Tuesday, December 05, 2017

two #metoo's


I still have a hard time calling it sexual assault. Or attempted rape. Though my girlfriend keeps telling me that’s what it was.

This was in the 80s. I was couchsurfing with various friends and relatives as I searched for a job and an apartment. When my friend Sandy went out of town, I got a week in an actual bed. Sandy’s apartment was on the 5th floor of a tenement in Hell’s Kitchen. His room was in the back, tucked into a space that was little more than an alcove you walked through on the way to the toilet. Sandy’s friend Billy had the front room, which doubled as the living room. The kitchen – which included a stall shower – was in between.

It was summer – the oppressive air almost motionless despite (or because of) the midget air shaft window that provided the only ventilation in Sandy’s nook. I was sleeping naked and must have kicked the covers off in the heat, because I woke to a strange sensation: something wet, warm, weighty and oddly pleasurable around my lower half. It was Billy, crouched on top of my legs at the bottom of the bed, sucking my dick.

I shouted, “What the fuck are you doing,” and pushed him away. He hurried to his end of the apartment. For perhaps 20 minutes, I sat on the edge of the bed, stunned and uncertain and feeling very strange. I think I debated whether to take a hot shower in the kitchen, worried that Billy would emerge to interrupt me. I think I didn’t take that shower. For the next few days, I left early in the morning and came back very late, and tried not to bump into Billy.

When Sandy got back, I told him what had happened.

Sandy didn’t hesitate. He threw Billy out of the apartment. That day. With no warning. As soon as Billy came home from work.

Sandy said that Billy needed to know that there were consequences. Sandy said he couldn’t be friends with someone like this. And he never wavered. Billy remained in the building, moving in with Gladys, on the 2nd floor, but Sandy never resumed a friendship with him. For him, Billy was banished. For life.

I wound up moving into the building, too – taking over a mostly-destroyed apartment on the 4th floor that hadn’t been occupied in more than a decade. I pulled up the rotted kitchen floor and installed a new one. I replaced the fallen kitchen ceiling and patched the damaged plaster walls that were scarred down to the tufts of horsehair on the lathe. I re-ran some of the electrical lines, which featured paper-insulated wires twined together and snaked into ancient gas-lamp fixtures. And I learned how to sweat pipe to install a sink and a tub in the kitchen. Renovation: a good way to rebuild a self.

A few years on, Billy got sick. All of us in the building watched him waste away.

Perhaps a year and a half after he died, Billy’s twin sister showed up at my door. She told me she had not seen her brother since he got out of the army 20 years before and had only just been informed of his death. She had come up from Birmingham to find out as much as she could about him. Gladys had refused to let her in and sent her to me. I went downstairs and convinced Gladys to relent. Then I stood to the side as Billy’s sister rummaged through her brother’s medicines and syringes and needles that Gladys had preserved, stuffed into cardboard boxes in her overheated apartment. Roaches scuttled away as she prised open each box.

“I don’t understand,” she kept saying. “There was no reason for this. Why didn’t he come home?”

I think I might have said that Billy was a proud man and that he probably didn’t want her and the rest of the family to see him sick. But mostly I stayed silent and let her finger the inert medical stuff that was all that was left to give meaning to her brother’s life. I know she was probably feeling heavier and sadder than she had ever believed was humanly possible. And I know that she needed something from me. Something personal about Billy. Anything, no matter how tiny.

I wanted to be able to tell her something, but I couldn’t.

I have always told myself that what was done to me in that Hell’s Kitchen bedroom wasn’t important, that it didn’t affect me. In a general way, that’s probably true. Billy was on me, not in me. He accepted that I pushed him away. And he was not in a position of power over me in any other area of my life. Also, I know it helped that Sandy believed me and threw Billy out of the apartment. But, to this day, I can hear Billy’s bare feet on the floor and see his hairy back retreating to the kitchen after I shouted and shoved him off me.


