Volume 74, Number 19 | September 08 - 14 , 2004


Only memories come cheap now

By Andrei Codrescu

Indulge in remembering and you’ll soon be lost and sad like the sea. I told the young Romanian student that once upon a time in New York you could rent a one-bedroom for $65 a month and buy two grocery bags for 5 bucks and you came out ahead even if you were mugged once or twice a month. And once upon a time in San Francisco you could eat Chinese food in a restaurant where everything on the menu cost less than a dollar and you didn’t have to take the Mao pamphlet in the basket by the door if you didn’t want to.

I remembered a book for tourists called “New York On Ten Dollars a Day” that included hotels and food. I remembered thinking at the time that that was a lot, that I knew how you could live in New York for $3 a day if you really tried. I remembered staying at the YMCA in Chicago for $3 a night and running out of money after two nights and then working three jobs on three consecutive days for a half day each to pay for more nights. I kept getting fired after lunch.

You could buy an old wooden house with a backyard in San Francisco for $6,000. I also heard that you could live in the country for no money at all, but I never knew anyone who actually did that. A lot of people mooched and begged and never cared about money at all. There were free used clothes everywhere and used clothes were chic. Even freeloaders were cheap back then and they paid for their upkeep in entertainment. In any case, if you were young and poor you could dream of living for free, and the cheaper things got the more you dreamt of paying nothing for them.

“And then what happened?” the astonished Romanian student asked. Then everything came to a screeching halt, Nixon did something to gold and oil did something to the world and very soon everyone had to work, work, work just to make ends meet.

The tourist book about New York is up to $300 a day, a student dive in a slum is $1,000, only Chinese food is still cheap, about $10 for the buffet. You’ll be lucky if you get one job in three days and then you better keep it, because if you get fired after lunch you won’t get your half-day’s pay. And forget about moochers. They can’t be as entertaining as the entertainment you pay for because you’re too tired from work to take your chances with moocher art.

“So that’s how it was then, and that’s how it is now!” cried the astonished grad student from Romania. She remembered being 5 years old and waiting for five hours in line to buy two oranges and a lemon for the May Day holiday. Now that was worth living for, it was bliss. I know just what she means.


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