The great thing about New York is the diversity, the fact that we're all thrown in together-- the haves and the have-nots. I mean, there are a few neighborhoods that seem exclusive, but that doesn't mean there aren't homeless people and panhandlers and mixed street traffic in those zip codes. The garbage is maybe higher priority for scavenging; there are 2 or 3 'teams' who go through the Park Ave. bags at night, gathering bottles and cans; some of the doormen and porters actually expect these people and make their job easier… a kind of symbiotic thing happening. Besides, the bottle collectors work incredibly hard; this is their sole source of income, they have large immigrant families who don't qualify for assistance, and they put in long hours in the heat, in the rain and snow and frigid weather. They deserve a kind of medal or uniform. Benefits.
I live in a mixed building; there are older tenants with very limited incomes and the new hedge-fund generation owners who require high-maintenance services and raise the cost of living here. For these people, monthly increases are meaningless; for the rest of us, it means going without what many people find essential. Most of us in Manhattan embrace the diversity. Of course, I don't see many of my more fortunate neighbors at the Harlem grocers' trying to save pennies-- they don't even go to stores; they order. I do see them occasionally up at Chez Lucienne or the Red Rooster when they have tourist visitors who are curious, but mostly they frequent the same 'hoods that are comfortable for them. Harlem is Harlem. However gentrified it gets, you can always walk a block or two and find some funk, some hustling and street preaching. This comforts me.
But what I don't get is how these long-standing residents of Harlem can't resent the extreme fortune of some of their new neighbors. I mean, just today, one of the fat hedge-fund guys from across the street was walking his dog (not a common practice-- they have 'staff' to do this). He has many times run down his classic rock nostalgia rap, just to let me know how cool he was or is-- after all, who else buys up the charity concert tickets at the Garden which cost more than my annual food allowance? So just today-- I've been struggling with some plumbing issues, my kitchen lights are flickering-- the usual repairs that will erase my Christmas budget-- and the guy asks me how I'm doing as I pass. How am I doing? I'm fantastic, I answer, and under my breath find myself muttering 'you fat philandering fuck'. Ouch. Bitter am I? This guy once had me bring one of my starving artist friends to hang work all over his hedge fund offices, then failed to pay for it. After the crash in 2008, his office was shut down, his billion dollar fund went belly up, and I had to get a state marshall to accompany us to retrieve the art which was dog-eared and ruined. And today? Has the guy paid back his investors? Of course not. He has another fat job which enables him to buy his kids apartments and pay some obscene rent for his own massive residence. His Lexus SUV shuttles them back and forth to the Hamptons and they are spending Christmas skiing in the Alps. Whatever. The guy has never even apologized. His wife spent more at Barney's this afternoon than I will earn for the rest of my life. Are they better than I am? Smarter? Luckier? They are a kind of lowlife, in my estimation, with good table manners and pretentious foodie preferences. They talk a kind of talk I understand, and they operate within the enormous margin of what I would like to call the outsider economy: the staggering sums which do not exist in every single bank, mutual fund, most corporations, hedge funds--- the 95% or so fictional percent which is loaned, invested, inflated--- but which gives them the audacious collateral and income to live the way they do, without regard for you and me, without values. Jamie Dimon is another one of my neighbors… has he ever paid back the money that bailed him out? I don't think so. His financial profile is so fat it would eat up a whole zip code. What does he get? A little bit of early stage cancer that will be cured painlessly? A huge Christmas bonus that would solve the world's hunger problem many times over. Go smoke your fat cigars in your cork-lined room, Jamie. I'll bet you don't even pay ATM fees.