There’s a David Foster Wallace story from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men that begins this way. 
Here is a weird one for you. It was a couple of years ago, and I was 19, and getting ready to move out of my folks’ house, and get out on my own, and one day as I was getting ready, I suddenly get this memory of my father waggling his dick in my face one time when I was a little kid. The memory comes up out of nowhere, but it is so detailed and solid-seeming, I know it is totally true. I suddenly know it really happened, and was not a dream, even though it had the same kind of bizarre weirdness to it dreams have. Here is the sudden memory. I was around 8 or 9, and I was down in the rec room by myself, after school, watching TV. My father came down and came into the rec room, and was standing in front of me, like between me and the TV, not saying anything, and I didn’t say anything. And, without saying anything, he took his dick out, and started kind of waggling it in my face.
The story continues.
I do not remember if he even looked at me. All I remember was the dick. The dick, like, claimed all of my attention. He was just sort of waggling it in my face, without saying anything or making any type of comment, shaking it kind of like you do in the can, like when you are shaking off, but, also, there was something threatening and a little bully-seeming about the way he did it, I remember, too, like the dick was a fist he was putting in my face and daring me to say anything, and I remember I was wrapped up in the afghan, and could not get up or move out of the way of the dick, and all I remembered doing was sort of moving my head all over the place, trying to get it out of my face (the dick). It was one of those totally bizarre incidents which are so weird, it seems like it is not happening even while it is happening. The only time I even had glimpsed my father’s dick before was in locker rooms. I remember my head kind of moving around all over the place, on my neck, and the dick kind of following me all over the place, and having totally bizarre thoughts going through my head while he did it, like, ‘I am moving my head just like a snake,’ etc. He did not have a boner. I remember the dick was a little bit darker than the rest of him, and big, with a big ugly vein down one side of it. The little hole-thing at the end looked slitty and pissed off, and it opened and closed a little as my father waggled the dick, keeping the dick threateningly in my face no matter where I moved my head around to. That is the memory.
So, alone with his dad in the moving van carrying all his stuff to his new apartment, he speaks up.
out of (from his perspective) nowhere, I suddenly tell my father I just had recently remembered the day he came down and waggled his dick in my face when I was a little kid, and I sort of briefly described what I had remembered, and asked him, ‘What the fuck was up with that?’ When he kept merely driving the van, and did not say or do anything to respond, I persisted, and brought the incident up again, and asked him the same question all over again. (I pretended like maybe he did not hear what I said the first time.) And then what my father does—we are in the van, on a brief straight away on the route home to my folks’ house, so I can get ready to move out on my own—he, without moving his hands on the wheel or moving one muscle except for his neck, turns his head to look at me, and gives me this look. It is not a pissed off look, or a confused one like he believes he did not quite hear. And it is not like he says, ‘What the hell is the matter with you,’ or ‘Get the fuck outta here,’ or any of the usual things he says where you can tell he is pissed off. He does not say one thing, however, this look he gives me says it all, like he can not believe he just heard this shit come out of my mouth, like he is in total disbelief, and total disgust, like not only did he never in his life waggle his dick at me for no reason when I was a little kid but just the fact that I could even fucking imagine that he ever waggled his dick at me, and then like, believe it, and then come into his own presence in this rental van and, like, accuse him. Etc., etc. The look he reacted and gave me in the van while he drove, after I brought up the memory and asked him straight up about it—this is what sent me totally over the edge, where my father was concerned. The look he turned and slowly gave me said he was embarrassed for me, and embarrassed for himself for even being related to me. Imagine if you were at a large, fancy, and coat-and-tie dinner or track banquet with your father, and if, like, you all of a sudden got up on the banquet table and bent down and took a shit right there on the table, in front of everybody at the dinner—this would be the look your father would be giving you as you did it (took a shit). Roughly, it was then, in the van, that I felt like I could have killed him.
And, after not talking with his family for more than a year this is how it gets resolved.
Little by little, it seemed like the moral of a memory of any incident that weird is, anything is possible. After the year, I got to this position in my attitude where I figured that, if my father was willing to forget about the whole thing of me bringing up the memory of the incident in the van, and to never bring it up, then I was willing to forget the whole thing. I knew that I, for fucking-‘A’ goddamn sure, would never bring any of it up again.
So he goes to meet his family for dinner, and is late, and his family orders food in his absence, and this is the end of the story.
I sat down, and smilingly asked what they ordered me.
My father said, ‘A chicken presto dish thing your mother ordered for you.’
I said, ‘But I hate chicken. I always hated it. How could you forget I hate chicken?’
We all looked at each other for a second, around the table, even my littlest sister, and her boyfriend with the hair. There was one long split second of all looking at each other. This was when the waiter was bringing everybody’s chicken. Then my father smiled, and drew one of his fists back jokingly, and said, ‘Get the fuck outta here.’ Then my Mom put her hand up against her upper chest, like she does when she is afraid she’s going to laugh too hard, and laughed. The waiter put my plate in front of me, and I pretended to look down and make a face, and we all laughed. It was good.


