Thursday, January 31, 2019

Boxed

Last night I came home from a gig in the freezing tailwind of a tempered arctic weather-pocket-- three subways and a couple of cold stretches on foot with my gear.  Shivery, I turned on late-night television, along with a brief blast of warmth courtesy of my otherwise underused hairdryer.  Not much to watch, except My Lottery Dream House-- where this utterly charming host shows recent ticket-winners three alternate choices of new digs, with new money, and they choose.   The host/agent is someone you want to hang with at a bar-- this helps.  He is kind and warm and the scenario is one which keeps many poor Americans hopelessly addicted to leaking major portions of their hard-earned salary to Lotto dreams.  It's a lot more democratic than those Bravo shows--- Million Dollar Listing, etc... where we watch toxic real estate agents and their more toxic clients greedily wheeling and dealing and spending more than ten times my average annual income on open house entertainment.

Two weeks ago, the day that the $238,000,000 Manhattan apartment closed, I began this blog.  Thinking about that apartment, to be delivered as a 'White Box', according to press, makes the Lottery Dream House shoppers look provincial and homey.  In fact, I cannot imagine any Lottery Dream House contestants taking on the Manhattan real estate market where their average windfall winnings would dwarf into maybe a one-bedroom uptown.  Income requirements in most buildings in New York are far beyond those of even the luckier Lotto millionaires.

I am currently reading a book called Dark Money (also a film,  2018) which I highly recommend.  The manipulation of not just our economy but public opinion and political systems by these cloaked communities of highly moneyed individuals and self-interested foundations is not just nauseating and evil, but revelatory and jarring.  It explains and accounts for the disturbing misuse of ethics and religion to solicit unwitting American dream-buyers onto these horrific bandwagons which are puppeted by money machinists.  I have also been reading a brilliant investigative journalist named Lucy Komisar who has been following the Dark Money for many years; her exposés of offshore bank accounts and trillions of non-taxed unreported dollars are riveting.  I am not the writer she is and sadly unequipped to explicate the shameful state of our oligarchic economy. But Lucy reveals the facts behind the horrifying polarization of extreme wealth and the epidemic of poverty and inequality that co-metastasizes while we look at our phones and share our tiny narcissisms on Instagram.

For years I worked in a gallery which was a living 'White Box'.  It was a backdrop for paintings and objects which showed without prejudice or context as pure living art.  The space was easily transformed with lighting, with people-- without.  Empty, at night, I could play my guitar and experience the chill of real acoustic reverberation.  One large room, and the sense of space most of poor New Yorkers are denied both on the streets and in our tiny barely-affordable apartments.

But for these hedge-fund owners-- the ones who pay no taxes and set up fake philanthropic foundations which garner goodness points but are really just tax shelters and loopholes which leapfrog to the next level of ownership-- a White Box is a kind of diploma.  I mean-- who needs 16 bathrooms?  I can barely clean one.  Having grown up in a family of mostly women with only one-- well, we survived, didn't we?  There is actually a funny episode on Lottery Dream House where the big winner wanted a home in the Hamptons.  When asked what his priorities were, he answered--  "We're in the Hamptons, so we want lots of bathrooms!"  I visited my rich friend once in one of her luxury Manhattan renovations which she regularly flipped; when I remarked on the fragile tilework, she replied-- you don't think we're going to USE that bath, do you?

For the rest of us, I recommend the series of photographs Gordon Parks took of a Harlem family in the 1950's, where their one bathtub served overtime as both washing machine and storage.  In my first apartment, the living-room bathtub often served as an extra sleeper.  But these were the days of old New York-- when millionaires lived on Park Avenue and were relatively quiet and even a little sheepish about their spending and collecting.  Those innocent days when journalism served to inform the public and people listened or did not and usually had a conscience and were appalled at what they saw and some of us tried to change things.

In my closet I have several white boxes.  One holds cotton spools and threads of all colors.  One is filled with tiny patchwork samples of printed cottons I have collected over the years.  One holds colored papers--- origami, wrapping tissues and samples of things.  I open any one of these and a night is passed-- of memories, color, visual collages... and then back in the treasure box, back in the closet.  I feel rich-- me in my bed, dreaming in technicolor of my old mother with her knitting-- the two of us, in the yarn store, holding naturally-dyed skeins next to one another, imagining our blankets and sweaters and scarves.

A White Box, as opposed to a Black Box, implies some kind of architecture or system which is visible although not available for tampering.  The Black Box is utterly invisible, except for input and output response.  It begins to occur that this $238,000,000 White Box would not be affordable without the Black Box mentality behind it.

