Tag Archives: New York City

Earth vs. the GOP

They used to call her “Mother Earth.” Now she’s simply a commodity to be liquidated into cash at the country club where rich white men play. That’s why I’m spending Earth Day on my third protest march of the year. Of all the things the Republican Party has done to show its true colors the clearest has been to participate in the destruction of the world we all share. There’s only one word that answers the question “why,” and it used to be considered one of the seven deadly sins. Greed. These acts of planetary terrorism are carried out by men who believe lining their own pockets is the highest possible good. Even moderate Republicans have locked in their goose step to keep in the good graces of madmen who want to cram as much lucre into their coffers as they can before they die. When the planet’s a smoldering ruin their grandchildren will surely thank them.

Son, behold thy mother.

Don’t knock tree-hugging unless you’ve tried it. Trees tend to be much better company than Republicans anyway. Never have I had the feeling that I’ve had to celebrate Earth Day with such a blend of angst and anger. That one that your teacher always warned you about—the one who ruins it for everyone—now has control of the country. Immediately he insisted we start dumping coal waste into our streams and rivers. Burn more coal so he can play a few more holes with what passes for a clean conscience in a filthy soul. I march because I must. We can’t sit silently and let the darkness fall. If you can see through the coal dust you’ll understand that the planet weeps. It’s her that we celebrate today.

Matricide used to be considered a heinous crime. Now it’s just good business. If we were an honest species we’d admit it’s been bad business from the beginning. We’d never elect a businessman with inherently conflicting interests to the White House. The goods of the few outweighs the good of the many. The commodification of nature is the worst kind of unnatural selection. Here science and common sense agree—in order to survive we must preserve our planet. I confess that I’m unapologetic in this regard. So, although I’ll be spending this Earth Day in the artificial environment of Manhattan, marching in the cause of science, and if push comes to shove I’ll be the one hugging a tree.

Ode to Hubris

One-hundred-five years ago today, one of modernity’s great achievements sank alone in the icy waters of the chilled North Atlantic. While the ultimate cause of Titanic’s demise may have been an iceberg, the proximate cause was surely much more common. Human arrogance, we’re reminded daily, never learns its lesson. Despite what elected officials tell us, arrogance at the top will always lead according to its surfeit of self-confidence. After all, there are no icebergs this far south so late in the year. It seems that we’ll never forget Titanic and the hundreds of needless deaths, but somehow we’re not very good at transferring the lesson to other media. Let me give just a small example.

Yesterday I was in New York City. My family came during the day to celebrate my wife’s birthday. One of the benefits of New Jersey Transit is that after 7 p.m. on a Friday, a monthly bus pass also works on the train. I can meet up with my family after work and we can ride home in comfort instead of taking the bus, such as I usually do. We didn’t know that at 3:30 that afternoon a train had broken down in one of the limited number of tunnels under the Hudson. (Governor Chris Christie had famously stopped work on another set of tunnels to ease the commute.) About twelve-hundred passengers sat for an amazing three hours with no lights, air conditioning, or announcements. No trains could make it into New York’s Penn Station. When we arrived, oblivious, just before 7 p.m. there were people pouring out of the station. Coats and clothing were strewn all over the steps, as if the homeless had been raptured. The police told my wife and daughter not to go down. A few minutes later they said, “Definitely no shots were fired.” When we got to the platform all the monitors read about half-past five. Discarded clothing was everywhere. It was only when we finally got on a train that we learned that in the anxious terminal where crowds were restless, Amtrak police had tazed a man. People thought shots had been fired, and panicked. The video taken by those in the station shows people running, dropping clothes, luggage, and shoes in their haste to flee. Just after this, we’d arrived.

Titanic, it seems to me, is about building something so massive that it can’t be controlled. Human arrogance is like that. This week we heard about United Airlines security beating up a passenger to make room for company employees who needed to be on an oversold flight. Just a couple weeks back another New Jersey Transit train derailed in Penn Station, disrupting for days the insane commute some of us undertake daily. Who’s the captain of this ship? Oh. But we don’t have to worry. There are no icebergs this far south this late in the year.

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Those who think walls actually keep people out have never ridden the train through North Philadelphia. Or into Newark. I have to admit that I’ve always found rail-side graffiti aesthetically pleasing. Some of these vandals are real artists on a scale that is truly impressive. Speeding trains are, of course, dangerous. And in urban areas they are fenced off to keep people out. Thing is, walls don’t work. Riding to Washington DC for the Women’s March a couple weekends ago, I was watching the graffiti on the way into Philly. Vast, colorful, and with a flair for design, it makes the usual visual fare for railway riders much more interesting. Buildings, we know, have facades to be public facing. If you go around to the back of the strip mall, things look a lot more spartan indeed. I’ve spent my fair share of time in employee break rooms. Executive washrooms they’re not.

