*Image: “Eden Church Ribbon of Windows, Louisville, Georgia” by Kathleen Galvin, 8×4.5, December 2017
The Measurer of Ruin
By Lynne Feeley
I am matching up misfortunes. In my left hand, I hold a Polaroid of a crumpled Saturn on rings of burned rubber and broken glass, while with my right, I tick through thick manila folders. I find the folder that matches the name my father has scrawled at the bottom of the picture, and I slide the catastrophe in.
For thirty years, my father ran an Allstate insurance agency in a small upstate New York city called Auburn, known for two things: as the resting place of Harriet Tubman, the storied fugitive who brought many dozens of enslaved people out of slavery, and as the nineteenth-century birthplace of a novel and brutal system of imprisonment, called the Auburn System, which held prisoners in solitary confinement, forced them to work, and instituted total silence within prison walls. The nation’s first execution by electric chair took place in Auburn in 1890. The historically preserved Harriet Tubman House and the still-functioning, maximum security Auburn Correctional Facility sit two miles apart from one another, a proximity that aches and etches into the city the flight lines of American strife. My father’s office was situated between the two sites, nuzzled next to a nail salon and a Hallmark Store in one of the many strip malls that since the 1980s have suffused the city.
During my father’s tenure with Allstate, the community of Auburn was very white and very poor. According to the 2010 census, 86.3% of Auburn residents were white, but this number does not express the full truth of Auburn’s racial demography. Of the 2,346 African Americans living in Auburn in 2010, over 900 were living in the prison. Indeed, the demographics of the prison—54% African American, 23% Hispanic, 20% white—sit at conspicuous odds with the demographics of the city, a misalignment that aligns snugly with national numbers, numbers that reflect the mass and disproportionate incarceration of people of color. Auburn residents have become slightly richer since, but during the 1990s, the median household income was about $30,000; per capita, it was $17,000. These years also witnessed a sharp decline in Auburn’s population. Between 1990 and 2016, Auburn lost 4,500 residents—that’s 14% of its people. All of this is to say that my father’s agency serviced a city whose heart was a prison and whose non-incarcerated people were fleeing, and many of those farmers and factory workers who didn’t leave were struggling to make ends meet. These were folks for whom the hike to monthly rates caused by fender benders or speeding tickets or DUIs was often unassimilable into their monthly budgets. Failures to pay would pile up, and these piles would become lapsed policies, and lapsed policies would become inordinate premiums the next time around—and so the cycle would go on.
Still, all of this says nothing of the more abstract angst of paying insurance. For isn’t it true that we pay into an account from which we might never draw, and we begrudge these contributions to the collection tray, and we forget that withdrawing money is far worse, forget that, if paying in has, in some real sense, turned out to be worth it, this can only mean we’ve sustained some hardship, something, perhaps, terrible?
Before the digitization of the insurance industry, agents like my father were ranking members of the triage team of accident and ruin. They were grief’s second or third telephone call. When people’s children got in car crashes, when they got their licenses suspended for a third violation, when their basements flooded or cars got stolen, their insurance agent was one of the people who received their sorrow. When you called your agent, it wasn’t just to file a report. It was to make a confession—to a human—who happened to be my father.
So for all the antipathy around insurance, all the indignation and huff, what I remember most is the gratitude. I remember arriving at my father’s office to find bushels of corn set out before dawn on the strip mall sidewalk, pecks of apples and summer fruits canned and dated in Sharpie script, dollar-store cards packed with glossy pictures of children in First Communion dresses or the maroon graduation robes of Auburn High School. Each gift was confirmation of a different kind of economy, one of decency and grace, nested inside the decelerating chug of New York’s rural and deindustrializing north country.
