I left MTV on while I was working. Or maybe it was VH1. There used to be a difference. A point of view. Now of course there is no music on either one unless it is 3 AM which is when I work. The rest of the programming day is endless repeats of reality shows. And previews of reality shows to come. Point of view? Another column.
Suddenly one of the lyrics somehow pierced my field-of-listening: Farewell to Mediocrity. I smiled with acknowledgment of something between irony and humor before I had the opportunity to check the visual which was another aged 25-30 male generic post-emo band treading the stagnant tepid audio waters along with the other hoardes of clueless band-members in dark clothing like shipwrecked flailing contestants for Survival in a virtual sea of regurgitated mediocrity.
Anyway, by the time the sun came up I felt as though I’d overdosed on M&Ms. The blue ones. I took a shower to wash off the residue of mediocrity and somehow in the frigid air of my prewar bathroom without heat, I had one of those lyrical flashbacks from childhood: The North Wind doth blow,/ and we shall have snow…/and what will poor robin do then,/ poor thing? /She’ll sit in the barn /to keep herself warm /and tuck her head under her wing,/ poor thing.
This being a pre-mediocrity memory, I was actually moved. I remembered toddler-staring at the picture in the book of this freezing bird even though everyone knows robins fly south in winter and as a future editor I should have been thinking 'how did they get away with this?' But I actually felt myself tearing up in the old shower. Not just nostalgia. I remembered I was born with sympathy, with compassion, with an uncanny ability to cry.
These days if you cry, you are branded like Ellen deGeneres on that show as a quasi-psycho or an unmedicated menopausal casualty or-- like Oprah-- a sexual-abuse survivor. Your friends squirm and your doctor tells you ‘You deserve to be happy’, and hands you a prescription for Paxil or Zoloft.
So have we given up the privilege of crying along with our post-9/11 unalienable rights? Have we traded sympathy for suspicion? When they renovated the Statue of Liberty did they leave the inscription, the ‘Give me your tired, your poor…send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me’ even though it now should read ‘Give me your Investment Bankers and your thick-walleted tourists, your outsourced computer-literate who are willing to perform sophisticated programming jobs for less-than minimum wage, your leggy Eastern-European athletes and models who enhance our magazine covers and sports teams, your Dubai-based oil-barons and billionaires who are buying up American hotels and department stores and real estate like Christmas trinkets?
Last night when I came in, this homeless guy was shivering outside my building. Standing in the bus shelter which offers no shelter, just a backlit half-naked model. A kind of warmth. So after a cup of hot tea I rummaged through my closet and found a thick woolen man’s sweater. A nice one. A warm one I wear on cold mornings. Clean. I took it down to him and tried not to look him in the eye, tried not to expect gratitude. He looked at it with suspicion. It’s clean, I said. In the morning it was covered with newspaper and crushed Starbucks cups and plastic-wrapped dogshit in the public trashcan. I guess some things are too far gone. Maybe it was like offering a band-aid to someone with a gushing gunshot wound. Maybe it was condescending and heartless.
But I wanted that sweater. I loved that sweater. I want to cry for that sweater but I can’t let my neighbors see me rummaging through the public garbage. My investment-banker neighbor upstairs who caused a massive flood in my ceiling and owes me the $1600 it cost me to repair it one year later. It took me one year to put aside that money, living with cardboard and construction tape and dust and debris raining every time someone walked upstairs. One year of cutting back on our $10-a-day rule in our no-vacation, no-takeout, no-movies and no-debt life. Of inconspicuously taking the excess bread from a local restaurant so I can save money on my little contribution to the homeless mother and daughter who bathe in our local Starbucks bathroom every day. Who annoy people in line because they ask for a cup of hot water and pay a quarter. I don’t care if they’re scamming people as my rich neighbors claim. They’re cold. The tired and the poor. Saying that makes me cry. Info-mercials make me cry. Tonight I might cry because I can’t afford a tree this year. Even a skinny near-dead one like last year. Because I can’t afford to tip the nice doormen and porters the investment-banker/new tenants in my building insist on, to receive their packages and dry cleaning. The doormen who earn maybe three times what I earn, even though my neighbor doesn’t know this.
I wanted that sweater not just because it meant something to me, but because I need it. I might cry for that sweater but I can’t let my investment-banker neighbor-- the one who earns and spends seven figures—-I can’t let him see me because then he’ll never pay me. That’s the warped socioeconomics of our time and in some strange way the same reason the homeless guy threw the sweater in the trash in the first place.
So if a fictional robin freezes in a barn, and no one sees, no one even reads the poem because the books are obsolete and tears are only a sign of mental illness, what is contemporary compassion? I-sharing music on myspace? Pink the pop-star has a new video of a live stadium performance of ‘Dear Mr. President’. Even though it is VHI or MTV and it is 5AM when no sane human is actually watching or listening, the photos behind her are perhaps unretouched. See them and weep.
Merry Christmas, Pink.