Ken Griffin, the hedge fund manager and White Box buyer,  has spent about 700 Million dollars recently snatching up real estate and breaking records.  He makes poor Michael Dell's $100,000,000 apartment look positively paltry.  Ken has recently gone through a hostile divorce and obviously has money to pare and shed.  Or to park in an apartment as opposed to the shaky banks.  He surely has a box in that building on the Cayman Islands where trillions of dollars sit, although there are only 45,000 official residents.  Or in Basel, where 1/3 of the world assets sit-- safely protected by the Swiss government or by shell companies and corporate 'layering'.  Also, we learn, he had an 'agreement' with the builders.  This means the same money that purchased also helped fund the building in the first place... my brain box hurts-- it's all a big 'shell' game.. and as my son tells me, at this level, the cash doesn't exactly change hands.  I mean, billions of dollars takes up space.  White Box Space.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

What a Wonderful World This Would Be

Tuesdays are trash nights in my neighborhood.  This week the Christmas trees are stacked high for mulch trucks; recyclables are bagged up, and discarded household items-- furniture, bathroom fixtures, books, framed posters and old appliances-- are piled up like flea market dumpsters.  On one corner, an almost-new baby walker sticks up-- clean and unmarked, with its Elmos and Cookie Monsters, rattles and spinners... I couldn't help patting the muppets on their little plastic heads, and wondered how these young parents could have left them cruelly on a garbage-pile.

Okay, maybe it was never a preferred beloved plaything but a space-hogging despised gift from someone the family disliked.  Maybe it caused a household accident and left a scar on their perfect son or daughter.  It tugged painfully at my worn heartstrings, and reminded me that parenting, one of the commonalities in all our lives, comes in all varieties.

I just finished reading Savage Beauty, the biography of world-renowned poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.  Few women writers of her era reached the kind of star-status she held for some time, entwined as it was with her femme-fatale/girlish image.  One of three intelligent and complex sisters, she was raised by a mother who was multi-talented and a little narcissistic, and who will be remembered mostly for her illustrious offspring.  She is a photograph-- a letter writer-- in the Edna St. Vincent Millay archive.

Recently I've read several statements by 20th-century women of achievement in the arts.  Most all of them contend that motherhood holds little place in the trajectory of a serious and committed artist.  Not one of the Millay sisters reproduced.  Single parenthood is near-impossible.  I suppose I am forced to concede that my career was pre-empted by parenthood... not that I have regrets or bitterness or even second thoughts.  What I do know, most of all, was this 'skin' of sentimentality that descended on the day my son was born.

Pregnancy was fine-- I was tough, a veritable icon of feminism with my bass onstage and my leather boots and rock and roll attitude and huge stomach.  I ignored audience comments and journalist's criticisms about exposing my unborn child to not just excessive noise and jumping around onstage, but the thick cigarette smoke that filled clubs and venues in the unhealthy 1980's.  Then came birth... and somehow all those inborn natural hormonal instincts came in like high tide.  All bets were off-- not only was I protective and 'attached' to the baby, but every single television ad, sappy movie, crying child in a supermarket aisle brought me to tears-- like some latent Pavlovian response.

The biological co-dependence of mothering is a function of nature.  Animals require no instruction in caring for their young, but some of us humans seem to have lost our instincts.  Child abuse, family dysfunction and issues are common; while marriage requires a license, childbearing does not.  As I weathered the various storms of parenthood, I became more aware of the emotional challenges and less quick to criticize others.  I have also realized that everyone has their own parenting 'style'.  For some, it is compatible and peaceable; for others, the needs of children and parents are at odds.  We the parents, one would think, have the burden of adapting or handling the dynamic... but in many families there are immaturities and resentments that disrupt the hierarchy.

While I took responsibility for many of my son's objections, I also know I empathized-- agonized, at times-- disciplined not quite enough, but tried.  My heart was smitten.  It was difficult at times to focus on my own life's work, so entwined I was with the equilibrium of this growing person.  But most of all, I am accountable.

Every year I interview prospective freshman for my alma mater at this time.  It fascinates me to see these kids becoming adults-- their dreams, their local accomplishments about to become maybe global.  Maybe not.  Many of them have parents who were role-models; many do not.  I can remember myself on the brink of college-- my parents seemed to have little to do with my academic soul, although they claimed bragging rights when I achieved something that was traditionally impressive.  Most of what was valuable to me was not so to them.  Music? Poetry?  Not a viable tradable commodity in their world.  Were they responsible for my life?  Not really.  I have friends who were accountable-- who raised amazing humans.  Some take credit for their child's achievement; they brag, boast.  A few of them, tragically and irrationally lost children-- to complex emotional and mental labyrinths, addictions and fragile compositions that lured them to the darkest destination of all.  I don't know how these people recover; they don't.  But life goes on.

While I could never blame my child for anything-- excluding premature grey hairs and umpteen sleepless nights-- I find it most absurd that my adult friends have persisted, through middle and now older age, to hold their parents accountable for their own failures-- even when those failures manifest as a kind of success or creative output.  I used to have a cartoon on my refrigerator of a girl at her desk, penning a letter home--'Dear Mom and Dad... thanks for the happy childhood; you have destroyed any possibility of my becoming a successful author.'  Irony?  Still,  two or three friends of mine go on and on about their issues, despite the fact that fathers have been long defused by age, and narcissistic mothers have been reduced to nursing-home patients.  Ironically, they have usually not become parents themselves; or they have become fallible parents--either overdoing what they lacked, or failing in some other way-- expecting....

