Living in a city we are accompanied, it seems, by sirens. There is not an hour that passes when some police or firetruck is not racing to some emergency call, followed too often by an ambulance or EMT vehicle. If you are a parent-- no matter how old your children are-- this is your first association. You worry, you pray. People who have lived in cities during wartime have a deeper relationship with sirens. After 9/11, we in New York city will never be the same. For some, a siren may be comforting-- the sound of rescue. For me, it is like a nerve which wakes. If you have ever been involved in a fire, you understand its destructive power... the damage, the pain, the devastation... is beyond comprehension. If you have ever been burned-- or cared for someone who was burned-- the process of treatment and healing, if this is even possible, begins at a threshold of pain most of us cannot imagine... and it escalates from there. It gives war a new meaning. And the prospect of nuclear war-- the threat-- seems like a hideous anomaly of humanity and an intellectual distortion of the 'program' of mankind.
The London fire this week brought this horror into graphic consciousness. Our 20th-century symbols of urban progress-- skyscrapers-- can become dangerous traps of mass destruction, as we have learned. Personally, I like living where I can climb down a fire escape somewhere... the luxury of a view is something I can bypass and something I will not again afford in this lifetime. But the projects-- every city has its council flats, low income housing. You get what you pay for; people accept their assignation. Some are fortunate and live in great Manhattan neighborhoods with river views which cost them nothing. I used to envy kids in the projects when I was little-- they had a common playground, a sort of small gated community; everyone seemed to know everyone. They barbecued, they played radios and boomboxes. Fathers came home and sat on benches in the summer; kids ran under sprinklers, their grandmas knitted and crocheted and gossiped after dinner. But these come with a price. The families have very little voice; if there is one bad egg the kids are a little unprotected. Things happen, the police treat these communities with tough vigilance and less sympathy. The maintenance is often sloppy and utilities are under-serviced. The city or state can be an unresponsive landlord. These people don't always complain or have the resources to know how to complain.
A friend of mine just confessed he is facing the horrifying prospect of losing his teeth. How many times, recently, have I run into a musician or any one of my bohemian friends who lives below the economic horizon (most of us!) and lacked the means and medical support to take care of this? Clinics won't repair beyond the minimum. They extract. You are poor-- what does it matter? I worked at an East Harlem clinic one summer and found the dentist pulled children's permanent teeth because he claimed none of them will follow up a root canal; once their pain is gone, they are gone. It seemed cruel. I also saw 10-year-old kids with teeth rotting from sweets and lack of care. Many of them were illegal immigrants and terrified they would be reported if they saw a doctor or dentist. So they waited.
The point is, decent medicine has become an economic privilege. It's not Obamacare, it's the damned insurance companies-- the drugs, the ads, the money. It's a horrid business and corners are cut everywhere. People are massively rich from this business; system abuses are everywhere and poor people must accept what they get which is substandard. My friend died of cancer, with maybe standard treatment but such minimal palliative care and very little sympathy from the system. She had no voice, no lawyers to get her missing family millions of dollars from Johnson and Johnson, no experience or ability or even strength to complain. As her advocate, it was an exhausting and losing struggle. We had no access to new, experimental and less cruel treatments. She suffered and died in agony.
Good countries like Sweden house their lower and middle classes with respect and dignity. These people are cared for with socialized medicine-- just like their richer neighbors. There are jobs for people; there are resources and people are happy and do not seem bitter and angry. In cities like New York and London-- the populations are huge and growing. The gap between rich and poor has become so wide, most of us have fallen in. Business opportunities are abundant in a city, but poor people are poor consumers. I haven't bought myself a new anything in so long, I wouldn't know what to do with an extra $100. I scrimp and save, glean cheap staples from weekly sales, walk among the poor. I do not get food stamps. I qualify, but I have issues here. I am a survivor. I live in a coop I managed to purchase many years ago when this was possible. No building now would ever allow me to rent or buy. My income is meager. I am far below poverty level and yet I survive because I have a brain. It is incredibly high maintenance to navigate New York on $20 a week but I manage and I continue to chip away at my goals and my work. I feel privileged. I am no longer a mother and can subsist on rice and coffee without kids complaining. God help me if my brain goes. I will become a statistic.
People with large families who struggle do not have the time or energy to deal with so many things. They forget, they postpone. Daily urgencies take priority. Some people forget to put batteries in their smoke alarms. The people in Tribeca last week who succumbed to carbon monoxide-- what was their economic profile? But poor people in projects tend to be treated as children. They are cared for and managed by the state. It is all they can do to feed their families and get a little sleep. They have little control over maintenance and options. They are victims of the system, and when something goes wrong, they are victims of someone else's poor decision.
Bernie Sanders was shut down. The business of medicine in the US is so vast I doubt anyone will ever blow it apart. The epidemic of greed is way larger and way more hideous than the plagues of medieval times. Illnesses are an income opportunity. Vaccines are sold in the millions; our television is constantly advertising new costly drugs... they are buzzwords in our children's ears... and months later it is the TV legal teams soliciting users of these drugs for lawsuits. We are lab rats, we are victims. As long as the medical professionals follow proscribed 'protocol' however absurd and useless it seems, they cannot be sued. This is the benchmark of medicine in a country where insurance premiums make private practice nearly impossible for medical students who dream of saving people with good preventive care. So they prescribe, follow the system. Even when they know better. They look the other way. They need to pay their exorbitant rent. Their patients are for the most part obedient and become dependent. Especially the poor whom we see sitting patiently in their medicaid-provided wheelchairs, waiting for buses with reduced-fare passes and piles of medicaid scripts and food stamps which allow them to buy masses of groceries which are not necessarily nutritionally sound, but which allow the supermarkets to sell quantities of product at uber-retail. They offer their benefit card; they do not price-check. It is not their fault. They are under-informed. Some of them voted for Trump because they do not read real news and nothing seems to change their life anyway. They live in the moment. They have food and go home and watch television. They watch on their phones.
I can't even wrap my brain around this government. What I do see is that people not only have a constitutional right to be free, to voice their opinions without fear-- but also to safety, to health care-- the same care for everyone. The same engineering and building standards for everyone. All lives matter. Not just rich, celebrity lives but every single one of us. The London fire called attention to this... and for a week or so, we urban people may consider these things... but then most of us will go on and binge watch our shows, and shop, and complain on Facebook, as we do.
Here I am, the aging lefty liberal, on my tiny digital soapbox offering very little. But at least I am thinking... and I walk around the city without a phone. I look at things and talk to people-- not just my peers and artist and musician friends, but regular people. Everywhere I see and hear things that upset me-- red flags, injustices, infractions. If you see something, say something, the subways warn us. Well, there is a human application of this as well. Not the shysters and crooks who want your money on the streets, but the hundreds of thousands of good, hardworking victims of the system who maybe need a friend or some help. One at a time, we can do something, all of us. Put down your phone and look around. Some things are inevitable. But there is right and there is wrong. There is daily tragedy; but maybe some can be prevented. At least one life might feel 'mattered'... otherwise we are all victims of this regime of the monied, vassals of the Wall Street culture and the perversion of capitalism. We can be creative... we can think, we can reach out and speak out, we can revive the concept of personal heroism-- love our less privileged neighbors and remember what it meant to be a real citizen in a free country. Amen.