Archive for July, 2010

Every morning, on my way to my new job in Manhattan, I encounter my Bushwick neighbors standing on the food line. This line gathers forms every morning, changing sides of the street with the day of the week. I haven’t quite figured out the schedule yet, but in front of the Iglesia Bautista, where we give our clothing cast-offs and other usable items we no longer need, the line forms early. People come by, set their carts to mark and save their place, some people stand for hours under umbrellas meant to shield them from the blistering sun, others bring chairs because they cannot stand for hours. The group at the church is a mixed bag: elderly singles, young mothers with kids on each hip, younger single people, middle-aged men, most all of them are Latino and most all of them are  the next day across the street lining up alongside Maria Hernandez Park waiting for a truck to come to give them pre-bagged rations of food.

It’s a sad and chilling sight reminding me both of  just how far this country has slid as well as of my days on the food line last year. The economic recovery, economic stimulus and other such political terms to indicate some sort of  slow emergence from the current great depression is bullshit! There’s no economic recovery here in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Except maybe in my case: a white, middle-aged, middle-class who has returned to work at a company receiving tax breaks and financial incentives for putting an unemployed person to work.

My neighbors, most of them, are not so lucky. There’s very little work these days.  And, the good ol’ Amerikan workplace, rife with racial, ethnic, age and gender discrimination, de facto excludes the people with whom werking gerl 2 and I share a city block, a few nods, smiles and ”hellos’ ,  and  the long, hot walk to and from the L train.


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This morning I played yet another waiting game in the public health system. I arrived at Bellevue Hospital Pharmacy just as the security guard opened the door at 8:15 a.m..  The pharmacy itself doesn’t open until 9:30 a.m., but one must get there early to get a number and get out by, well by a decent enough time to show up to a new job late.

I was at Bellevue this morning because last Friday , when I was also at the pharmacy there, they did not have my medication refills I had called in the week prior. They said they would have them Monday morning and I complied and went back early today. They still did not have them and, after waiting for over and hour and a half to find this out,  I had to negotiate with the window clerk who was nice enough to understand that I cannot take time from work again tomorrow. It was still hectic and took another 45 minutes. This was also because there was a young light-skinned woman among the brown and yellow people who thought she needed to get special treatment and jammed her way to every window saying she didn’t need a number, jumped ahead in the line and generally caused a ruckus that ended with a  security guard mediating between her and those behind her when she jumped the line.

I got to my workplace two hours late. Thankfully, my workplace is understanding, compassionate and everyone knows we all have lives outside the office. Most workplaces are not such friendly and supportive spaces.

Meanwhile werking gerl 2 is home looking online for a job that will pay her, if not well, then decently. When will this waiting game ever end?

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On Saturday, (two posts ago) I was in Times Square, standing in the hot July sun for five hours hawking comical political souvenirs.  There is a small group of people who have been doing this for about a year, and I just recently signed up.  If it’s a busy tourist day, it’s possible to sell a lot of items and make pretty great cash.  I haven’t had this good fortune yet.  The folks who have seniority can bump me off the designated selling corners, and they do, especially during the most profitable/high tourist traffic times to sell.  I have worked many hours during off-peak time with only $20 to show for it.  This holiday weekend I was banking my fellow hawkers would be out of town, or would shy away from the day-time heat, or at least wait and come out in the evening when it was cooler and catch all the folks going to the 8 p.m. Broadway shows.  So I was on the street at 11:00 a.m. determined to catch tourists on their way to lunch, on their way to the matinees and then after the matinees ended.  My plan worked, no one booted me from the corner and I made $110 – a record high for me.

Because this is political merchandise I am vending, which also pokes fun at the president and other political leaders, it rubs a handful of passersby the wrong way.  Most people laugh.  But every few hours I get remarks directed at me like, “That’s disgusting…” or “You should be ashamed of yourself…” And, though these remarks are always passive-aggressively under peoples breath as they kept on walking, I can see they are indeed enraged, angry and offended and they view me as the most brazen, disrespectful American citizen in a 5-mile radius.

It’s a drag to hear people hiss this stuff at me and as a personal self-defense I always remind myself silently there are worse things.  But it’s the word “disrespectful” that kind of gets to me and the personality type that spouts that declaration – and that this insignificant and harmless merchandise would grab their attention so sharply.  Would they also agree that human trafficking was disrespectful?  Do they think child prostitution is disgusting?  Do they think people who torture and kill in the name of genocide (“ethnic cleansing”) should be ashamed of themselves?

I’m sure they do.  But my point is these inhuman atrocities happen all the time, and it doesn’t seem to hold the average American’s attention long enough to really examine it.  I bet these folks spent a good hour over dinner recapping their shock at this political merchandise it took them two seconds to walk by, but they’d give less then five minutes of gab time to express their dissatisfaction of the exchange rate being so favorable from the American to Taiwan dollar that people flock to vacation in Taiwan and get their money’s worth out of non-consensual sex with an 11-year old.

