Guest Commentary by Kent Carlson
While I may consider myself a preservationist, I don’t typically wax on nostalgically about the good old days. I’m thankful for advances in medicine that improve and extend life. I enjoy vintage automobiles, but I really appreciate the safety and dependability of late-model cars. I get a kick out of old tube radios, but I’m amazed at my iPod. While telephones can be annoying and seem to be everywhere, they are great deal more user-friendly than a CB radio. And I’m not sure what I’d do without a microwave oven.
But when it comes to human beings, I do long for long for days past. Specifically, the ethics and integrity I once took for granted. Though I never took an ethics class, I never really needed one. My parents instilled basic ethics in me from the time I was a child. I grew up believing that a man is only as good as his word, and that usually sufficed. But that concept seems lost today. And, unfortunately, it really seems to be more of a societal erosion of ethics than generational.
That reality was driven home by Klaus and Sally, a 60-something couple from Des Moines. They recently posted a somewhat broken-down jukebox on Craigslist. By chance, I happened to see the ad just minutes after it was posted. I called (twice) and left a message at the number provided, and also sent an e-mail. Within a few minutes Sally called me back. I talked to both her and her husband, Klaus. They had owned the jukebox for 30 years. Klaus was given the machine by a former boss but never quite got around to fixing it up. After a brief discussion about condition, I agreed to pay them what they were asking and pick up the machine at 8 a.m. the following day per their request.
I wasn’t looking for an old jukebox when I saw the ad, but after I realized I just bought one I got pretty excited. It’s that old tube-radio thing I guess. But at 10:15 p.m., Sally called me up. She said there must have been “a misunderstanding” because her husband had sold the jukebox to somebody else for $100 more. I was incredulous. Since Klaus had set the price, terms and the time of our transaction, it was clear there was no “misunderstanding,” just greed. After I hung up the phone, I called back and Klaus answered. He admitted “it’s my fault,” as if I was unaware of the obvious. He said he had only used Craigslist a couple of times and didn’t understand everything. What’s to understand? I asked him why he didn’t at least extend the courtesy of offering me the jukebox at his “new” price (though this wasn’t exactly eBay). Klaus said he had already taken money from someone else, so he couldn’t offer it to me. In other words he was OK with screwing me — the guy he first made the deal with — but didn’t want to screw the next guy.
I didn’t really see it coming. They were an older couple living a few blocks away from my previous home in the Waterbury area. It was 8:30 p.m. on a Sunday evening, so it made sense to complete the deal at 8 a.m. the following day. I accepted them at their word, something I have always done. I didn’t think Klaus would trade in his integrity for $100. And, given the chance, I would have kicked in the other $100, and it wouldn’t have been necessary. But it’s a different world today. People are walking away from their commitments in droves and attempting to justify their lack of character instead of owning up to their bad decisions. Foreclosures are at record levels. While some people may have had a bad break, many just made bad decisions by using their home as an ATM machine or buying more house than they could afford. Their irresponsibility has helped bring our economy to its knees.
Government isn’t much different. After allowing bar owners to install Touch-Play machines, Iowa lawmakers (if you can call them that) reneged on their promise, costing the bar owners and distributors millions. Fresh from that debacle, they demonstrated their incompetence and lack of integrity again with the Iowa film tax credit program. The healthcare debate has spawned some of the largest breaches of ethics Americans have ever witnessed.
My worst fear is that politicians are nothing more than an accurate reflection of real Americans. Americans like Klaus and Sally, who didn’t hesitate to trade their reputations for a buck claiming they didn’t know any better.
And I thought preserving buildings was a challenge. CV
Kent Carlson is a native Iowa artist interested in the preserving Iowa’s architectural heritage and the common sense of its leaders. And he writes a few columns for Cityview, too.