I thought of this story – and my story, which I hadn’t thought about in a long time – when I read the horrifying accounts of rape, attempted rape, abuse, and sexual harassment that have spilled into the press of late.

“Anything is possible,” David Foster Wallace said. But that was an understatement.

I was tempted, weeks ago, when I started thinking about this, to say #metoo, and leave it at that. But #metoo as a stand-alone imposes its own kind of silence. It expresses solidarity while closing the conversation. ‘Yes,’ the meme says, ‘I’ve either experienced this or understood it. But I don’t want to go into detail. I don’t want to open the subject. I’m content with six characters instead of a story.’

So I waited, trying to find what resonated for me, to recover what I first felt, what I still feel. Assault and rape and abuse and harassment are a grievous wound to the self and, even decades after the fact, we can’t talk and others can’t listen. I certainly never talked about my experience. It seemed as if silence was the only way I could re-enter my life and have the world return to normal. Silencio es salud – silence is health – Argentina’s military leaders warned back in the 70s as they killed and “disappeared” all dissidents. Now true in a whole new way.

Yet I know ACT UP was right: silence=death. So I tell the story, just as David Foster Wallace told his. And, even now, having written this, I am not really talking. I’m stating, averring, declaring. It’s a deposition, not a conversation. And I’m just as empty afterwards as I was before I told it, left only with the imprint of Billy’s body on my legs, the memory of his bald-spot gliding up and down as his mouth moved on my penis, the sensation of being locked in a tunnel watching a slow motion movie that will probably repeat for all my years, as he turns and moves away from me down the over-heated yellow-linoleum-tiled tenement corridor of the future.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

in the city of perpetual arrival

PUT IT THIS WAY: Komal Ramparsad is my grandfather. This would come as strange news to Komal, who’s more than ten years younger than I am, from a different part of the world, and Hindu, not Jewish. But it’s true, one hundred years on, he’s doing what my grandfather did, in almost exactly the same place. There’s no denying it, he’s more like my grandfather than I am.

My mother’s father, Barnet Melnick, arrived in New York after a series of pogroms in 1905 made life impossible in Czarist Russia. He came to the city seeking opportunity. What he got was a miserable job as a sewing machine operator in a sweatshop. But he was a frugal guy and saved enough to open a candy store/soda fountain underneath the elevated train (the “El”) in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. It was a German neighborhood then, but my grandfather decided that in this diverse new land, nationality mattered less than location.

The myth in my family for many years after my grandfather sold the business was that the old neighborhood had become a slum. But it wasn’t true. This modest neighborhood where the soundtrack of life is the shrill shriek of the El as trains traverse the sharp curve from Fulton to Crescent has remained what it was: a home to immigrant dreams. It only changed ethnicities, becoming less European and more Latino and West Indian. Today, Cypress Hills is where you will find Komal Ramparsad, manning the counter in a West Indian grocery one block from the soda fountain my grandfather ran for four decades.

Ramparsad came to New York six years ago from Guyana. He, too, came to create a better life for himself. “When you have a home there,” he says, “you can work but you make no money.” What’s more, he said, Guyana has its own homegrown discrimination. “You have a kind of racialism between the blacks and the Indians.” New York, for Ramparsad, is far less tense than his home country.

Today, at age thirty-four, he claims he has found a new identity and has no interest in returning to Guyana, even though his parents and siblings remain there. “I feel more American than Guyanan,” he says as he banters with the few customers who stroll in on a brisk December morning. As they chat and pick through piles of freshly delivered eggplant, bok choy, young squash, and long beans—displayed in their cardboard packing cases—plus a wide variety of spices and curry powders and stacks of CDs and DVDs of the latest Bollywood beauties, the lilt of their English is so lush and musical that I find it hard to understand. After the customers move on, Komal continues his story.
“Here you have a mix of everything. Every year, different people take over and different things happen. Fresh memory, fresh everything. I love everything here. I even love the winter.” Komal has become a New Yorker. And, though it would no doubt embarrass him to say so, in this process, he has helped save his adopted city.

