Buy Local. Buy Lemonade.

Not too long ago I was walking to the post office and found some young entrepreneurs hawking their wares on the public square. Yes four girls were selling lemonade on a bright, sunny late summer day. Their chaperone was standing a few feet away, supervising their capitalistic endeavor. I had the privilege to be their first customer, gladly paying the sum of fifty cents for a refreshing taste of their product.

The girls had beckoned me to their stand like a barker at the fairgrounds. The fact that I stopped sent them into a near frenzy. Apparently the prospect that they could actually make some money had not really occurred to them. They scurried to decide who would do what: pour the lemonade, hold the cup, and collect the money. For their first sale, it came together quite quickly, with a little help from their supervisor.

Following the transaction, I posted a picture of their “pop-up” to twitter, just to aid their cause. I have no idea how the rest of their day went, but I know I got my money’s worth. I was only too happy to let the world of social media in on my little discovery.

Now granted, I was not thirsty. There are times in life where we all do things just because it is the right thing to do; supporting a youth sport, helping a stranger in distress, offering a kind word to brighten someone’s day. The fact is, if I can make four kids giddy over setting up a lemonade stand to earn a little money and make memories that will last a lifetime, my fifty cents spent that day was possibly the best fifty cents I had spent in many years.

Lemonade

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The Jenga Schedule

So the season winds down for yet another year on Martha’s Vineyard. The traffic has thinned out; the stores have already begun closing. Islanders start their off season schedules, the one that resembles a life more normal than hectic. During the summer months everyone on island juggles jobs, social and personal affairs, as well as familial commitments while navigating the crowds, the weather, and the little unexpected events that life brings. Often we find ourselves focusing only as far forward as the few hours before us, simply to avoid that fact that our schedules are full of chaos.

Personally, I try to focus on my business schedule during the summer months. I have a few precious weeks to earn what usually amounts to approximately eighty to ninety percent of my annual income. The fact that the majority of my clients often call only a day or so, sometimes a few hours, before they would like to have their appointment does not make my life any easier. While I have been seeing the majority of my seasonal clients for many years, a number of them for more than a decade, they seem incredulous that I cannot accommodate a last minute request in August. While I do my best to fit everyone in, I am unwilling to compromise the work just to make a few dollars more.

The fact that I literally sell time, there are only so many appointments available on any given day. Additionally, the vast majority of my clients schedule their appointment to last an hour. I seldom, if ever, do half hour appointments anymore. When someone wants their appointment to be longer than an hour, I usually end up compromising the schedule for the rest of the day; starting earlier, finishing later, eliminating an open slot for another hour long appointment.

Most islanders have more than one job. I am no different, as I have been coaching two sports at the high school for several years. This adds yet another element of difficulty to an already busy schedule; one sport ends as the summer season begins, one sport begins before the summer season has fully ended. At worst, I work a twelve to fourteen hour day, trying to accommodate the requests and obligations associated with my commitments. Even so, I know of people with longer days; parents that have kids in the mix, business owners that do not have coverage, people working odd hours with several jobs.

When all is said and done, after the tourists have gone home, the businesses have closed, and the island exhales a collective sigh of relief, we can look back and marvel at how we all made it through yet another season. The pages of the appointment books, the reservation books, and receipts will remain as a testament to the schedules that resemble some sort of elaborate puzzle, ready to collapse under the weight of cancellations, non-existent parking spaces, and lines of traffic stuck behind tour buses and mopeds.

Now we that live here year round need only deal with the seasonal boat schedule changes, the weather-induced cancellations, the mechanical difficulties, and the lack of reservations available around the holidays. In comparison, I think I’d rather juggle my in season schedule. At least then I have options.

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Five Years, Six Figures, Nine Lives

As I type this, I am thinking back to the lowest points that I have known in my life. None have really been life threatening, but a few made me shudder. One of the lowest was the aftermath of the house fire that left me questioning what my next step would be, when actually it was just taking one day at a time. The fire was in January of 2006. Planning and rebuilding took longer and cost more than expected, as it usually does. By September of 2007, I had finished the apartment, but not the main living space of the new house. It was also about this time that the economy started to sour and credit started to dry up, just when I needed it most.

I had maxed out the equity of both houses I owned, borrowed all I could from my family and friends, and finally resorted to my credit cards. Of the nearly dozen or so credit cards I had open, some had begun lowering my credit limits, and others closed them altogether. I used up the credit on every one that had funds available, to the tune of more than six figures. This was in the form of convenience checks and EFTs directly into my checking account in order to pay my contractor’s invoices during the construction process. When September rolled around in 2007, my contractor presented me with two invoices that had been a long time coming. He had said he needed more time to put them together, but when he did, they were a great deal more than he had estimated. I remember standing with him in the unfinished kitchen, looking at the invoices, turning to him and saying, “Stop. Stop everything your guys are doing and leave. I’m broke. I cannot pay these invoices. We’re done here.” His jaw dropped, he stammered, and I stopped him, saying, “I’m broke.”

