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Living in Boston: An Expensive Experience

“Welcome to Boston! We hope you enjoy living here!”
This is how you would think the tollbooth attendant would greet you at the Allston/Brighton tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike when you first arrive in your new home city. Instead, count on a simple, “Fifty cents, please.” Just when you had been suckered into believing that the previous tollbooth was the last, you must pay up again. Welcome to Boston. We hope you brought a thick wad of cash, and some brand new credit cards. While Boston is a great place to live, and many people come here to attend some of the best universities in the country so that someday they can take high-paying jobs, the trick is not to go bankrupt before you can enjoy what the hub of the universe has to offer.

My wife and I moved from Ohio to Boston three years ago when my employer transferred me from one of its regional offices to its headquarters. While we expected a higher cost of living, no one could have prepared us for how drastic the changes would be. We knew our rent would be higher. But when we packed up our $400-a-month apartment in Cincinnati and waved good-bye to the swimming pool, tennis courts, and fishing pond in the complex, we didn’t anticipate the true cost of housing in Boston.

Upon arrival, we discovered that people actually pay an apartment broker up to a full month’s rent to find them an apartment. This is a surprise to someone new to the East Coast. We were used to landlords who rolled out the red carpet and carefully explained all the amenities in hopes of luring a possible tenant. We quickly learned that around here, everyone seems to be doing you a favor by letting you rent his or her tiny quarters and charging you an exorbitant amount each month.

Several people laughed at us for trying on our own to find an apartment in September, two weeks after college students had arrived and snapped up every habitable abode. We finally broke down and called an apartment broker. We asked her to show us one-bedroom apartments in the $700 range. She said there really wasn’t anything we would like in that range and proceeded to prove her point by taking us to the only apartment on her list for that price. The unit was in a basement in Brookline, and when my lovely five-foot-one inch wife hit her head on an overhanging pipe, we knew we needed to cough up some more cash.

Once we finally signed a lease, our expenses had just begun. No longer is laundry a simple, private affair. No one has washer and dryers in their own third floor apartment. Rather, laundry day is a parade in which you pile all your clothes in a basket and stagger down the long flight of stairs.

Once you’ve caught your breath, you trudge across the street through the snow with the neighborhood checking out what kind of underwear you prefer. You do all this just to get to a laundromat where you can pay two dollars for a load of laundry. In Ohio, for two dollars you could buy two dozen ears of corn.

This extra laundry expense was a true shocker. It was topped only by the discovery that after finishing the laundry (don’t ever leave while your load is running), we walked back to the apartment only to find that the landlord charged us an extra 50 dollars because we accidentally locked ourselves out, and a maintenance man with a spare key had to open our door! Finally, make sure your monthly housing budget has a generous allowance for mousetraps. As my landlord said, “Hey, this is a city after all.”

Even eating and drinking can be outrageously expensive. Perhaps you want to impress your parents or friends by taking them to Grill 23 for one of the restaurant’s famous steaks. When you order your steak dinner, cooked to perfection, you receive: a piece of steak. Bread, salad, baked potato, and other extras must be ordered and paid for separately.

Or go to Lily’s in Faneuil Hall and order their dollar draft special and receive: a beer shot. You will hopefully enjoy all approximately 1.2 ounces of your favorite beverage. Don’t forget to tip!

This brings us to another common Boston experience. You wake up. You feel groggy and hungover. You rack your brains trying to remember where you went the night before. Suddenly, you realize that you didn’t go out at all last night. You are feeling sluggish and terrible because you just paid your first Massachusetts auto insurance premium! After paying your insurance bill, you couldn’t afford to do anything but stay home and watch TV.

Before you moved you probably thought a car was just a car. In Massachusetts, the whole state views your vehicle under the following complex formula: Automobile = Cash Bonanza.

First, there is a per gallon gasoline tax in this state. Be sure to fill up your gas tank and whatever empty containers you own before you cross state lines. Next, we have auto excise taxes on the value of your car each year. Finally, you must pay another tax for driving in Boston known as endless parking tickets. Sly meter maids know that sometimes there is nowhere within a three mile radius to park, other than that one illegal space right in front of the place you want to visit.

