Thursday, October 2, 2014

From the Tale of Two Cities

Last night, I was walking by a new luxury condo building in the East Village. An extra-long SUV waited at the curb. The driver, an older black man in a black suit, stood patiently by while his boss, a white woman, paced up and down the sidewalk in a state of irritation. She called him James, telling him, “I’m going to find out what’s going on. You stay.” He called her Ma’am. When she told him to stay, he replied, “Yes, Ma’am.”

She went into the glistening lobby of the building and emerged with her daughter, a bland young woman with a Chanel bag slung over her shoulder and an iPhone glowing in her fist. The daughter said, “Hey James” to the driver, like they’d known each other forever. He said “hey” back and “how’s life in the big city?” She shrugged and climbed through the door he held open for her.

As they pulled away, I was filled with rage. All the way to Avenue A, to Tompkins Square Park, I muttered angrily to myself—about having and not having, and what has happened to my neighborhood? Then I heard the voice of a preacher on a microphone.

Photo: Bob Arihood

Inside the park, a large group of people had gathered on benches to listen. They were visibly poor, homeless, many holding on to carts loaded with a few ragged belongings. The preacher was a woman with frizzed hair and purple eyeshadow, dressed in jeans and a denim jacket. Her accent was old New York, tough and forceful. She was talking about rage.

“That rage inside you,” she said, as if directly to me, “Those murderous thoughts, that hunger for vengeance, it’s only hurting you. It’s giving them power. Why do you want to give them power?”

“God,” she said, “has sent guardian angels to watch over us. He wants us to be healthy and to heal. He wants us to evolve as people.”

I am not religious. I bristle at the mention of God, but I felt calm, lightened by the preacher’s words. My anger lifted away. After the sermon, the homeless people lined up for a beef stew dinner served from the side of a van with the words “Hope for the Future” printed on it. One of the men getting into line asked me gently, “Papi, you going to eat?” I am not poor. I have plenty to eat. But I felt so grateful to him for inviting me, and to the preacher for saying what I needed to hear. I wanted to tell them this, but they were busy with feeding and being fed, and I didn’t want to intrude.

In this city of people who never open their eyes, it’s a rare gift to be seen.


Anonymous said...

Not much to add. Great piece.

Ms. said...

Really nice story--

After a skype session with Ram das in hawaii and Krishna Das and Rameshwar Das in NYC at Tibet House for the new book "Polishing The Mirror" feeling good like I'd just had a family reunion with folks who love each other--“That’s who we all are on this path, spiritual family and friends. It’s just one big family. We’re all relatives until we realize we’re really all the same and there’s only one of us—one loving awareness"--and there was fruit and cheese and sparkling water--I walked home, and encountered more homeless folks huddled in doorways and nooks than I have in recent walks from west 15th street to east 20th. There are more and it is just so sad, and I can't fix it. It wears you down if your heart is wears you down like a shoe that doesn't fit, like a toothache. I often stop to talk or give food if I've got some cause I almost never have money to spare. But last night, I was just to sad to do them the justice of recognition and I had no food either. Homeless people, hungry people don't need pity and they sure don't need our sadness or rage.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly how I feel, I feel like a stranger in my own neighborhood, and I'm taken aback if someone other than my friends and neighbors speak to me now because it's so uncommon. The newcomers seem to look at me wondering why I am still here.

randall said...

Maybe your best post.

Steve Kennedy said...

"I bristle at the mention of God"

Anonymous said...

good post, but i shudder the phrase "tale of two cities". its much more complicated than that. There are many many layers between trust fund divas and homeless soup kitchens. And politicians find a way to screw over each of them by having you buy into the us against them mantra. look no further than your esteemed mayor.

Joe said...

The scene that you describe plays out over and over again in New York, and it never fails to make me feel ill. The privilege, the poverty, the institutionalized racism, the lack of empathy, the gentrification, and the cluelessness - all of it occurring again and again, every minute that I walk the city's streets.