According to the common myth, New York has been revitalized through gentrification, which reclaimed the battered buildings and neighborhoods of a city that was given up for dead a generation ago. The casual consumer of news would be left to think that New York’s economy is booming because of the good works and megadollars of developers and yuppie types, whose high-priced condos and suburban shop-till-you-drop lifestyle seem to be taking over the city. Immigrants, by contrast, are viewed as a drain on the city, sucking up services, subsidies, and Section 8 and destroying the civility and beauty of neighborhoods.

Contrary to these parallel legends, however, Ramparsad and his fellow recent arrivals are the ones keeping New York City alive. The upper-crust New York mainlined into the national psyche in sitcoms and serials like Seinfeld and Sex and the City is not the real New York. Outside of a few privileged neighborhoods, the average New Yorker is more like Komal than Kramer or Carrie Bradshaw.

According to most economic indicators, the 1990s were a boom time for the city. Business thrived, rents soared, and Wall Street was in the stratosphere. Yet, while political leaders pretended everything was rosy, 1.3 million people left the city—and only 250,000 folks from elsewhere in the United States arrived to take their place. This net outflow of more than a million people would have sapped the city, in both symbolic and serious ways. New York would have shrunk to around 6 million people—smaller than the city has been since 1920. Neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs would be feeling the effects of this contraction, just as they did in the 1970s, when New York’s population plummeted by more than 800,000: abandonment, foreclosures, business failures, crime, a government response that led to the decay of infrastructure (through what policy makers called “deferred maintenance”), and, ultimately, to 1977’s financial meltdown and default.

New York escaped this fate in the 1990s for one major reason: because Ramparsad and 1.2 million others like him arrived from abroad and decided to stay. Add to that 500,000 more births than deaths during the decade—because immigrants tend to have more kids than native-born residents—and you’ve explained New York’s astounding recent population growth.

The strength of immigration in New York in the 1980s and 1990s far outpaced the fabled influx in the forty years from 1880 and 1920, when 1.5 million immigrants arrived from eastern and southern Europe. Between 1980 and 2000, more than 2 million immigrants poured into New York, one-third of them from the Caribbean and Latin America. In modern-day New York City, the 369,186 immigrants from the Dominican Republic make up the largest portion of the foreign-born population. Rounding out the “top-five” feeder countries for the city are China (261,551), Jamaica (178,922), the states of the former Soviet Union (163,829), and Guyana (130,647). Mexico and Ecuador are coming on strong, too.

Despite recent indications that immigration is tailing off, city planners believe that immigrants will continue to flock to New York. “Despite 9/11 and despite the more stringent visa requirements we have, we assume that at the very least, the number of new immigrants coming to New York City will still be over 100,000 a year,” says Arun Peter Lobo, deputy director of the New York City Department of City Planning’s Population Division. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, a consortium of regional governments, projects that the city’s population—currently 8.2 million—will vault past 9 million within fifteen years and will hit 9.5 million by 2030.

The dense array of skyscrapers may remain the postcard image of New York, but the city’s real growth isn’t in the borough residents call “the city.” During the 1990s, Manhattan added only 50,000 additional residents—a population increase of just 3.3 percent. And most of those new arrivals were concentrated at the far northern tip of the borough, in Washington Heights and Inwood, neighborhoods that have long been a Dominican enclave.

The real story was off the island of Manhattan. Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island all grew more than twice as fast as the city’s fanciest borough. And that population explosion has translated into development and dollars: in 2004, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx each boasted more apartments under construction than Manhattan, according to plans filed with the city’s Buildings Department. The value of this development: $1.6 billion. For the foreseeable future, 90 percent of the city’s population growth is expected to be in the outer boroughs.

“The population in the late 1960s and 1970s had really declined,” says Jonathan Bowles, head of the Center for an Urban Future, a local think tank. “Storefronts were empty and in many cases it was dangerous to walk around. The immigrants really helped turn that around. Today there’s no abandonment. The biggest problem facing many of these neighborhoods today is congestion.” (To be fair, this is no minor issue. Overcrowded schools and overstressed infrastructure are severe problems that fall most heavily on immigrant families.)