Several weeks later, as I sat in bed in the apartment, my mind raced through all that had happened since the fire; my business slowing down, my credit lines disappearing, the uncertain financial future. I had begun commuting to New York City every week in order to work with clients there, as well as the clients I had on Martha’s Vineyard. I dreaded the long commute. I felt as if I had no alternatives. I lay back and stared at the ceiling, listening to the wind outside. In less than a week, I had more than ten thousand dollars in payments to banks due and not more than a hundred dollars left in my savings and checking accounts combined. I could not think of a more dire time in my life, financially or otherwise.

When I got out of bed that next morning, I took a deep breath and vowed to never give up. I worked deals with every client that would take my call. I cut deals for packages paid for weeks, if not months, in advance. I called the bank that was handling my home equity line of credit and applied to refinance my mortgage from another bank with their line of credit into a new mortgage. I floated my personal accounts into my business accounts and transferred, consolidated, or restructured whatever I could until things stabilized. Smoke and mirrors, whatever it took to get by until the next payments were due.

So earlier tonight I made the final payment on the last credit card that I had maxed out. It took five years to pay off six figures of credit card debt. Straight up, no special programs or deals with companies that want a piece of the action. I went all in and made it out alive. One day at a time, that was all I had. I wonder how many lives I have used so far, how many I have left?

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Tragedy And Circumstance

Another horrible tragedy has happened, caused by a disturbed individual for reasons unknown. Many innocent people lost their life; others will be scarred for the rest of theirs. The knee-jerk reaction is to focus on the tools used by the sick person responsible rather than what caused the actions to be perpetrated. It seems that the “quick and easy” thing to do is capitalize on the tragedy to promote a given agenda; ratings, new legislation, monetary gain. Well like many people that have committed atrocities throughout history, this individual chose to prey on those people at their most vulnerable, which makes the act that much more perverse. In the aftermath, we as a nation, as a community, need to pause and consider the events from many different perspectives. To do any less would only compound the tragedy.

The gun control issue will always be a hot topic in both social and political discussions. There is an immensely emotional aspect to this argument. The loss of life, the right to own and protect oneself, and everything in between; they are polarizing issues that seldom find common ground. Personally I not only own firearms, but have a rather diverse collection. I was member of a state championship team for marksmanship, attended Olympic Camp for competition, and hold permits to carry concealed weapons in several states; I worked as a private investigator for several years and have a degree in Criminal Justice. That being said, I have submitted to extensive background checks, had my fingerprints and face registered and recorded with more than a few state and federal agencies; and I’m okay with that. See, like driving a car, owning a gun should have a few caveats, in my opinion. I’ve had training, taken courses, and have good reason to own, if not carry, a firearm. As one of my firearm instructors said, “Better to have a gun and never need it than to need a gun and not have it.” Earlier in the week I watched a cctv video of a man, a licensed gun owner, thwart an armed robbery when he fought back when he realized what was happening. The perpetrators were later arrested, with non-life threatening injuries.

So am I pro-gun? Yes, but with an asterisk. Laws are in place to protect and regulate. They need to be reasonable and evolve with societal changes. Ownership involves responsibility, just as when an individual consumes alcohol, drives a car, or has children. There are laws and agencies to help protect the good citizens of our country, our community from those individuals that apparently have no sense of responsibility when it comes to certain aspects of freedom. The real question is where we as a society have failed when a tragedy occurs.

As the details unfold over the ensuing days, weeks, and months, we should focus on how the friends, family, and people in the perpetrator’s life could have identified a person with issues that needed to be addressed; emotional, behavioral, or other. I would suggest that it most likely did not involve listening to certain music, reading certain books; nor was it something decided upon a whim. The individual came to plan this plot over a longer period of time that undoubtedly had warning signs and clues that were left unnoticed or ignored by those people in his life. That is where we as a society need to focus our attention; that is where the shortcomings failed us, the victims.

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Taste of the Vineyard Bucket List

I have been living and working on Martha’s Vineyardfor nearly 15 years now. The list of things to see and do on this island is literally never ending. Some may prefer the natural beauty the island offers, others the social activities. While I tend to favor the former, I recently attended one of the latter. The experience will be described in the following recollection, to the best of my ability.

