Sunday, July 22, 2007

Midsummer Night's Dream

Did you ever listen to Swedish rap music? It’s a kind of paradox. A little like Swedish blues. How much is there to moan about in this beautiful country where health care is universal and excellent elder care is a priority; where a year of first-class childcare costs less than a monthly metrocard? It’s a good thing I can’t understand the lyrics because they’d probably be parroting the negativity and anger of American hip-hop, the way Europeans all used to wear our styles, play our music, and consume our toxic TV sitcoms like M&Ms. Maybe. Maybe not.

Because this summer, in Sweden, I noticed a small difference. American music isn’t quite all over the charts the way it used to be. On the national news, violence in Iraq is on the roster, but mostly, besides the emigration of Beckham, there is little mention of the US. In financial news one hears relentlessly how the dollar, day by day, is hitting new lows. Besides always-buoyant sales of Springsteen and Dylan tickets, and the omnipresent CBGBs and Ramones T-shirts, I now observe more of Stockholm in New York than America in Stockholm.

And more than anything, you notice Swedish quality of service. In the metro, in cafes, at petrol stations--- there are young, stylish people doing these low-level jobs with dignity. They are kind, open-faced—happy to help. They do not expect and often will not accept gratuities. Generally there is not this intense competitive drive to make a hedge-fund fortune because success and happiness in these countries has more to do with deep-seated values than a brand-new mansion in the Hamptons. It is still cool to play music and be good. And except for the very insecure nouveau-trendy in Stockholm, dress is casually stylish but not excessive. Besides young Goths, one rarely sees any of the conspicuous make-up which New York women seem to require these days.

I spent a whole evening talking to a quasi-famous aging punk rocker. He does construction during the day-- supports a family, plays music at night. He likes it that way. He talks about socialized medicine, criticizes the American system, understands little its obsession with money. Like many Swedes, he is so great-looking that it hurts…he is completely unaffected, scarcely notices the gorgeous women that lean on his stage…is glad for the 8 month paid paternity-leave he was granted for each of his 3 kids. Was happy to reminisce about the New York scene with me, walked me cordially back to my hotel-room like a gentleman.

My last night I met a tall, long-haired beautiful man with a weathered leather jacket and the air of a woodsman. For his living, this guy paints murals. Not just any murals—he decorates the walls of an old Swedish iron-mine north of the Arctic Circle—miles of them-- 1500 meters below ground, so the miners—in the long, dark, frigid winters, will have beauty and light around them while they work. For this he is paid a stipend by the government. A character out of an unwritten Michael Ondaatje novel. He knew about music, too..about poetry, about art. The Guinness book of records lists the world’s deepest painting as some cave, maybe 1100 meters down. So why not correct them, one of my bandmembers asks? He laughs, nods his head and says in Swedish something like ‘You crazy Americans.’ Tonight I am looking at his work online. He is painting his dream, half a mile beneath the midnight summer sun. Miles to go.

Floors below me, in the tunnels of New York, I pray someone is still risking arrest to spray his version of a dream on some wall. That the dreamers will paint faster and further than the MTA workers hired to remove their work. That all the young, shivering or sweating artists who came here with any dream will not wilt and die in the face of the greed and excess and false gentrification which has become my great city. That lack of acknowledgment will not cause them to pack their few belongings and move on to a place like Sweden. It is tempting.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Ipods and Benefit Cards

There’s this guy in my neighborhood with those arm crutches. He reeks of garlic and listens to NPR on some portable radio headphones. The few times I’ve overheard him he’s speaking about politics—maybe a Dennis Kucinich supporter. He has no observable handicap I can see—in fact he seems rather robust-- works out, no hint of a limp, often carries the crutches on one arm, gives me the eye and I give it back—that two dogs passing thing—the quick growl, slight rise of the lip-- just letting the other know…don’t even think about it. A bitter radical. Just over the hill…waiting for Medicare…maybe even pulling a disability scam on the MTA with those crutches, for the satisfaction of the half-price thing, sticking it to the system…yeah, that’s it, you cheap bastard.

Why does this guy bug me? Lately Writerless is acquiring this edge. A crust. Getting old-- crisping. Rarely accepting anything at face value. Maybe a good pint of American redblood replaced by something nasty.

I had to go to the ER last weekend…test the system which at its most shining is nothing less than rotten. I actually broke my foot, although the triage and admission staff relegated me to whiney white-bitch status immediately. I could tell. So I sat-- a little miserable. Huge families on welfare with the benefit cards—babies in strollers, aunts, uncles—like a party—all laughing, trading ipods, abusing the vending machines, filing in and out while I sat. No one even offered an ice-pack. I saw the diagnosis on the computer-screen: Sprained ankle. You go girl. You could sit all weekend with that one.

My hospital co-pay will be $50 if I’m lucky, and if I watch every move, I won’t owe more than a couple of hundred all told. For this --and the privilege of being last, I actually pay out-of-pocket $700 a month. Just for myself. Kids—with my musician’s income, get some state program-- great care, no money.

But for these families— those of the 400 pound aunt who forgot her albuterol, the fat girl who stubbed her toe, the baby with a slight fever--not a cent of co-pay. They each racked up maybe $3,000 for the State of New York while the unsick of them partied, consumed snacks and beverages, talked on their cellphones, told jokes and enjoyed a rent-free air-conditioned living-room for the night. There's even a decent film on the HD monitors. Kids running everywhere, screaming, jumping around, watching cartoons and playing completely unsupervised in the Pediatric ER waiting room. Heck, if one of them has an accident, they’re home-free here. And the women behind the glass-- the ones moving at 2 RPMs-- they ignored it all.

After 9 hours I somehow bypassed the front desk and went in. They claimed they’d called me hours ago….anyway, looked surprised when they saw the clean fracture on the film…and sent me home with another referral. Seems my insurance, unlike the free variety, doesn’t cover actual treatment in the ER. I’ll have to beg and plead and get additional electronic referrals to another free clinic which is the only place in this day that accepts my health insurance for which I pay maybe 1/3 of my annual income. 1/3. And I am just one slim asset away from the free kind. But I struggle and skimp and save and wear old clothes for this privilege. My kids hate me, I can barely afford basic cable, have no ipod or cell, and of course my $50 co-pay does not include use of the hospital phones to call someone to help me home because in my state of acute pain, I didn’t think to bring quarters. Vending machines are not an option for the likes of me. While the woman behind the glass is dispensing get-out-of-work-free notes to the families, because they were in the ER.

So on this eve of American Independence Day, I am looking for the meaning of a true American holiday. My teenager will be jet-skiing with his friends, dressed like a rich person and sipping lemonade on the South Hampton veranda of a brand-new mansion with a French name. Macy’s will be spending mega-millions on a fireworks display which could have fed the entire African continent. New York City will be spending more than the GNP of an average state on overtime for the beefed-up police force. I’ll be hobbling onto a stairless stage, docked $20 for making someone else set up my amplifier, going home on the train with my $100, thinking about freedom and independence. Thinking about these fat American families barbecuing steak they purchased with benefit cards, listening to their ipods and cellphones and enjoying the other fruits of their credit card debt, free American health insurance and instant disability payments because maybe they were too lazy to refill their free albuterol prescription.

Incidentally, the therapeutic boot-thing my foot requires is not covered and costs more than Prada, so I’ll rig up some old stiff-sole arrangement and hobble painfully on.

God Bless America. And Michael Moore.