Though we have created a rosy picture of the immigration boom of a hundred years back, the reality was far from ideal. When my grandfather came to New York, the idea of a city of immigrants scared long-term residents. Many, including reform-minded progressives like Jacob Riis, saw new arrivals as a criminal class. Despite immigrants’ continued willingness to work long hours in difficult conditions for incredibly low pay, similar sentiments abound today. The first rumblings of discontent are being felt in the suburbs. Upscale Westchester County, for instance, has seen its immigrant population double over the last thirty years. And the influx has created tensions.

Take Brewster, New York, which has attracted a large pool of laborers, many of them Mexican, who regularly congregate on Main Street seeking daywork. In October 2005, when authorities discovered one of those Mexicans dead drunk and passed out behind a local school, the community responded with the kind of anger normally reserved for violent crimes. Rather than looking for ways to help the immigrants avoid social pathologies—such as creating a local hiring hall that would get the immigrants off the streets and ensure that these laborers are treated fairly by their employers—more than one hundred parents packed a school board meeting to push local legislators to lobby in Washington for tougher immigration laws. Similar protests have taken place in communities on Long Island.

But contrary to these concerns, there’s evidence that immigrants actually make the city and its surroundings safer. Back in the 1960s, when New York’s immigrant population plunged by more than 120,000, crime became rampant. By the end of the decade, the percentage of immigrants fell to 18 percent of the city’s population, down from more than 41 percent in 1910.

The 1970s saw a small rebound in immigration but not enough to reverse the city’s energy drain. Again, crime got worse. Immigration began its sustained rise in the 1980s, when an average of 85,000 people from abroad arrived each year. The annual number of immigrants flowing into New York increased 25 percent in the 1990s, to 104,000 people each year. And that’s when crime began to fall.

Ramparsad’s neighborhood provides a perfect example. White people fled the neighborhood in the 1990s (Cypress Hills’ white population fell by 42.4 percent during the decade, according to the 2000 census and the City Planning Department statistics) and were replaced by such a swarm of new immigrants that the community’s total population swelled by more than 7 percent despite the white flight. Those new arrivals, though poor (29 percent of the people in Cypress Hills live in poverty, according to the census), opened eighty-seven new businesses between 1998 and 2003, almost all of them mom-and-pop operations.

And what happened to crime during the same period? Reports from the New York City Police Department’s CompStat Unit tell the story. In 1990, the Seventy-fifth precinct, which covers Cypress Hills, recorded 109 murders, 133 rapes, and 3,452 robberies. By 1998, just before Ramparsad arrived, there were 41 murders, 112 rapes, and 1,628 robberies. In 2005 (the latest statistics available run through December 18th), there were just 29 murders, 51 rapes, and 725 robberies. In the years since Ramparsad arrived in New York, murders dropped by 30 percent, rapes by 55 percent, and robberies by 56 percent. The NYPD reports similar declines in neighborhoods all over the city.

Though crime is likely a cyclical phenomenon (this would explain why much of the nation has also experienced a decline in violent crime over the past few years), and the NYPD’s move toward community policing and zero tolerance for minor misbehavior has also had a hand in the reduction in violence, it’s impossible to dismiss the notion that immigrants also influenced the trend.

“It didn’t happen because of immigration alone, but it is one of the contributing factors,” says Hiram Monserrate, a former police officer who now represents Corona, Jackson Heights, and Woodside, Queens, on New York’s City Council. “Clearly, where there’s more economic activity and more economic opportunity, there’s less crime.”

Irwine G. Clare, an immigrant rights advocate whose firm, Caribbean Immigrant Services, is based in Jamaica, Queens, adds: “We’re here out of choice—and with choice comes responsibility and sacrifice. When people work, when they own things, when they are entrepreneurs, there is a tendency for crime to go down. New York is a good place to come and study, to come and work. It is not a good place to come and hustle.”

Of course, you could argue that Ramparsad had it easy in New York City. Coming from an English-speaking Caribbean country, he had an advantage in being able to negotiate the system without having to learn a new tongue. Indeed, Ramparsad now has a green card, which entitles him to be here legally, and hopes eventually to become a citizen.

