Monday, September 14, 2015

Caste Party

A few weeks ago I found a set of keys on Madison Avenue.  Actually, it was a Louis Vuitton key ring with several sets of keys attached-- way too big for anyone's pocket, and it was 11:30 PM.  I looked around-- there was an upscale restaurant 2 doors away; maybe someone was getting into a taxi and they fell out; you'd think they might notice-- there were enough keys to open every door in an average apartment complex.  So I went into the restaurant.  Of course, I was wearing my usual neighborhood going-to-the-gym attire-- old sweats and a hoodie.   The bartender and hostess gave me the frozen smile; a very curt 'no, no one lost their keys.'  The bum's rush.  Maybe, I suggested, you want to make a discrete table-to-table announcement.  Most of the remaining diners looked a little loosened and relaxed.  Maybe you should keep them here, in case someone should call in, looking.  But nothing doing.

So I stalled a bit-- paced up and down the block, looking for dog walkers, anyone who seemed searching for lost objects.  And nothing happened.  I went into a nearby building, spoke to the super and doorman who seemed disinterested, left my phone number.  Next day, fully 24 hours later, I got a call from the super who said there were posted signs along the block asking about a set of keys.  I went back to the scene,  took down the number, went back home (I still don't carry a cell) and left a voicemail.  Next morning I get a call from a woman who happens to be a household-name real-estate superstar-- we see her on television all the time, literally… and she is in Palm Springs, showing some property, but she must have dropped her keys while she was getting into her chauffeur-driven car… on the way to her chartered flight-- and she just KNEW someone would have picked them up because isn't it such a fantastic neighborhood I live in?  And please drop them at HER restaurant-- where the employees two nights ago had let me know with their eloquent body language that even 60 seconds was wearing out my welcome in their establishment.  Her driver will pick them up.  End of conversation.  No thank you… no 'what is your name'?  Nada.

Before I make my drop, I look on her website at the several exclusive listings she, Mme. Chairman, is showing personally… a 5th Ave. penthouse, 2 triple sized mansions near the Metropolitan Museum, and 3 or 4 neighborhood brownstones.  Yes, the numbers are labeled on each set of keys.  Here I am, with access to the richest homes in upper Manhattan-- a free pass-- information that could make any of these owners cringe or withdraw their multi-million dollar properties from this superstar with the slippery fingers who was undoubtedly too busy with her iPhone and her champagne glass-to-go to notice that she'd left a thief's winning lottery ticket on the sidewalk.

I am careful not to overdress for my return trip to drop the keys with the hostess who is equally smile-less when I approach her.  I drop the first name of her boss, tell her the driver will retrieve them.  Does she apologize or offer me a Bellini, a slice of their famous tiramisu, a glass of wine?  She does not.  Do I rat out her snotty attitude to her boss?  I did not.  She is, after all, despite her dress and perfect hair, working class like me, and who knows what favors she's had to perform to get this job which puts her in direct line-of-sight of the eligible playboys of Madison Avenue, married and single?

And that is the end of my little upper-east-side good-samaritan fractured fairy-tale of the month.  And of course, this woman wouldn't stop to think that I haven't had a restaurant meal in literally years, that I had to stretch when my son was a teenager to satisfy his appetite for pizza but mostly I scrimped and economized and my weekly food budget was equal to maybe an average appetizer in her restaurant.  My Dad wouldn't stop to think, when I gave him a gift and he tossed it, that I'd had to forego something that month-- not just a luxury, because there are no luxuries-- but something like a metro card, which means walking everywhere for a couple of weeks--- not so bad, but time-consuming.

In 1976 I found a wallet in a late-night taxi.  As the driver dropped me off, I told him I'd call the owner; there was a driver's license and we had paper phonebooks in those days.  I spoke to someone; gave my address… a man picked up the wallet next day, and left an envelope.  I opened it.  The wallet had belonged to the great Paul Simon.  The note said thank you, with 3 crisp $50's.  That was a week's pay back then.

Have times changed?  Have we forgotten about people actually walking and talking and courtesy and compassion and humanitarian kindness, appreciation, gratitude?  Not that we do things to be thanked, or for 'credit' or reward.  It is just a simple acknowledgment.  A tiny debt to repay-- so easily-- with just a smile or some words.  Would the current version of Paul Simon have his assistant text me or leave me a ticket for a performance?

The dirty little secret about New York City now is that there is an existing caste system.  There are instant start-up millionaires and lottery winners, but for the most part, it's a sort of a boys' club or hedge fund.   For the underdogs it's incredibly difficult to manage to buy even a tiny apartment anywhere.  For the honest working class, there is a lot of hard work and not so many rewards.  Illness or a catastrophe wipes us out, costs us a home, dignity.  For those on welfare, it's a different story.  People with benefit cards take life a little more for granted, and if they feel like using a high-interest  credit card to buy an engagement ring they can't afford, so be it.

I took my boyfriend to a special birthday dinner one year; he was dying to eat at Cafe des Artistes before it closed.  I worked extra days, hours… made the reservation… we dressed to the nines.  I memorized the menu, dreamed about what I'd eat… and when we both put in our orders, our tired waiter informed us there was no lamb or fish left… in fact, there was really only the chicken and the pasta.  I literally wanted to cry.  I could scarcely eat, and had a terrible night.  We quarreled.  I felt defeated and pathetic and cranky.  Unfinished.

Corporations have blocks of season tickets for sports.  Box seats.  For me, when my son was small, it was an enormous sacrifice to get us birthday Knicks tickets.  The seats often sucked and once there was a drunk heckler next to us who spilled beer and ruined the night.  Sometimes there was a column blocking the court so we'd have to keep our heads going side to side and missed half the action.  If you're a celebrity you get an unobscured view.  Sometimes you don't even show up.  Somewhere in the stadium is a kid in an upper deck who will never again see a game, live.  He will remember this game for the rest of his life, even though he can scarcely make out the players because his Mom doesn't have binoculars.

On 9/12/2001, the day after 'the' 9/11, we were called in to play music in Times Square… mostly for the exhausted firemen and policemen who came uptown for breaks.  They were whacked and messed up and ate listlessly in their heavy gear while they listened to our blues.   There were a few tourist families stranded in New York City on aborted vacations-- one especially who befriended me.  They'd come from Kingston, Jamaica, using their life savings to take their 3 young children to see the Lion King.  The kids knew every lyric to every song.  Of course there was no performance-- there was no return flight.  They were stuck in a hotel they might not be able to pay for, for an extra week… they'd run out of money and were living on hot dogs.  I got them what I could from the kitchen… the kids drank cokes.  They never sat down-- they couldn't afford to order-- but the music was free.  And they danced-- night after night-- the parents with each other, like a couple, face to face, or with the kids, as they could, with soul and love.   The children enjoyed the music; they called it 'the party'.  Finally, after about a week,  flights resumed and they left.  I think of them every 9/11,  along with the first responders and the victims… the sadness… I see them in the lasers at night, dancing.   The children are grown now… a tiny minor financial tragedy after-ripple of the 9/11 disaster… Really non-remarkable, but in their lives assuredly the experience they will remember and relate to their grandchildren.

My son used to ask me if poor people are happier than rich people.  I think they are, subtracting the bitterness. In cultures without this urban 'caste' system-- without the Tiffanys and the $1,000 football tickets-- it's easier.  But I will never forget the tiny girl from Kingston, with her colored barrettes and dreadlocks, and her little plastic Lion King charm bracelet, leaning against my knees, plucking my bass on the break, rocking her head back and forth, singing to me softly 'It's enough to make Kings and Magga-bonds (sic) believe the very best'.


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