Friday, November 30, 2018

Being Poor (part 2: Mr. Darkside)

So besides the hippie-romantic/back-to-the-earth/recycle-everything/spartan-asceticism-contrarian/anti-bling version of poverty, there is the sticking, handicapping, cracked-heart variety where you must say no to your children, where you glance in posh bakery windows which might as well be Tiffany's, where you pass fast-food fried chicken outlets and the scent of cheap oil and breading intoxicates and you cannot participate in even a wing, because it will break the daily bank of your pocket.  Where you plot and plan and divide your dollars with economic razor-blades because you are smart and determined and physically capable, thank goodness, of fighting the good fight to survive in this city.  Where on your heart the word 'No' seems permanently incised because you cannot have anything you formerly craved or desired or even simply wanted, in a former life.

But I have been to countries where poverty is of another variety altogether-- where the unrelieved sting of need and want is like the constant corrosive pain of chronic hunger and mothers watch helplessly while their children suffer to death.  It has warped me, in a way, so that I can never quite indulge in the relative luxury of normal life without an underlying sense of guilt.   I never fail to appreciate simple comfort, and process Manhattan daily spending habits, for the most part, as excessive.   While it's true I can no longer sit in a cafe with a sandwich, I don't miss it often.  If someone else is buying I will generally decline the favor unless I have done something valuable in exchange.   If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would undoubtedly observe the same habitual economies that became a part of my survival as a single mother.

My son, on the other hand-- like a rapper or athlete who steps from low-income into a reality of wealth-- is indulgent.  I admire it, in a way... new-found money often brings with it a kind of entitlement or revenge-spending which is part of the process of becoming 'comfortable'.  For me, I cannot imagine how I managed to buy us a home, and maintain the basics in this culture where the golden ring is heavy and placed beyond arm's length for basic people.  It also seems absurd that the 'haves' these days-- the extreme 'haves'-- are receiving more than they will ever need, and have often done far less than in former times where hard work and invention was a slow and cumulative phenomenon.  And it doesn't seem all that difficult, as it was in my father's day, to become a self-made millionaire.  Athletes are paid massively; entrepreneurs can sell an idea overnight and buy themselves a small island.

I shop carefully, as I have said before, in the poorer markets of Harlem.  I consider myself relatively fortunate, having had the foresight to become a home-owner rather than a renter and like the ant and grasshopper story, this has paid off for us.  My life is simple and apparently spartan enough so that the city insists I receive foodstamps.  While I can't eat in restaurants, this allows a pretty generous monthly amount to stock the pantry.  My fellow shoppers do not watch the sales the way I do; they make unhealthy food choices and don't seem to worry.  Many of them are on welfare-- get cash for things,  live rent-free in city housing which is not luxurious but adequate.  Some of them have river views which would cost the rest of us at least $3000 on top of the monthly rent.  But what I have also observed,  from my tiny circumscribed life of personal urban stoicism, is the way that being poor leaves a lasting mark.

On street corners in Harlem there are habitual loiterers who panhandle and hustle year in and year out.  There is no future in this... but there is a present.  Being poor keeps people in the present.  They can't worry about what will happen, or their retirement or funeral expenses because they are dealing with NOW.  Maybe that's not such a bad thing.  You only need to visit  upper Central Park on the 4th of July and smell the barbecue and listen to the ringing laughter of Hispanic children enjoying the holiday while their wealthy counterparts in the Hamptons are often smug and cranky and disappointed or drunk and miserable.  The competition of rich people-- with themselves, with their colleagues, their neighbors, their own family-- is relentless; even leisure is a call-to-arms.

My beloved friend took me out to a 4-star restaurant... maybe THE 4-star restaurant.  The breadth of menu was not just daunting but dazzling.  Course after course was served-- with such artistry and exquisite execution I felt like crying.  Beyond awe-- I was enchanted-- touched by the wand of dream-royalty, fairy-tale dining.  I looked around... people were laughing, eating, talking-- just like this was a daily meal.  Personally, it was like a sacred experience... I could not even recall the sequence of edible treats like tiny artistic tableaus which blew out my visual expectation and challenged my palette.  I wanted to stop it all-- to say--- just this, or this... I'll have this next week--- to go-- a postponement.  I felt overwhelmed-- overindulged-- like having a bath in liquid gold when all you needed was to wash off.  It was more than I could process.  The check-- I could not process that either-- enough to feed a family of 4 for a year, in many countries.

Last night I came home after a rough day-- cold and tired and tried-- and I made myself a pot of cheap potatoes and chicken.  Total cost: maybe $1... and it was warm and comforting and I felt grateful and happy.  I remembered working in a homeless shelter on the Bowery-- was it guilt which compelled me to do these things?  Because I am in a sense among the voluntary poor.  I look ahead, worry about some future- cannot spend more than I actually require, and if I had some opportunity, I would undoubtedly give it away.  After all, isn't that what rich people do, theoretically-- give things away?  And poor people... the kind I shop among in Harlem-- they do not generally want what I have to offer; they want something else-- an expensive watch, a vacation-- fashion... things that will do them no good... but still they want them; they will buy them on credit if they must.

According to national income statistics, I am at base-poverty level... but I feel pretty 'sated'... so how can I be poor?  There's no magic formula between need and want; it is warped by experience, expectation, poor values, materialism, distorted economics... I pity my downstairs neighbors who have just renovated their bloated apartment and continue to receive masses of boxes from Restoration Hardware.  It's so meaningless and pathetic... being at the bottom of the 1 percent: the poor rich, while I am among the rich poor.  