Perhaps Angela Diaz is more typical. She came to the United States at almost the same time as Ramparsad, from her native Colombia. She arrived at age nineteen, along with her mother and her aunt, all three of them clutching tourist visas entitling them to be in the United States for six months. And all three have stayed put, in violation of their visas, setting down roots in the borough of Queens, where they share an apartment. Diaz works in a gift shop in Corona, her mom is a home-health-care worker, and her aunt is a housekeeper who lives with a family on Long Island.

Despite the hardship of not being able to speak English when she arrived (in her first job, at a pizzeria in a mall on Long Island, customers routinely yelled at her and told her to go back to her country), Diaz says things are much tougher now. “At the beginning, no, I wasn’t scared. But now it’s scary, because I don’t have papers.” Diaz and her mother fear that they will be caught and deported.
What’s more, though her command of English is now quite good, without papers Diaz cannot qualify for financial aid for higher education. And she is afraid that, simply by applying to City University, she will put herself, her mother, and her aunt on the radar of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

“I want to go to school, and I can’t,” she says. “I want another job, but I can’t. I need papers to try to go to college. That’s my dream, and I can’t.”

Queens Councilman Monserrate, for one, says Diaz and her family are right to be cautious. “Deportations are at an all-time high,” the councilman says. “But, under the guise of September 11 and homeland security and antiterror efforts, the number-one group of deportees is Latinos. Isn’t that interesting?” Indeed, the INS has been folded into the Department of Homeland Security, sending a not-so-subtle message to immigrants: we’re in business to keep the United States safe and pure, not to welcome the huddled masses.

Diaz would plan for a future in New York if she could establish herself legally. Instead, she is sending her savings to Colombia to buy an apartment there in case she is deported.

“Colombia was better,” she says of her six years in New York. “This city is just too much thinking and nothing in the heart. I thought that everything was going to be easy. But it’s very hard. It’s hard to be an immigrant. But we need jobs. That’s why we’re here.”

Irwine Clare, the immigration advocate, suggests that the country must consider new strategies to help people like Diaz to earn legal status after they arrive. With so many immigrants working in the underground economy—waiting on street corners for low-wage construction work, earning under the table as home-health-care assistants, lining up in the mornings for work cleaning homes and offices—Clare sees the need for what he calls “earned legalization,” a formal process in which people who overstayed their visas or arrived in the United States illegally can gain legal status by demonstrating that they have been productive citizens. Without that, he says, “we say to people, ‘Don’t travel.’”

Clare also calls for smart borders, not closed borders, for reasonable and quick review of immigration petitions (it takes twelve years for the INS to review petitions from legal residents to allow their brothers or sisters into the country, he says.) And he suggests that long-term residents, even if they are illegal, must be given an opportunity to change their immigration status. The waiting room of his office on the second floor of a little run-down building in Jamaica, Queens, is often full of people who have lived in New York for decades, whose children were born here and are American citizens, but who are forced to work at low wages in the subterranean economy because they’re afraid of being deported.

But Clare doesn’t see too many bright signs on the policy horizon. Moves like Real ID, a federal law that would deny immigrants the right to get drivers’ licenses if they are here illegally or have violated the terms of their legal visas, show immigrants that they are no longer welcome in the United States. “As an immigrant, you’re worse than an ax murderer.”

The difficulty, says Gouri Sadhwani, executive director of the New York Civic Participation Project, a union-funded immigrant-rights organization, is that in the post-9/11 world, politicians have pushed Americans to be afraid of immigrants. “The right wing has done a very good job of trying to equate immigrants with terrorists,” she says. “New immigrants today are more brown than they are white, and that is what the real debate is about, though nobody wants to talk about it.”

Clare suggests that immigrants must get involved in politics if they are to change the terms of the debate. “I’m a national of Jamaica,” he says with a smile. “I did not come to the United States for the sun, sea, or sand. I came here to better myself. In bettering myself, I contribute to the economic, social, and political fabric of my community.” But, he adds, “although we throw the biggest party in North America [the West Indian Parade down Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway on Labor Day], although we have a large number of people who attend church, we have not translated that into benefits for our community. We party and we pray, but we don’t politick well.”

Still, the move into politics may take some time. As an El train screeches inbound from Crescent onto Fulton, Ramparsad confides that though he speaks English fluently, plans to become a citizen, and would like to buy the store where he works so he can invest his own money in growing the business, he takes no position on local or national political issues. “I don’t mess with politics and religion,” he says. “That’s too much fuss, too much argument, too much nothing.”

