Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Animal Farm

...had a profound effect on me as a high school freshman.

My parents purposely took me out of the country in '67, after Malcolm X was shot. The intent was to go to Africa, but after spending time in France to learn French we ended up in Jamaica the winter of 68-69. There were many reasons to go to Jamaica rather than Africa, but a major reason we went to a tropical location was because I developed severe asthma. Where other people outgrow their asthma, I never outgrew mine.

I went to school there until I was 7, where I learned how to read, do basic math and some Jamaican history. After awhile, my father figured that the headmaster of the English-styled school was stressing me and it contributed to my attacks.

Without medication, an asthma attack can last a few days, and mine often did. It takes all your energy to breathe when you have asthma, and you can't really eat and breathe at the same time. Your body freaks out at the thought of yet another thing obstructing your airways and shuts down your appetite. I was a really skinny kid as a result.

After awhile,  my dad just took me out of school altogether, and he and my mom began a loose attempt at educating my sister and me. We learned American and European history. We learned to speak "RP", Received Pronunciation, how to read and write phonetic symbols, and how to write a short story.

We read a lot. We had no TV after awhile, and at the time there were only two radio stations in Jamaica... RJR and JBC, so when we weren't digging up nannybugs, making mudpies, playing the "Eric and Johnny Game" or taking care of the cats, we read. We looked forward to Poppy's trips to town... he'd stop by the library and bring us books to read, or he'd buy us some. My favorites were Enid Blyton's "Malory Towers" series, about English girls at boarding school. I tried to make a game out of it, but the idea of being without your family in a boarding school was a really foreign concept to me, so we stuck to "Eric and Johnny"... were the Professor was married to "Eric" and I to "Johnny", and we had children and nursed babies and ran a household and ran an organization that saved widows and orphans and helped peasants. Except for the saving of widows and orphans and the helping of peasants, the "Eric and Johnny Game" was fueled by real life. However, the widows and orphans and peasants aspect was fueled by our weekly readings of the Old Testament during Sabbath Service, and the communist books my Poppy often brought home.

When I had asthma I read a lot, because that was about all I could do. I couldn't sleep... it was uncomfortable laying down and the sound of wheezing in my head made me dream of screaming ladies. I couldn't play with my sister or the cats. Laughing made me cough which sent my lungs into spasm, and talking was too much work. I couldn't eat. So when I wasn't sitting quietly somewhere waiting for breathing to come easier, I read because it took my mind off my thoughts...and my mind raced during asthma because without reading there was nothing else to do.

Aside from Malory Towers, which was just mindcandy, two books I remember best are Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, and Yenan Seeds and Other Stories, "a collection of short stories... (that reflects... ) the Chinese people's new life of struggle since the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from several angles."

Just for a moment, imagine being twelve years old, trapped in your own mind and reading things like:

The ruthless economic exploitation and political oppression of the peasants by the landlord class forced them into numerous uprisings against its rule.... It was the class struggles of the peasants, the peasant uprisings and peasant wars that constituted the real motive force of historical development in Chinese feudal society. 

Our enemies are all those in league with imperialism - the warlords, the bureaucrats, the comprador class, the big Landlord class and the reactionary section of the intelligentsia attached to them. The leading force in our revolution is the industrial proletariat. Our closest friends are the entire semi-proletariat and petty bourgeoisie. As for the vacillating middle bourgeoisie, their right-wing may become our enemy and their left-wing may become our friend - but we must be constantly on our guard and not let them create confusion within our ranks.

Stuff like that has a profound effect on a twelve year old.

So then, because we were strangers in a strange land and we owed money to the landlord and he called immigration, we got deported from Jamaica, and I no longer had the luxury of endless reading, playing with cats and digging up nannybugs. I decided I wanted to go to school. Poppy was willing to keep us home and hidden, but I insisted.

I did well in 7th and 8th grade. Academically, I mean. Socially not so much... I was skinny and didn't wear flare legs or colored overalls and Pro-Keds,  my unpressed hair didn't stay in curls for more than an hour and I knew too much. Teachers loved me, kids teased me. Especially light-skinned wavy-haired Kay, who I realized later had a host of problems that had nothing to do with me. She lived in the rundown tenement across the street from I.S. 201 with her mother and several brothers and sisters. Her mother was a large, surprisingly dark woman. One day I got a glimpse of her dad... a white man who wore black rimmed glasses and came to visit sometime but didn't live there. She picked on me to deflect attention from her poverty and her bi-racialness. Back then, "white in Harlem" was DECIDEDLY uncool.

