Posts Tagged economy

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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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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Once Upon An Island

It has been a short fourteen years of living on Martha’s Vineyard. What amounts to more than a third of my life has flown by at a speed that I can scarcely imagine that it actually happened. During my time living here I have been witness to so many changes; people, stores, laws, economies, fortunes. I have grown older, hopefully wiser, definitely maturing as a result. As I traverse the island on occasion, my memory recounts the changes, obvious and sublime.

I celebrated a rather subdued New Year’s Eve, swapping memories and anecdotes with a few friends. I recalled the “Get A Life Café”, Louis added that he owned what is now “Zephrus” on Main Street in Vineyard Haven before opening “Louis’”. We all commented on the bed & breakfast “Martha’s Place” just up the street, now a private residence. Yes, many of the businesses had changed hands or disappeared over the years; the Red Cat Café, The Feast of Chilmark, Bowl & Board, The Ice House, etc.

Most of the businesses changed hands, others just closed. Still others suffered from the financial downturn that currently afflicts the nation, even though we felt the pinch a bit sooner than the rest of the nation, as our economy is based on a resort economy, for better or worse. I noticed the difference back in the 2005 season. All of the numbers were down, not just with my business, but with the majority of shopkeepers I spoke with concurred. The previous five or six seasons had been so strong, there was really nowhere to go but down. The vibe of the island changed back after the 2001 season, after the September 11th attacks. The Clintons were not the summer regulars they had been, a new sobriety set a pall over extravagant vacationing, and once the financial collapse happened, the season shortened significantly.

My first season on Martha’s Vineyard, I paid $22 one way to get my car to the island. There was “guaranteed stand-by”, meaning if you were in line to get your car on the ferry, they would run ferries until the line was empty, weather permitting. Even though gasoline was not cheap on island, it was less than $3/gallon. I used less than a tank of fuel the entire season, riding my bike everywhere. I didn’t own anything on island other than my car, I was free of debt, and I was free to travel; a twenty-something with endless opportunities. The island was an idyllic paradise, an endless summer. Reality was a swift and cruel harbinger of the future; the end of summer.

They say that all good things must end. On Martha’s Vineyard many feel that happens at the end of every season. Others feel that the end of the season is just the beginning of another season. The only real constant, in my opinion, is change. Time waits for no one, but in our memories we cherish all that we hold dear. Living on this island I have gathered memories of people, places, and things that I will never forget, both happy and sad. To be a part of a place where so many others travel to just to be a part of for even a short period of time is very unique.

What are your memories? What was something that you remember so well that no longer exists? Whether it involves the original Humphrey’s location up island or a romantic weekend at an inn that is no more, the memories are yours to recall and share.

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Hitting Your Marks

With the holidays winding down, it might be a good time to address the different things in our lives in order to insure that we are where we need to be, when we need to be there.

From the time on a clock, to the steps for constructing some new object that we might have received as a gift there are methods to the madness that permeates all of our lives. As I elucidate below, see if you recognize any in your daily routine.

Living on Martha’s Vineyard, anytime I need to leave the island (I never really WANT to leave the island) the issue of transportation looms large in the plans. I have never taken a plane to or from the island, nor do I ever plan to. That leaves transportation via the water and which of the few passenger vessels would be most appropriate. If I plan on taking my car, I have only ONE “choice”. The Steamship Authority can be difficult to deal with from the perspective that you should always TRY to make a reservation for travel in order to prevent either being stuck in stand-by for endless hours or finding out that there is NO stand-by on the day you wish to travel. That being said, you will need to decide which boat you can have your act together in order to be AT the boat on time. Miss that mark, and all hell could break loose. Trust me, even if you THINK you are ready, think again. I refer you to a December 23rd reservation that was prey to the ravages of the wind, canceling ALL boats, including mine.

When I was training for marathons, I had to maintain a certain cadence to insure that I was “on pace” to make the most of my training. If my heart rate was not high enough, I was not working hard enough, which would tend to negate the purpose of training altogether. If it was too high, I would burn out too soon and not have the stamina to finish the training session, if not the race. So keeping my heart rate in the “zone” allowed me to hit the marks, or splits, during the run. These days my running has diminished to what I refer to as “junk miles” that entail maintaining a pace that allows me to finish the workout before I have to start walking or hitch a ride.

