Saturday, August 25, 2007

Cash in the Attic

When I was small I believed in ghosts. I had seen ghosts. My old house was filled with them. In the attic they slept—white sheety things covering old secrets. At night when we were supposed to be sleeping they drifted around, creaking and whooshing. They weren’t necessarily scary, they just reminded that things you did-- things you had abandoned, didn’t necessarily just go away, they just lay waiting in your attic.

American mortgage lenders have been caught more or less with their pants down. A crisis which has been brewed by greed and a super-sized real estate market. A segment of our economy grotesquely ballooned into a distorted image of Uncle Sam now threatens to collapse its ugly self onto our bad dream. Wall Street this week behaved as though this were not the case, although the more ghost-fearing among us were certainly listening. I was actually wondering if I shouldn’t buy stock in mattress-manufacturers. These could become the only reliable banks.

And who should accept the blame for this? The aggressive mortgage lenders, promising us our dream castle for a fairy-tale down payment and a manageable monthly payment? The banks, bestowing money like no tomorrow? The credit card companies who happily issue more and more cards for us to order furnishings and Jacuzzis and pools to go with our mansions and new clothing to wear when we entertain our neighbors? The government-- the ones who spend and decide and speak in theoretical sums with abbreviated zeros? The same government that demonstrates how the number on our bank statements has nothing to do with spending, that available capital has no ceiling?

I’d like to know why the newly inflated price of a gallon of milk has put a wrinkle in my household budget, why I am living with a leaky ceiling and no dishwasher, stretching my meager honest income further and further every week, cutting a luxury here and there, with a bit of emergency cash in the bank and no debt. Because I read Aesop’s fables with unusual attention in grade school? Because I barely passed physics in high school and remember for every action there is a corresponding reaction? Because I believe in ghosts?

Here’s one thing I believe. I don’t lack sympathy for poor people, although I have a certain skepticism when it comes to the rich. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to be the one that bails out these people who decided they wanted to live in a house with a spiral staircase and a skylight and a tennis court. And their real-estate agents who took that infommercial course and made $100,000 a month sitting on their sofa, flipping real-estate to poor schmucks who wanted to impress their family, their neighbors, themselves. These people lived like fatcats for several years while I didn’t. These people charged up Prada and True Religion and Hermes to go with their fancy houses and new lifestyles and simply declared bankruptcy. So now what? They are going to be forgiven? Ghosts everywhere are stirring.

If you are up at 4 AM every night like I am, you will eventually come across this charming British show called Cash in the Attic. Where people decide they want something beyond their means—not things like the Queen’s diamond brooch, but like a trip to Australia to visit their dying brother….new cabinets for their kitchen—a modernized bathroom. An antique expert comes to their house and looks through all their possessions and heirlooms and the flea-market stuff they’ve collected and comes up with enough merchandise to bring to a local auction house where inevitably and tediously they come up with the necessary cash. Pound by pound. It’s charming…and it usually has a happy ending. In fact, I have a secret crush on the host. He has the most adorable dimples and genuine laugh…okay, he might be gay, but I love the guy-- the way he enjoys these people, the way he becomes intimate and yet doesn’t invade.

Let’s bring him to America and let him find some cash in these people’s attics—the ones with the collapsing sub-prime mortgages who will have to auction not just their attic but their house and their children and still won’t come up with the money. But hey, it may make for some entertaining reality television and it might, as opposed to My Super Sweet Sixteen and all the rest of the toxic media messages here, give America a lesson in self-reliance and consequences and personal economics we seem to have forgotten.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Bridge

The Bridge.

24/7 coverage of this event. Minnesota. The heartland. Like a ruptured artery in the complex cardiac structure of America. Like any arterial rupture: this brings death. We are fascinated, we are sad, we are horrified. We are glued to our TVs and the networks are competing for our attention. What new horror can they air that will cause us to tune in? Extra footage on Youtube, the internet. The horror, the statistics. What is it with the American fascination with carnage, with tragedy, with the spectacle. Network analysts know well, aside from celebrities falling from grace, nothing boosts their audience like a disaster. On the internet, little competed with the numbers who watched the hanging of Saddam…over and over. Move over, Barry Bonds—our 9/11—6 years later, still holds the record. A little bit of the sadistic in us, a little bit of—let’s see that again and then we can thank God our pathetic lives aren’t that painful, our debts and sorrows aren’t that catastrophic. We are lucky bastards, sitting here with the summertime blues, dreaming of a vacation we can’t afford.

While my kids watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre XXX and Hostel II without a quickened pulse, I find myself cringing even at primetime violence—hospital shows. Fictional disaster, fake blood capsules. I gasp when a basketball player falls--- what is wrong with me? In a world of novocained viewers, I can’t seem to desensitize. In fact, I might be getting worse. Emotional hypochondria? Acute motherhood? Like every victim is potentially my child? I don’t know. Loser—my kids call me. I’m a loser. I pick up garbage, I help people across the street. I feel guilty when I don’t put money in a cup even though half the panhandlers hand me back my change, these days. They have pride. If you can’t put in a bill, keep your goddam bleeding-heart-liberal cheap hand in your pocket.

But The Bridge. I couldn’t sleep. Ever since I was a kid I dream about bridges—in the dark—graceful long suspension bridges. I am somehow at the top with the wind in my hair, and the bridge is moving, swinging as it is meant to..and there is the hardening fist of panic in my gut—hang on…jump…whatever…

Sure, I’ve read Jung and Freud, but I still have the dream… no matter how many times in and out of sleep I reassure myself—I am alive, this is a dream. The dream is a SYMBOL. I am safe but sensing the precarious balance of life, suspending myself between realities, experiencing the ‘void’, the choice—life vs. death, space vs. matter, darkness vs. light…my own limits. Bla bla.

