Money Changes Everything: Twenty-Two Writers Tackle the Last Taboo with Tales of Sudden Windfalls, Staggering Debts, and Other Surprising Turns of Fortune

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9780385516693: Money Changes Everything: Twenty-Two Writers Tackle the Last Taboo with Tales of Sudden Windfalls, Staggering Debts, and Other Surprising Turns of Fortune
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The editors of The Friend Who Got Away are back with a new anthology that will do for money what they did for women’s friendships.

Ours is a culture of confession, yet money remains a distinctly taboo subject for most Americans. In this riveting anthology, a host of celebrated writers explore the complicated role money has played in their lives, whether they’re hiding from creditors or hiding a trust fund. This collection will touch a nerve with anyone who’s ever been afraid to reveal their bank balance.

In these wide-ranging personal essays, Daniel Handler, Walter Kirn, Jill McCorkle, Meera Nair, Henry Alford, Susan Choi, and other acclaimed authors write with startling candor about how money has strengthened or undermined their closest relationships. Isabel Rose talks about the trials and tribulations of dating as an heiress. Tony Serra explains what led him to take a forty-year vow of poverty. September 11 widow Marian Fontana illuminates the heartbreak and moral complexities of victim compensation. Jonathan Dee reveals the debt that nearly did him in. And in paired essays, Fred Leebron and his wife Katherine Rhett discuss the way fights over money have shaken their marriage to the core again and again.

We talk openly about our romantic disasters and family dramas, our problems at work and our battles with addiction. But when it comes to what is or is not in our wallets, we remain determinedly mum. Until now, that is. Money Changes Everything is the first anthology of its kind—an unflinching and on-the-record collection of essays filled with entertaining and enlightening insights into why we spend, save, and steal.

The pieces in Money Changes Everything range from the comic to the harrowing, yet they all reveal the complex, emotionally charged role money plays in our lives by shattering the wall of silence that has long surrounded this topic.

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About the Author:

ELISSA SCHAPPELL is the author of the Use Me, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and a cofounder of Tin House. JENNY OFFILL is the author of Last Things and teaches in the MFA programs at Brooklyn College and Queens University. They are the coeditors of the anthology The Friend Who Got Away.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Guy Next Door
Henry Alford
I’ve never killed anyone before. But I once felt like I had. This man and I did not, at first blush, have much in common. I was a pot–smoking, Joni Mitchell—listening thirty–one–year–old gay man; he was a profane, eighty–year–old former longshoreman named John Maguire whose nickname was Mugsy. In the two years that I’d been living in the apartment contiguous to his, we’d never shared more words than the occasional grunt–based hello in the hallway.

And then I made the phone call that changed both our lives.

“Mr. Maguire?”

“Yeah.” His voice was brusque and Bronxy.

“It’s Henry Alford. I live across the hall in 4E?”

“Uh–huh.”

“Do you know about the auction being held on Friday? For the three apartments in the building, including yours?”

“No. I’m not a member of the co–op board, so they don’t tell me anything.”

“Your landlord, Mr. Z——, is about $13,000 in arrears,” I explained. “So the co–op board is holding a public auction of his three apartments on Friday. You and the other tenants have what are known as statutory rights, so you can’t be kicked out and the rent can’t be raised no matter who owns the apartments."

“I know all about it. I’ve been down to the attorney general’s office.”

“Good, so you know your rights,” I said, a small amount of relief helping to bolster my mounting anxiety about my next statement. “Well, anyway, I’m thinking about, uh, making a bid on your apartment.”

As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I wanted to soften or reshape them. It was no secret that John had had two heart attacks. I added, “As a, as a—as a sort of long–term investment, of course.”

“You can do what you want.”

“Great. But I’ve never been in your apartment, and I wonder if I could look at it sometime.” The evening before, I’d walked out on our mutual fire escape and tried to peek in through his windows, to no avail.

“Okay,” he said.

“Well, I was wondering if I could look at it, say, right now.”

“Let me put my pants on,” he said, and hung up the phone.
About ninety seconds later, I heard John open his door and then knock softly on mine—an act that requires merely leaning forward, as the two doors are thirty–five inches apart. I greeted him and shut the door behind me. A wiry and fastidious man, John projected equal amounts of boyishness and scowling, a sour angel. I stood stone–still in his doorway, cowed. Although in the weeks previous the prospect of inexpensively doubling the size of my apartment had filled me with a sensation that I can only describe as tingly, that tingle now fled me. No, this was not the wonderfully grabby, slightly narcissistic feeling that looking at real estate usually engenders—the one where empty rooms symbolize solutions to your problems, the one where hobbies get their own dedicated spaces and children get their own bedrooms and novels gush from printers like lobsters from an aquarium during a Mob hit. This was much more like an IRS audit.

“Come on,” John said, waving me into the living room.