In 8th grade I had band, and started to play the saxophone. The breathing exercises I practiced to calm my asthma made my lungs pretty strong when they weren't spasming, and I was pretty good at sax. But then I discovered, by accident, that I could sing, and with that talent and very good grades (way better than most... I was the 8th grade Salutatory) I got into Music and Art for voice.

And that freshman year, we read George Orwell's Animal Farm.

It messed me up... because this was, apparently, the dark side of communism. At least that's how the teacher presented it. And it was the first time I was really forced to question things I had learned.

In January when I got evicted, in attempt to secure a "one-shot" deal, I applied for public assistance. I got PA briefly, but then I started to work, and after my first paycheck, welfare cut me off. I sent in the paperwork required to extend my Medicaid... I even made a note of the date: July 5th. The cut-off date was the 11th. And I'm guessing Medicaid didn't get my paperwork in time, so they cut me off on August 1.

It's a simple thing, going down there with my proof (I'm well under the income limit, living under my roommate's lease and on payroll for $250 gross a week) but God knows the thought of dealing with them just sends me into knots. And I'm afraid to do it online, because I know it won't get processed. I need to get over my dread and just do it, because I've now been without asthma medication since September. And for the first time in YEARS, I had a real attack last night. Asthma sucks. It forces me to double-think everything I'd like to do... like go get my hair done (cuz I made some extra money working with BigMan selling pictures the other night), or going down to an Occupy Wall Street meeting.

I've been paying attention to OWS. There are still things that disturb me about it... mostly to do with the lack of brown faces I see associated with it. And based on my own life and in talking to other brown faces, the lack of brown faces has mostly to do with a lack of time. Most brown faces feel that their daily struggle--which existed long before the struggle began lapping at toes of lighter-hued folk--takes up a lot of time. In particular, brown mothers of sons would rather spend their time administering to football leagues and school involvement, cooking, laundry and work than go down to OWS because the former collection of efforts is a tangible way to keep theirs sons from the hazards of poverty and racial profiling by the police. Whereas, OWS is more longterm and sort of not in the realm of immediate results. But mothers that I've talked to are interested and hopeful, but wish to hear more solid, tangible things they can do from home. Like close bank accounts. Or boycott Black Friday.

On a day like today, when I'm sitting here writing, waiting to see if my lungs will clear up so I can selfishly go get my hair done, I contemplate OWS and how it relates to brown faces, and my fear is that these brown faces will be late to the party.  And the party has everything to do with them. Without them, without actively acknowledging how this country came to to be, how brown faces and red faces were systematically brutalized and marginalized in the name of capitalism, I worry that this party is going to be just another "Animal Farm".

Yup, I know that's a leap... but my mind races when I have asthma.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

It's Not The Truth Till The White Man Says It's So*...

...and other incoherent musings on what pisses me off about Occupy Wall Street...

*I'm paraphrasing my grandfather here, who's actual quote was "The Black Man won't believe it till the white man says it's so".

I've been wrestling with what to say for about a year now, long before this Occupation. And, for the most part, I'm happy that the REAL issues facing the everyday Joe and Jane are finally coming to light. My basic problem with it though, is that Lashonda, Raekwon, Javier and Milagros have been saying this same shit for a good couple of years now:
  • we were laid off/fired
  • unemployment ran out
  • Medicaid doesn't cover us/won't cover what we need
  • the rent is too damn high
  • how come I can't afford shit even though I work HARD, and #NameThatBillionaire is actually MAKING money????
It was always expected in this country that there would be a lower class. It was always expected that this lower class consisted mostly of brown-skinned people, some the descendants of slaves but more recently random brownskinned folk from a multitude of third world countries. When shit FIRST started getting tight, it was very easy to blame it on the influx of immigrants "taking our jobs". The brownskinned people already living here were mostly dismissed, since {begin sarcasm} they are mostly to blame for their own poverty.  They don't have an interest in education, pop out babies so they can live high off the welfare hog, don't like to work, and are born criminals.{/endSarcasm} Let's call those people, for the purpose of this post, "the riffraff".