For me it is the feeling that is important. I wonder if other people dream this stuff, if there is anyone else that can’t sleep after watching the Discovery Health network, who reaches into nearly-empty pockets every time that St. Jude’s Hospital appeal comes on.

But I read on the internet—the QVC network is taking in record sums from overweight Americans in the heartland who are ordering shoes and jewelry and theme-quilts in mind-boggling numbers. Collecting exercise systems—DVDs now so they can replace their unopened VHS cassettes. Tae Bo and Hip Hop Abs, Colonics and detox systems—hair restorers and acne medication— magical makeup-- while they eat bag after bag of transfat-free snacks and exercise their fingers on the remote and their iphones. They don’t have to get up to order more; they don’t have to move or even lick a stamp. QVC doesn’t show the bridge tragedy.

Today there is the mine in Utah. Worse. A place I've never been. The claustrophobia…the airless world underground… the dark. A catastrophe so intense the technology perceived it as an earthquake. The grave beneath the graves. My bridge is swinging.

My children are spending half a night’s pay at the movies where they will watch extreme fighting, human carnage, torture and sex in a comfortably airconditioned theatre. They can’t take the heat. I am working on a dark slide-guitar version of the old Beegees Mining Disaster song which will sound more like When the Levee Breaks. I am worrying about the miners, replaying the terror of people in sinking cars filling with river-water who were unable to think clearly about seatbelts and windshields…people who might have been waiting for their QVC DVD on safety and disaster protocol and will no longer be there to receive it. People who will have bad feedback on Ebay because they never paid for the Nikes they just purchased from their car iphone, seconds before the bridge collapsed.

I will play this song and not say anything, because I hate bleeding-heart liberals like myself. Pathetic losers, we are. I will dream about bridge disasters and mine collapses in the thick pre-dawn of this August heatwave, listen for the rain that will come and destroy our subway system this morning, thank God I only suffer from a toothache because I can’t afford a root canal. I will get up, sweaty and still sensitized, and write a song.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Number 23

New York City summer. Hot enough for you? This is the topic of choice. Everyone in the city complains, whines. Always something. The Second Avenue subway, taxes. Wall Street is shaky. I vacillate between wanting the glassy towers of hedge-fund driven wealth to topple and knowing it’s us poor bastards that pay for it all in the end.

On my way downtown last night, one of these welfare mothers napping on the train. 5 kids all under the age of 6…two strollers, 3 huddled on the metal bench in cheap polyester basketball jerseys and shorts, chilling in the subway AC. Boys, all of them. Mother not more than 21—like a girl, pulling a hoodie over her chest. Maybe another life starting under the thickness of her over-stretched T-shirt. The middle-child of the huddle—the boy, maybe 4, his thumb in his mouth, stroking his other hand up and down on the back of his brother who serves as his pillow. The little miniature Michael Jordan, wanting a little affection—the sensitive one, needing the touch.

I caught some footage the other day of that orphaned hippo who’d chosen a 130 year-old tortoise for his mother…The whole world is moved by this…that giant amphibious toddler caressing an old shell with a shapeless heavy head, licking the rough hideous turtle-face with that massive baby-tongue in the dry Kenyan turf. Another one—needing the touch.

On the late-afternoon Upper East Side streets, an endless parade of nannies between air-conditioned spaces-- picking up toddlers from playgroup. Corporate types who never missed a well-dressed beat for pregnancy and the mess of childbirth-- coming home to their Chinese-born youngsters in designer toddler-wear—so far from home. What will happen to these privileged children with the perfect haircuts and SAT scores? We’ve not yet seen the adopted American-Asian population in rehab, collecting DUIs and ex-boyfriends and prescriptions. So far they wear their Spence and Chapin uniforms well, do not struggle with their weight. They excel at drawing, play their ½-sized violins with finesse. Their parents wear this well.

At work I keep thinking of the boy in the huddle—the one with the soft heart—the one that maybe cries more, gives his young mother a harder time, the one with the enormous thirst who pulled a short damaged straw. His little shaved head…his shiny brown-black little arm soft and smooth and needy in the little knot of brown limbs and red polyester. Maybe after a few years of unfulfilled hunger he’ll start to act out, look for the wrong kind of attention. Maybe he’ll be a rapper, be adored by millions; maybe he’ll put his passion into ball-playing. Maybe he’ll confuse his needs and become obese. Or maybe he’ll be a sex-addict. Maybe he’ll have to sell himself for the touch, fill his hole with a needle-ful.

Oh God, I am thinking—give this little boy a guitar-- something. All these people on the stage with me here.. using volume as their art…the Lost Boys of rock and roll. Up here—with the audience, the women, the affection… doing Summertime Blues for the Budweiser-saturated.. .. You Can’t Always Get What You Want ..and they forgot what it was they wanted in the first place. All dressed up, all wired…and nothing to say.

So as I ignore all the hustlers on the way home—all the hard-luck stories…the exhausted sweaty subway-guitarist who’s played ‘Landslide’ more times than Stevie Nicks… I keep my little Michael in my pocket. My prayer of the day—please God, or Oprah...let someone feed this child, let him weep…give him an ear, an extra pat on the head, a copy of Harold and The Purple Crayon.

Jesus. I think the heat’s getting to me.