So while the tenuously elected chief executive and his poker-boys persist in racking up anti-American sentiment and we are all sitting ducks here in Manhattan…when, we question, is it really time to leave New York? We are well accustomed to living in the ‘slightly elevated’ fear zone, somewhere between orange and blood-orange. This statistic is not nearly as affective as the daily weather report. So what will prompt a census-worthy exodus at least of the undesirable less-than-rich? When the price of a subway ride reaches $2? When the pleasure of a Haagen Dasz medium cone without sprinkles costs more than I make in an average hour? I think I passed those benchmarks last year. And of course, Cold Stone beat out Haagen Dasz, while the monthly unlimited metrocards give one cause for rationalization. Why, I can go to the Strand and back twice in a day, and average out at seventy cents a ride. Which softens the cold reality that the cost of a proof has risen from 97 cents to $1.49. So the Strand is now air-conditioned, the art section is well-lit and organized—it even has its own floor which was perhaps redone by a Pratt Interior Design Graduate.
For most Manhattanites who simply proffer a plastic card when their turn at the register comes up, it is a small price to pay, to live in what they think is the eye of the universe. Shops and businesses blatantly raise numbers and add zeroes while the overly well-dressed accede as though it is gauche to even look at a receipt. These come in two varieties: the massively wealthy, for whom the ‘out’ column, no matter how quick and steady the flow, cannot offset the ‘in’ column, because as we all know, Wall Street bonuses for last year alone, Manhattan only--- could have filled Bono’s poverty urn several times over; and the massively in-denial debtors, who are stoking profits of the huge banks and credit card companies exponentially, while having a pretty good life, I must add, especially if one is fond of the color red. There is a kind of macho barometer here—some of them daring fate from the driver’s seat of their Hummers, signaling with a rolexed arm—real or fake—after all, it has been centuries since there was a debtor’s prison— these days it is like climbing a kind of Mt. Everest of debt and thumbing their nose at the rest of us.
And for the rest of us-- non-climbers--the badly dressed or even the decently-dressed frugal ones who pick up the cast-offs of the upper class at thrift shops, life’s pleasures have changed. I remember signing my first lease in Manhattan, after a fiscal paternal lecture about the wisdom of keeping one’s monthly rent at the level of one’s weekly salary. That has changed. These days, if one stubbornly insists on pursuing an alternative or self-employed lifestyle which doesn’t involve scamming or skimming off the good fortune or stupidity of our neighbors—well, let’s just say that 9/10 of my income goes just to my apartment. In a good month. Which leaves, after being gouged for the privilege of a television and telephone signal, less than an average panhandler makes in an average day. I have cast an envious eye, many days, at the girl with the dreadlocks outside my Starbucks who has claimed for 19 months that she is pregnant although she has not taken a single day off. Maybe the father is an elephant. Anyway, not only does she sock away a healthy 3-figured non-taxed income, but she gets cup after cup of dark-brewed excellent coffee, not to mention an occasion half-sandwich, while poor slobs like me have to pick up coins dropped alongside parking meters to cover the recent increase.
Oh, yes, there are foodstamps. But there is also that pioneer Manhattan pride. Because the offspring of the former upper-class New York are among the financial untouchables. I know them. They eat Thanksgiving dinner at my place, on the table I inherited, sitting on thrift shop chairs, guitar amplifiers and aborted school carpentry projects.
Do I feel superior because I ride the crosstown bus on my unlimited metro card to the Upper-Upper West side where I am nearly the only customer who pays with actual money? I do not. I do not feel superior ever, not for one second, anywhere, because I am too busy feeling actual hunger—yes, the kind that Knut Hamsen felt in that great novel he won a Nobel Prize for so he never again had to actually write another hungry book nor did he actually, once well-fed, ever write another Nobel-worthy one.
Is that the clue? That talent and the burn of the artistic flame is inversely proportional to bank account, to comfort? The old Bohemian formula? Not quite. Or is it, as some of my old, non-suffering friends pose, that I am morally superior to them because I don’t have money? Not quite. Bob Dylan still writes decent songs, occasionally. Picasso still painted masterpieces. Granted, they are the minority. But could it be that I have grown so intimate with the habits of poverty that we are co-dependent?
Last week I actually bought 2 Megawhatever Lotto tickets. Okay, I know. Whatever. I did it. Even though my son taunted me that Someone was going to win and it certainly would not be me…. but when I looked up the results—oh my God—first 3 numbers—exactly as my ticket.. I began to panic. Jesus—what if,,,, and then every pathetic homeless person who already has my pathetic non-cellular number will be hitting me up, lined outside my door—I’ll have to hide, I’ll have to dress properly, wear makeup, not just mail away checks but attend charity benefits, have my hair done, buy clothes, shop for clothes, buy a place with huge closets, hire a maid… until I felt like I was going to throw up. Thank God the three following numbers were completely off. I actually breathed a sigh of relief and continued on my 13 block walk to save 70 cents on a gallon of milk. How would I fill up my day without such things? The hours spent stuck in trains, waiting for a crosstown bus for 40 minutes late-night because a cab is just not part of the religion of poverty. Nor are Macdonalds, movies, videogames, theatre, museums,downloads, ipods, plastic surgery, new clothing. Decent dentistry.
My first husband was a rockstar of sorts.. I can hardly remember dinners at Lutece, at La Grenouille. I do remember the crowds, the assholes. So ask me-- what was the best meal I ever had? It was poached eggs and cream of wheat with orange juice at New York Hospital after 5 days of an IV and nil-by-mouth because of a ruptured appendix. That was bliss. You see, heaven is a relative thing.
Tonight I went by a Food Emporium on 14th Street at midnight where the bakery guy gave me not only a bag of yesterday’s bagels for a buck, but croissants. Flaky, buttery, not-yet-stale croissants. 25 cents. I brewed up a cup of this Puerto Rican coffee I’ve discovered which comes in a vacuum-packed brick for a $1.50 pound. Black, rich, dark and I’ll bet any Manhattan Gourmand would choose it over Starbucks in a blind taste test.
In fact I’ll stake the free Lotto ticket I got for hitting 3 numbers on it. And I’ll take Manhattan—my way, straight up…the way it used to be. I think.