I don't think that the rage gives into them. I don't think my rage gives them power. Money gives them power. Racism gives them power. Our politicians give them power. My rage may not be the solution, but it's certainly not the problem.

So I plan to maintain the rage. One day, perhaps, I won't need to, or I won't care to. But until then, that rage helps to center my moral compass, and reminds me that I still care.

David said...

This is one of my favorite posts in a long time. While showing what's wrong, it captures what's still great about this changing city.

Anonymous said...

In a recent NY Times column, Paul Krugman wrote about how most Americans don’t know how much rich people have, don't know abut the unbelievable inequality (“Pundits sometimes wonder why American voters don’t care more about inequality; part of the answer is that they don’t realize how extreme it is.”)

I would agree. And if Americans who are struggling actually saw the incredible wealth (and power) of many of NYC’s newer, younger residents, whether in Williamsburg or the East Village or Chelsea and elsewhere, they would be astonished – they would probably convert from the Tea Party to the Socialist Party.

The luxury apartments, spending on takeout food or the brunches with food unfinished, the compulsive clothes and shoe shopping, the ongoing barhopping and other entertainment - paid for by high financial services or media or tech salaries or by rich parents.
Bad enough that the corporate 1% and foreign oligarchs have taken over Manhattan – but in some ways even sadder and scarier to see younger people with so much money, with so much entitlement, who lack interest in any civic or social issue and who have taken over NYC neighborhoods, kicking low and middle income New Yorkers out.

Anonymous said...

Some people bristle at mention of God because not everyone is incredulous enough to believe in such an deity. It never ceases to astonish me when I am in public, and people are vigilant about shoving their brand of religion down someone's throat. This is America. We are supposed to subside in a secular society where there is the separation of church and state, yet as i walk in the park, I am forced to hear maniacal rantings of those who are so desperate to have everyone think and feel the same way as them. As an Atheist, I am tired of having to swagger through the streets, minding my own business, only to be confronted with someone else's antics, which in the case of this woman, border on lunacy, and illogical thinking. If someone wants to preach the word of their God, do in a church, for Christ's sake.

Michael Simmons said...

Beautiful piece, Jeremiah.

At some point somebody's gonna snap and it's gonna get ugly and everyone's gonna moan "Why did it happen?"

And many of us will know why.

Phil said...

Well said.
A contemorary variation of "how the other half lives", except now it might not be as many as half among us who aren't rich and even Jacob Riis would struggle to see the hubris and gluttony of today's Manhattan elite.

Anonymous said...

Dude, there've been people who are rich getting driven around in cars forever in this town. Since the Bad Old Days of the 70's and 80's. Since the beginning of the town.
Lighten the fuck up. Live yer own life and stop worrying so much about other people living theirs.
You know, when it was the Bad Old Days and shit, we just went about our biz and that was that. Try it.

Richard Federico said...

Good read Jeremiah,.. I keep telling myself that this is just one form of wealth so as to not let it get to me, but it still irks me. I think it is starting to bother people more and more because of the out of touch kind of wealth that is now becoming off kilter with the reality of a struggling nation.

Many times if you start talking about this in a conversation people will accuse you of hating hard working rich people. I laugh at that accusation because I know that there is a certain limit as to how hard one person can work as opposed to another, and the answer is not a billion times harder. It seems these people who want to label you a hater think that if they don't question the insane and unexplainable wealth that a select few seem to have, than somehow this will free them of guilt should one day they stumble into insane wealth. I guess a lot of people secretly aspire to one day attain this lifestyle and so they don't want to jinx themselves out of the running. What they fail to realise is that being wealthy today is becoming harder and harder unless you are indoctrinated into this rich boy club. This usually is aquired through blood or marriage. The rest of can only hope to become moderately comfortable or upper middle class if we work our asses off!

I don't fault people for being rich, but I am also not willing to go through life with blinders on when I see a growing problem that has turned this country into the few who have way to much, and the vast majority who are struggling paycheck to paycheck.