Whether for business or for personal, we all have appointments and commitments that require use to meet with people at a given time, at a certain place. On island you might have to deal with a drawbridge that randomly goes up, even when there are no boats waiting to pass through. Or perhaps a couple of moped riders feel the need to ride side by side from the Aquinnah Lighthouse all the way to the Steamship Authority Lot as you are rushing to make your reservation. Then again, there is always the excuse my clients tend to have most often when they arrive late, there was no parking available. I have always found that it always best to be early than late, but sometimes fate deals you a cruel blow and it just cannot be helped. If you cannot be prompt, be gracious when you arrive. Everyone will appreciate it, trust me.

Dealing with a seasonal economy requires everyone involved to obtain a certain amount of seasonal wealth to carry then through the off season. The most important aspect is to understand that this fact exists before the season has passed; otherwise your options for independence dwindle rapidly. Consider working every day, for long hours, until the business slows to a crawl or until you can no longer function at the given, whether you like it or not. That will be the new “normal” unless you just come to the island to work seasonally, as a parasitic worker, in which case you can be on your merry way whenever the urge strikes you. For those of us with a mortgage, taxes, and a business to maintain, we continue to toil away for fear that it will all end too soon, leaving us short of what we need to pay the bills until the next season arrives. This has been an ever more difficult mark to hit, given that every season seems to be shorter than the last.

As the year comes to a close, I look back and see that I have hit almost all of my marks. Perhaps I could have set the bar a little higher, but given all that I encountered over the past year, I have to be happy that I made it this far. How about you? Here’s to next year!

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Open Water

Every once in a while, somewhere in our busy lives, we suddenly realize that something is not quite right. It might take a period of time before we notice or it may happen all at once, but happen it does. I remember watching this movie, based on a true story, of a young couple went SCUBA diving off a chartered boat while vacationing in the Caribbean. It was a lovely time, with all of the brilliant under-sea beauty, until they surfaced to find that their boat was no where in sight; only open water. Needless to say, they were in a bit of a bind, as all they could see was open water; no other boats, no other people, no land at all. Well, sometimes life can seem like that; nothing to use to find your bearing and chart your course. Hopefully, you can do it before the sharks arrive. (Spoiler)

Living on an island can often give life a unique perspective that only other island residents can relate to. Personally, I take comfort in the seven mile buffer of water that keeps Martha’s Vineyard from being just another place to wander onto and exploit. On the other hand, to reside here you must understand that all of the rules apply to you; hostage to the ferry, limited employment opportunities, housing is a premium, partners should be imported unless recycled. I have covered most of those issues in past posts, but there still remains the open water as a metaphor for so very many things.

Recently a very prominent piece of property sold on the island for more than $22 million. Yes, million. The house next door to me was listed at $585 thousand and sold for less than $500 thousand. While the properties are not even in the same neighborhood, pun intended, it demonstrates the vast disparity of class that exists on such a small island. Chatting with another business owner recently, we both expressed bewilderment at the dramatic swings in the on-island business economy. We both have secondary employment to fall back on, but that could not easily reassure either of us given our primary interests in our businesses. But what to do in a community that is isolated in so many ways, other than make the best of what you have to work with.

I also spoke with someone in my profession that has a business off island. They could not understand the unique business dynamic of an island resort economy in an economic downturn. There are no easy answers when the off season population is hurting from an anemic season where profits will only last so far into the winter months. Getting new customers from a ‘captive community’ is like getting blood from a stone; less than likely.

So in the final month of the year, I try to regain my footing; professionally, personally, financially, and mentally. Planning, scheming, hoping, and striving to not just get by, but to also chart a course, in any direction. I’ll try to make my choice with as much information as intuition, but given the recent turn of events over the past year, any course of action is better than simply waiting for the sharks, right?

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The Brooklyn Chronicles, Part 5 (A Weekend in Connecticut)

(Originally posted 10/30/2007)

While I may be writing this series chronicling my transitional move and daily strife, I mean life, inBrooklyn, there must also be the contrast of my time away from the city, as that time has become that much sweeter. Although I had to again endure many hours on trains, both MTA and Amtrak, I knew that a much anticipated respite awaited me inConnecticut. Nearly two full days without having to deal with clients, scheduling, or business in general was something I had not had since sometime in May, over six months ago. Still, I had plenty to do and I could at least spend some of that time with my parents, who I had also not seen since May.