There is always someone to blame; ask Donald Trump.  But the most effective problem solvers are ourselves.  We must let go-- on both ends.  Isn't that what love is?  We must do our best, and then withdraw, let things happen.  Accept responsibility but also foster independence-- let the apples fall as they may, we of this culture that values 'eye-candy'... who watch the Kardashian babies becoming style icons before they can walk, who see our friends buying their children guitars, coaching games-- wanting so much for their kids to succeed maybe where they did not.

I have two friends with trans-gender kids.  The bravery of these families is inspiring.  I'm not sure how I would have managed this, being alone.  But there are no guarantees in life.  Despite our illusions, there is an awful lot of improv-- of unknown passages and discovery, accidents and wrong turns; there is no real GPS for the 'lost in the woods' thing.  Parenting is a vague map... some walk, some ride, some fly and some crawl.  Some spend most of their life retracing steps, regretting, analyzing... wasting energy.  We are biological entities... but we have heart and soul.  Lost dogs find their way home, despite odds.  If only we loved one another the way we love our dogs....


Friday, December 28, 2018

Dollars and Scents

One of the oddest Christmas gifts 'Santa' brought me as a girl was this 'Make Your Own Perfume' kit. Inside the box were small corked tubes and vials of various scented liquids; you'd mix them like a chemist into little colored bottles and personalize your concoction with a little included sticker-label which you could 'sign' and color in as you chose.  It had a short shelf-life, this 'toy'... within a few days all of the liquids had been poured so many times through the little funnel apparatus, back and forth, that every formula smelled pretty much the same-- like when you stuck your nose in your Aunt Mary's parlor potpourri bowl.

Besides, none of the little containers and vials had a milliliter of the appeal of those exotic and glamorous perfumes on your mother's vanity.  Forbidden to your little hands since you poured a few of them out one rainy afternoon, they lounged on the mirrored tabletop like glass-clad sex kittens.  Some had their own little velvet coats and stoles.  One I remember was shaped like a spiral shell and didn't even stand on its own.  My mother dressed-up for an evening out was something else-- elegant and sparkling... but most of all the smell of her, when she kissed us goodnight-- was elevating and always faintly Arpège.  In her long black gown with the rhinestone straps, it was distinctly Chanel No. 5.  Days later I could bury my nose in her dress-coat and there it would be... the vision of jewelry and coiffed hair-- limousines and corsages under glass...

The rest of the time, her hands smelled vaguely of onions and cigarettes.  But her kitchen-- despite the morning coffee and her re-heated doughnuts--- always hid the sweet ghost of cookies-- banana bread, cream icings and cheesecakes-- apple pies and brownies.  She was an intuitive and serious baker.  With her ancient kitchen-aid mixer and her pre-war oven, she understood the seductive language of butter and fresh vanilla, baker's chocolate and meringues.  As she fades into my past, her complex scent remains.

She took motherhood seriously and while I was something of a tomboy, she began to train us; my sister had lessons in Shalimar... sweet and spicy and in-your-face but it worked for her cheerleadery image.  For me it was after-bath Jean-Naté--  lotion and powder, both of which mostly evaporated by morning...  but they are part of my teenage identity.

In my 20's in the city, I hung out with one of the Halston models who doused me with their perfume and kept me well-stocked.  It was perfect--  like a signature.  Into middle age, when I gave up perfumes and make-up... I kept a supply of the bath powder which lasted for years.   And as for men, I hated the 60's Canoe and Old Spice... but all my best memories of uncompromised sex are tinted with Patchouli.  A few years ago I tried to buy a box of Halston talc (discontinued)...  so the same apparent box arrived-- wrapped.. but inside, was a strange clone of the original.  Like digital music--- it just lacked something.

On the streets of the city-- in restaurants, dressing rooms, churches, museums-- everyone seems to have a scent now.  Every pop-star and reality housewife has their own concoction, and the counters of department stores are cluttered with brands and logos that suggest exotic places and situations-- but so few of them live up to the legend.  A few decades ago there was briefly this 'Opium' that seemed intriguing-- but now--- everyone smells fruity and glazed--- like they are covering something worse.

I bought a bottle of Tide the other day-- 'original scent' it is labeled; it is anything but.   I have tried 'unscented', bleach alternative-- spring fresh... clothes-fresh... they are all synthetic and hideous.  Ditto dishwashing liquids and even cosmetics.  The advanced laboratory possibilities of smell-chemistry make anything possible.  There are thousands of flavors of lipstick, toothpaste, seltzer, beer, gatorade... but they all seem to tumble precipitously further and further from the real thing.  Like the olfactory version of elevator music, it feels manipulative-- more artifice than authentic.

