There’s more to wealth than just money. Social capital is as real as financial capital, and sometimes more valuable. ~ j.d. roth
Getting To Know My Money
Over the past few years I've learned the hard way about the need to bank my bliss ~ my attempts at sustaining a safe reserve in my emotional savings and loan association. Unfortunately, deposits into my financial institutions have not been nearly as strong. So, in recent months, for many reasons (not the least of which was Tax Day), I have been trying to master my money issues. Let me tell you, with personal finances, ignorance is not bliss ~ and it's uncomfortable admitting it to anyone, anywhere ~ much less here.
The mountain of information was staggering and intimidating. I had no idea where to begin (savings? stocks? mutual funds? IRA? what's the difference?). Embarrassed by my financial illiteracy, and by the dismal return on my one request for help, I reached out to the anonymous, non-judgmental hero of information we all rely on ~ Google. Thankfully, beyond all of the staid advice in the popular financial-self-help books, I found several very helpful, down-to-earth financial blogs, many of which serve as quasi-aggregators of the practical advice buried in the (expensive) get-rich books. ~ Thank you blogosphere!
I quickly became addicted to the Get Rich Slowly blog, although my goal is simply to pay down debt ~ no delusions of any sort of financial wealth. I've taken the first few baby steps encouraged by the GRS blog; and I finally looked into the retirement fund that three+ years of government work has afforded me. I was pleasantly surprised, relieved really, to discover how much of a nest egg I had built up without even trying (not from a high salary but from healthy contributions). It's not a huge amount, but it's a safe start and much more than I would have ever saved had I tried on my own. I've taken other steps, too; but I won't bore you with the details here ~ suffice to say it involves several side-jobs and eBay. ;-)
All of this tortured explanation is to say that I have spent a lot of time recently (although late in life) learning the value of economic/financial capital. Most of this anguished self-education has taken place alone ~ late at night, in libraries, or in my favorite tea houses. Fortunately, Serendipity (in the form of a myriad of hyperlinks through a maze of money-management tips) led me to a December 2007 GRS article about the value of social capital. To illustrate the concept of social capital, the article refers to one of my favorite movies of all-time, the very wonderful It's A Wonderful Life, and explains:
You generate social capital when you help your neighbor repair a fence, or have your Sunday School class over for barbeque, or join a bowling league. Any time you participate in the community, you are generating social capital, both for yourself, and for the other people involved. Individuals (and communities) with high levels of social capital are able to find help when they need it; those with low social capital can spend a lot of time frustrated and alone.
Getting To Know My Neighbors
Coming face to face with the cold, grim stare of my finances, however, nudged me quietly into the warm embrace of my social capital ~ that richness that revolves all around me in the many pockets of Oakland that claim me as an Oaklander.
Saturday afternoon, after running a few too many errands on an empty stomach, I wanted to try out the super-cute new cafe (and their Blue Bottle Coffee!) at the bottom of my hill ~ Cafe 504. I wasn't sure if they would be open, but when I drove up, there was a cute couple sitting outside in the sun, sipping coffee, smiling, chatting ~ so I walked in. The owner told me, though, that they had just closed ... because a water pipe under the street had burst and their kitchen was flooding. Just then, "Chico," a sweet neighbor (and, apparently already a regular at the cafe) explained that two other businesses on that street were flooding, and that the pipe had burst several times over the years. I told them I had the number to the Public Works Agency programmed in my cell phone...and added that I worked for the City so they wouldn't think I was a freak. I called the PWA Call Center, but they were closed. Luckily, I had the cell phone number to a Councilmember from another district, and she explained I should call the OPD non-emergency dispatch, who would transfer me to the Fire Department(!) But when I finally reached the OFD, they explained that a fresh water pipe is controlled by EBMUD! As I dialed yet another number, Chico said there was no way they would have known how to navigate through the morass of agencies to call. In the midst of all this, the ladies from the old-school no-name hair salon next door and the laundromat on the corner wandered out onto the sidewalk and talked to Chico about the flooding. Fortunately, EBMUD answered right away and the service vehicle was dispatched immediately ~ and Chico ran up to his house to get pictures of the other times the pipe had burst, to show the EBMUD tech.
The point is, it took the teamwork of about six people to fix something in the neighborhood ~ and all the while that couple at the table outside quietly continued their caffeinated conversation. Despite the mayhem and flooding, I felt an amazing sense of community ~ it was quite a memorable way to meet the owner, Jaime, and other neighbors; not to mention an elaborate way for the cafe to put together its 'emergency contact list'.
I went inside to say goodbye to Jaime, since EBMUD was on its way. Just then, Jaime's beautiful three little daughters came flying into the cafe, followed by their father. It was so fun to see the whole family breathing life into the beautiful little oasis they had brought to our little street. Then, for no reason at all, one of Jaime's daughters quietly walked over to me, and hugged me. She only came up to my waist, so she wrapped her arms around my legs and pressed her head to my waist ~ I was overwhelmed. She looked up at me with a smile. Her blond hair literally glowed from the sunbeams streaming in through the windows, and the indigo color of her blouse was as profound as the deep blue oceans in her eyes ~ this little girl's smile felt like the sun washing over your face and the breeze cooling your toes as you lay in the grass. Overwhelming. She silently hugged me again, and then ran off with her sisters.