Putting aside all the factors that LED to the creation of the riffraff, the riffraff themselves have always known that the only hope out of this cycle was education, or sports. Oh, and maybe rap music. And most of them, despite popular stereotypes, work hard--harder than you can imagine--to get out. But when the economy first started to turn, they were the ones to get cut out first... the maintenance people, the blue collar worker, the union worker. And whatever little gains their families had made to escape the riffraff pool were lost. But their complaints were met with deaf ears. And what's worse... other brownskinned people slightly above the riffraff pool had all kinds of comments like:
  • "You just need to get over yourself and get any piece of job. So what you have to work for minimum wage! Work in McDonalds! Clean floors!"
  • "You're just lazy! You don't want to read, don't want to learn. You LIKE standing on street corners! Work harder!"
The problem with the former statement is that it's not really as simple as taking any old piece of job. It comes down to math, so let me illustrate in numbers:

On paper, you're a single mother of two living in a 2 bedroom apartment in the Bronx. Off-paper, you do have a partner/most likely the father of both your kids but probably the father of one of your kids. He probably has a kid someplace else for which he's paying child support. Your rent is about $1200 but only because you've been living there a few years.

For the year, your...
Combined income before taxes is $78,000
After Taxes/deductions/child support it's more like $62,000.

Monthly, that's $5,166

These things are essential to daily living:
Rent:  -$14,400
You don't drive, need monthly metrocards to get to work ($104 per month per person): -  $2496
Con Ed (about $160 a month for light/gas, more in the summer if you have a few air conditioners)   -$1560
Cable/Internet/House phone (he watches sports/it  keeps the kids quiet. Note: Cablevision is significantly cheaper than TimeWarner in Manhattan) -$2160
Laundry (assuming you do it yourself in laundromat) - $600
Food (not eating out/cooking most meals/snacks for the kids) - $6,000
Your once-yearly clothes shopping for kids (even if they wear uniforms, they still need regular clothes. I'm estimating an average of $100 per month per family member... that's a lot but I'm being generous and bear in mind that kids shoes are expensive)   - $4,800
Your pet, 1 cat... litter, food, etc.  -$430
Household items (dish /laundry detergent, soap, shampoo, toothpaste - you spend an average of $160 a month at Target or Walmart) - $1,800
Medical co-pays/prescriptions (you live in the Bronx. They say your kids have asthma) -$600

That brings you to $34, 846 going out, and on paper, you're left with $27,154 for the year. And that looks good on paper, but in reality this is about $522 a week which is easily hemorrhaged by buying lunch, a few take out dinners, a trip to the beach or God forbid, a Yankee game. You take a vacation as a family once, go to the movies a few times, throw two birthday parties year, probably save a good amount for the kid's college tuition which is automatically deducted from your net income. It's also not taking into account ANY student loans you or your partner probably have, credit card debt (even if at this point it's manageable), the cellphone plan. And, you're a good parent so your kids have lessons of some sort... karate, basketball camp, football, music lessons. If your kids are under a certain age you pay a baby sitter. If you ARE lucky and do have a piece of a car, add insurance, gas, maintenance, car payments. If you live like this, you are by no means rich and probably wonder just where your money goes, but at least you have jobs.

Then one of you loses their job. Or maybe one of you was only part time to begin with because of the kids. Or you both lose your jobs. The absolute worst case is if one or both of you are a Creative/Artist.

The maximum amount of Unemployment you can get in NYC is $405 a week. If you're smart, you take taxes out of that unemployment unless you're sure at the end of  the year it won't cost you on your tax return. This would leave you with about $365 per check. If both of you collect unemployment, that's WAY less than what you're used to working with, but you can manage for a while. On paper it's $3240 a month. But remember... you no longer have health insurance. And you're not sure how long you will be unemployed. You go for foodstamps.

The maximum GROSS income a family of four can receive a month in order to qualify for foodstamps in New York City is $2238 (less than half of what you were bringing in when you both worked), so no foodstamps for you. You can probably get Medicaid, once your COBRA plan expires.

You cut all the extra stuff, maybe even pare down your cable bill. It's hard to renegotiate phone contracts despite what they tell you. You may get some relief from your student loans. Maybe ONE month from the credit card companies.

But your unemployment is prolonged, and the hundreds of applications you've applied for are met with silence. Not even a "I'm sorry but you don't qualify". You start to consider those minimum wage jobs, but get this... $7 an hour for 35 hours equals $245.... HALF of what you'll make on unemployment. So you ride it out. Because if you start to work at $7 an hour, and say you can't hack it or get fed up or something else happens and you leave that job, you can't re-instate your unemployment if you've been at the job less than a few weeks or made less than a certain amount of money. I know this, because I made that mistake...

More likely you'll find something part time at about $13 an hour. This could bring in about  $206 a week, after taxes. It's still less than unemployment, but if unemployment has run out you're damn grateful for $206. But certain expenses will remain the same... carfare for one. The cost of food. Rent. Cell phones... if you work and have kids in the city that need to travel by themselves you get to rely on having a cell.