We, too, lived inside the eke and grind of working class life. My parents had faced their own disappointments, and by the time my father opened his Allstate agency, the balloon of ascension had burst. In 1986, my father was working for Agway Insurance, where his father had worked, and Agway made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. They had a job for him in Kentucky. He would travel around the state and sell farm insurance products to other agents, who, in turn, would sell these products to Kentucky’s farmers. The sales commission would be 3%, the cost of living would be tantalizingly low. So we moved—my older sister, 4, me, 2, and my mother five months pregnant with my brother. They bought the best house they would ever own, a beige and brown Tudor on a tree-lined cul-de-sac with a yard that backed up to a corn field, and we settled in. My father sold so much insurance that he started winning the trips that Agway used to incentivize agents—to Hawaii, the Bahamas, San Diego. I have an iconic photograph of my mother from this period that shows her posed in front of a powder blue Cadillac, sporting a Dorothy Hamill haircut, and wearing a khaki jumpsuit with a fire engine red belt and a string of matching beads. She is all panache. The car isn’t theirs—they are in Hawaii—but it must have seemed so much a symbol of luxury that a stolen picture was in order. This mischief is whispered in my mother’s lavish smile. It is a snapshot of the high of the feeling that such a thing might soon be theirs.
Six months later, Agway would come under new management, commission would drop from 3% to .06%, and corporate culture would take a radical turn toward the cold. My father still speaks of a co-worker who took the Kentucky bait, too, who, one Friday afternoon, walked into his boss’s office seeking assurances that his job was secure and that he ought to go ahead and make that offer on the house, whose boss endorsed this without any detectible duplicity, who made the bid, and who was summarily fired Monday morning.
We stayed five years before the full flop of the job became manifest and my parents resigned themselves to moving back home, prodigal upstaters lonely for the known. Right before they put our Tudor on the market, IBM closed its Lexington plant and laid off hundreds of people, which caused the housing market to turn from a sellers’ to a buyers’ pretty much overnight. The value of real estate plummeted, and my parents sold the house at a substantial loss eight months later. In the stretch of those anxious months, the five of us lived with my widowed grandmother in her one-bedroom apartment in the blond-brick complex, High Acres.
My grandfather’s kidneys started to fail in 1964, when my father was 16, and his youngest sibling, Mary, was 4. My grandfather was the son of one of the many thousands of Irish immigrants who made homes in upstate New York between the Famine and the Ellis Island influx. He had grown up in Skaneateles, New York, then a rural farming community twenty miles southwest of Syracuse, now an upscale Finger Lakes vacation destination. He enrolled at Cornell in 1940 to study agriculture but failed out and joined the military. He was deployed to the Pacific front, and when he came home, he started working at the Skaneateles Stone Mill, where over time he became the general manager. But soon the disease in his kidneys made it impossible for him to be on his feet all day at the mill. He was too sick to work. Actually, he was dying.
So Agway, a farming cooperative and retail supplier that would soon move into the farm insurance business, hired him. The managers at the Skaneateles office had known his father, and the town was small and tight-knit enough that they knew the dying man had seven young children at home. They knew, too, that the only way the family could afford the state-of-the-art in-home dialysis machine, which would add eight years to my grandfather’s life—long enough for him to see my father graduate from college and to travel to Ireland to kiss the Blarney Stone—was through the company’s munificent employee health insurance plans.
My father’s office consisted of three rooms laid out like train cars. In the front, under the storefront window and blue Allstate: An Independent Agency decal, there were two faux-mahogany desks: one, my father’s, at the back of the room, and another in the front, on which, in lieu of an assistant, was placed a shoebox wrapped in brown postal paper with a check-sized slit cut out of the top—an efficiency no one ever used. A paper-thin door led into the second room, where my father kept a wall of metal filing cabinets, stacks of printer paper, and a Poland Spring water jug for collecting change that he’d sometimes let me pour out and count. Then there was the far back room, set up, ostensibly, to be a break room, with a microwave and coffee maker, a gray, upholstered couch, and a laminate lunch table. I was keen to avoid this room, as it always seemed to me a place that was off the map, a wood-paneled haven for daddy-long-legs and reused brown-rimmed Styrofoam cups, a place without veneer, where the brute and true stuff of adult life was being lived out.
