Monday, July 13, 2015

“When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?”

John D MacDonald’s 1977 blockbuster novel Condominium is fiction that works on many different levels. If we are to believe MacDonald’s biographer Hugh Merrill, the book was conceived as a revenge piece against a local developer who was attempting to build an eight-story condominium next door to the MacDonalds' dream home, into which they had moved only two years earlier. The couple fought this development tooth and nail, eventually launching a lawsuit, but it was all to no avail. The condo was built and the MacDonald’s had to live with it.

But the 447 pages of Condominium covers many other related subjects, such as building codes, zoning ordinances, hurricane formation, the venal business practices of amoral businessmen, and the great social plight of America’s retirees who have left the places they once called home to live out their lives in this retirement paradise called Florida. This is where the novel works best, in MacDonald’s detailed, insightful and mostly compassionate portrayal of old people starting the final phase of their lives in a place that is not quite what it was advertised to be.

Condominium was not MacDonald’s first take on the subject. Way back in 1953 he wrote an article for This Week magazine with the extremely clunky title of “When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?” Advertised by the magazine as a cautionary tale exposing a problem America’s leaders needed to deal with, it was strongly implied that this was a work of nonfiction. The reader is led to believe that MacDonald went out, tape recorder in hand, and interviewed a typical Florida retired couple, then wrote an article about them. With no other information besides having read the piece, I’m pretty sure that was not the case, that this is fiction, an  early precursor to the kind of thing MacDonald was trying to do in his Travis McGee short story “Terminal Cases” and in the more well-known final JDM “book” Reading for Survival, where important issues are presented and argued by fictional characters.

Appearing in the March 8 issue, “When You Retire…” is told in the first person by the interviewer. This setup is a device to allow the retired couple to do most of the talking, which they do with little interjection by “MacDonald.” They are the Talmadges, Bert and Pearl, who moved down to St. Petersburg from Michigan several years ago, moving into the first home they ever owned, albeit with a mortgage. Bert was a lineman for the power company and Pearl a homemaker. Their two children are mentioned only briefly, in a typical MacDonaldian aside that speaks volumes: the son died and the daughter, after a bad marriage, is estranged and living in Canada. They have agreed to be interviewed as a typical retired couple, ones who are slowly getting squeezed between a fixed income, rising prices and unexpected expenses.

"Thirteen hundred dollars a year seemed like enough, back then," [Pearl] said ruefully.

"It was, Pearl. It was"

"But now,” she says, "it's little things like haircuts for Bert. Since I got the arthritis in my hand this year, I can't cut his hair... There's only  nine years left on the mortgage, but this year the homestead taxes went up again.

"And his teeth. And the man said it would be nearly two hundred dollars to get rid of the termites. I guess we're just going to have to live with them. It's all those little things that make me so nervous when I get to thinking about them."

As the interview progresses we see just how close to the edge their life in retirement is. In order to bring in some extra cash Bert bought a moped and started a delivery service. But the heat and several near-collisions dissuaded him of that endeavor. This is followed by a wonderfully concise exchange that reveals the extremes to which they have gone in order to make ends meet.

Bert: I sold the bike for forty dollars after I painted it fancy, and put the money in the plants I showed you out back. I think we'll do better with those."

Pearl (darkly): "Better than selling those greeting cards, I hope."

Bert: "There were just too many doing that. Just like with the animals you make out of shells, and like delivering those circulars. I used to deliver every one, too, not stuff 'em under a hedge like some did. If I was better with my hands I could make out better. But I always did heavy work."

Pearl: "You did too much heavy work, Bert. You worked too hard all your life."

During the conversation the Talmadges mention some other couples they know who are under similar pressure. There’s the retired postman and his wife, who after he got ill, was unable to keep up with the mortgage payments and lived on a diet of rice in order to try and save money. And “Old Ralph,” a retired school teacher who catches fish and sells them to local restaurants.

"[He's] over seventy. Goes to the same place on the bridge every day. Fishes for his dinner first, and gets that usually, and then fishes for something extra [for] the fish house... Used to like it, Now he plain hates the sight of fish and the taste and being out there every day, but he can't figure how he can quit."

All of these points of quiet desperation don’t support the Talmadges’ constant reassurances of “we’re getting along” and “others are worse off.” The cumulative effect of all of this, especially to anyone who is close to retirement themselves, must be unnerving to say the least, especially since this was written over sixty years ago and little has seemingly changed. Well, actually, lots has changed, and potentially for the worse. The 1980’s and 1990’s saw the mass conversion of corporate pension plans into 401k’s, fixed benefit plans into fixed contribution plans, with the responsibility for managing those investments placed into the hands of the employee. The fact that most employees didn't have a clue as to how to invest for the long term didn't seem to matter to the businesses that switched plans or to the government that allowed it. The result was predictable: given a choice whether or not to save for retirement, most didn't, and those who did invested in the most conservative way possible, guaranteeing a nest egg that would not even come close to providing a decent middle class lifestyle upon retirement. At least the Talmadges' meager pension plan provided something, and it was good for life. Could any reader imagine Bert Talmadge managing a 401k?

“When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?” is an interesting curio, a JDM short story that has never been included in MacDonald's list of fiction writings, except by me. (It's on my list of JDM short works in the Trap of Solid Gold Resources.) It's not going to win any awards or be something the reader would ever go back to for re-reading, but it does contain some good JDM characterization, developed mainly through the words of the characters themselves. And it does describe a particular American social problem in an era long past, one that has not really corrected itself in over sixty years of trying.

The story has never been anthologized, which is no surprise. But as with all of the work MacDonald had published in This Week over the years, “When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?” is available to anyone with access to a newspaper database, provided the newspapers available were ones that provided This Week in their Sunday editions. If you don't have such access, perhaps your local library does.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and a little scary. This was not something that JDM had to worry about. I am just finishing "Nothing Can Go Wrong", about their round the world cruise and he mentions that he just found out "Condominium" had gone from something like 5 to 3 on the best seller list. He liked that he was on vacation and his book was paying for it.