Even so, if current trends continue, he may have to break his vow. In neighborhoods all over the city, including Cypress Hills, immigrants are becoming victims of their own success. Housing prices are rising (a recent survey by the National Low Income Housing Coalition suggested that a person would have to work 132 hours a week in a minimum wage job to be able to afford a market-rent two-bedroom apartment in the city). But instead of being satisfied, landlords are increasingly looking to rip off new immigrants by charging even higher prices, rather than rent to more experienced residents who know what comparable costs are in their communities. Along the main drags in Corona, not far from where Diaz works, many For Rent flyers taped to local lampposts no longer indicate how many rooms an apartment has; instead, they note how many people the landlord will allow in the apartment—an indication that property owners want to capitalize on new immigrants who are willing to band together and live in overcrowded conditions in order to make their way in the city. What’s more, in places like Washington Heights, which has long been an immigrant neighborhood, old timers are finding that their kids are being forced out of the city by the high cost of housing. This ramp-up in rents and housing prices may have a devastating affect on New York’s ability to continue to attract immigrants in the future.

And this, in turn, will have a devastating impact on the city. For immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are key to the future of New York. Without its immigrants, the city would continue to shrink. Without perpetual new arrivals from abroad to replenish the population, New York City would lose its vibrant culture and much of its economic base. Immigrants may need New York, but New York needs immigrants more.

Says Sadhwani, herself an immigrant from Shillong, India: “We need to be able to show new immigrants that power, whether economic, political or social, is theirs to have. The argument is that immigrants will alter our democracy. And, yes, they will—but in a good way.”


this article was published in The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World's Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) 

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

I thee pay

Here’s what everyday life has become in the Western world: economic speed-dating.

You try on a shirt at a department store but purchase it from a discounter. You browse the shelves at your local indie but buy books from Amazon. And, as you do all this, you engage in a series of wanton financial encounter sessions with a variety of intermediaries – the phones, tablets, laptops; credit cards, passwords, security codes; signatures, clicks, swipes that are the matchmakers of the never-ending hook-up between product and payment.

Paid: tales of dongles, checks, and other money stuff – edited by Bill Maurer (a legal and economic anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine) and Lana Swartz (a media studies prof at the University of Virginia) and published by MIT Press – aims to be a compendium of these oft-ignored financial friends with benefits. It’s a bestiary of the tools of trade. Not just money itself, but things that have existed through history that make it possible to pay and record your payment: plastic cards, signature panes, receipts, ledger books, magnetic strips, wooden tallies. In Paid, these wonky workarounds get their 15 minutes of fame.

The volume features a seemingly endless roll of fun factoids that involve paying, an act almost all of us have occasion to do multiple times a day.

  • Did you know, for instance, that the term ‘credit card’ was coined by the Victorian-era writer Edward Bellamy in his 1887 novel Looking Backward.
  • Or that Ben Franklin put leaf designs on the currency he printed for the State of Pennsylvania in the 1730s because leaves are fiendishly difficult to counterfeit.
  • Did you know that the shell bead money created and traded by the Native tribes of the Pacific Northwest were a ceremonial currency – dealt between clan leaders to honor and pay tribute to important occasions, such as funerals and births – but not often used by ordinary individuals.
  • Or that in racist America of the 1950s, there was a special publication to let African-American travelers and tourists know what enterprises along the highway would serve them and where they would be safe stopping off.
  • Did you know that the ancient Norman method for keeping track of debts was to break a stick – the longer part of which (the stock) was held by the creditor and the shorter (the stub) by the debtor, giving us the modern phrases stockholder and ticket stub. (The Oxford English Dictionary, for its part, tells a slightly different tale: the creditor’s half of the tally was the stock but the debtor’s part was the foil or counterfoil, a usage the OED dates to the 15th century.)
  • Or that workers who handle used cash at the Federal Reserve offices in Miami and San Francisco wear masks and gloves because so many bills are infused with cocaine (Miami’s vice) and THC (from having hung out at SF’s medical marijuana dispensaries).
  • Did you know that France had a government-run national dial-up chat, commerce and gaming platform that debuted in ­1979.­­­
  • Or that there was a music streaming service designed to bring synthesized tunes to your house via the telephone that debuted (and failed) a hundred years before its time, in 1906.
  • Or that we’ve never fully deciphered the ancient Incan khipus – lengths of knotted string that anthropologists and scientists believe were the blockchains of their day, distributed ledgers whose knots recorded tax payments, transactions, government expenditures, etc.