A friend of mine recently shared that she had a “bucket list” of things she would like to do before she leaves the island. On that list was the “Taste of the Vineyard Gourmet Stroll”, which is an annual event in Edgartown. (http://www.mvpreservation.org/p.php/preservation/happening/taste-of-the-vineyard-gourmet-stroll?_f=w) The shindig is actually a benefit for the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust. I am not familiar with this organization beyond what I read on their website, but it all sounds well and good. Now the “proceeds” are derived from the tickets, which cost $150 this year. For someone that spends less than that each month on groceries, it seems a bit much for several hours of “tasting”, but not for the Vineyard. But I digress.

The day of the event I was “gifted” a ticket. Well I’m not one to let a free meal go to waste, so I was on the phone (okay I was texting) to my aforementioned friend; she already had her ticket. Plans were made; wear this, be there then, text me when you arrive. Now, I rarely go to Edgartown. Parking on a normal day “in season” is a fiasco and this would just be worse. If you know the street layout you can park and walk a block or two and still be able to make a left turn at the end of the event and escape the town without hitting gridlock. Aside from that, I rarely iron a Brooks Brothers shirt for dinner, let alone don a tie, but I did for this. I know… imagine that.

Okay, so the line to get in was long and chaotic; poor planning mingled ticket holders with the “will call” attendees. Most guests dressed to impress, others not so much. Gold lame’ to ripped jeans, it was all there. (Hey, it’s the Vineyard way.) Once we were “in” the venue (tents with temporary flooring) it was quite apparent that every one of the several hundred ticket holders was in attendance. The place was PACKED. It reminded me of riding the 4/5/6 subway line on the Upper East Side during rush hour, except here those random hands you feel from time to time brushing up against you are merely reaching for food samples, I assure you. Then there was the noise. I’ve never been to a big city night club, but I can imagine this was on par; you needed to press your head against the person you were speaking to for then to hear you. This was not even near the dance floor, where the band was blasting the entire time.

Yes, there was food. Yes, there was beer and wine. Dozens of vendors with samples for all; as much as you could handle, or should I say get your hands on. The shuffle of people around the venue was like a conga line with tapas and alcohol. By the way, how can you go wrong with cheese and puff pastry? After ninety minutes or so of trying to sample while acknowledging people I knew, I retreated to a spot near the dance floor. Aside from a spell outside to give my eardrums a rest, I remained a safe distance from those people dancing and singing in front of the stage, just people watching. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves; a few even a little too much. By ten o’clock it was all over, crossed off the Vineyard bucket list. I wonder what’s next on that list…?

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Of Housing and Tenants

I grew up in a family that made money in real estate. Not huge commercial deals, but residential housing that people called home. I bought my first house before I turned 24. I paid cash. The place needed a couple of year’s worth of “sweat equity” invested into it, but with the help and guidance of my parents, the house has remained an asset to this day. For nearly twenty years I have been renting space to others, either to house-mates or outright to tenants for properties I own. There have been times that I have had to rent space to live, usually when I am getting settled in a new place. Sometimes the space is less than ideal, like the tool shed I lived in for my first five seasons on Martha’s Vineyard. This has given me a unique perspective, given the disparity of incomes on the island I call home, when it comes to finding a place to live.

When I decided to return to college for another degree, I decided to rent out my house to finance the tuition and associated costs. I had a few tenants apply, and unfortunately chose a couple that in hindsight had every intention on trying to impress me while lying to my face. I now refer to them as “the gypsies”. Aside from trying to pay me half the rent the month after they moved in, it always seemed that more relatives were “visiting” every time I came to collect the rent. When they fell two months behind, I used every connection I had in city hall to force them out without legal action. Basically, I made it impossible for them to sell their “used” cars from my property, thereby taking their ability to run their “operation”, making life miserable for them. They left a week or two later, luckily for me.

Given that “once bitten, twice shy” adventure, I fared a little better over the years with different tenants, but when the current recession hit, my tenant at the time was already in dire straights. While being a landlord is seldom easy, I would like to think that I am not only fair, but I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. When someone tells me a reason why they will be a little late with the rent, I would like to believe them. Sometimes the experience becomes more like scolding a child for not doing homework. Such was the case when I finally told this tenant she had to vacate. There comes a point where there are too many excuses, you are too far behind in rent, and you have no chance of “catching up”.

Here on Martha’s Vineyard, housing is a bit more complicated. There are summer rentals (vacation homes), summer housing (temporary living quarters), winter rentals (off-season vacation homes), year round rentals (toss up), and people that own their homes. After my time living in an unheated tool shed, I bought a house. I housed people that worked in my office in the summer months, for a nominal weekly fee. Ten or twelve weeks out of the year the house was crazy, but it was necessary.