We need to wake up and smell the violent revolution that will arise should this unsustainable trend continue. Lets face it, this is no longer the land of opportunity when no-one wants to pay anyone an honest wage anymore. A growing number of people are opting out of the workforce because they now think being on Welfare is a career choice. Yes, a career choice! What do you expect when people see no hope in busting their ass for a meager existence? All while corporations threaten to move more of their operations overseas if they don't get more Corporate Welfare.

It sickens me that most of us are working so hard to tread water that we don't notice or don't want to admit we are being taken to the cleaners. The wealthy corporations and political hacks have us distracted and pointing fingers at each other while they line their pockets and set up overseas money shelters and trust funds so their children and future generations can continue bask in the glory. It's just an out of control mess, but what do I know? I'm just a hater.

Riffchorusriff said...

I love when you do these pieces with imagery and quotes from everyday life here. They're very affecting.

DrBOP said...

Nice writin'
and it did brighten
my day
But "anger IS an energy"
so don't put it totally away.

Keep on chooglin'!

Michael said...

I've been reading for months but haven't commented until now. This was too important to miss. A truly poignant and beautiful meditation on life in the city.

Maybe this is what the "new East Village" will be for those of us not living in the condos--a place to observe the wealthy and consider their ways, an anthropological experience of sorts that will unite many of us (who often wouldn't expect to agree with one another).

Phenomenal last line, too.

Anonymous said...

jeremiah, this has been happening since the bret ellis novel. there were actually more homeless in the late 80's than now, much more. some rich people havnt changed since the beginning of time. dont judge everyone. brooke astor did alot for the homeless. anon 4:37, one of the biggest troublemakers in the U.S. are the athieists. you w/your b.s. lawsuits & repression of religious freedom. you are one of the most repressive groups. like youall got too much time on your hands.

cbp said...

Pax vobiscum, Jeremiah.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous Oct 2 4:37pm

I found the comment very interesting. You refer to the woman preaching as 'maniacal'. You refer to her 'lunacy' and 'illogical thinking'. Yes to you it must seem illogical and crazy to actually spend time and money preparing food- transporting it to a park- and serving it to the destitute.
In the new NY that makes her insane. Are you aware that lots of homeless people NEVER speak to anyone during the day? This is the only interaction some get all day. (Except when they are harassed by the cops or drunk bros) Giving them the best meal they (probably) had all day and a positive message is incredibly generous. But I know most don't care about the poor/destitute. They are to be ignored and reported to the authorities. The city will help them right? Keep the religious out of the park.
And to Ms- acknowledging a homeless person can help them- even if you don't have any change to give. It helps keep people sane and connected to the world. Its amazing how you can lose a job and then not have an apt and all of a sudden you become a new subspecies. When did society start thinking like that? If you commenters lost your job and apt how would you fare? I've been there and most lf you wouldn't last a week. I've seen it. You have no clue how difficult it really is. So have some compassion and respect- these folks are tougher mentally and physically than you could ever be.
Finally please don't comment about the homeless when you don't know what you are talking about.

Charleston Tell said...

i really enjoyed that piece of writing, but though I don't have many possessions personally, and little money, I find it difficult to get angry at the two women in the limo. I just see them as people who foolishly have more shit to worry about than me. I have no way of knowing if they're happier or even more comfortable than I am, or if they are loved or respected by anybody, so i am not going to judge them. The driver called the woman "Ma'am"? I call every woman that if I don't know their name! I'm glad some random people lifted that dark cloud from you. Tompkins Square Park is a special place for me, although I did get severely beaten up there once in the 1980s. I can enjoy the place without having that happen to me anymore, so that is a little silver lining to blandification of the city. Anyway, I enjoy your blog immensely and am happy to see someone keeping track of the type of history that you do.

Lisa MB said...

Beautiful post, Jeremiah. I need this to tuck in my back pocket and remember as necessary. Thank you.

Anonymous said...