Thursday, March 12, 2009

"I drink to make other people interesting." George Jean Nathan


Last Sunday I spent an hour or so online perusing the Observer before heading downtown to meet for the first time the members of CEDP’s prison letter writing group; and especially to personally introduce myself to Rebecca Kurti who heads it.

There was one article in particular in the Observer—described as a ‘national Sunday quality broadsheet, sister paper of the Guardian, specializing in in-depth analysis and comment on UK and world news and politics’—that caught my attention. Not so much for the thrust and content of the short piece, but for the fact that it was published in the Observer, which I’d come to appreciate as the Sunday extension of a rather lefty intellectualism that covered the rest of the week in the pages of the Guardian.

“So what if older people like to drink”, says Christopher Manthorp, “don't judge them for indulging.”

Now that’s a headline I expect to see in the Daily News or the UK equivalent, the Daily Mail. I have to say I have noticed the odd bit of yellow journalism making it’s way into the venerable pages of the Guardian and even the New York Times. Well, maybe not yellow exactly but soft journalism to be sure. The edgy snark of the blogosphere once derided by print journalism has, I think, begun to be embraced with a great big catch-up hug from mainstream media. Articles like the one that appeared in the pages of the Times on February 15 (Bad Economy? Good Excuse)—which is having its own game of dodgeball over bankruptcy rumors—are giving the Gray Lady a jaundiced pallor. I used to think these self-serving tales about the shallow rich suddenly deepening with soul were meaningless in the overall potential for popular revolt, but as the Bernie and Ruthless Show has widened the viewing arena of the fiscally disenfranchised, perhaps these frivolous mots will be more of a spark than they bargained for. Got a long-time nanny whose perfectly reasonable request for time off irritates the heck out of you? Let her go! Blame it on the recession. Then—hire a new one! Don't really want to shell out for a Tiffany bauble or a watch from Cartier? Well, then it’s time for creative gift giving for your love who’s like a red, red, tomato and celebrate Valentine’s Day with a nice ripe (cheap) love apple.

Photographs at demonstrations on Wall Street of protesters hoisting placards declaring “Jump You Fuckers!” won’t make the evening edition of the Times. And you can bet the popular protest on Wall Street slated for April 4th won’t be televised. But if statements from a terribly overindulged bunch who feel they’re going against the recession and doing something wrong by throwing a party, and other equally profound witticisms from otherwise financially secure persons that chirp: “It’s the silver lining in the recession cloud,” don’t agitate the newly poor into the streets to protest, then I don’t know what will. Articles like those might just provide the seeds of foment for people who actually have lost their jobs, have actually been hugely affected by the recession—and as a result of Madoff’s bombshell will enlist in a class war between the same classes. (Does one capitalize recession? Is it that stage yet? Can we, in fact, call it the Great Recession and leave room for its sure follow up: The Even Greater Depression?).

It’s enough to drive a person to drink.

So, on Sunday afternoon, I was thinking about this on the downtown No.6, still mulling over the piece in the Observer. Later I would hear from friends weighing in with their opinions on the Observer piece I’d sent to them. Snug between passengers on the train, I was distracted from reading the autobiography of Assata Shakur (a.k.a. Joanne Chesimard of the so-called Black Liberation Army) when a man at the other end of the car crooned the all too familiar refrain: “Ladies and gentlemen. I don’t mean no harm. I am homeless and I need something to eat.” He then launches, acapella, into a doo wop favorite: “Under the Boardwalk.” What he couldn’t see was that another man had entered the car nearer to where I was sitting. This man had a blank expression, worn at the edges like an old rug that had been trod over countless times until the pattern had faded. A twine necklace was attached to a hand lettered sign on a bit of cardboard: Homeless. Hungry. HIV Positive.

The two met just in front of where I was sitting and I watched to see where this interaction would take them. Would they ignore each other? Or, as I have seen before, would one silently surrender the begging terrain to the other and back off onto the subway platform at the next stop?

“Hey Snake,” the singer greets the man with the cardboard sign, who only just raises his eyes to him as they tap their paper cups. “Been uptown for the meatloaf. You got to sit through the preacher’s talk—new rules—b’fore you can get to eat.” Then he tells him about a guy in front of him in line who bought a scratch off and won six hundred dollars. “Just like that. I coulda bought that ticket.” The singer pushed off at the next stop and the man with the cardboard sign called after him: “One day at a time, brother.”


zbelnu said...

Good post! I liked the sign "Junp You Fuckers" on Wall Street, and the unexpected meeting of the two homeless, like a piece of urban contemporary poetry. Our times...

Linda Danz said...

Thanks, Bel. This was a longer post than usual because other event with Desmond Tutu was added. Our times, indeed. Homelessness, the death penalty, even the sadness of that has poetry...