March 29th, 2010 21:47 EST
How much are the privileged willing to share with the rest of us?
A cooperative apartment building "Manhattan abounds with them "is a kind of microcosm of society.
When the people who make these buildings work "the doormen, engineers, handymen, mailmen, porters, and so on "protest cuts in benefits things begin to fray at the seams. More than 30,000 union members and 3,200 buildings are involved in a looming conflict over proposed cuts in health care, overtime and sick days. They`re poised to strike April 20th.
Now, if you happen to live in a Manhattan coop the chances are you`re better off than most Americans, even if you live on a fixed income. You receive many services from these unionized employees. They protect you, they give you a hand, they carry your luggage, they repair things, and not least, they are nice to you when you`re blue or frenzied.
But few of them can afford to live in New York City, not even its outer reaches. And the city`s transit system, good as it is, keeps getting costlier and curtailed. One of the central issues is management`s insistence that workers pay a share of their health benefits, which amounts to a pay cut or, at very least, a status quo when the cost of living is rising.
Some of the pricier buildings involved are the homes of the very people who brought our economy to its knees with their credit default swaps and other tricky financial games " and these are the big bonus people who are asking ordinary workers to pay a bigger share of their own benefits. Surely they must cut their faces shaving in the morning and trip on their high heels, their hypocrisy being so sharp.
So when the maintenance people say they will have to strike "as Manhattan`s unionized apartment building people are now saying "coop shareholders have a very personal decision to make. Namely, how much of their affluence and privilege are they willing to share with these people who make their lives easier?
That`s the decision Congress has just made about health care, the decision that has infuriated thousands if not millions of Americans who simply don`t want to lift part of others` burden. These infuriated stone- and epithet-throwers may couch their anger in half-baked philosophical notions, but when it comes right down to it they don`t want to share what they have with "perish the thought "immigrants and such. They want what they have and then some, but they don`t want to pay for it, and they certainly don`t want to pay for others to have it. They have been suckered by generations of con men into thinking we can reduce taxes and everything we want will just trickle down to us, like winning the lottery.
Well, if the Wall Street tricksters are inclined to let anything they have trickle down to anybody else we`ll see it this spring in Manhattan.
What complicates this picture is hypocrisy, the platinum-plated unwillingness of those who will not share the burden to say so, their insistence instead on claiming such moral high grounds as fiscal responsibility and refusing to pass on the burden to their grandchildren. They didn`t worry much about their grandchildren when they bankrupted the nation to go to a foolish war in Iraq, did they? And they weren`t worrying about their grandchildren when they cut taxes for the rich and asked everybody else to pick up the slack.
Their rationales are hogwash. If they cared so much about future generations they would be hurrying to do something for our wounded veterans. The squalid truth is that selfishness wears many masks, some of them quite beautiful. We wouldn`t believe lies if they weren`t so seductive.
Every few years the managements of coop apartment buildings have to face the people who do so much for them every day and say, This is what we`re willing to do for you and no more. It`s a particularly exquisite moment for self-managed coops, because no anonymous management firm stands between them and their helpers.
The tragedy is that the issue is always couched in sanitized labor-management terms. The issues become abstractions, whereas the shareholders should be speaking individually with their intimate helpers about their lives, their aspirations and their challenges. The building staff, for their part, know much more about the residents than the residents know about them.
The situation this spring, as New York faces this problem once again, reminds me of the many lies to which I have been witness in my life. Some of them I have bought into to my everlasting disgrace. It wasn`t so long ago that Lou Dobbs on CNN was holding forth about Hispanics resisting assimilation. That is what the WASPs once said of the Irish and the Irish once said of the Italians. I see no evidence of it. I see hybrid vigor. For example, Manhattan`s restaurants are suffering, because people are poorer, but the immigrant vendors of food are prospering. Long lines attend the pungent wagons. That`s hybrid vigor. Some of those immigrants will one day own restaurants and shops.
In my neighborhood I take my shoes to be repaired by an Hispanic immigrant who five years ago spoke little English and today with evident delight tries out an extensive vocabulary on me. In Arlington, Virginia, I once asked a cleaning woman from Bolivia if she was taking steps to preserve her son`s mastery of Spanish. Oh no, she said, he is studying French "Spanish is the language of our oppressors. We are Incas. How`s that for freedom of choice? How`s that for assimilation?
My stepfather arrived at Ellis Island at age 14, speaking no English. He was affluent by age 21 and reciting long passages from Shakespeare to family and friends while preparing them sumptuous dinners. I have never equated American individualism with selfishness. But some do, and they are now loud and often angry. They seem to think we are overtaxed, when in fact we are the least taxed of the industrialized peoples. They seem to think our corporations are inhibited by punitive taxes when in fact they are the least taxed. They seem to think we have the best health care when we have poor, dysfunctional and expensive health care.
And they think these things because lies are sweeter than truth and more comfortable. But that`s only half of it. They think these things because the corporations and lobbies that wish them to think them have unlimited resources to buy politicians and fill their mouths with lies, to fill the public air waves with lies, to buy government so that it is no longer representative. And this they call Americanism.
They can call it any damned thing they will, but I know selfishness when I see it, just as I learned long ago as a boy to know a bully when I saw one. And I know that everything gets swept under the carpet when we fail to confront bullies and liars. Including democracy. Right wingers are big on talking about the American way and what it is to be an American. Well, I believe the American way is to stand up to bullies and liars. Sometimes their self-righteousness and handy-dandy patriotism is pretty heady stuff, but they`re drugs, and like all drugs, they`re bad for us.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com