At first I thought the parking machine was broken. “$11.00” was flashing up on the screen. Which was ridiculous, because not only did the garage have a $9/day maximum charge, I’d been there barely six hours, which usually results in a $7 charge. Then I looked at the shiny new plaque next to the receipt button. The rate schedule had been revised. It was now $12.00 per day. My six-hour stay was now eleven bucks.
I put my card in the reader. Then I hit the “Receipt” button. “NO RECEIPT” it told me, in the same unapologetic sans-serif letters with which it had announced the new fee. It was all I could do not to shatter the screen with the nickel-silver head of my trusty skull cane. You’re probably laughing at me; what’s the difference between nine bucks and twelve? Quite a bit, my friend. Quite a bit.
We can start with the fact that I work in Columbus, Ohio. This isn’t New York, it’s not Chicago, it’s not even Cleveland. Yet of the five parking garages within two miles of my job, three are completely private and the other two are both crowded and ruinously expensive. The idea of paying nine dollars a day to park in Columbus is a joke. You will respond that it costs fifty dollars a day to park in Manhattan, but real estate in Manhattan is far more than five times as valuable as the corresponding space here in Cowtown. Somebody’s making a lot of money.
Adding insult to injury, it’s completely free to park in the shopping-center lot just two miles away — but woe betide the fellow who leaves his car there on anything like an observably consistent basis. You’ll come back to find it on blocks or with the windows gone. Doing that also means walking under the bridge downtown, in the authentic Anthony Kiedis “people are using needles there” sense of the phrase.
I can park my motorcycle in the area for $50/year, using one of the spots reserved by the city for holders of a two-wheel permit. That’s not without its problems; some piece of human garbage knocked my CB1100 over last year, doing some minor but annoying damage to the engine cover and the gauges. There’s also the fact that of all the times and places to ride a motorcycle in Ohio, Columbus rush hour is probably the worst, which is why I can go weeks without seeing another motorcycle on my commute, even in summer.
Nine bucks to park for eight hours in downtown Columbus is highway robbery… but twelve? That’s fucking insane. And it happened without a moment’s notice. One day it was $9, the next it was $12. I can park in downtown Chicago for $15 a day. And my job pays 50% more in downtown Chicago than it pays in downtown Columbus.
In a 250-day year, $9/day equals $2250 a year. $12/day is three grand. Three thousand dollars a year, to park in a hick town that most of my coastal friends think has cows on Main Street. (It’s been years since that was the case!) As I recently found out in an IRS audit, not a single penny of that is deductible. So it really costs me five thousand dollars a year to park downtown. The $3/day bump is, once you do all the math, about $1,250 a year that just vanished from my income.
Which brings up the question: Why am I working downtown in the first place? Not a single one of the systems or projects I administer is located in that building. The primary data center, as a matter of fact, is three miles from my house. I’m actually driving away from it when I go to work. We have all the technology we need to work from home. Five years ago, a significant percentage of my co-workers didn’t go to the office. But the company’s gone on the warpath to fix that.
If you change your job title, or your responsibilities, or your department, your work-from-home privileges expire and you’re once again required to be present in the office five days a week. Meanwhile, we have “agile workspaces” replacing our cubicles. When I think about the Boomers who complained about the dehumanizing, humiliating experience of full-height cubicles, I have to laugh. Half-height cubes replaced full-height cubes. Open desks replaced half-height cubes. Agile workspaces, meaning show up, plug in a laptop, and smell your co-worker’s armpits from the six-inch distance between your chair and his, are on the way. After that, I’m told that “bench seating” is going to be the new norm.
With bench seating, I’ll be literally shoulder-to-shoulder against the dudes on both sides. Keep in mind that as low-prestige and low-compensation as my work may be, it’s still probably in the top five percent of available jobs nationwide. I’m not a secretary or a first-year programmer. Yet I’ll soon be in a work environment that makes the average secretary’s desk in 1950 look like a palace. There are going to be people at this office who park brand-new Nine Elevens in the $12/day garage then come in to basically have a high-school cafeteria experience for eight hours.
It’s absolutely critical that we be present every day at work. Nothing could get done without physical proximity to people who don’t do your job or have anything to do with you. Some time ago, we started doing “agile scrum standups”, where we stood in a huddle and “committed to tasks”. Entire months went by without anybody saying anything that related to anybody else in the huddle.
And all of this has to take place because working remotely is absolutely unacceptable to the current corporate leadership. With the exception, of course, of anything that can be outsourced to India. It’s a fucking disaster to have a guy dialed-in from nine miles away a few days a week but put that same job in Chennai and all of a sudden any number of difficulties become just totally fine. Because he’s cheaper.
I could charge less if I worked from home. But they won’t let us do that because then we’d work two jobs, or three, the same as the guys in Chennai. They’re notorious for it. When I worked for Honda and we got our Indian resources on the phone, I’d start every call with, “Alright, here we are at Honda Marysville.” Because otherwise half of the overseas staff would forget which job they were working and you’d lose a couple of minutes every time you asked them a question and they had to context-switch on the fly.
So instead, I lose seventy-five minutes a day of my life, at a minimum, commuting to a building that is owned by the same corporation that owns all the buildings around it. When I pay to park, I’m handing part of my salary back. When I eat at one of the restaurants that is operating in a building owned by the corporation, I’m handing part of my salary back. Every year I spend the equivalent of twenty waking days going to work and about three working weeks working to pay for my travel and parking. Add taxes to the mix, and it starts to approach the dimension of tragic comedy. It’s not until July of every year that I actually earn any money for myself. The first half of the year goes to the government, the parking garage, commuting expenses, meals.
And yet I’m supremely fortunate to be in this position. I haven’t spent a single day unemployed since 1998. I’m not wealthy but I spend two dozen days a year on a race track. I have some beautiful motorcycles, wonderful guitars, and some clothes than on a better-looking man would be totally fucking stunning, I tell you. I know what it’s like to be poor and I know that I’m not poor now. Still. Something’s got to give. For me, for everybody around me. I think of Neal Stephenson’s warning that “the Invisible Hand has taken away all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity.” I feel lucky most days. I expect that my son will have a harder life that I’ve had, even if he’s far more successful and talented than I am.
I suppose that in the end it boils down to this: there is capital, and there is labor. I’m labor. Always have been. The people who own the parking garage are capital. They can decide at a whim to take $1,250 out of my pocket and there isn’t much I can do. Until the day comes that everybody in the parking garage decides that they are tired of the situation, and they smash the gates, burn the ticket machines, and usher in the populist apocalypse. It sounds unlikely, right? Far more reasonable for all of the frogs to sit in the pot and boil at $12, then $15, then $18, then $21, and so on. But people aren’t frogs. They tend to react badly to being boiled. I’m not saying that anybody who earns even a low six figures in the tech industry is going to burn a building down over it. But it plants a seed of support inside us for the person out there who does burn something down. What did the flat-chested but quite pretty robot girl on television say a few weeks ago? These violent delights have violent ends.