The owner and the Barista thanked me, and insisted I take a cup of coffee to go ~ I told them I wanted to come back as soon as they were open again (because that coffee was delicious!). It's nice to know that I have a cafe only a block away, where everyone will know my name ~ I look forward to making Cafe 504 my own Oakland version of Cheers.
Walking The Walk
The coffee/flooding incident made me late for my 2 pm appointment ~ I had volunteered to meet at my boss's campaign office to campaign for her re-election, at local businesses up and down 20 blocks of Telegraph Avenue. I still hadn't eaten anything all day, so I wasn't really looking forward to a two-mile city walk to discuss politics with people.
My partner, Reza, and I set out from the Plaza to the first business at 17th and Telegraph Avenue: Wigs by Tiffany. The store was amazing! It was huge, and mannequin heads with wigs of all shapes, sizes, and colors were displayed on shelves reaching up to the ceiling; there were hundreds of white foam heads with mysterious eyes and pouty lips, neatly lined up like floating soldierettes, staring at us as we wandered into the store. We stumbled through our campaign pitch to Tiffany herself and, thankfully, she took a sign to put in her window.
Having quickly found success, Reza and I confidently set out on our journey ~ a mile up Telegraph to 34th Street and then back down the other side of Telegraph. We had the most amazing three hours, finding little gems (even the ones that are rough around the edges) all along Telegraph Avenue. I discovered that McB's Shoes at 17th Street really has a large selection of nice dress shoes, kickin' boots, and hip handbags. Because their windows are partially tinted, it seems it would be hard for the store to get noticed by drivers zipping through the intersection; but the store was very busy when we walked in. Within minutes I was really glad I was out walking in a tiny portion of our District, actually meeting the business owners I usually assist by telephone (my Boss and another staff member are usually the ones who meet constituents in person). In fact, when I introduced myself to some of the merchants, they recognized my name or said they had spoken to me by phone ~ and then the conversation would lengthen, deepen, to specific concerns of each business. At the end of the day, I had a long list of issues to research for several of the merchants ~ but I also had a wealth of unique information about each business.
At Lam-Toro, the wonderful West African restaurant near 25th, Mamadou asked us how he could get information about business micro-loans. At the Rock Paper Scissors Art Collective, they accepted our sign but explained the Collective would have to vote on Monday to decide whether they can place it in the window. At Mama Buzz Cafe, the hipsterette behind the counter with the buzzed haircut said yes to the sign and then ignored us as I held the chair on which Reza balanced precariously while he tried to tack the sign into the wall.
When we walked into Bibliomania, at 18th Street, we were greeted by the comforting, dusty 'used bookstore smell'. I love the smell of used bookstores ~ not only of the story itself, but the history of the book...where its been, whose read it, whose loved it, how many places its been through. I sometimes buy used books which have been highlighted or otherwise marked up ~ personal notes in the margin, underlining in sections the past reader found important ~ and I love that about used books ~ the tiny glimpse I get into the thoughts of the person who read the book before me. All of those thoughts whirled around me as we stepped inside and the gray-haired husband-wife owners greeted us.
Reza and I took turns making the pitch, and we received more Yeses than Noes. As we walked along we also got to know each other. Reza told me he was born in Canada, then moved to the States, then spent a year in Iran, and back to the States again. When I asked him how his parents ended up in Albany, Ca, he explained: "My dad lived in the States, then he went to Iran to get a wife, and came back." I laughed and said he made it sound so simple. We both talked about speaking Farsi and Spanish at home, about our families, and a little politics.
When we reached the Marwa Halal Market at 30th Street, on 'Oakland's Butcher Block', Reza made the pitch completely in Farsi to the Afghan owner. The owner didn't know very much about my Boss, so we showed him a picture. A woman who was at the counter said, "Oh I know her. She helped me with my literacy tutoring, at Second Start." And that's how we turned the discussion to my boss's commitment to literacy ~ we couldn't have asked for a better real-life example.
I began to notice that at nearly every business we went into, friends and neighbors were gathered around, talking and spending time together. The exchange of social capital was taking place at least as much as, or in some cases, more than, the exchange of financial capital.
At the River Nile Market, next to Halal Meat and Produce, the beautiful young man behind the counter sat and talked with two of his friends ~ and let us place a campaign sign in his window. He asked me, genuinely concerned but in a hip/tough kind of way:"Is it true Oakland is going to turn into the next Emeryville?" At Prime Communications, the small wireless store next to Marwa Halal, three older African-American men sat in folding chairs and exchanged stories. At the Korean beauty store near 27th Street, three older women sat around a tiny table having tea over animated discussion. At nearly every one of the dozen or so nail shops we entered, families gathered around, waiting for the one getting her nails done. The chatter mixed with the chemical fumes was dizzying.
On Telegraph Avenue, Ethiopian spices are being sold next door to Afghan breads next door to kosher meat and seafood next door to nag champa and shea butter next door to Cajun seafood (where super burritos also happen to be offered). Sprinkled along the Avenue are also the cd's, videos, and body oils sold at House of Soul; the wildly busy market at Koreana Plaza; African art, clothing, and jewelery at Sami African Imports ~ all tucked in between the empty retail spaces we still need desperately to fill.
The day was topped off by a leisurely, amazing meal at Lam-Toro and two glasses of their delicious Bissap ~ where family members of the owner or employees gathered in the corner lounge by the window, and we all laughed as their toddler ran around, stumbling and giggling. All of this was the Oakland I adore ~ I felt like my entire day was a huge investment in my portfolio of social capital ~ I hope you'll invest, too. ~ :)