Either unemployment runs out or you take a job paying less than what you're worth OR, you just have no income. You fall behind in the rent. Screw the credit card, eventually you just stop paying. Hey, now you can apply for Welfare. But the MINUTE you apply you get sucked into the Back-to-work program, better known as F.E.G.S. Welfare now requires you work 35 hours a week doing SOMETHING in order to get benefits. But you can't make over a certain amount of money... which is less than the Food Stamp guidelines. If you only work part time, say 20 hours a week, the other 30 hours you MUST spend at F.E.G.S unless you can document a reason you can't. F.E.G.S says there are jobs out there, they will find one for you... and sometimes they do. But again, the minute that job pays over a certain amount... byebye welfare. If F.E.G.S is unable to find you employment in your field... (and really... if YOU couldn't find a job in your field, how in the hell is F.E.G.S going to??) they put you to work in the welfare job center itself.  And if you happen to be a creative/artist/writer/musician and you think you can make money freelancing while looking for a job, guess what? F.E.G.S won't let you: in order to release you they need documented proof you're working, usually in the form of a paystub. But if you're freelance, you don't get paystubs. Think you can supply proof of payment? Sure! but you don't' get paid till you do the work, right? Right. And F.E.G.S won't release you to be home working without a paystub. Fuck it, you fume. I'll just stay home and work and supply the proof later. But if you don't come in with documented proof (in the form of a paystub) by the Friday of the week you were out, F.E.G.S tells welfare you are "FTC'd. "Failure To Comply". You get bumped off welfare INSTANTLY. Think you can just explain and be reinstated? Guess again. You have to apply for welfare ALL OVER AGAIN.

So fuck welfare. You'll do without it.

If you fall far enough behind in your rent, the landlord starts sending you notices. If you fall far enough behind in your credit card, they may sue you. Force you into a payment plan by threatening you with a judgement and ruining your credit. I have been sued both by Capitol One and by Chase... in the neighborhood of $5,000 combined. No, really.

Back to the landlord. He progresses from 30-day notices to 7-day notices to eviction notices. You try to get a "one-shot" deal from Human Resources (same office, by the way, as Food Stamps and Welfare, officially called TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). If your rent arrears are too high... they won't pay. If they feel your rent is too high (stick a pin in that thought), they won't pay. If they think you don't have the income to pay back the "one shot" (turns out this is a LOAN, not a GRANT), they won't pay. And, even if they offer you some money for you rent arrears, the landlord can always say "no--I want it all". Mine did.

That rent thing... remember Welfare has an idea of what rent SHOULD be, and how much they will pay. And that amount is $900 for a family of two (not sure what it is for the imaginary family of four, but it's not much more than $900). So if you find an apartment, the lease needs to say $900. If it says more, then you have to explain to them how you intend to pay the rest of it. And this is where that partner thing gets dangerous... if you list that you  have a partner, then HIS income needs to be included. And if his income combined with yours is more than the guidelines, byebye welfare, byebye one-shot. Instant case closed. Average rent in Harlem these days--still the cheapest average rent in Manhattan--is $1460. For a studio. That forces you to look in really scary neighborhoods for a rent you can afford/welfare will pay for.

And by the way... between the lapsed student loans, the defaulted credit card debt, the eviction or utility shut off, your credit is WRECKED.

Bye-bye job opportunities.

Many employers now run a credit check as part of their decision to hire you. If you worked in payroll or accounting you are FUCKED. And if you're in your thirties or forties, employers bet you can't really work for peanuts because you have kids and a household to maintain... so they give that job to the younger person who presumably has no ties. Yes, that's illegal. But look around you... who amongst you is mostly employed, and who isn't?

OK, so back to the Occupy Wall Street. I did say this was incoherent, right? While Ray, Shawnie, Millie and Javi have been pressed through the spin cycle the last few years, Joe and Jane have suddenly realized they are in the same spin as the riffraff. They are scared for their future. They decide to sit in Zuccotti park, which by the way, is a public space but is privately owned. They are mostly white, mostly young. The police are used to doing what they do... getting these people off this public but privately owned land because the person who owns that land called the police and asked for these people to be removed. But the Occupiers are young and white, and that dumb-ass Bologna got caught pepperspraying white girls, and it makes the news.

I have friends who are police officers. One or two of them I love as people, and I understand that they are used to seeing the worst of human beings on a daily basis, and this makes them jaded. I also understand that people are assholes and like to fuck with cops. Actually let me correct myself: white people like to fuck with cops because any brown-skinned person knows that fucking with the cops is like playing Russian Roulette. It could end badly.