The number of people who have fake trees at Christmas astounds me.  The smell of Christmas is so uber-important in my home.  No matter how poor we have been, the tree is mandatory.  A friend was teasing me last week and asked-- is that the kind that smells like grapefruit?  Grapefruit?  So have trees been bred to conform to cultural expectations and the kind of distorted norm that now dominates perfume recipes? Or had he lost the ability to distinguish?  It's no wonder, in this city of exhaust and fumes, traffic congestion, competitive street vendors, incense burners and essential oil-salesmen... a thousand varieties of air-fresheners and atmospheric 'masks'-- the  domestic epidemic of scented candles... that people have lost the 'scent'.  We hire dogs to sniff out bomb and bedbugs... and we who think we are such sophisticated wine and food connoisseurs-- many of us are clueless and nose-scammed.

I read this week that Woolrich is going out of business.  How I remember the wooly smell of those double-knit sweaters we wore like loggers beneath our jackets on the ski-slopes... where the snow smelled more arctic-- and the vague smoke of burning logs welcomed us back home to a real fire and cocoa made from baker's chocolate and bottled milk I can no longer reproduce.  Even the smell of money has changed.... clean sheets, natural hair, car interiors, books, corn flakes--- everything seems altered.  My mother's drawer of old cashmere-- even the labels looked handmade.  She kept them in tissue paper... the vague, soft scent of wool and Lanvin when you opened that drawer.... my children do not have these memories; nor will their children.

In Williams-Sonoma they were selling a candle called 'Winter Forest'... it simulates the piney smell of a fir... for people with fake trees and electric fireplaces.  But I still remember the vintage city smell of winter--- it was clean and bluish and starry.  I pass certain bakeries and think of my Mom--- the butter and fresh vanilla-- the rich traditional ingredients you can't really alter... but her perfume--- none of today's fragrances have the magic of the ones in her little collection.  I am well aware the memory of her scent and the scent of these memories will evaporate with me... The world moves on, new sweaters are produced by machines with yarns made of many kinds of materials.   My mother used to sit by the real fire and knit, with dyslexic left-handed mastery... things I would give a hundred Christmas trees now to find in an old box and bury my nose in the scent of what has been lost.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

What U Need

What u need Mama, a homeless man asked me this morning, effectively reversing roles? Very little, I didn't reply, thinking of the holidays and the 'neediest cases' the newspapers used to publish daily in the weeks before Christmas... the downhill, the slippery cold slope that ends with a wall-slam on January 1.

I've recently been working a temporary job-- just to bridge the financial gap in my life... it's limited and will end with the year, but it's given me a dose of  the 9-5 commuting 'cram', the stress of train-delays and overcrowding passenger nastiness, and a sense of my own reality-- people occasionally offer me their seat, because I am often the oldest occupant of the downtown 6 morning jam.  But it's the Saturday morning trip that brings the entertainment-- like a traveling sideshow.  The cars are just full enough for audience and the tourist density is highest... here come the indie rappers, Mexican huarache bands, crooners and sax players-- break dancers and acrobats... one after another, they enter, announce, perform and pass the hat between stations. They have it down to a 90-second kind of thing... like an on-air radio commercial; timing is everything.

Then there are the underground evangelists-- the spreaders of gospel or frustrated actors who need to soliloquize publicly-- to declaim, orate.  Most of them, sadly, are either mediocre or misled.  The boy who is 23 and giving us his urban poetry-slam-- well, he is neither edgy nor clever nor really angry but a clichéd living instagram-meme.  I don't want his little scraps for $1.  I want him to stop.

Mostly there are the beggars-- the city untouchables-- the homeless shelter-evaders, the un-censused, non-counted, failed hustlers and drug casualties.  Last Saturday we had 'Phil'.  He was young-- not as young as he claimed-- the first scam-- he worked the 'just trying to get my knapsack and schoolbooks' angle... and he was dirty.  Caked with old black soilage everywhere-- as though he'd been sleeping on the tracks for weeks.  Acne-scarred and needle-pocked... greasy haired and clothed in soot-dyed jeans and a coat of filth.  And he was thin-- his clothes hung... his knuckles stood out when he offered his hand, because he didn't even have a cup for coins.  When I was small my Mom used to sing us this little limerick about 'Garbage Phil'... it was funny and she would hold her nose and squinch her face up.  But here he was-- an Irish boy from Staten Island... me, with my sad, uber-empathetic, old-mothery eyes looking... knowing I walk the streets without even a coin some days... just my SNAP card... telling us we were good fuckin people-- not like the ones from his borough who were a bunch of scumbags... but no one stuck their hand in a pocket except to extract a phone... me-- I had 7 cents from money I pick up on the street-- and I shamefaced put this into Phil's blackened hand on my way onto the Union Square platform, and Phil forgave me... you're a decent fuckin woman, he said... and I prayed for his angel... for the one that put a wad of $550 in a money clip on the street beneath my feet as I crossed with my baby boy one hungry winter night, years back.