The man who won the $300,000,000 in Harlem-- I wonder what he needs now.  Something money can't buy?  Less? I would not want to walk in his shoes,  nor trade tickets.  I wonder what the moment felt like-- when he went from poor to rich.  Whether that happened.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Being Poor (part 1: Mr. Brightside)

My alma mater is a highly endowed institution; the weekly alumni publication manages to find us no matter where we go, whether we subscribe or not.  We are all potential endowment contributors.  I personally gave as I could.  These days my level of contribution  is $10-20 at best, and even that is a stretch... I have several times joked with classmates, many of whom have illustrious careers and paths of success, that I single-handedly lower their average income by double-percentage points... so I was a little taken aback when my alumni magazine cover article was titled 'Being Poor'.  Of course they were not referring to 'us', but to 'them'.

I am considered by many of my friends to be eccentric; my life choices are difficult and not conventional.  I live by my art.  I am somewhat proud of this, and fierce about my refusal to give in.  I am a hold-out-- a relic of the old New York bohemian cliché.  I do not live in subsidized housing-- have managed to make my own way, somehow.  The frequent 'number-crunching' sessions which challenge me at 3 AM are not about growth and retirement issues, profit and loss, value and cost... but basic bottom-line life issues.  How to eat, maintain my 'roof' (i.e. apartment), and manage to pay basic telephone/internet/Con Ed.  Beyond this, I buy virtually nothing--- a few subway rides to gigs... taxis are not on my expense sheets-- nor are clothes or movies, cellphones, take-out, a slice of pizza.  Over the past years I learned to forego my old craving for New York City street pretzels.  They do not accept foodstamps which, now that I have stopped resisting this benefit, provide a much more generous nutritional budget than I ever allowed myself.

Certainly I am not complaining.  I used to remind my son, growing up, when he whined about being the only player on his team without Jordans...  we are RICH-- we just do not have money.   I believe this, somehow.  I also distinctly remember the irony of what I would tell my mother, when she asked what I would become when I grew up-- that I want to be POOR-- a slap in the face to her fierce bourgeois values and the covert shadow of bitterness she hid so well when my Dad's personal psychology warranted an economic downturn in our household.

Unlike my mother, I have pretty much always had control of my life.  I had the best education money can (cannot?) buy without spending much... all the opportunities anyone can want-- a chance at the Golden Ring, a taste of self-made wealth... and then the haunting ironies of the dream of music and art.  As  a single Mom who traded everything for sole custody, I found myself back in the city with nothing-- my hands, my brain, a newborn who needed little I could not biologically provide-- a 'roof'... and a daily challenge to somehow manage foraging enough to keep us going.  There were days I played in the subway, did bars for the bucket-- got just enough gigs to get by, many days, on a bag of yesterday's donuts.  I learned the meaning of 'no':  no luxuries, no restaurants, no non-essentials, etc.  I had feet... my main means of transport... I was young enough that people wanted to give us things.  There is a sort of barter system here-- even in the city.  You discover these things-- free clinics, donated food-- the things people no longer need-- one man's garbage, etc.  You become resourceful and make things out of nothing-- the beauty of music. Yes, I had a guitar... and then you create out of your dreams... you paint with words-- you become, in the motto of my neighbor who chalked this everywhere he could-- on sidewalks and trees and discarded appliances-- your dream.

My friends know my personal economics are beyond any normal concept of thrift. Since I haunt the bargain-corps of Harlem and uptown-- I know the price of everything, to a penny-- I walk among the poor, and I am pretty much accepted into their society.  It is a different kind of culture-- and admittedly there are those who abuse the system, rely on being given what they need, have a certain reverse-entitlement.  But there are also the 'finders', like me, who navigate and calculate.  I will walk a good mile to save cents on potatoes or vegetables.  Occasionally I look into a cafe-- see people enjoying a coffee and a bagel-- anything-- sushi-- and I envy... I mean, I could splurge just once-- but something else must suffer.  And what I do 'score' ... is processed like an unexpected floral delivery.  It's all a gift-- it's the B-side of 'nothing'... which is everything, in a way.

Not that I don't worry obsessively and wake in the middle of the night (or day-- because my nights are when I 'make' them-- when I have finished my poems or my gigs or my puttering around with books) regretting that I didn't marry that nice man with the Hamptons estate and the baseball team... panicking I will lose my head or my mobility and be taken from my home into the worst city-run nursing facility with no reading material and bad TV.

But yesterday I found a quarter on the curb... 11 cents further uptown, shining like a diamond on the sidewalk.  The Turkish man who sells slightly damaged vegetables cheap gifted me a lemon and some ginger.  I will manage my bargain turkey I carried all the way from Target and will eat with a few friends-- my son... all the trimmings, thanks to foodstamps which no longer make me feel guilty but rewarded, in a way... and I can share this bounty.  I find I have everything I have ever wanted-- and a little more-- I am spoiled, and privileged, and I am damned grateful for this life of mine.  My classmates often accuse me of conducting some kind of socio-personal experiment, of feeling morally superior because I don't need money.  Oh but I do get paid for things... and I work hard, I do.  We musicians can make $100 for a night's work and with a little mercy and smart-economics, I can parlay this into a little joy, which is more than I can say for a good sector of this city population who have organic meals and grain-fed turkey, salon-hair, silver service, football tickets, Amazon Prime, Apple stock and i-Phone-Xs, balcony-views of the parade... healthy children... and fail to look out of their own windows as they mouth their grace.

(to be continued)