The Cost of Things in the U.S. After Being Away for 14 Years
Here’s how long it’s been since I last lived in these United States: When I left, gas in my upstate New York hometown was 99 cents a gallon. Keep the change! Since my return at the beginning of this year, people who know how long I’ve lived away often ask me what I find remarkable about this American life. All kinds of things have surprised me, but nothing makes me feel so foreign than opening my wallet to pay for stuff that I’ve never dreamed of paying for anywhere else in the world.
Brussels sprouts ($10)
“Brussels sprouts!” my friends say when we meet at a Clinton Hill bar, “let’s get Brussels sprouts!” I’m confused: The last time I ate them in America, Brussels sprouts were foul miniature cabbages that my mother served without ceremony or enthusiasm on midweek dinner plates. Truths: roasting does them good, as does good olive oil and sea salt. And yet: every time another small plate of sprouts is set on a table or bar before me, I wonder if there’s a cabal of American farmers and moms behind it. “We’re eating Brussels sprouts!” I want to cry out, like the wise child in the Emperor’s New Clothes, but I stay quiet. I chew, I swallow. Maybe 10 bucks is a small price to pay to feel I belong.
Emergency locksmith ($468)
Two weeks in to my new life in Brooklyn, I step out of my sublet apartment to lock the door of the communal laundry room, only to realize that the key to the laundry room and the key to the apartment are not on the same ring. It is half past midnight, it is 10 degrees past freezing, and I have two bad options: sleep in the hallway, or rouse an unknown neighbor to call a locksmith. “This never would have happened in Europe!” I think as I do a doleful knock on the neighbor’s door. “In Europe they are civilized and everyone has a washing machine in their own kitchen!”
Ninety minutes or my whole life later, the locksmith turns up. He is devastatingly handsome; he has a tool belt and an Israeli accent, both thick.
“I wouldn’t even have come except that you are a woman,” the locksmith announces, “My wife is not happy that I have left her in the middle of the night. There will be an extra charge for this.”
“OK,” I say.
“I will attempt to pick the lock,” says the locksmith, “That will be $80.”
“OK,” I say.
The locksmith gives the lock a listless prod with a tool.
“It is impossible to pick the lock,” says the locksmith, “I will have to use a drill. That will be $120.”
“All right,” I say.
The locksmith drills the door open.
“I will replace the lock now,” says the locksmith, “You can have the expensive good lock or the cheap bad lock.”
“The bad lock is fine,” I say.
The locksmith replaces the lock. He does some math on a piece of paper.
“That will be $468,” says the locksmith.
“WHAT,” I say.
“If you pay in cash, I won’t charge you tax,” said the locksmith.
“I obviously don’t have $468 in cash!” I say.
Here I am with this devastatingly handsome locksmith, I think to myself, And yet I have never felt so alone.
The locksmith calls someone at Locksmith Central to give them my credit card details. As we wait for the card to process, he studies my face for a moment.
“Are you Jewish?” the locksmith says.
“Kind of,” I say, “my father is Jewish.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?” says the locksmith.
“No,” I say, with sudden certainty that my only requirement for a life partner is that he should be someone who carries a spare set of keys.
“I have this friend,” says the locksmith, “He is also a locksmith from Israel, and he is so great that if I was a woman, I’d go out with him! I’m going to give him your number!”
“I’m not sure I want to go out with your friend,” I say.
“If you do,” says the locksmith, “Next time this happens, it will be free!”
Apartment broker ($3,500)
As my move to America happens because of some significant duress, I only have one day to find a permanent apartment. I look at four of them. The best one has a huge kitchen, lovely parquet floors, and French doors between the living room and the bedroom that would be perfect for me to waft through in a peignoir, if I had a peignoir or knew for certain what a peignoir was. The apartment is also pretty much under the BQE, so sometimes it sounds like a Mack truck is wafting through the French doors. That means that the beautiful apartment is within my budget. Miraculous.