The Saturday before, we had Kyle.  Kyle got on and began his bitter speech... he had a dog... a wife... no dogs in shelters...  and then we were at his stop... his timing was definitely amateur and he had no minute to make the rounds so he cursed us all, through his prematurely toothless mouth, from his face caked in the same soot as Phil's... in those extra seconds it always takes as they maneuver the moveable platform into place... interminable, punishing seconds of Kyle's acid wrath, the simmering malice of untended need like an emotional ulcer... and there is no hand into which to place any pathetic offering... there is only the flush of shame, standing there beside him, inhaling his untended canine scent.

This is his 'stop'... what is the meaning of that, for the homeless-- that this is where HRA has its linoleum-floored headquarters, yes... where you sit in the stale air-blown on plastic seats in a room facing forward with no music or reading material besides barking signs-- where uniformed guards stand by and ignore... where women in cubicles take their time pushing papers around, sharing holiday candy, giggling, talking on phones... while Kyle sits and waits...?

I have never seen so many homeless as around Union Square-- like a cult, like a community-- they sprout everywhere with their signs and blankets.  On the corner of 4th Ave... underneath the Food Emporium there is a cluster-- wrapped in layers like Arctic explorers, with their sleeping-cardboard and tents of old coats.... a young man from my train, I have noticed... daily... puts a bill into the pouch of a woman there... as though he knows her, as though there is some relationship.  I love this man--- he does it so nonchalantly... I wait for him, mornings--- because it gives me some joy.  Thank you, I want to say to him-- not to the Salvation Army saints ringing bells, but to him-- I imagine his arm like a chimney and then there is coffee and doughnuts inside the supermarket cafe for these people who are more or less as welcome there as in the HRA lobby.

On the platform heading toward the L train is The Little Drummer boy.  A young man without arms... with small hands attached to his shoulders who sits and plays-- shirtless, with a strange plump egg-body and tiny legs.  He keeps time... not too loud... and you want to cover him-- it is not pretty, his torso from the back as you come upstairs.  It is freezing even in the station... but there is no sweater that would let his little hands do their acrobatic flipping with the sticks... he plays on like a wind-up toy, with about the same lack of grace.  No crowd gathers... it is difficult to watch, this side-show... I want to ask the sidewalk saints to be sure and share their bucket with him... I want to cover him with a blanket... a vest, I am thinking... a down vest... for Christmas.. but I can't figure out how not to insult him.  And so, I add him to my list of the Neediest.

At my job there is a circulating memo for supplies: Things We Need, it is called. On the list is an order for hand soap which they use here; ordering, I have learned that one small pump-outfitted bottle costs $78.  That is maybe my food budget for the month.  The new hedge-fund family below me who combined and renovated 4 apartments needs many, many deliveries of new furnishings.  The daily pile of boxes would make several tent-homes for the homeless of Union Square...

As for me, I need nothing.  Not even lunch today... a tin of cookies arrived here, a gift of some bank or supplier for this place-- and they are not quite up to the gourmet taste of people who use $78 hand soap.  So I will eat them... and leave some for the drummer boy who might be insulted by my coin contributions but maybe will condescend to take a holiday food-break.  The timekeeper-- he of all people is aware that the year is running down, like an old battery... and what we need, all of us, is that which evades us all equally.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Being Poor (part 2: Mr. Darkside)

So besides the hippie-romantic/back-to-the-earth/recycle-everything/spartan-asceticism-contrarian/anti-bling version of poverty, there is the sticking, handicapping, cracked-heart variety where you must say no to your children, where you glance in posh bakery windows which might as well be Tiffany's, where you pass fast-food fried chicken outlets and the scent of cheap oil and breading intoxicates and you cannot participate in even a wing, because it will break the daily bank of your pocket.  Where you plot and plan and divide your dollars with economic razor-blades because you are smart and determined and physically capable, thank goodness, of fighting the good fight to survive in this city.  Where on your heart the word 'No' seems permanently incised because you cannot have anything you formerly craved or desired or even simply wanted, in a former life.

But I have been to countries where poverty is of another variety altogether-- where the unrelieved sting of need and want is like the constant corrosive pain of chronic hunger and mothers watch helplessly while their children suffer to death.  It has warped me, in a way, so that I can never quite indulge in the relative luxury of normal life without an underlying sense of guilt.   I never fail to appreciate simple comfort, and process Manhattan daily spending habits, for the most part, as excessive.   While it's true I can no longer sit in a cafe with a sandwich, I don't miss it often.  If someone else is buying I will generally decline the favor unless I have done something valuable in exchange.   If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would undoubtedly observe the same habitual economies that became a part of my survival as a single mother.

My son, on the other hand-- like a rapper or athlete who steps from low-income into a reality of wealth-- is indulgent.  I admire it, in a way... new-found money often brings with it a kind of entitlement or revenge-spending which is part of the process of becoming 'comfortable'.  For me, I cannot imagine how I managed to buy us a home, and maintain the basics in this culture where the golden ring is heavy and placed beyond arm's length for basic people.  It also seems absurd that the 'haves' these days-- the extreme 'haves'-- are receiving more than they will ever need, and have often done far less than in former times where hard work and invention was a slow and cumulative phenomenon.  And it doesn't seem all that difficult, as it was in my father's day, to become a self-made millionaire.  Athletes are paid massively; entrepreneurs can sell an idea overnight and buy themselves a small island.