Shortly after arrival, our first experience with a parking ticket was on a trip to the Cleveland Circle Cinema. We parked along the reservoir with 30 other cars only to find that after the movie we had a nice bright orange parking ticket on our windshield. Because we now fancied ourselves cool urbanites, and our car still had Ohio license plates, we tore up the ticket and put on our Mass plates the next day. Five months and three other parking tickets later, somehow they tracked us down.

From the City of Boston to the DMV in Ohio to my previous landlord to the Cincinnati post office to our new Boston address, that bill relentlessly hounded us. When we got the ticket the second time (with a late fee), our spirits were broken. Now we sheepishly pay our parking tickets in a timely fashion, just as most other people must do.

When you take the fateful step of keeping a car in the city, be prepared to find a spot for it to spend the night. If you want to have a sure thing, you better tack an extra $100 or more on your rent each month to get a parking spot. Or, once you get your new plates, you can apply for a “Resident Parking Permit.” Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it a “permit to park on the weekends or during work hours or a permit to drive aimlessly around the neighborhood any other time, searching hopelessly for a spot that will never appear.” This phenomenon of the lack of actual resident parking spaces leads to another phenomenon of the lack of actual residents driving their actual cars. My wife and I picked up on this pretty quickly when we noticed that the same ten cars were parked in front of our building in the same order every day and we never saw them move. We decided to test this method for ourselves, especially during the winter months, riding the T everywhere we possibly could.

One might ask: Why keep a car at all if you can simply ride the T everywhere you need to go? I was asking myself that very question one day when I suddenly realized that if I didn’t keep my car, I would never again get to experience the fun of having to go find my car once it has disappeared! It’s all so clear now. Apparently, a Resident Parking Permit is not in effect when a Snow Emergency has been declared. We didn’t know what a snow emergency was all about, but when the towing company charged us $125 bucks to get our car back, we began to understand. After driving back home and circling our neighborhood for hours, we finally found another resident parking spot that seemed somehow not to have been affected by the same snow emergency, perhaps because it was a tough spot to get a tow truck into. Two months later, the City of Boston sent us a parking ticket (with a late fee) for parking illegally during a Snow Emergency. The towing company had kept the ticket without telling us about it. While I wanted to ask what we were supposed to do with our car when it snowed, instead I just paid the ticket, j
ust as most other people must do.

Finally, helping others can be very expensive. When we first moved here, we had never seen people on the street asking for money. At first we gave many people our change. Once on our way to the T we gave a guy a dollar. Later that night, on the way back home, we ran into the same man about a block from where we saw him last and he asked us for money. When we reminded him that we had given to him a few hours earlier, he said that we must have given the money to his twin brother Bob.

He told us we should never give money to Bob, but always give money to him.

We told him to go find Bob and split the money. Since then we’ve had to become a little more discriminating when we give away money.

Although Boston is a costly place to live, there are many advantages to living here and some true bargains. In Ohio, a free concert means the Buckeye Boys Choir is at the Mall again. In Boston, recent free concerts have included Peter Frampton, The Band, Huey Lewis, Bon Jovi, Green Day, and the Boston Pops. Boston: if you have a T-pass, you can ride two-for-one on Sundays. Ohio: we don’t even have a subway. Boston:

Free admission to the MFA galleries on Wednesday evenings. Ohio: What’s the MFA? In the Midwest, auto insurance may be cheaper, but speed traps litter the highway. In Massachusetts, the State Highway Patrol apparently does not view speeding tickets as a profit center. After all, there is plenty of parking ticket revenue.

There is one surefire way to cover all the extra costs in Beantown.

Where else could you be paid big bucks for being in medical experiments at the nation’s leading research hospitals? If you are having trouble smiling, just volunteer at the Tufts Dental School where you can get paid $200 for using a new toothpaste for two months. If the higher cost of living has you stressed out, just check into Brigham and Women’s for a month long sleep study. You can do anything you want in a nice, quiet environment. They watch you sleep at nights. For this you can earn $2,000. The expenses here are high, but the rewards are too. Welcome to Boston! We hope you enjoy living here!

February 18, 2003
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