BIG shitty stuff is happening world-wide, and in our own backyard, and the general American populous just drones it out.  Where are people’s values?  What do they really care about?  What is important to them?  I’ll tell you what:  Possessions.  Tchotchkes.  Bling.

People are so caught up in insignificant, distracting things (flat screen TVs, sheet thread counts, Jimmy Choo’s) that those pesky crimes against humanity aren’t being noticed.

And the thing that hits home most immediately for me, as an unemployed person, is the general populace is completely unconscious of that fact they are actively keeping themselves economically enslaved every time they purchase something they don’t really need.

Why should a minority of wealthy individuals/corporations/CEO’s have more money than the entire population of Sub Saharan Africa or America’s Appalachia?  I’ll tell you why:  people are willing to literally hand over their money to them.  Because that’s what you are doing every time you buy something you don’t really need.  You are facilitating someone else owning a palace in Palm Springs, floating their yacht, financing their private jet, etc., while you watch grossly overpaid sports figures on Monday Night Football or rich-ass pop singers in concert on your brand new 52″ flat screen TV.

If DeBeers Chairman Nicky Oppenheimer came up to you on the street and asked if you would give him $1,350 toward his trip to the South of France, would you just fork over the money?

That’s what you are doing every time you purchase, for example, a diamond pendent.

And, who needs diamonds anyway?  No one, really.  Who NEEDS even ONE diamond?  NO ONE.  There is not one single person on planet earth who needs a diamond.  Yet there are millions of people who are living less than modestly who will spend thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars to get one.  Rather than say putting that money toward something like organic groceries, a hybrid car, or into savings (for when Social Security conks out.)

Why not just have 50% of your paycheck direct deposited into DeBeers, AIG, Lehman Brothers, British Petroleum or any other capitalist CEO’s pocket?

Many of the poorest people (particularly in America) are actively keeping the richest people rich every time, for example, they buy diamonds.  And if you are a middle class citizen who hasn’t lost your mortgage and are in a comfortable financial place, yet you have a complaint about CEO’s salary – stop contributing to their salary—and obscene bonuses!

It’s the oldest idea in around, but boycotting (and gerlcotting!) is the most effective weapon people have to force change. The whole world could decide not to give any economic power to the diamond and make a ripple in the world economy.  Wouldn’t it be great if masses could simply say, “That stone is worthless to me.  Later, Zales.”

I want to promote the idea that people can change what the value of money means.  Especially in consumerist America.  There are the have and have-nots, and it’s the have-nots, including the American middle-class, who (consciously or unconsciously) allow others to be rich while they tread water financially.  What are the non-essentials you are buying that drain your bank account yet funds someone else’s 4th home, this time in Dubai.

This is something people seem most resistant to looking at – they gots to have their stuff.  Hopefully for me there won’t be a boycott on worthless souvenirs in Times Square over the next few months and I’ll be able to keep paying my rent this summer.

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Twenty-five years ago, in the suburb of Lakewood, CO a political mandate made it to the voting bill – to “develop” a wooded park area.  Propaganda came in the mail – vote YES on blah blah blah.  The flyer went on to describe in very intricate, but vague and generic detail about how the development would create hundreds of jobs and businesses that would serve the Lakewood community.  My dad was reading this, interested in the nondescript, yet exciting things that were alluded to transpire and thought he would vote ‘yes.’

Normally shy to speak up about stuff and not terribly well-informed economically and politically, my gut none the less made me start shouting, “Dad, don’t you get it?!  This means they are going to pave acres and acres of parking lots – and all the jobs they are promising are going to be MINIMUM WAGE JOBS.  McDonald’s, blah and blah – people – adult people will be making $3.35 per hour.  The only thing that gives to people is a trap they can never get out of!”

I myself was currently in that trap, having worked (albeit while in high school and then college) at the local cinema and various other chain type institutions for $3.35 per hour for the past 4 years.  Though I could hang onto a part time job during the school year, I was able to get a second part or full time job over the summer – but always and only for $3.35.  (The one movie chain I worked for several years did give me a raise, and when I last worked there I was making $3.75 per hour.)

During high school and college I worked my ass off, spending a lot of this money to put gas in my used car to get to both work and school, lunch money, clothes, books and school supplies.  And even though my parents helped with tuition and let me live at home rent free, tuition continued to go up each semester, I had to take out student loans, eventually get a credit card and watch my debt rise – and feeling trapped knowing little nickle and dime raises here and there were a slap-in-the-face fiscal band-aids.  At the time, I didn’t even foresee the depths of debt that lie ahead of me – to struggle to survive and meet my basic needs.

Often when I hear or read President Obama’s sound bites in the news, he is reporting that X amount of jobs are being created.  But what is not reported is that most if not all of those jobs are for minimum wage.  The national minimum wage as of July 2009 is $7.25 per hour.  This is contemporary serfdom in feudal America.