Nothing’s orderly or complete in this financial breviary. The ubiquitous Square credit/debit card reader is here. But the chip reader is not. Apple Pay is here, but not Paypal. The pin code but not the bar code. Silver but not scrip. We learn excellent info about the written ledgers of one extended family in Ecuador but nothing about the handwritten shared title deeds people buy into in Turkey. Coin dispensers don’t show up here – neither the electronic ones connected to cash registers in certain once-cutting-edge stores nor the hand-held ones that once were the contrivances of bus drivers, train conductors, and ice-cream men. Nor do bill counters, fare boxes, coin slides or change-making machines.

This haphazardness is annoying in small ways (the editors of Paid tell us the exact serial numbers of the National Science Foundation grants that funded some of the research, but neglect to give us any background – bios, affiliations, anything – about the writers who cheerfully contributed to the book) but winds up being part of this volume's charm. The logic here is digression and tangent – and, thankfully, in many of the essays, the meandering approach pays off.

Perhaps my favorite entry in Paid seems to have little to do with modes of payment. Keith Hart, the economic anthropologist who coined the phrase “informal economy” to describe the multitude of ways people did business on the streets of Accra, Ghana, offers a gentle confession, admitting that he funded his stay in the Ghanaian capital in the 1960s though his own entry into the illicit economy he was studying. Hart bankrolled a thriving illegal business as a money lender and a fence of stolen property (he was the behind-the-scenes guy, his landlord, Ananga, the public face of the enterprise). “I extended my fieldwork by eighteen months solely on the revenues of my business,” he reports, adding that his foray into illicit trade gave him additional compensation because it was also how he got some of his richest field notes.

Understandably, Hart felt guilty about his profitable doings, so he hosted “large rice, beer, and sheep parties” and gave sandals and blankets to the needy. This gift economy, he notes, turned out to be a good business strategy, too: “I was now seen as a big man redistributing to the people and became even more popular with the thieves.”

Hart fondly remembers a bunch of soldiers who were outraged when he couldn’t exchange a wad of out-of-date Egyptian currency, and asks, “What do you say to a disappointed soldier with a Kalashnikov?”

You can’t read Hart's piece and not agree that “money is a means of communication.”

Still, tangential reason can also cause some writings to lose the thread. An essay on the gifts Airbnb guests sometimes leave for their hosts takes no account of the modern reality that these personal relationships are being elbowed aside by investors who buy or lease apartments with the express purpose of pimping them out on Airbnb.

Another contribution, chronicling a pop-up espresso bar in which payment is destabilized, disturbed, and dirtied (buyers are encouraged to throw their payment on the floor) emphasizes the idea that it is an art project but misses the fact that the world is flush with analogous experiences. Early this year, I got on a near-empty C-train in Brooklyn and witnessed what seemed like a spontaneous piece of performance art: a disheveled guy with a grey food-flecked beard pulled a bunch of dirty and crumpled dollar bills from his pocket, smoothed them across what looked and smelled like shit-stained pants, and then placed them at equal intervals on the plastic bench next to him. He stood and surveyed his work, then turned his back on the installation and shuffled into the next subway car. Three teens – two boys and a girl -- were watching him along with me. The boys eyed the cash and one of them made a move. But the girl grabbed his arm: “Don’t you dare. You have no idea where that money’s been.” The boys slumped back on their seats and, a few stations later, we all got off to change trains. As the doors closed, I looked back at the dirty dollars resting peacefully on the blue plastic seat, secure in the knowledge that a special someone would come along soon to pocket them.

A few weeks ago, on a central Brooklyn street, I walked alongside a fellow who, perhaps inadvertently,  critiqued the modern world by shouting, again and again, “My heart is bigger than fucking money.” And late last year, in another subway encounter, a burly bearded man stood at the top of a flight of stairs in the morning rush like a biblical prophet. “Heavy are your moneybags,” he intoned. Streams of people parted like the Red Sea as they dashed around him.

Paid proves this Moses of the MTA right: though you pay them little heed, there’s hidden meaning in your devices of desire.