My high regard for the individual officer aside, as a whole, I am no fan of the police force in general. I have seen them jack up fare jumpers on the subway. They arrest black men for bullshit like walking between subway cars. And I'm sorry the Occupiers have a taste of what it's like to be black, but I am now extremely annoyed that four white girls getting pepper-sprayed causes a major stir but the police who arrested "Skyyvokka" for handing money to a crackhead who was panhandling outside a club one night, after chasing down the cab he jumped into, hauling the kid out, arresting him, taking him downtown, cavity-searching him and then releasing him because no drugs were found and he is neither a drug abuser or a dealer... THOSE cops will never be corrected. That shit never makes the news.

The second thing that annoys me is the focus of the protest. "Wall Street" isn't the problem. Yes, companies like Chase and Capitol One and the infamous Goldman Sachs are running roughshod and barebacked over us. (To sue unemployed me in Bronx Supreme Court for a total of $5K... really???? And yet you got bailed out?) But they are only partially to blame. There will always be a small percentage of the world having most of the money. It's the object of the game to be part of that 1%. And they are so far up the food chain, that 1%, it really doesn't affect us. But it's the fukkers just below that who have fukked us over. In my opinion, the corporations choking the life out of  Ray and Shawnie, Millie and Javi and now Jane and John are non-publicly traded, privately owned corporations like these,

--or the giant real estate conglomerates that have jacked up rent in New York so badly that you normal people really cannot afford to live here.

--or the giant drug companies that have so fucked up the health care system that our sickest people go without medicine. I have a theory that there is a deal going on between Medicaid and the asthma medication makers. Whole tracts of the Bronx are asthma zones. Medicaid will pay for a $300 a month prescription for Advair. But it won't approve or pay for a monthly prescription of Nasonex ($130) which controls the allergies that trigger some asthma.

--or the hedge fund industry who bet against the American economy (that's how it was explained to me when I worked at one, anyhow). Reading the linked article, please note that many of these companies are supposedly "Headquartered" in Europe. But their owners actually live in Connecticut. Or Long Island. Those companies exist legally outside the U.S. for the benefit of the SEC, but trust me... those bastards live and work here.

--or those small, unnoticed companies that masquerade as arms of the government, like F.E.G.S. which has somehow have hooked up the NYC Human Resources Administration but is intermittently listed as "not for profit" or "privately owned."

So I get that people are frustrated and want to shake the system up. Maybe sitting in the park or blocking off the Brooklyn Bridge might do that, but I seriously doubt it. And the various unions signing on doesn't impress me. Because unions only protect their own as long as their own are employed and paying dues. The signing of songs and dancing of dances and sharing of food doesn't impress me... nobody is singing and dancing on the Food Stamp application line up in the Bronx... you can't even eat in those offices while you wait all damn day, let alone share some food. And no, the people standing in line won't risk losing their benefits to come down and sit in the park with you. That line to apply/ask a question/get a damn application is so long that it takes you all day--the line is literally halfway down the block, and snaked through various corridors once you get inside the building just to check in to "reception"--and if that day you took to stand on line has already cost you a day of work and you're doing this on your day off... naaah...they're not coming down.

Screaming that Wall Street needs to be regulated probably won't get the government to regulate Wall Street. First of all, the government is owned by the drug companies and the oil companies, and is being influenced by the hedge fund people. Scream enough and they may throw you a bone, like a Black president for example, but we all know how that worked out...

America needs a "movement". We need something to inspire us, since our Black President, the poor bastard, let us down (the one thing I will take away from watching them beat down Obama is that it doesn't pay to be ethical in America. To play "nice" is to be "weak". Ironic, isn't it?).

And just as a last irony... as I finally finish this random and incoherent vent, I learn that Steve Jobs has died. Certainly a brilliant man. Changed computing forever. A man with a vision...

... who almost single-handedly destroyed the music industry with iTunes which in turn decimated the graphic designer's dream job of designing memorable CD covers...
...who created a system of computers that are mostly incompatible with anything but Apple/putting a serious dent in the creation of other technology...
...who has addicted an ENTIRE generation of people to instant gratification in the palms of their hands... it's kind of ironic to see these kids protesting corporate giants while Tweeting and Facebooking and uploading videos of every minute of this demonstration on their iPhones...

Again... Required reading
The Manhattan Rental Market Report, Sept. 2011
The Largest Private Companies - Forbes 2006 
Hedge Funds' Bets Pay Off - WSJ