon shines like a million diamonds on freshly fallen snow, while the rising sun turns it blood orange red.
Home is where the heart is, where the chickens come to roost, where the sailor comes from the sea, where fences make good neighbors, where affection calls. It is where our friends live, where we know our elected officials by name and phone number, where the bank clerk gently checks our addition because she knows we often make mistakes, where the mail carrier - bless her - leaves a little present on our birthdays.
When the time comes to stop wandering, home is where we somehow
- miraculously, gratefully - take root. It is what we will die defending.
Yet more and more, hard-working middle-class and working-class people are facing the specter of losing their homes. It is a different kind of terror permeating our lives, far removed from wars and other national and international outrages.
There is only a limited supply of money, and it is fast flowing upward to the rich. And to the famous - I was much taken with a story I heard recently about how singer Bobby Brown proposed to Whitney Houston. It seems he offered her a three-karat diamond ring, and she professed to be delighted. Then he pointed his finger in her face and on it was the "real" ring, 15 karats, if I remember correctly. The three-karat ring was a joke.
Eighty percent of the nation's property is "now securely in the hands of 10 percent of the population," writes Lewis H. Lapham in Harper's, "our 13,000 richest families (are) possessed of a net worth equivalent to the assets owned by the country's 20 million poorest families, our ten most highly paid CEOs (are) earning an average of $154 million a year as opposed to the mere pittance of $3.5 million in 1981."
As money flows upward, the middle class and the working poor flow downward. To make life even scarier, the Bush Administration is about to propose additional taxes on lower-income workers. According to The Washington Post, Republicans, seeing a "rising tax burden on the rich and a declining burden on the poor," want to punish the middle class and working poor with additional taxes to make them aware of "what government really costs."
But most people are already overtaxed and overextended. Wages aren't rising, retirement funds and 401ks have been decimated by the shenanigans of those overpaid CEOs, people are being downsized right and left, not to mention being out-and-out fired, fathers and mothers are working two or three dead-end jobs (with no child care) just to keep a roof over their heads, interest rates have dropped on everything but on our credit cards.
Prescription drug costs are skyrocketing. Many of us can't afford health insurance. Dentists charge $70 to fill a cavity. You can't live without a car in Vermont, but even junkers cost $1,000 and let's not even talk about gas prices. Food is remarkably cheap, but for the most part it is unhealthy food, drowning in chemicals and ridden with sugar, fat and salt. Organic food is expensive.
Older folks living in homes that have nurtured their families for decades may have thought they had enough money stashed away for retirement, but as they pay their ever-escalating property taxes they can calculate at exactly what point they'll be forced to sell and move away from everything they love. It's like watching a train run full speed directly at you.
Food banks report that people who used to donate food are now coming in to get it. Too many of us are already one paycheck away from homelessness. If we rent, we are still paying property taxes - our landlord's. And property taxes are as simple as they are immutable: if you don't pay you lose your home.
Fear makes for bad neighbors. Just recently in my area, there was a violently negative reaction to the proposal for a badly needed addition to a local high school. A select board decided not to accept a grant that would pay for two badly-needed new policemen because they couldn't guarantee the salaries when the grant ran out. Angry people sued the town to stop construction of a $6.4 million parking garage.
Elected officials work hard every year to hold expenses down on town budgets, but they are helpless in the face of rising costs. Meanwhile, scared people are learning that there's literally no place to run. Are we all going to end up living in abandoned box cars down by the railroad tracks?
Ambrose Bierce once said that the definition of "hovel" is "the fruit of a flower called the Palace." It has never been truer than it is today.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist and columnist who lives in Dummerston, Vt. and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel on-line for The American Reporter and a variety of Vermont magazines and newspapers.