When I had to rebuild after a house fire, I designed an apartment into the new house. The unit would offset the inevitable higher mortgage, taxes, and insurance. I had the zoning board approve the unit I spent more than $30K on its design and construction, and priced it for a year round tenant. I have run the gamut from perfect tenants to the tenants from hell, fighting and screaming; finally stiffing me after the summer was over. I have helped a few friends with a place to stay when times were tough, but for the most part, the rental unit is a business deal, not a freebie or a “money maker”.

Prospective tenants sometimes ask if I would accept less than the asking price, or if I could just do a seasonal rental; sure, as long as the bank accepts a partial mortgage payment and seasonal payments. While we’re at it, let’s see if I can skip paying taxes and insurance on a duplex, eh? The point is, I busted my ass to make this whole property ownership thing work (and continue to hustle to keep it as so many others lose what they have). There are so many people that seem to think that the rents charged are just not affordable. Well, mortgages, taxes, and insurance are not freebies; they are a serious commitment that involves a responsibility that most tenants have yet to understand, let alone accept. If it was easy, we would all own homes.

Currently, my apartment is part of the Dukes County Affordable Housing Program. My apartment had to be inspected and approved, the tenant went through a thorough screening process in order to be approved for the program, and everything seems to be working out, going on two years. My house in Connecticut is still available for rent, however. After a year and a half of renovations from the last tenant’s “occupation”, it is ready for another roll of the dice for a tenant that can prove an ability to pay the rent and produce references, that are not friends or relatives, willing to vouch for their integrity. Sometimes renting to tenants really does feel like gambling with your hard earned assets.

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End Of An Era

After all of my years working on Martha’s Vineyard, I can count on one hand the number of clients that I can still call my “regulars”, those whom I can anticipate seeing whenever they find their way to the island, since my first season. Today that number decreased by one. Mike Wallace, a Vineyard summer resident for more years than many can remember, died last night. Though the Wallace property was sold last year, it is only now that people will come to the realization that an era has come to and end on Main Street in Vineyard Haven.

I must first say that it is not customary for me to invoke the names of my clients, out of a sense of professionalism. But “Mike”, as he insisted on being called, as opposed to “Mr. Wallace”, had a candid demeanor about him and he was responsible for several generations of his extended family, as well as many of his friends, becoming my clients. Truth be told, I always addressed him as “sir”. While I believe it was also Mike’s way to address many people with whom he spoke, whenever he greeted me with a “good to see you, my friend”, I also believe it was genuine and heartfelt.

While exchanging general pleasantries was usually the extent of our conversation, the usual goings on about town was a topic that often came up. Seasonal residents have an entire winter’s worth of changes to catch up on when they first arrive; new businesses that have opened, old ones that have closed, houses that have sold, etc. For many years Mike would leave my office at the end of my work day and he would say that he had a Sopranos episode to watch with “Bill and Artie”.

Often Mike would walk into the office without an appointment scheduled, asking “would Jason happen to have any time for me today?” I could hear his unmistakable voice in the office every time. I grew up watching “60 Minutes” and he was an American institution. Still, I never had the impression that he had an air of entitlement when dealing with him. It was interesting to watch the reactions of other clients that happened to be in the office when Mike was; they were almost always speechless and star-struck. The rapport Mike and I had was professional, but certainly more familiar than formal.

Of all the “notable” clients I have had over the years, Mike endeared himself to me on more levels than many, if not all, of the other such clients. He had that ability with most people he met, I believe, judging by what I witnessed over the years. I feel that it was his ability to be genuine and frank; no pretense, no hidden agenda. While many clients that I have worked with over the years can barely remember my first name, Mike knew my full name.

One time I was chatting with someone on the sidewalk in front of my office in Vineyard Haven when Mike approached me. He explained that he had left he wallet at the house and needed to pick-up lunch; would I be able to front him some money that he could repay when he came in later that day? Certainly, “how much”, I asked. I ended up fronting him a fin, which he promptly returned later that day, when he came in for a session. The person with whom I had been speaking was left speechless. Priceless.

For the two winters I worked in New York City, commuting back and forth every week, Mike was a client there as well. A chance meeting with his wife Mary on the Upper West Side one day made the city seem more like the Vineyard, if only for a moment. Still, it was always summers on Martha’s Vineyard where the Wallace clan would be able to escape and just relax in true Vineyard style.

Now there seems to be a chapter ending for our little island. The “Possible Dreams Auction” has lost the celebrities that were institutions at the annual summer event. Many of the clients I looked forward to catching up with each season will no longer be returning to Martha’s Vineyard. There have been thousands of clients passing through my office over seasons past; hundreds became regulars for a period of time. A few dozen have remained seasonal clients, returning for ever shorter periods of time as the years pass. In all sincerity, I can say without hesitation, that there will only be one Mike Wallace, and he shall be missed.

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