Fall has always been my favorite season. The fall foliage and the crisp air stirs memories of returning to classes at school, the end of the hot summer days and, because I grew up in a farming community, harvest-time from the local orchards and farms. Just driving around the towns that have always been so familiar to me was comforting, but to see all of the fall colors framing the countryside was exhilarating. To try and explain what it means for me to buy apple cider from Clyde’s or apples from Holmberg’s would be like explaining buying bagels in Brooklyn to a New Yorker. Each person has a special ritual or memory that they revive when they have the opportunity. The fall harvest of apples in Connecticut is mine.

The train into New London would meet my parents’ ferry from Fisher’sIsland, but I had a good half hour to stare at a glorious full moon on a rather mild evening for late October. I enjoyed the quiet time and took solace in the absence of sirens, which seem to be ever present in the city. When the ferry finally did arrive, it was well past 8 PM and it was a short drive home. The odd fact that both my parents and I spend the majority of our time on islands is simple irony. We might be a family of people seeking solitude perhaps, but we are a family none the less.

Of the many tasks on my to-do list over the two days, the one shopping for furniture was the most bittersweet. It was not that I had to spend the money that I do not have that was irksome, but rather the reason I was buying it. I had lost everything in a house fire and either had to replace everything by the second anniversary or lose the depreciation money from the insurance company. While I may be furnishing my home with some wonderful things, I would much rather have back what I had lost. Even after I had selected so many pieces, the task of measuring the spaces in my home would prevent me from completing any part of this tedious task.

Unbeknownst to me, my mother would be attending a graveside memorial service for someone I had known. In a town as small as ours, it is not whether you know someone, but instead how well you knew them. In this case, we knew the family better than the person. A short service on a yet another glorious fall day made the service easier in every way. A fall funeral somehow seems more appropriate than those at other times. Perhaps that is just my opinion.

Over the years, my family has gone through times where we would eat meals together on a regular basis, but in more recent years it happens mainly on holidays. On this rare occasion, there were more of us there than not. We could eat our fill, give each other a hard time then finish by recounting our most recent travails. I had the experiences on the subway system to tell, including the gestures and expressions that had accompanied the subjects of the tale. Finally, we would plan our week ahead and see where our paths and plans would cross or mingle. An evening that could hardly be surpassed by one riding the 4/5 Train back to Brooklyn during the rush hour.

The next day began with a trip to one of the local banks to closeout yet another of my dwindling accounts. Long dormant and rather paltry in size, it still took longer than it should have to close it out. No matter, as the money was already spent, as all of the money I will be making for many years to come has already been appropriated for accounts I owe. If only those people that owe me money would settle-up, I would not be in such financial despair.

Speaking of settling-up, it was time to pay the mechanic for the work done on the infamous Honda. Totaling over $1100.00, the work solved the problems that had weighed heavily on my mind during the long drive fromConnecticutto theCape. While it did not make the car any more presentable, the repairs would get me where I needed to go. As I drove away from the shop, all I could do was to try and convince myself that the car would now last much longer than I would have a use for it. Either that or that it would last until I could afford to buy another car, one with air conditioning.

I decided to drive over to my house, the one I rent to tenants. The tenants fall into the category of those individuals owing me money. Rather than seeing if they were home, I simply spent a few minutes walking around the house, taking note of the trim that I would need to paint in the spring. I had lived in the house for several years, working on it and rehabilitating the long-neglected home until I had decided to return to college for yet another degree. The income from the house paid for more than just books. Now it was barely holding its own. Although there may be different tenants and it may be different times, it is still the same house.

Ending the day by driving to the train station is not really any sort of comfort. I remember a similar ritual during my college days, when I would drive home on weekends. That drive was more enjoyable, as I looked forward to my time in college classes. The current travel has become more travail, as I hardly know what the next day will bring. As I waited for the train at the station in Old Saybrook, I thought back over the past few days and took solace in the fact that I do have my family to back me up in my current situation, as best they can, however they are able. That knowledge gives me hope that I will make it through the next few months with my sanity intact.

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