I shop carefully, as I have said before, in the poorer markets of Harlem.  I consider myself relatively fortunate, having had the foresight to become a home-owner rather than a renter and like the ant and grasshopper story, this has paid off for us.  My life is simple and apparently spartan enough so that the city insists I receive foodstamps.  While I can't eat in restaurants, this allows a pretty generous monthly amount to stock the pantry.  My fellow shoppers do not watch the sales the way I do; they make unhealthy food choices and don't seem to worry.  Many of them are on welfare-- get cash for things,  live rent-free in city housing which is not luxurious but adequate.  Some of them have river views which would cost the rest of us at least $3000 on top of the monthly rent.  But what I have also observed,  from my tiny circumscribed life of personal urban stoicism, is the way that being poor leaves a lasting mark.

On street corners in Harlem there are habitual loiterers who panhandle and hustle year in and year out.  There is no future in this... but there is a present.  Being poor keeps people in the present.  They can't worry about what will happen, or their retirement or funeral expenses because they are dealing with NOW.  Maybe that's not such a bad thing.  You only need to visit  upper Central Park on the 4th of July and smell the barbecue and listen to the ringing laughter of Hispanic children enjoying the holiday while their wealthy counterparts in the Hamptons are often smug and cranky and disappointed or drunk and miserable.  The competition of rich people-- with themselves, with their colleagues, their neighbors, their own family-- is relentless; even leisure is a call-to-arms.

My beloved friend took me out to a 4-star restaurant... maybe THE 4-star restaurant.  The breadth of menu was not just daunting but dazzling.  Course after course was served-- with such artistry and exquisite execution I felt like crying.  Beyond awe-- I was enchanted-- touched by the wand of dream-royalty, fairy-tale dining.  I looked around... people were laughing, eating, talking-- just like this was a daily meal.  Personally, it was like a sacred experience... I could not even recall the sequence of edible treats like tiny artistic tableaus which blew out my visual expectation and challenged my palette.  I wanted to stop it all-- to say--- just this, or this... I'll have this next week--- to go-- a postponement.  I felt overwhelmed-- overindulged-- like having a bath in liquid gold when all you needed was to wash off.  It was more than I could process.  The check-- I could not process that either-- enough to feed a family of 4 for a year, in many countries.

Last night I came home after a rough day-- cold and tired and tried-- and I made myself a pot of cheap potatoes and chicken.  Total cost: maybe $1... and it was warm and comforting and I felt grateful and happy.  I remembered working in a homeless shelter on the Bowery-- was it guilt which compelled me to do these things?  Because I am in a sense among the voluntary poor.  I look ahead, worry about some future- cannot spend more than I actually require, and if I had some opportunity, I would undoubtedly give it away.  After all, isn't that what rich people do, theoretically-- give things away?  And poor people... the kind I shop among in Harlem-- they do not generally want what I have to offer; they want something else-- an expensive watch, a vacation-- fashion... things that will do them no good... but still they want them; they will buy them on credit if they must.

According to national income statistics, I am at base-poverty level... but I feel pretty 'sated'... so how can I be poor?  There's no magic formula between need and want; it is warped by experience, expectation, poor values, materialism, distorted economics... I pity my downstairs neighbors who have just renovated their bloated apartment and continue to receive masses of boxes from Restoration Hardware.  It's so meaningless and pathetic... being at the bottom of the 1 percent: the poor rich, while I am among the rich poor.  

The man who won the $300,000,000 in Harlem-- I wonder what he needs now.  Something money can't buy?  Less? I would not want to walk in his shoes,  nor trade tickets.  I wonder what the moment felt like-- when he went from poor to rich.  Whether that happened.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Being Poor (part 1: Mr. Brightside)

My alma mater is a highly endowed institution; the weekly alumni publication manages to find us no matter where we go, whether we subscribe or not.  We are all potential endowment contributors.  I personally gave as I could.  These days my level of contribution  is $10-20 at best, and even that is a stretch... I have several times joked with classmates, many of whom have illustrious careers and paths of success, that I single-handedly lower their average income by double-percentage points... so I was a little taken aback when my alumni magazine cover article was titled 'Being Poor'.  Of course they were not referring to 'us', but to 'them'.

I am considered by many of my friends to be eccentric; my life choices are difficult and not conventional.  I live by my art.  I am somewhat proud of this, and fierce about my refusal to give in.  I am a hold-out-- a relic of the old New York bohemian cliché.  I do not live in subsidized housing-- have managed to make my own way, somehow.  The frequent 'number-crunching' sessions which challenge me at 3 AM are not about growth and retirement issues, profit and loss, value and cost... but basic bottom-line life issues.  How to eat, maintain my 'roof' (i.e. apartment), and manage to pay basic telephone/internet/Con Ed.  Beyond this, I buy virtually nothing--- a few subway rides to gigs... taxis are not on my expense sheets-- nor are clothes or movies, cellphones, take-out, a slice of pizza.  Over the past years I learned to forego my old craving for New York City street pretzels.  They do not accept foodstamps which, now that I have stopped resisting this benefit, provide a much more generous nutritional budget than I ever allowed myself.

