Photo (cc) by Wesley Fryer
Jim has a 2-month-old baby. He’s working at 10 p.m. when I meet him and the baby — his wife stopped in to say hi. It is unclear when she will go back to work. You’d think Jim is sleep-deprived from working long hours or a second job. But he’s not restless at all, except for the occasional 2 a.m. feeding.
Jim lives in Missoula, Montana. He’s a bartender. He earns enough in the service business to afford rent on a two-bedroom apartment with a garage about a mile from town — $900 a month — and to support his wife and child.
Jim (not his real name) is a realist. He grew up in California, and he knows all about the $5,000-a-month shoebox mortgages people pay there. How folks earning $100,000 or more are living with roommates just to scrape by. How they are perpetually restless, the subject of my Restless Project.
Jim’s happy, and in Missoula, he’s got a future. It’s actually an advantage that he works nights — and regular service hours — because his wife will be able to take a daytime job and they can take child care shifts.
Regular readers of my column know I have a soft spot for Missoula, which is a perfect little mountain city just an easy day’s drive east of Seattle. It’s got a comfortable lifestyle, incredible vistas and a surprisingly thriving music scene. Most of all, it fits the profile of a “sane circle” I wrote about earlier this year. There are places where regular people with regular jobs can afford regular homes in America. But these places aren’t on the coasts, and they aren’t where most regular people live.
In a place like Missoula, anyone who can figure out how to bring home about $500 a week can find a decent living. Take home more than that, and you are working your way toward homeownership. That’s just not the story in New York, or San Francisco, or Seattle — or even Denver, now.
I’m not saying everyone should live in Missoula. In fact, I think the people of Missoula would be quite angry at me if I did say that. And Missoula’s hardly perfect — like most towns out here, there’s a big meth problem.
But I do think it’s incredibly important to travel, because it reminds you that not everyone lives the way you do. There are other ways. And to stay great, America’s greatest cities need to figure out how to be a little more like Missoula.
The next time you are traveling, perhaps stop by one of these “sane circles.” Click for the full interactive map and more details on what makes a “sane circle.”