The Universal Notebook: Tales of personal inflation

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When I read the other day that tenants displaced by a fire in a Grant Street apartment building were having trouble finding affordable housing (as in rents for less than $1,500 a month), I was reminded of the years I lived on Park Street in Portland.

Our monthly rent was $150, and that included heat and utilities. Imagine living in the Park Row townhouses for $150 a month.

Young people’s eyes tend to glaze over when I start reciting the comparative economics of then and now, but a lesson in personal inflation does offer some perspective on the cost of things and, more to the point, reminds us that relative values haven’t changed all that much.

IEdgar Allen Beemn 1980, when we were paying $150 for a first-floor apartment in downtown Portland, I was making about $10,000 a year, and gas cost just a little over $1 a gallon. The Park Row townhouse we lived in had three apartments and was sold to a gentleman from Massachusetts for $100,000 – and I thought he was a sucker.

Lots of Mainers laughed up their sleeve at folks from away who paid top dollar for Maine property only to find that top dollar kept going up and up. The guy from Massachusetts got a million bucks for that building a few years later.

Turns out I was the sucker.

In the 1970s, my then-brother-in-law had offered me a brick building just around the corner on Pleasant Street for a mere $20,000. But I didn’t have $20,000 in the 1970s when I was making peanuts at the public library any more than I had a hundred grand in the 1980s when I was earning peanuts-plus on the staff of Maine Times. 

My frame of financial refresh was (and remains) the 1960s when, as bored sandwich shop cashiers yawn when I say so, Italian sandwiches that now cost $6.95 only cost 25 cents. For 50 cents I could get an Italian, a Coke, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Man, those were the days.

My parents bought our house in Westbrook in 1960 for $14,500. You could buy a new car for less than $3,000 and gas cost about 32 cents a gallon. Of course, my father was probably making about $5,000 a year selling life insurance. Still, we could live on that and my mother didn’t have to work. 

In 1967 when I graduated from high school, my folks could not afford the whopping $3,000 a year it would have cost to send me to Bowdoin College, so I ducked into the University of Maine in Portland for about $600. Daughter Tess, Class of ’13, got the Bowdoin education, which nowadays runs more than $70,000 a year.

Now President Biden plans to forgive $10,000 worth of student loans for qualified students. It’s a start, but I doubt he’ll get much credit for that. Politicians are forever taking credit for and being blamed for things they had little control over. Biden took it on the chin for $5-a-gallon gas, but he’s not feeling the love as the prices come back down to $4 a gallon.

The pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have a lot more to do with gas prices than anything Joe Biden has done. The truth is there’s nothing most of us can do about inflation other than ride it out, which we somehow do, one way or another.

Good luck finding an apartment in Portland.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.