Certainly I am not complaining.  I used to remind my son, growing up, when he whined about being the only player on his team without Jordans...  we are RICH-- we just do not have money.   I believe this, somehow.  I also distinctly remember the irony of what I would tell my mother, when she asked what I would become when I grew up-- that I want to be POOR-- a slap in the face to her fierce bourgeois values and the covert shadow of bitterness she hid so well when my Dad's personal psychology warranted an economic downturn in our household.

Unlike my mother, I have pretty much always had control of my life.  I had the best education money can (cannot?) buy without spending much... all the opportunities anyone can want-- a chance at the Golden Ring, a taste of self-made wealth... and then the haunting ironies of the dream of music and art.  As  a single Mom who traded everything for sole custody, I found myself back in the city with nothing-- my hands, my brain, a newborn who needed little I could not biologically provide-- a 'roof'... and a daily challenge to somehow manage foraging enough to keep us going.  There were days I played in the subway, did bars for the bucket-- got just enough gigs to get by, many days, on a bag of yesterday's donuts.  I learned the meaning of 'no':  no luxuries, no restaurants, no non-essentials, etc.  I had feet... my main means of transport... I was young enough that people wanted to give us things.  There is a sort of barter system here-- even in the city.  You discover these things-- free clinics, donated food-- the things people no longer need-- one man's garbage, etc.  You become resourceful and make things out of nothing-- the beauty of music. Yes, I had a guitar... and then you create out of your dreams... you paint with words-- you become, in the motto of my neighbor who chalked this everywhere he could-- on sidewalks and trees and discarded appliances-- your dream.

My friends know my personal economics are beyond any normal concept of thrift. Since I haunt the bargain-corps of Harlem and uptown-- I know the price of everything, to a penny-- I walk among the poor, and I am pretty much accepted into their society.  It is a different kind of culture-- and admittedly there are those who abuse the system, rely on being given what they need, have a certain reverse-entitlement.  But there are also the 'finders', like me, who navigate and calculate.  I will walk a good mile to save cents on potatoes or vegetables.  Occasionally I look into a cafe-- see people enjoying a coffee and a bagel-- anything-- sushi-- and I envy... I mean, I could splurge just once-- but something else must suffer.  And what I do 'score' ... is processed like an unexpected floral delivery.  It's all a gift-- it's the B-side of 'nothing'... which is everything, in a way.

Not that I don't worry obsessively and wake in the middle of the night (or day-- because my nights are when I 'make' them-- when I have finished my poems or my gigs or my puttering around with books) regretting that I didn't marry that nice man with the Hamptons estate and the baseball team... panicking I will lose my head or my mobility and be taken from my home into the worst city-run nursing facility with no reading material and bad TV.

But yesterday I found a quarter on the curb... 11 cents further uptown, shining like a diamond on the sidewalk.  The Turkish man who sells slightly damaged vegetables cheap gifted me a lemon and some ginger.  I will manage my bargain turkey I carried all the way from Target and will eat with a few friends-- my son... all the trimmings, thanks to foodstamps which no longer make me feel guilty but rewarded, in a way... and I can share this bounty.  I find I have everything I have ever wanted-- and a little more-- I am spoiled, and privileged, and I am damned grateful for this life of mine.  My classmates often accuse me of conducting some kind of socio-personal experiment, of feeling morally superior because I don't need money.  Oh but I do get paid for things... and I work hard, I do.  We musicians can make $100 for a night's work and with a little mercy and smart-economics, I can parlay this into a little joy, which is more than I can say for a good sector of this city population who have organic meals and grain-fed turkey, salon-hair, silver service, football tickets, Amazon Prime, Apple stock and i-Phone-Xs, balcony-views of the parade... healthy children... and fail to look out of their own windows as they mouth their grace.

(to be continued)


Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Lady and the Tramp

I maintain my own private version of 'New Yorker of the Week' awards.  The designees get no public accolade or acknowledgment... just a silent heads-up from me...  some spare change occasionally, because most of my heroes are either under- or unpaid for their courage and humanity... but since I am a member of the economic underprivileged, I hesitate to insult them with my pathetic donations and instead offer a kind of prayer on their behalf... or literary-underground immortality in one of the poems I scatter like autumn leaves find their way to obscurity-- or maybe to some school-child's fall art-project where they will be briefly loved.  I can't help myself.

