Saturday, February 21, 2009

“Where thou art, that is home.” Emily Dickinson


As a girl I first recalled hearing the phrase “bailout” when it signaled my father's escape out the front door, first ritually checking for his wallet, lighter and his cigarettes before warbling in a modified W.C.Fields delivery: “Boy’s in trouble. Gotta bail out Louie” or “Looks like Frankie needs bailing out.” He didn’t mean he was actually going to have to put up money to get any one of the boys who belonged to his drum and bugle corps out of jail. Likely, one of them was in a jam for drinking beer on the street or a girl’s father had caught his daughter canoodling with the reprobate and threatened a charge of statutory rape, not an uncommon occurrence in my day. The beat cops knew my father. He was a life member in the VFW and self-made director of a drum and bugle corps in Astoria called “The Saints.” Playing in the band was an alternative to wayward street life but with my father’s dedication it evolved into a competition-worthy enterprise. The VFW post—a little white brick building on 41st Street in Astoria—was a safe place for boys to gather, learn to play an instrument and know more Broadway musical tunes than they surely ever would have. The boys would call ‘Billy’ before they would their own fathers to come and get them out of whatever scrape they’d happened into. He’d pull on his black wool band jacket (which I still treasure) and head out into the night—me thinking, he’s off to be a hero again and praying it wasn’t one of the boys in the drum line on whom I had a mad crush.

Many years later—unbeknownst to him—my father had a chance to bail me out. Married at the time to a man whose family’s prosperity was earned—a Park Avenue apartment, valuable antiques and a drawing collection of Italian masterpieces inhabited their nouveau riche world—me and the Ex were often offered VIP seats at Madison Square Garden from his uncle Maury, or Maury al Gusto as he liked to be called. A large-framed, gregariously generous Jew, he was a self-made millionaire with a string of printing presses and he fancied himself an Italian mobster. As a young woman, newly married into an alien world, I would cast furtive glances around Jilly’s saloon on West 52nd Street when he took us there, seeking out the celebrity and then any celebrity while Maury, without batting an eye, asked the maître d’ if Jilly himself—best known as Frank Sinatra’s chief aide and inseparable companion—was in the house. No one really knew where Maury’s nickname came from; stories of its origin varied over the years. 

At the height of the war known as the Viet Nam conflict the Ex and I were courtside at a basketball game, within popcorn flicking distance of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman if memory serves. The audience stood in a rush for The National Anthem and I did not. The Ex, a self-professed anarchic, had to be prodded with a charged glare from me, a newly formed lefty, into passive seated resistance among a throng of rabid patriots who shouted at us to “Get back to Russia.” The commotion brought the Commissioner of Basketball—a friend of his uncle—to check us out. Needless to say we were banned from complimentary tickets until about a year later when Maury presented us with a pair to a hockey game and informed me, with a knowing nod, that it was a good thing my father was a life member in the VFW—something I had never revealed—and while he appreciated my fervent political protest, could we, from now on, arrive after the anthem had been sung, please?

My parents were not homeowners—far from it. We were one of the first families to move into the newly completed Jacob Riis projects at Avenue D and Ninth Street on the lower east side when I was two. Built by a pioneer for social change, it housed a multi-ethnic brew of humanity. Though I can’t remember witnessing any of it, I recall my dad’s stories about live chickens that ran in the hallways and the bleating kid (animal, not child) he was sure was destined for a ritualistic end and not the family pet. And I think that’s why we moved, for a ‘better life’ in a serviceable ground floor apartment in another housing project in Astoria, Queens. Life there for my unhinged family was played out like reality TV way before there was such a concept and we acted on our tumultuous dysfunction behind the living room window for the eager audience in the courtyard outside who took in every shouty argument. Everyone knew when the electricity bills went unpaid and playmates gathered around our darkened window on the stoop beneath to await my dad and me as I made my shame-faced way alongside him to the housing office.

Later, we followed my father to Hartford, Connecticut to an undistinguished rented apartment in a nondescript yellow-brick box on a street full of crumbling Victorians. Mark Twain’s house—a fanciful Victorian Gothic—sat at the end of the street, neighboring Harriet Beecher Stowe’s smaller, neater Victorian.

Owning a home was an alien concept growing up; still is. I don’t own now—not a house nor a condo. We don’t own a car or a summer getaway. When we can manage it, we escape to Montauk and rent a room with an ocean view having driven there in a rental car. Home ownership is not in my DNA. It just feels inherently grabby. Simpleminded, perhaps, but suited to a simpler life.

