A little bit of money means a lot to many, many people

A couple of years ago, the tires on my wife’s car needed to be replaced immediately. She called me, concerned, because they were going to cost a couple hundred bucks, and we really didn’t have the time to shop around. I told her not to worry, and to buy them.

I distinctly remember feeling immensely grateful after I got off the phone. This, really, was “wealth”. Not fancy vacations or expensive meals, but the comfort of knowing that it was nearly impossible for “small”, incidental charges like this to really affect our lives.

I thought of that when I saw this story this morning in Time:

On a recent San Francisco afternoon, I returned to where I’d parked my car, but it was gone. A “No Parking” sign indicated that parking was prohibited after 3:00 PM on weekends. It was 3:15. I called the telephone number on the sign and a clerk affirmed that my car had been towed to an impound lot.

I took a cab and entered a single-story brick building where a few dozen people were crowded together in a scene that evoked Kafka; weariness, frustration and anger were palpable. Some stood in line, some paced and some sat hunched on the floor. A family huddled in a corner, an infant asleep on the father’s shoulder. A woman on a pay phone wept as she begged whomever was on the line to find money so she could get her car back–she said she needed $875. “I’m gonna lose my job if I’m not there at 5.”

Clerks sat on stools behind Plexiglas. At a window, a man pleaded with an agent, “I have to pick up my kids in less than an hour. What am I supposed to do?” At the next window, another man railed loudly and furiously, yelling, “How the hell am I supposed to get my goddam money if I can’t get to goddam work?” The clerk said, “If you can’t get cash, you can pay by credit card or cashier’s check.” The man shouted, “And if I had a goddam limousine, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

To many Americans, a towed car is a nuisance. A real one, yes, but in the scheme of things, no more than that. That’s wealth. That’s privilige. For many others, a couple hundred bucks is all it takes to destroy the fragile framework of what passes for security in their lives.

Think about that the next time someone tells you that a $100 copay shouldn’t be a “big deal”. Or how a $25 premium is “insignificant”. Or how over-the-counter birth control is “cheap”.

It may be to you. But not to everyone. Not to far more people in this country than you likely realize.



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