The thing about facades is that they’re fake. Like in those old westerns where we see them jutting up higher than the actual roof of the store or saloon, making them look bigger than they really are. Or even a small town boy who works in Manhattan can see it. Walk down the avenues of Midtown and the glitz is never-ending. Once you get to the minor cross-streets you see the service entrances and smelly trash bags stacked in the alleys. Would you want to enter that store if you knew what was coming out the back? We prefer our self-deception. We prefer to call our lies alternative facts. We can sleep better at night that way, knowing that our heads of state are so so brutally honest. Just don’t wander behind the cameraman. Things aren’t what they seem.

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To get to New York City from where I live, you have to change trains in Newark. The graffiti along the way is intense. Long ago I noticed a signal hidden in the noise. “Paint the Revolution” it reads. Or read. I don’t know if it’s still there. Graffiti’s often the bare truth. The thing is, it’s difficult to photograph. Trains move fast and phones focus slowly. Things look blurry and those in power can tell us the words of hoi polloi are ugly and defacement of property. Have they ever walked behind the building to where the workers come out? It’s easy to find. If you smell the piles of garbage you’re getting close. Executive washrooms they’re not. But the back door is far more honest than any facade.

Identity Crisis

It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day. The movie, I mean. As a child I was taught never to talk to strangers, but that’s a little hard to maintain in New York City. You’re never really alone there. Standing in line for the bus, I read. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is a crowded place around rush hour and I try to spin my literary cocoon so that I can get some reading done and so that I can have a little alone time. Introverts are like that. When the guy standing in front of me is confused, however, I like to help. There are three different bus lines that get mixed at my gate, and since I do this nearly every day I usually have a pretty good idea where to stand. I pointed this young fellow in the right direction. “Thanks,” he said. After a pause he asked, “are you a teacher?” I get this a lot, actually. By everyone but deans and search committees.

The writing on the wall.

The writing on the wall.

I was out for a walk in a city I’d only been to once before. Some guys were setting up for an outdoor function (the city was in the south). I was actually using my phone for geocaching, so I wasn’t paying too much attention to what was going on around me. One of the guys stopped me and said, “Excuse me—are you a professor?” Some might accuse me of cultivating the look—glasses, beard, slightly puzzled expression most of the time—but the reality is the look is simply who I am. There are those who are professors because they want to be. There are those of us who should be because we can’t help it. I read as if books were food. When somebody asks what the weather’s like, I’m wondering if this world is reality at all. Thing is, academics too are busy finding jobs for their friends to care.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” he went on. “I mean, I’m a complete stranger.” Actually he’s not. He’s a student. I don’t know him. I’ve never had him in class, but he needed some information I had readily available. I shared it with him. No, the fact is I’m not a professor. Professors are paid (much better than editors) for dispensing what I’m glad to give away for free. A teacher, you see, teaches. The best teachers I ever had were those who continued the lifestyle outside the classroom. They were never arrogant or privileged. They simply shared. Every day, in this situation, begins to look like the one before.

Thousand Words

I could easily spill a thousand words, but I have no picture. You see, as a tuition-paying parent I seldom carry cash—pin money is a luxury I just can’t afford. I saw the perfect photo-op, but had to walk on by. On my way to work I saw a homeless man in Manhattan. That’s not so rare. In fact, it’s distressingly common. This man had written a sign: “Give me $1 or I’ll vote for Trump.” It was followed by a tasteful laughing face emoticon. Old school. On paper. I would gladly have paid him a dollar to take a picture, but I had no money on me and I was left to remember and ponder the implications of a statement that struck me as rather profound.

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It isn’t at all strange that the homeless have a sense of humor. There’s a deep, deep irony that pervades a nation where even those who follow all the rules end up finding themselves unemployable. Exploitation is the new capitalism. What surprises us is when these dehumanized economic units show they have feelings. I try to read the many signs the homeless write. They’re not so different from me. I’ve sat on the other side of the desk and been told that I’m just not quite what the employer wants. These affable commodities sit on their shelves, expiration dates passed, trying to raise a smile. Perhaps open a wallet. Their stories could be written down, but who would buy such a book? Nobody likes a downer.