Relatives on my father’s side lived in a house in New Jersey—the only homeowners in the family. It was a porch-lined, shrubbery fronted Cape Cod and had all the exterior trappings we witnessed on family television like “Leave It To Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” But the inhabitants, despite the moralizing attitude of an insufferably God-fearing aunt, harbored painful secrets.

The Mister grew up in a semi-detached house, one of many in Leicestershire known as Jelson homes. On my first visit to his native village of Huncote I was struck by its smallness, possibly the tiniest house I had ever been in; a home where even the Borrowers living under the floorboards might feel cramped. But to The Mister it seemed just spacious enough for mum and dad and sister growing up.

Reading dire news about the current mortgage crisis is almost like reading news of a foreign country, that country of folks who aspired to the so-called American Dream, the very same dream that President Obama tells us is now threatened. Of the 70 per cent of Americans who own their homes, more than a million have been foreclosed and another million or so are facing a similar dangerous fate. Searching the news on the Internet I am struck by how many homeowners refer to their homes as ‘investments’ or ‘speculative ventures’ or ‘equity’ for their retirement. These homes, once castles, have been hit by an angrily destructive economic wave, sliding their owners into a sea of debt and paralyzing consternation.

And where do these homeowners turn? Where do the unemployed turn? Mark Twain, former neighbor: “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

In the stimulus bill just passed billions have been allocated for mortgage relief but there is no compulsion on the part of the banks to do the homeowner any favors. This bill, from what I can tell, creates work, and not jobs for the long term. Bridges will be built, and highways repaired but sustainable employment is not necessarily a guarantee. It seems, to me, like a gigantic workfare project. All it will do is get the infrastructure fixed at the expense of the humans deployed (not employed) to fix it. It may not fix the human beings in the long run. Both political parties have whipsawed citizens—homeowners and renters alike—with a faltering economy badly dealt with, threats of terrorism, and an astronomical war debt with no less human and monetary casualties.

I mean, who didn’t see it coming?

And then, to add to the foreboding of already tortured legions of nail biters (of which I am a card carrying member) were the statements made by Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, on a recent episode of Bill Moyer’s Journal in response to Moyers uttering the dread "O" word. " un-American term, as you know. It means a government by a small number of people. We don't like to think of ourselves that way."

Bill Moyers: Are you saying that the banking industry trumps the president, the Congress and the American government when it comes to this issue so crucial to the survival of American democracy?

Simon Johnson: I don't know. I hope they don't trump it. But the signs that I see this week, the body language, the words, the op-eds, the testimony, the way they're treated by certain Congressional committees, it makes me feel very worried.

Bill Moyers: Geithner has hired as his chief-of-staff, the lobbyist from Goldman Sachs. The new deputy secretary of state was, until last year, a CEO of Citigroup. Another CFO from Citigroup is now assistant to the president, and deputy national security advisor for International Economic Affairs. And one of his deputies also came from Citigroup. One new member of the president's Economic Recovery Advisory Board comes from UBS, which is being investigated for helping rich clients evade taxes.

Hmm, barn’s burnt down, let’s get the resident arsonist to rebuild it. And there will  be no kvetching over the paltry dollars that will pad out your weekly paycheck as a result of the much touted tax cut. You can see the moon now, can’t you?

Christopher Dodd, the Democratic senator from Connecticut stated that, “…it's all window dressing.” Wall Street—those creative aquarium keepers—will still find imaginative ways to feed its sharky execs huge sums of money in the years to come.

At Goldman Sachs, if I recall reading correctly, retention awards are the name of the game now. So, don’t you be calling this no bonus, hear?

Say, what?

"The money power preys upon the nation in times of peace and conspires against it in times of adversity. It is more despotic than monarchy, more insolent than the aristocracy, more selfish than the bureaucracy. It denounces, as public enemies, all who question its methods or throw light upon its crimes." Abraham Lincoln 16th president of the USA


zbelnu said...

I remember when I was translating Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives and you told me about your years in JR Project, and yhen you helped me with my translation doubts...

Linda Danz said...

Yes! It was very interesting for me to see how you were able to find the right translation for the Riis book and be thinking about my own childhood as well. That might have been around the time we began our "fixing" adventure with your short stories.