Jim Karger’s Golden Handcuffs

Jim Karger was a big-time gonzo labor lawyer in Dallas. Since 2001, he’s lived in San Miguelde Allende, going from doing nothing to tackling the big-picture issues of transforming workplaces and lives.

In his spare time, he writes a column from time to time for Atencion San Miguel, the English-language weekly that tells people living in San Miguel what to do with their lives.

His May 2, 2008 column in Atencion explains what keeps him rooted in this central Mexican town when other expatriates toss in the towel. We’ve reprinted it in its entirety here, because it’s too damned hard to find among Atencion’s archives later.

Business, Real Estate and Investing
By Jim Karger May 2, 2008 San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel: The Golden Handcuffs

Why do I stay in San Miguel? Why do you stay? Have you ever asked yourself that question?
In the six and a half years I’ve been here I’ve thought of leaving at least once a day, sometimes more often, depending on how many times I have to find a parking place in Centro.

After all, all signs point to the US. Our six children live there. My work is often there. It is far easier to travel to Singapore and London from LA and New York than from León.
Of course, the weather is nice in San Miguel most of the time, but the weather is nice most of the time in San Diego, too.
The traffic can be rough in Los Angeles to be sure, but have you spent any time in a car on Ancha de San Antonio at 8am on a weekday? If you live and work in Redondo Beach you’re never really in the traffic except for the 15-minute drive to LAX. That’s different from the 4:30am run to Silao to catch the 6:55am Continental flight to Houston.
There is the art community here. A good point but I’m not a part of it. Indeed, I may be the only non-artist in San Miguel, or better said, the only person who openly admits to not to being an artist.
There is also the vaunted culture—you know this place where everyone says, “Buenos días!” That wears off after a while and would be easily traded by most for simple competence which is harder to find than a hearty “good morning!”
There are good restaurants in San Miguel, no doubt, but nothing of the caliber one can find in New York, Chicago, Paris, or any significant city in the US or Europe.
Entertainment here is a nonstarter. Indeed, there’s never been an act that has come to San Miguel I’ve ever heard of before I read about them in this newspaper. For sure, the Eagles aren’t coming anytime soon.
What about the cool people who migrate to San Miguel? There are some, to be sure, but I have found some flakes, too (or better said they found me)—people who didn’t come here, but rather, fled here, reinvented their pasts and now are on to promoting new scams that won’t work any better than they did from wherever they originated. In short, I don’t find more or less cool, good, or compelling people in San Miguel than I do in any other part of the world.
The whole inquiry led me to introspection (which led me nowhere). It was in extrospection (if that is a word) where I found the answer—out there.
For me the answer was “bang for the buck.”
Those who have been here long enough (or read the five-part series in Atención comparing the cost of living in San Miguel with various cities in the US) know the truth in spades: it is much less expensive to live in San Miguel, even though it is reputedly one of the most expensive cities in Mexico in which to live.
As I review my current lifestyle, I live in a home that is worth about US$1 million based on current San Miguel prices. The same house would cost about US$5 million on the Strand in Hermosa Beach. I have a full-time maid who charges US$125 a week but would set me back US$100 a day in any US city, a full-time gardener who I pay US$150 a week but would be US$400 a week in the US. I can go out to a nice dinner with wine and pay US$50 for two and walk to the restaurant. I pay US$4,400 a year for 90/10 cross-border health insurance for the two of us, which has doubled in the last six years but lets us make the decision where and from whom to get medical care worldwide. That kind of point-of-service policy is nearly impossible to find today in the US and would set us back at least US$24,000 a year if we lived in St. Louis. The US$20,000 savings on health insurance alone more than covers maid, gardener, taxes and utilities. And I as thought through it, the lifestyle list got longer and I quickly realized that I woul
d take a major step down in standard of living if I returned to the First World.
The cost to me is a few airline tickets to see the kids, or even better, I fly them here. While I can’t find a Zen Palate in San Miguel like I can in New York City, a Sushi Club as I can in southern California, or score James Blunt tickets like I can in Denver, I travel enough on business to enjoy these things and I judge any sacrifices I make to live here a small price to pay in order to live a life where administrative and household details are taken care of by others.
To some this will echo elitism, and they have a point, but I know no one who lives here full-time who could say honestly that “bang for the buck” didn’t have something to do with their being here, too.
I often wonder why more gringos don’t move to Mexico and why those who do come don’t stay. My anecdotal perspective after years of watching the revolving door is this: the average gringo who shows up in San Miguel “to live the rest of my life” lasts about two years, or until they discover the hard way why they should lock their doors, have a guard (or a very aggressive German Shepherd) on their property at night, take their blood pressure medication before connecting to the internet, learn the way to Laredo because that is where they will find the closest Best Buy, and watch carefully when the guy at PEMEX pumps their gas. In short, the learning curve is steep in this culture. One has to either sport a spirit of adventure or have an iron will that he or she will make it work come hell or high water. Most people have neither.
When I arrived in San Miguel, soon to be seven years ago, I was burned out and ready to live the rest of my life doing nothing. I had the money to do nothing and everything looked simple. Then, it dawned on me one day when I was doing nothing that doing nothing was boring and I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. Rather, I was ready to take on new challenges and I have done so without regret even though it has required a great deal of travel.
So, what keeps me here now since the original goal of doing nothing didn’t work out? What keeps me running the early morning road to the airport dodging 18-wheelers looking to make me more red jelly on bad plaid seat covers? Why do I put up with the hassles endemic to living here when San Francisco beckons?

Lifestyle.

San Miguel and all that it offers are my golden handcuffs, no different from execs with big companies who might leave for other opportunities but for the fact no one will pay them more money to do so and they have developed a lifestyle they are not willing to sacrifice.
Bottom line: In San Miguel you can live the life of the rich by simply being well to do. The question that resonates for many (even those too politically correct to utter it out loud): “Is it worth it?”
For me, the answer is “so far, so good.”

Thanks go out to Robin Page West of San Miguel for alerting Staring at Strangers to Karger’s column.

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