“I would like to move into this apartment, please,” I say to the broker, as we descend into the building’s foyer.
“OK,” says the broker, “Well, there’s an application process…hm, I can’t get the door open.”
He turns the knob. It is fruitless.
“Ha ha!” I say, “now I have to get this apartment because we can’t get out! I guess I live here now!”
“I’m so sorry,” says the broker, still fiddling the knob, “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s OK,” I say, making myself comfortable on the stairs, “People bond in challenging situations like this. Now we’ll be friends for life!”
The broker calls the landlady and the other person who lives in the building. Neither of them picks up the phone. The broker mops his brow.
“I just don’t know what to do,” says the broker.
“I know a locksmith we could call!” I say, “He’s very expensive.”
Fifteen minutes later, we are freed; It turns out that the broker was turning the knob in the wrong direction.
“We’ve been through a lot together,” says the broker, “I am going to make sure that you get this apartment.”
He does. I do. I pay him $3,500 for showing me around a beautiful apartment and then imprisoning me in the building for fifteen minutes. Cool.
Laundry drop-off service ($1 per pound)
The new apartment is beautiful, but not only is there no washing machine in the kitchen, there is no laundry in the building at all. Must I spend my weeknights sitting in a sweaty laundromat waiting for the end of a cycle?
“Drop it off and get them to wash it for you,” say my colleagues, “Everyone does it! It’s cheap.”
Dropping off my laundry sounds impossibly luxurious, but it is indeed cheap, or cheapish. At the place nearest my apartment there’s a detailed price list that gives the breakdown. Up to 10 pounds: 10 dollars. Eleven pounds: 11 dollars. Twelve pounds: 12 dollars. Fifty pounds: 50 dollars. The women who work there are kind and greet me with friendly familiarity, which means a lot when I don’t know anyone else in the neighborhood. I am also delighted by the way that they fold all of my clothes into a dense fabric brick. As I schlep my fabric brick two blocks home, it feels heavy with decadence.
Health care ($%*^%^%!!)
In my decade in Europe I rarely went to the doctor, but when I did, it was free. That was great, even the time when I asked for asthma drugs and the doctor sneered, “We don’t do that in this country” and, when I started to cry, made a note on my permanent record that I was”difficult.”
But this is America, and I have a job that provides me with health insurance, which means that I can see doctors much as I feel like it. Right? I have an annual physical for the first time since I was 17. There’s so much to learn. How’s my cholesterol? What do I weigh? It turns out that I’m a whole inch taller than I was in 1999. No wonder I always tower over men who say they’re 5’8” on the internet! The office is pleasant and so is the doctor, and everything seems hunky dory until I get a letter in the mail: a bill for $101. I call the number at the top to investigate.
“Why have you charged me $101 for my annual physical?” I say.
“Oh,” says the operator,”Did no one tell you that they were going to charge you $101?”
“No,” I say.
“OK,” says the operator, “We’ll remove that charge as a courtesy.”
This is just the beginning. Each unopened envelope evokes a feeling like the anticipation you feel holding a scratch-off lottery ticket—How much will this be worth?—except that I’m anticipating ruin. Forty bucks for a standard smear test; when I challenge it, I have to fill out a form for the claims adjuster that questions whether the charge was incurred as a result of an accident at work (an unequivocal no). A $300 charge for an MRI that turns out to be miscalculated; the next day, the hospital sends me a request for a charitable donation. And then: a $6,900 summary of charges for an outpatient procedure because the doctor accepts my health insurance but the anesthesiologist does not. For some reason my insurer has sent me a check for $180. Perhaps as a courtesy.
“Next time,” I think, “I’ll save money on Propofol and just stare this bill.”
The next day, the doctor’s office assures me that I don’t really have to pay for it; I should just forward the bill to them and they’ll…fix it. I don’t ask them how. I can do nothing but trust in the Land of the Free.
Jean Hannah Edelstein is an ex-expat writer who lives in Brooklyn.
Photo: Stacey Spensley