Today in Lakewood my dad is now dead and the vote to develop the aforementioned development was passed.  The Lakewood public library now stands there.  There are acres of parking lots for the many SUV-driving citizens of Lakewood to park while they shop at Old Navy and other bland chain stores.  The last time I was home for a visit, naturally my mom and sister drove me around the area and we looked in the stores.  Naturally lots of high school students and senior citizens work there, which in itself is depressing, but I find it even more depressing and distressing that there are just as many if not more adults who are operating the facilities full time, with no benefits and all for minimum wage.  At least they have a 10 cent raise to look forward to.

Meanwhile, millions remain unemployed and unemployment benefits remain stalled in Congress.  The Republicans in the Senate are dead set against helping Americans who are unemployed because of an economy collapse based on conservative, right-wing and corporate greed.  We are all now serfs either unemployed or worse – in dead-end minimum wage jobs. Feudalism (and futilism) rules this country.

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I’ve had a job since I was 16 years old.  I’ve always worked full time, except for when I was in school full time, in which case I worked part time.  The saga of my sad-ass work experience is a long one, but not uncommon.  Not uncommon for folks who are targets for discrimination, and surprisingly, not the kind of employment discrimination that comes to mind immediately.

This background plays a heavy hand in where I am today.  I will most definitely give the funny, sad, and unconscionable deets about this throughout my posts, but first I’ll simply start with yesterday:  I was at the Williamsburg/Bushwick Food Stamp office in Brooklyn.  This was my second visit.  Four months earlier I applied for food stamps but was denied because I was receiving unemployment.  But my unemployment ended for good (I received the full 99 weeks alloted to those in the first ranks to lose my job during the beginning of the economy crash two years ago.)

Such a turn of events – a few months ago my gf was utterly desperate and gave up her apartment to couch surf with me while I could still pay my rent via UE.  Now I am utterly desperate, save for a few bucks I have been getting from very irregular “cash” jobs here and there.  How did I end up here?  Really, I thought if I don’t land a job while I’m on UE (and I earnestly applied for several hundred jobs – 50 percent I was a dead-on match for – the other 50% I just threw my hat in the ring to meet my UE required job app quota) I will surely get some temp work.  To date, no temp assignments have come my way.

So here I am/was in the food stamp office.  It feels uncomfortable to be there as I am one of the few only white women and also a woman without one, two or three babies/toddlers banded together in a caravan of strollers and baby slings.  However, there is another lesbian couple there.  Given the horror stories I’ve heard about “the system(s)” I am surprised that each person I encounter in all the long lines I have to wait in are brisk, but nice and informative to me.

My intake officer, during the interview, presses me about why I am not also applying to public assistance (which I would only receive approximately $127 a month toward my rent and approximately the same in cash.)  Knowing what my gf went through, there’s no way I’m gonna do that!  That is the quickest way in the world to have all of your time and energy consumed in the most ineffective setting to apply for jobs.  I lead the intake officer to believe that I will also apply for that today (knowing full well I am gonna bolt asap if I get the food stamps.)

I do in fact qualify for the full amount ($200 per month) and my intake office very kindly gives me my final paper work and tells me I can pick up my benefits card today.  She also, as an off the record courtesy, hints to me that the money will probably be available as soon as 3pm today.

I couldn’t be more thrilled!!!  I call my gf to meet so we can go together and pick up the card and immediately go to Trader Joes (which is a few blocks away from the card distribution spot) to load up on groceries.  Food stamps is truly a HUGE help to me – as is Trader Joes – where you can get a lot of quality and even organic food for low cost.  What I don’t spend at TJ I will use in my neighborhood ghetto grocery store to get canned beans and rice which is extremely low priced there.  I can make $200 of food stamps go a LONG way.  And it feels good to share this with my gf who so generously shared her’s when neither of us had any cash for groceries only 6 months ago.

I have a bunch of things to take with me for lunch today, as I am will be heading out soon to a “cash job” (hawking souvenir merchandise to tourists.)  I might spend six hours in the hot sun and only make $20.  I hope I will make more.  One thing for sure I’ll have several delicious/nutritious snack bars to enjoy.

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So, the public assistance saga in my life actually continues. Just as next Tuesday I begin a well-paying, senior level position at a fabulous company, my girlfriend has run out of unemployment insurance and is, as of today, receiving food stamps. I waited outside of 100A Livingston Street as my girlfriend, whom I will call werking gerl 2, stood inside having her photo and information taken and then waiting even longer for her benefits card. It all took about an hour. We then went to Trader Joe’s around the corner on Court Street to get her some much-needed groceries.

werking gerl 2 can take it from here, she’s going to be writing about her own story as it relates to the economic depression we are currently experiencing and her own odyssey through the food stamp and public healthcare system.

Take it away #2…!

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