My universe was the filing cabinets. From this perch in the middle room, I could hear all my father’s conversations. With prospective clients, he’d take them through Allstate’s regular survey, beginning with the purely quantitative—What’s the make, model, and year of your car? How old are you? —then to questions that may have seemed quantitative but were not simply so—Are you married? How many children do you have? Where do you live?—and then onto the decidedly and treacherously qualitative—Have you been in a car accident in the last five years? Describe it. I’d listen to him collect the data and feed the algorithm, tabbing across the green block letters on the black interface of his cumbersome desktop computer until the machine would spit out a number. Or until it wouldn’t. For sometimes the algorithm would not arrive at a number but at a phrase instead: Does Not Qualify. In these cases I knew that the pre-programmed digital flow chart had not really come to an end but, rather, that it was about to change shape, from the two-dimensional blinkering of the computer to the off-map options of the back room.
There my father would sell Hanover insurance to Allstate’s uninsurable.
I had hung around my father’s office enough to know that everyone was required to have car insurance, and I was aware of some of the things that made it difficult to qualify: a bad credit score, multiple DUIs, multiple speeding tickets, teenager drivers on the policy. But even as a child I found it incomprehensible that a system could simultaneously require something and deny it to people whose lives it judged too risky or too potentially costly. Respectable companies like Allstate would only insure the lives it deemed respectable.
Allstate was indeed remaking itself as a company that was more and more out of reach for the farmers and teachers and correctional officers of Auburn. When my father opened his agency, he believed Allstate and Auburn were well suited to each other. Allstate carried a program called Allstate Indemnity, a program for folks with imperfect driving records or inconsistent payment histories or both. It was affordable insurance for low-income people, and my father enrolled a full quarter of his clients into it, clients who would have been rejected or price-gouged by equivalent national brands. But something happened at the turn of the millennium. According to my father, Allstate miscalculated the Indemnity rates, setting them too low in New York City and too high in upstate. The company decided to cancel the program. Yet it couldn’t simply terminate Indemnity policies; this, evidently, was against the law. What it could do: Allstate could require the next 6-month premium payment in full, and when its low-income clients inevitably failed to pay this lump sum, the company could cancel their policies. In this way Allstate phased out Indemnity, and my father found himself looking at a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of business, while his low-income clients were looking at lapsed policies and dangerously expensive alternatives.
So he found another way. The son of a man who got to kiss the Blarney Stone because a company hired and insured him when he was dying would walk Auburn’s uninsurable back to the break room and leaf with them through paper brochures of other plans. It was legal, but it wasn’t entirely above board—if I was in the office the day my father’s bosses dropped by for a “visit,” he’d close off the break room door and instruct me not to mention anything about it—but it was a hustle that came out on the side of Auburn’s poor and on the side of my father, who assembled a secondary, clandestine Rolodex of clients that buffered him against the agency’s lean times, which were always coming, perennial as apple trees.
There were other hustles, too. I am ten, it’s the middle of winter, it’s the middle of the night, and I wake to muffled clanks coming from the kitchen. Amid the rustling, I hear my parents’ hushed voices. I snap out of bed and shuffle to the top landing, where I can crane and see my mother making coffee. My father, who is wearing a huge olive parka and a blaze-orange knit cap, neither of which I’ve ever seen before, is hauling bundles of the Syracuse Post-Standard from our downstairs hallway into his Honda hatchback. It is bitter cold, and I can see his breath as he bends at the waist to pick up the next stack. As my mother pours coffee into an Allstate travel mug, she notices me, and they pause their fourth-shift ritual to explain that my father has taken on a little extra work delivering papers for the newspaper company. Then he is gone.