This Christmas what I've always known seems to be getting some exposure: the myriads of charitable organizations and not-for-profits which collect millions and millions from us bleeding hearts have been a little busted-- and lo and behold, an average of something like 6% of intake actually goes to the needy. The CEOs and directors, the 'event planners' and fundraising directives receive not just the lion's share but the pig's as well. I am not a violent person, but I begin to see how, for those of us who aren't getting high and watching cable shows until we pass out, there is an amount of anger and deep-seated bitterness welling up. The murder rate is spiking in New York City. Mass killings are at an all-time high. The gun culture is obscene and people will apparently use whatever is at hand to vent. Peaceable negotiation doesn't seem to be an option. Rich people have everything, and they also have prescription power--- pain killers, anti-depressants, anti-anxieties-- you name it-- access to spas and entertainment events--- good food, expensive wine-- it takes the edge off. The poor and not-quite-brain-dead-- some are angry. Values don't seem to be taught, and religion seems to be another tool that is used to manipulate political goals. Guns seem effective and they are cheap.
Politicians don't have the limited health-care options we do. They don't even have college loans. Who is looking out for their fellow man when the average millennial knows very little about the world beyond entertainment and their start-up culture? I worry about my old neighbors, about the homeless fucked-over veterans I see hanging out in East Harlem at the methadone clinics. Some of these guys go all the way back to Vietnam. What is going on? People lose their homes because they cannot make a payment-- and then our entire economy and the whole obese banking system is based on the very business of debt.
A friend of a friend put a gun in his mouth and shot himself 2 weeks ago. Why? He left no note. Of course, he had a gun and at least he didn't use it on someone else. But maybe if his neighbor had thought to look in on him that night, he would have felt okay. He was a good person. Scott Weiland died yesterday--- his issues were complicated… but was he not the product of the whole music business? The pressure of becoming an icon and being simply a person? Having the adoration of everyone and the true love of no one? Not that his behaviors helped elicit sympathy. I'm a little angry today… angry and frustrated, and if I weren't educated and humanistic and psychologically astute, it might occur to me to take it out on someone else.
Yesterday I visited a mental health facility where some of the patients and participants were exhibiting their artwork. It was extraordinary and honest. They were forthcoming about their issues and brave and creative. They were swimming against a brutal current and doing something valuable in this culture which places a 9-figure price tag on a piece of crap made by an employed staff of a fake like Jeff Koons in the name of art. Their work made the mainstream art market look sad and pathetic. But who will see this? Certainly Van Gogh needed no bodyguard in his lifetime. Nor even a bank in which to keep his money. Who among us has not been insane or mad, at least temporarily? I felt much more compassion and connection with their work than I have felt in a Barnes & Noble or the new Whitney for that matter.
The forward momentum of any great culture requires rebels and punks and visionaries. Without mental health facilities like these, special people might not have access to their own talents-- they might become self-destructive or violent. Here they are saving not just themselves, but others. This is incredibly empowering. They saved me yesterday from my own emotional black hole. Their hope and painted dreams and failure to conform to a society that is sick was a kind of rescue.
The Sex Pistols had guitars; they might just as well have had guns, but they didn't. I feel a bit useless picking up my pen, playing my songs, carrying a bowl of soup to the homeless guy on the corner, having a conversation with the crazy lady who howls outside the grocery store in East Harlem. Stuff builds up in people, and when it becomes unbearable, they use whatever tool or weapon they have for relief. Life is meaningless if we don't show compassion for one another, if we don't appreciate people and what they do. Dogs become mean if mistreated; and why are we all so uber-sympathetic to animals? It seems so possible to rehabilitate a dog, but not a person? Dogs are cute--even the old ones. Humans are not always so cute… especially the old and angry ones who spit and curse and disturb.
I've been seeing the same 'Happiness' statistics recently over and over-- a scientific study was conducted which concluded that 50% of happiness is genetic, 10% circumstantial, and 40% is changeable-- diet, behavior, exercise, social participation, etc. Why in this world of threatened chemical and biological warfare can we not start an epidemic of kindness and compassion? Statisticians are obsessed with population growth, ethnicity--- nose counts and data--- can they not poll people about their emotional status and consider this? Let's at least begin with some human honesty because besides our 10% economic and geographical difference, we are all very, very similar. And for God's or pity's sake, let's take the guns out of Walmart; no one ever really won a competition of any skill by destroying his opponent. Amen.