Banking goodwill

Broke in Berkeley


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“BART’s going on strike.” I got the news first from Twitter.

“Well, we’re screwed,” my roommate said.

His boyfriend piped up reassuringly. “We can make it work. We need to make a plan.”

My tribe of roommates sat down last week to figure out a strategy. Our apartment is in Fremont. Jeff works in Newark only a few miles away, but getting there by bus involves an ill-timed transfer. Devin goes to San Francisco State University in Daly City. John works in Corte Madera, and his normal commute involves three transit agencies, including BART. I have class in Berkeley four days a week, but I can take AC Transit the whole way if I have three hours to spare. Collectively, the household has one car. Solve for X, where X represents everyone getting to work and school on time and before we can’t stand one another anymore.

Solving this dilemma required a complicated system of picking up and dropping off, minimizing tolls and taking advantage of free BART parking during the strike. My roommate selflessly shared his fuel-efficient Honda, and together we put almost 100 miles a day on the odometer. The days began at 4:45 a.m. and ended at 10 p.m., but the job got done. Overall, the measurable cost of commuting this way came to just about the same as our combined cost of commute if BART were running. However, not everything can be measured in dollars and cents.

There are resources available to everyone that are simple to cultivate and can be incredibly valuable. These nonmonetary economic resources are the very thing that saved my friends, my roommates and me during the recent strike. The greatest of these resources is goodwill. My roommate didn’t hesitate to offer us the use of his car. One of my good friends is teaching in the Summer Bridge program and was immediately offered a closer place to stay in Berkeley. Another friend from Cal joined forces with a classmate so that they could carpool from Pleasanton together. The people who extend these offers are kind and generous, but the remainder of these transactions is made up by banked goodwill. The recipients of the kindness and help of friends put in months and sometimes years of the reciprocating behavior of friendship to indicate that we are worthy of this kind of nonmonetary investment.

A person without good friends — without this long term banking of goodwill — might have had to arrange for a rental car or a local hotel room in order to keep a job or make it to class during the last week. Comparing scenarios between people with banked goodwill and people without it doesn’t seem like an argument about economy, but the bottom line can be expressed in debit and credit.

This principle is nearly identical to the idea of networking. Networking is this nebulous idea of making lasting and worthwhile connections, and we’re all supposed to be doing it in college and online and at parties and any time the panic about post-graduation employment sets in. Networking is supposed to bank professional goodwill and remind potential contacts that we are fun at parties and that we know the same people; it’s supposed to keep our names and faces fresh in the minds of those who matter. The ones who matter aren’t always in charge, however. Often, even an entry-level good word is an advantage to an applicant.

Here’s the point: Whether networking for a job or banking goodwill for reciprocity in friendships, your contribution is the same. If you are friendly, if you are kind, if you are forthcoming and generous with your time and your thoughts, the payoff has value, even when forming priceless relationships. Goodwill has a distinct economic worth. It’s an odd way to think of it, but it means having a car to borrow or a couch to crash on in another city during a transit strike. Relationships make up our lives, but they also have measurable utility. The more you put into them, the more you can someday derive from them.

The BART strike lasted less than a week. My friend staying in Berkeley left his borrowed lodging clean and with a vase of flowers on the table in thanks. My friends from Pleasanton worked out the worth of their carpool without gas money, because one is far better off than the other. Instead, the driver asked her passenger to read her the news, tell her jokes and keep the ride interesting. I brought back my roommate’s car with a bunch of new miles on it, but I also ran all his errands for him while I had it and surprised him with takeout.

Being rich or being broke is not merely a condition dictated by the contents of one’s bank account. It is, literally and metaphorically, expressed in the relationships we have with one another and what comes of them. Measure in utils, measure in love.

Meg Elison writes the Monday column on financial issues affecting UC Berkeley students.

Meg Elison writes the Monday column on financial issues affecting UC Berkeley students.Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].