The nature of the sign’s threat is worth considering. The dismal science tells us that it’s all about goods and products that change hands. One fervent disciple of this crooked system wants to be our president. He doesn’t pay any taxes, but he’s never had to live in a cardboard box like so much breakfast cereal. And this poor man in front of me is casting the most noteworthy threat that the disenfranchised can—he’ll vote for this travesty if we don’t pay him. The fine interplay of threat, extortion, fear, hopelessness, and humor tell me that I’m in the presence of a man who has a valuable contribution to make. More valuable than that which is being offered to us by the guy who’s been benefitting from our dimes for nearly two decades while giving nothing back. And if I had a single, or even a five, I’d be glad to exchange it for a photo to remind me of what a true American looks like.

Bad Theology

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Perhaps the most overused simile for a real mess is that it’s “like a train wreck.” No doubt this is because train wrecks are messy, and deadly. Few things speak to human vulnerability more than airborne hunks of heavy metal flying in indeterminate directions. Trains don’t stop fast. If they do people get hurt. No, I wasn’t on the train that crashed into the Hoboken station yesterday during the morning commute. I’m just one of many thousands of people who make their way into the city every day, but I go by bus, which is more affordable. Still, there’s something in every commuter that mourns a tragedy like this. We’re not in competition for getting into New York. It’s only after we’re off our conveyances that we compete. The stories after the crash, however, emphasized something I’ve always known—people are basically good.

A strain of Christian theology makes the extremely dubious claim that people are “totally depraved.” Assaulted again and again with this misanthropic theology in college, I was bound to fight back. Some guys with minimal psychological training decided, in the early modern period, that God had created the vast majority of people for Hell. Because we share the primates’ evolved taste for fruit, we participated in “original sin.” It wasn’t exactly sex (since God had declared that good) but it was a consequence of it. We were born fallen and had to be redeemed. These theologians declared, however, that very few ever would be. Most of us were Hell-fodder and deserved to be since we’re so naturally evil. A few centuries earlier Jesus had said you’d know the righteous by their fruits. There’s no getting away from the fruit.

Life in the big city is impersonal. Commuters share their conveyances each day with many strangers. After the wreck, however, as my wife pointed out, those in the cars far enough back that the injuries weren’t grievous first turned to everyone else and asked if they were all right. If they need help. If they could walk. Strangers helping one another. Good Samaritans. It doesn’t sound like total depravity to me.

Our economic system thrives on hyped-up competition. When we’re taken out of that context and placed into a human one, we cooperate. We want to help one another. Perhaps it’s not the people who are totally depraved, but the system they’re forced into. No, I wasn’t on that train. My bus had pulled into New York an hour and a half earlier. But even from a distance I could see what I’ve known all along. People are basically good.

Hi Ho, Hi Ho

I’ve been writing about reading. No surprises there, I suppose. My wife recently introduced me to BookRiot, and I wish I had more time to spend there. A recent post by Aisling Twomey describes how reading on her Tube commute helps keep her sane. Here is a good case of convergent evolution—I came to the same conclusion after about a week of what turns out to be about three hours a day commuting to New York City. We didn’t move to my current location to work in Manhattan. My job was in nearby Piscataway. It was only when a headhunter found me a job at Routledge that I began the daily trip. The problem is I get terribly car sick. To this day I can’t read in a car. Some days I can’t read on the bus either. Gradually, however, I trained myself to do it, and the results have been worth it. Ms. Twomey has read over fifty books this year on her London commute. I suspect my commute is a bit longer since I’ve read a few more than that. Still, we tilt against the same windmill, so we need to appreciate the dedication it takes.

I was talking to someone the other day who was complaining about cell phones. She said, “I used to read a lot. I worked in a book store. It was great.” Her cell, she said, gave her a stiff neck from constantly looking down. And a sore thumb from swiping and texting. And yet, she lamented, she just couldn’t stop. Books may well be a vice. I’m as bad as any addict. I have no idea how many books I’ve read in my life: the number is in the thousands rather than the hundreds, I know. And even the books I regret, I don’t really regret. Reading is a coping mechanism.

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One of the things that the traditional ancient religions all have in common is books. Not all of them treat sacred texts the same way, but they all have some form of sacred writing. There was an implicit sense, I believe, from the first stylus on clay, that something truly special was going on here. Holy, even. Writing is one of the great joys of life. Reading is another. Both are sacred professions. In a way it seems a shame to have to be forced into a commute in order to find time to read books. Still, the constant flow of new material has a life-saving quality to it. I can’t imagine spending fifteen concentrated hours a week texting. I don’t know that many people to text. The ones I do know I know through their books. And they’re very good company on a long ride.