We grimly and quickly toured the premises. His apartment, I could see, was almost identical to mine. We both had six hundred railroad-style square feet overlooking a lovely, tree–shaded street in Greenwich Village; each was worth about $130,000, a price that would have been higher were the apartments not fourth–floor walk–ups. John’s place was immaculate. It had a sweet, slightly soapy smell.

“I’m surprised it took the co–op board so long to catch on to Mr. Z——,” John said when we’d returned to the kitchen. “He’s no good and he’ll never be good! He has the building next door, too. You ever been in there? It’s a dump!"

“I’ve never been in there.”

“It’s a dump!”

I thanked John for the tour and left.
Two days later, I realized I’d forgotten to ask him an important question, so I called again. I asked him how he was doing, and he said, “Alrighty.”

“Uh, some of the people who are bidding on your apartment are wondering what you’re paying for rent,” I said. “Would you be uncomfortable...”

“It’s $81.23.”

“Eighty-one twenty-three a month?” I asked, surprised it was this low. The maintenance on the apartment was $332 a month, so a rent of $81.23 meant that whoever bought the apartment would be $250.77 out of pocket a month.

“That’s right. Anybody buying this is gonna get stuck.”

“Right,” I said, laughing nervously. “How long have you been living there?”

“Fifty years.”

“Wow. You’re a..."

“I’m a fixture. I’m a goddamn fixture.”
I needed to figure out how much to wager at the auction, so that night I sat down and did the actuarial work. Two hundred and fifty dollars and seventy–seven cents a month was about $3,000 a year. So if John lived another five years, I’d be spending $15,000. If he lived ten years, I’d be spending $30,000. If he lived twenty years, I’d be spending $60,000.

I decided twenty years was a good, conservative figure to work with; after all, it wasn’t as if John were some female goatherd in the Urals subsisting on a diet of yogurt. Subtracting $60,000 from the apartment’s $130,000 value left me with $70,000. Then I subtracted another $25,000 for cost–of–living increases and the hassle of being your next door neighbor's landlord. That left $45,000. That was my ceiling for bidding.

The auction took place a few days later. The setup was much more casual than I’d imagined: a spindly, middle–aged auctioneer stood at a card table he'd set up under the rotunda of the Supreme Court of the State of New York; four of us bidders and our companions huddled round, clutching our checkbooks. Office workers and other passersby drifted past us, unmindful of the tiny acts of manifest destiny taking place just feet away.

Each of the three apartments underwent a short volley of bidding. Because the apartments were being sold with rights-bearing tenants in them, and because there was no formal process by which potential buyers not living in the building could meet or learn the age and medical status of these tenants, the auction attracted only one outside speculator. In the end, all three apartments were bought by people already living in the building.

I felt like I was taking part in insider trading—a dark, sweet, criminal feeling made only more so when I got the apartment for $17,000.
When I saw John in the hallway the next day, I told him that I’d bought his apartment. His face betrayed no reaction. We agreed that he would slip his rent check under my door the first of each month. John explained that Mr. Z—— had four of his rent checks that he hadn't cashed. John said, "Oh, he's no good. He's a louse." The part of my brain that I had been labeling “I Am a Yuppie Interloper” was slightly relieved by this statement; I knew I’d be a better landlord than Mr. Z——.

But the following day as I was leaving the building, I ran into a fellow resident I’ll call Tina. Tina said she’d heard about the auction, and was glad that Teresa in 2E and I had been able to buy our own apartments, but was dismayed that Jere in 1E had bought Mrs. Englehardt's apartment, because now Jere—a building developer by trade—would be waiting for the frail, ninety–something Mrs. Englehardt “to drop dead.”

I corrected Tina, telling her that I had not bought my own apartment—I’d bought John’s. She laughed nervously.

Eager to undercut the awkwardness, I started rambling, telling Tina that I didn't know much about John and asking her if he’d ever been married. She said he hadn't. She said the only family she was aware of was a brother who lived in the city.

Later that night, I ran into Tina again, this time in the vestibule of the building. She was picking up a brass doorknob that had fallen off the inside door. “If we get new brass knobs, I’m gonna keep the old ones and hit Jere over the head with them,” she told me, referring to the man who was waiting for the old woman to drop dead. “I’m not kidding: he better watch it.”

I wondered if I should, too.

But to my friends, the fact that I'd bought an apartment that housed a man who’d had two heart attacks was the stuff of comedy. More than once did I hear the line “Getting enough heavy cream in your coffee, Mugsy?”
My early days of landlordship were marked by a certain suspensefulness. One afternoon about a month after the auction, I heard a beeping sound in the hallway; the battery of our floor's smoke alarm was dying. Not having the right size to replace it with, I decided simply to take the smoke detector down, bring it into my apartment, and remove the dying battery.

When I awoke the next morning and saw the smoke detector on my kitchen table, I got a chill. What if John had died in the night and the cops had found the smoke detector in my apartment. That wouldn't have looked too good for me.

But the biggest change that resulted from buying John’s apartment was that I became much more conscious of the fact that if the space between our doors was only thirty–five inches, th...

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