The Good Old Days Weren’t


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by Jack Cashill
Published in ingramsonline.com - January 2009

In February 1975, just before I moved to Kansas City, my old black and white TV arced while my wife and I were watching it.

“Arc” is an industry euphemism. What it means is that without warning your TV erupts violently and spectacularly into electrical flames. When this happened, as it occasionally did back then, you knew it was too late for Frankie’s Fix-It.

The TV arced on a Saturday morning. That afternoon Purdue, which we attended, was playing basketball against Indiana, which we hated, and we felt honor bound to watch the game. Although my monthly salary as a teaching assistant was $320, I anted up the $300—or $1207.66 in today’s dollars—for a new 19-inch color TV, my first color TV ever.

Much of that jump in inflation would take place in the next five years. In 1975, the annual rate was 9.1 percent. By the endof the “malaise/disco”decade, the annual rate would increase to 13.5 percent. By contrast, in no year of this decade has the inflation rate been greater than 4 percent. For all that, last week we bought a 32-inch high-def TV for $349. That is about 80 1975 dollars for a much cooler product far less likely to blow up.

In August 1975, we moved to Kansas City, and I had to find a job. It was not easy. In January 1975, the unemployment rate crossed the 8 percent threshold and would stay there all year. The rate would not dip below 5 percent until 1997.

Although you would never know it by watching TV news, until August, 2008, the unemployment rate had remained under 6 percent since October 2003. Until March, 2008, the rate had stayed at or under 5 percent for more than two years. Hardtimes? Please.

We bought a house near UMKC for $19,000, which may be where the price is again today, at least relatively. Lacking a full time job, I made a stab at doing some home repairs, but to buy materials I had to drive to Grandview. There was only an empty swath where Highway 71 is now. It took me half an hour or more to get there via the always charming Prospect. If I forgot something, as I inevitably did, I had to turn around and go back. I gave up on home repairs. Where was Home Depot when I needed it? It wasn’t.

True, service today isn’t what it used to be. Service is, dare I say it, hugely better. If you wanted money in 1975, you had to go into a bank, your bank at that. If you wanted surgery, you actually had to stay in a hospital. If you wanted food, you had to stand in slow lines at grocery stores and pay in cash. If you wanted to gamble, you had to go to Las Vegas—or the back of Zeke’s garage at 31st and Main.

If you needed a book in 1975, you went to little stores that ranged from charming to crummy, and if the book wasn’t a best seller, they likely did not have it. Thank heaven for Borders and Barnes & Noble, and thank God the Father for Amazon.

Human nature being what it is, we have come to take for granted the wonders of Internet commerce that Amazon exemplifies. But those of us over 12 still remember the day when we had to call restaurants for directions, buy a newspaper to get the movie listings, and—so I am told—venture out in public to secure “adult” material.

In 1975, office supply stores had all the range of book stores, adult or otherwise, without the quirks or charm. There was no Office Max, no Office Depot. There were no video stores, no videos for that matter, let alone the astonishingly efficient NetFlix. Your TV got three stations on VHF, maybe a couple more on UHF—or was it the other way around?

Some people may have had children back then just so they wouldn’t have to change the channels themselves.

In 1975 central air was as much a novelty as a channel changer. When it got hot, you found excuses to visit your friends who had it. In the torrid summerof 1980, enough people in Kansas City had no air conditioning of any sort that we led the nation in the unwholesome category of “heat deaths.”

If you wanted plane tickets in 1975, you had to call a travel agency. To checkin, you had to stand in lines longer and slower than today’s security lines. There were no electronic check-in machines, no online boarding passes. In real dollars, tickets cost at least twice as much as they do today. True, back then airlines offered hot food served up by hot stewies, but neither was worth the price difference—well, at least not the hot food.

If you needed bread in the Kansas City of 1975, you could have any kind you wanted as long as it was white. For Italian bread, you had to drive to Northeast Kansas City. For French bread, you had to fly to France. There was no frozen yogurt, no baby carrots, no whole cooked $6 chickens, no drive through gourmet markets, and almost no water except what came out of the tap.

I don't how when the first QuikTrip came to Kansas City, but it should be noted in the city annals along side the arrival of Lewis and Clark or the brothers Chouteau. The stores reintroduced “convenience” to convenience stores. Sullen third worlders snoozing behind bulletproof glass could no longer compete with QuikTrippers in their neat burgundy shirts, polite and perky even at 3 a.m., even in the middle of the city.

Nor could two funky “pay inside” gas pumps compete with QuikTrip’s 20, especially now that you could pay outside. The store launched a veritable revolution in pop: a score of spigots with at least 18 different choices of softdrinks, a dozen different shapes and sizes of cup, ice dispensers a small child could shower in, and an industrial strength 64-ounce soda pop that sells for less than a buck.

In 1975, Kansas City offered two kinds of coffee: regular and instant. There were no cafes, indoor or out. And if you wanted a decaf, you whispered your request lest some bully challenge your manliness. Today, even Wyandotte County convenience stores offer a dozen kinds of coffee, foreign and domestic, and nearly as many strains of cappuccino, frozen cappuccino to boot.

Their names seem always to be changing, but the cheery, new drug establishments in the urban core radiate civilization amidst a clientele of hookers, hobos and sleepy cops. Some even offer emergency care with nurse practitioners. If they expand their service to include gunshot wounds, I’m buying stock.

Although you may have to keep reminding yourself of this, the private sector revolution in service technology has kind of, sort of rubbed off on the public sector, especially in those area communities that don’t end in the word “City.”

Add to this the transformative power of the personal computer, the cell phone, the Blackberry, and, especially, the cardoor clicker, and you wonder why people even got out of bed in the morning in1975. Vive la revolution!


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