The next day I beg him to take me with him. He is hesitant to do this, both because of the shift hour and because his route assignment entails the South Side of Syracuse, where decades of structural racial exclusion and disinvestment have produced cycles of poverty and violence. The 2000 census shows that the median household income in South Side neighborhoods in the 1990s was on average about $9,000. These neighborhoods are also about 82% black, and a 2015 article by Alana Semuels entitled “How to Decimate a City” showed that Syracuse has one of the highest rates of concentrated poverty in the nation, a statistic that she explains through Syracuse’s both particular and “illustrative” history of racist urban development and state-funded racial and class segregation. The South Side is a center of historical and ongoing injustice, where the tangled histories of racial and socioeconomic disparity collide into the city’s highest crime rates and sprawling fear about “safety.” But I persist, and he relents, and he packs me into the backseat, and we start our paper route, and within minutes I have fallen back asleep, missed the whole thing, and before I know it, I am being carried into the house at dawn, where my father puts me back to bed, takes a shower, and goes to work.
When the agency’s decline begins in earnest, my father starts by digging out the perimeter of the backyard. He digs up the garden along the fence, he digs up the hydrangea bushes, he removes my sister’s old soccer net and the wooden balance beam he built me two decades ago, he removes the white pine. As he digs, stone starts piling up in the driveway. People are delivering all different sorts of stone and rock to our house; I don’t know who these people are; some are individuals, some are companies. My father unearths a wheelbarrow I didn’t know we had. He starts hauling rock, one wheelbarrow-full at a time, from the driveway down the narrow grass path to the backyard, where he dumps it into the horseshoe curve he’s dug out. He lays three tons of rock in the ground and buries it.
Then red brick starts piling up on a blue tarp in the driveway. He takes from the top of the messy, domed deposits and wheels it to the backyard. He lays down a ribbon of brick in an undulating border, and then he begins making dimension. He makes walls and tunnels, gullies and hillsides; he is making form. Bulky packages start to arrive at the house with return addresses from Indiana, New Hampshire, Utica, the geographic imprimatur of a Craigslist network of railroad men. These packages contain model-scale train tracks, which my father starts piecing together and equipping with electricity so the railway he is building can generate its own power.
My father starts perusing garden stores and farmers’ markets for small plants, ground cover, and trees that have been engineered to scale with his layout—miniaturized white cedar, hemlock, Alberta spruce. The first winter comes, and he moves his work to the basement, where he has been accumulating miscellaneous scraps of wood. He lugs a table and a space heater down there, and he excavates fingerless gloves I’ve never seen him wear. As the bitter upstate winter sets in, he sets about building miniaturized structures, single family homes, a row of storefronts, a street, streetlights, stop signs. He chisels leftover stone from the railway’s foundation into slim flakes and pieces them together up the sides of the largest structure. He is doing a jagged-edged and asymmetrical puzzle. He makes roofs. He paints.
It takes my father years to complete what he is building: a dollhouse-sized replica of the Skaneateles of his youth, encircled by the Skaneateles Railroad of the 1950s. As he is painting the orange and fire engine red sign of the old A&P, as he paints a tiny Talbots across a glass pane, and as he glues tiles of stone up the walls of the Skaneateles Stone Mill, Allstate steadily squeezes him out. They want him to sell more life insurance—they have always been on his case about selling more life insurance—but no one in Auburn is buying a luxury like life insurance. And so he watches his numbers and status slide, and he starts building the thickest sublimated text, laced with nostalgia for lost things, light with the promise of the infinite work of tinkering.
Then on Saturday, January 22, 2011, my father, 63, has a heart attack. He drives himself to the hospital as the catastrophe gallops through his chest. In the hospital, doctors build trusses in my father’s heart. They snake a stent through the collapsed passageways. They reopen what has caved in. They discharge him on Monday and send him home to heal. But this is 2011, and the Great Recession is grinding, and Allstate is hiring younger men, and they are hounding him about his low life insurance numbers, and my father is a smart man, and he knows that soon the algorithm will stop spitting out a number and spit out a phrase.
So Wednesday morning, he is back at his desk.