Last week's winner was a homeless man, sleeping temporarily on the steps of a church on Varick Street.  I would not have noticed him; it was late, it was beginning to rain…and the staggering numbers of men spending nights on the streets in the last few years has inured us all to the sidewalk population.  They seem to have food; their daily panhandling income, they tell me, averages somewhere between $50 and $150-- more than most real musicians I know earn for a gig.  They stay out of the shelters where their egos are filed and shaved down to a brand of humility that is more lethal than an overdose.  These places are dirty and dangerous.  Despite the rules and regulations,  possessions are not protected and sleepers are subject to violent attacks from other occupants who refuse to take their meds and experience psychotic and hostile episodes.

My man had risen around midnight-- relative calm on the streets-- to relieve himself… because as we all know, there are no public restrooms in the city after dark.  The homeless visit and even bathe in Grand Central, Port Authority, the various library branches, MacDonald's, those Starbucks stores which are kind enough to share their restroom combinations.  But at night-- well, even the parks are curfewed.  We have well-enforced dog-waste laws, but my son tells me in Soho and Tribeca there is so much human shit on the streets these days that business owners have had community meetings about this.  One store recently built an outdoor boxlike structure for advertisements and artistic displays.  Every day they had to shovel out the excrement and hose the receptacle down with disinfectant until they just gave up on the whole campaign.  Coming home at 2 and 3 AM, I have many times seen men defecating at either end of the subway platforms.

So my man squatted quietly at the edge of the steps,  and with his head bowed, stood carefully to clean himself with the pages of an old paperback novel.  I resisted the urge to see the title… but some passing young couples who witnessed his naked butt in the lamplight shadow-- well, they gasped and sniggered and pointed.  The thing was-- he was tall-- like a basketball player… and his sinewy legs and butt were so perfect and beautiful, and the grace of his rising, and even the way he pulled up his layered pants and fixed his clothing-- well, it took my breath away.  The sheer aesthetic reality of this man, trying to avoid falling into the cracks of the shelter treadmill, the humiliation and the consideration with which he waited until dark, until the traffic was moving, how he tried to avoid spectators… how his little pile of possessions was so neatly wrapped.  He was not that far from being a boy; I could imagine his mother, who loved him, or maybe failed to love him and care for him… the women he could have had, in another version of the story… an athlete-- a star… it broke my heart.

I got on the train, feeling helpless and almost guilty because I have a place to go back to-- a place to sleep and take a hot shower, where my books and my instruments, God-willing, are relatively safe and sheltered enough so I can leave them and go about my work.  Another disgraceful story on the discarded tabloids on the subway floor, with our orange-skinned Lego-President spouting more of his anti-humanitarian rhetoric.  He in his gilded rooms on Fifth Avenue, security alone costing more than the annual food budget of a small country… with his umpteen bathrooms and his tanning beds and hair-magicians… he couldn't survive a week in the wilderness.

Why is it we all pick up after our dogs-- we pamper and love them.. and have little compassion to adopt stray people… are disgusted and uncomfortable about their natural needs? Hunger is a force here… disparity is baffling, and for these fallen souls-- getting back onto the track is near-impossible in a city where so many of us are barely holding onto our homes, finding ourselves with a lower standard of living than we could ever have imagined.  I think of all those legends and fairy tales where the kings traded places with the paupers-- how it changed their worldview… what happened to this?  We are all counting our money here… me, and some of these homeless--- counting the change in our pockets to see if we can buy a slice or a coffee… and the Wall Streeters assessing the daily fluctuations in their portfolios-- pushing a button and making more money in a single trade than most of us will see in a lifetime… and they are happy to lend you credit, your friendly banker who pays you no interest-- for a mere 25-30%.  They bet on your failure to repay and they win big.

It makes no sense.  My version of this week's fairy tale has the winning Mega Millions ticket belonging to my man of Varick Street… although things don't work this way.  I do know the affliction of extreme poverty and homelessness is epidemic and chronic.  It leaves scars and residual symptoms for even those lucky few who manage some kind of recovery.  But most don't.  No sociologist or journalist or researcher into the phenomenon quite understands what it is like to be homeless and needy in a city like this, where you are chased from doorways and sidewalks of buildings filled with tenants paying $10,000  month for a few rooms… Lady, a local man begged me-- Can you let me in the gate?  He wanted to sleep in our trash alley where he will be locked safely against attack and theft.  I was reprimanded by my Coop Board for this nominal act of compassion in a neighborhood where a bakery now charges $10 for a doughnut and coffee.  Personally, I haven't bought myself a cup for years now.  Things are tight.  There but for fortune…. but that's another tale.

Today I remembered how my Mom once dressed me up as a 'tramp' on Halloween… at the time I had no clue what that meant, but I wore an old beat-up suit jacket and a bent hat and she smeared my face with coal like dirt.  I had a scarf-sack on a stick over my shoulder.  Everyone laughed and filled my sack with candy.  A man on the block told me about 'hobo' life; it seemed romantic.  I dreamed of runaway trains, of wandering, of campfires and hitchhiking…

Today I dream of a lottery for the poor-- where the billion dollar ticket gets divided among the homeless deprived angels of the street-- What was that old TV show… the Millionaire? The 21st century New York City update… that would be a reality show worth watching…  (to be continued…)