Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Progress*

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3:15PM. Saturday. 57th Street and Broadway. Light rain, stepped over a sleeping homeless man, less than forty feet from the hole in the ground that’s soon to be Robert Stern’s contribution to Billionaire’s Row, a super-tall super-luxury affordable to perhaps sixty people in the world. Thirty more feet, stepped over another homeless man. Another homeless man another thirty feet later, outside the subway entrance. Two more inside before seeing a uniformed policeman, protecting two bank men in body armor emptying a Metrocard vending machine of its cash reserves.

The nation has just had a heady day, watching Obama sing Amazing Grace at a funeral and laud the Supreme Court verdict on Gay Marriage back-to-back; emotional and surprisingly emotive moments from our president to hang atop our collective consciousness while we continue on our daily toils, though not without inevitable backlash. Obama himself remarked, with little rancor but with deep candor,

“I know change for many of our LGBT brothers and sisters must have seemed so slow for so long, but compared to so many other issues, America’s shift has been so quick.”

A subtle reminder of recent events, highlighting the endlessly re-opened scar tissue of the American fabric, yet still not immune to base punditry, where some ask “what must the African Methodist Episcopal preachers behind Obama during his eulogy have thought about the confirmation of Gay Marriage?” (Quick answer: They are too busy reeling from a Good Ole’ Boy’s salvo towards the┬álast generation’s cultural war – or is it? – to concern themselves with this one.) But such issues can’t help but feel muted in the face of what still needs to be done.

3:30PM, standing on the Uptown IND platform at Columbus Circle, coming home from work installing the equipment of some sixty peons who have been relocated from Connecticut as the vanguard of some six hundred more, holdouts moved against their will to balance some department spreadsheet. Working under a foreman whose wages were cut more than half in the past year, lost his mortgage and stands to lose his job altogether – though even at half his wages he’s still making more than I am. Working above perma-temps who know not to work too fast because these are all the hours they’re going to get, working because any of them would not hesitate to leap and grab my job, even as they remark pityingly about how tenuous and underpaid it appears to be. The corporation posted an 80% boost in profits last year. The corporation also laid off half my department. They’re going to keep waiting. Can I come in early on Monday? Of course I can.

It’s a new experience, to say the least. I’ve been under bosses who would attempt to move heaven and earth so as not to cut staff. “Oh, can you forego raises this year? Oh, can you take a 10% wage cut? Oh, can we have a Friday furlough? Please, I’m trying.” I’ve been under bosses who would rationalize and justify, if to nobody but themselves, the necessity of layoffs. “Oh, she had a bad attitude anyway. Oh, she really didn’t fit in here. Oh, she didn’t act like she really wanted the job.” I’m now under bosses for whom there is no emotive reaction to impending layoffs. They are cheerful coming in, they are cheerful coming out, they do not need excuses, they do not offer any.

In order to feel empathy for other people, first you must recognize them as people. There is a pure, raw, untempered amorality at play here, one which the armies of lowly peons find it hard to adjust to. A tall, lanky young man in a bowtie, a rare white elevator operator, asks me on Friday about my hair. He asks if I ever cut it. I don’t. He admires being able to hold that stance; toying with his bowtie uncomfortably, remarks that he’s sick of the uniform he’s made to wear, admires my freedom. That same day, a security guard remarks that he used to have a mohawk until he interviewed for this job. He can be dismissed at any moment, and many often are, but that hair doesn’t come back so quick.

These are the first overt remarks made about my hair since I started working here, but everybody on all floors recognizes me by sight – the one with the hair. It is, indeed, not de rigueur in the corporate sector, and it has been noted. I am not wearing the uniform. No matter; I’m just as disposable as the rest. Hell, my boss’s boss is the only true non-contractor in our section, and he’s as desperately trying to prove his relevancy as anybody else.

The security guard asks me what I’m doing this weekend. Drinking, I reply. That’s what he does every weekend. A chuckle. There is no future, few talk of the past. There is the grindstone and we put our noses to it; the cultural wars raging on seem so pi in the sky. A place where nobody has careers, we all just have jobs. “You’ll know when my plans come to fruition because I just won’t come in anymore,” explains the field boss, repeatedly. In the meanwhile, the holding pattern.

3:40PM, a D train rolls in, a petite young Muslim motorwoman at the helm, swaddled in a hijab in official MTA blue. The new blue collar working class, coming into a previously black jobs enclave, thanks to the EEOC, the city’s civil service exams and racism in the private sector. The next generation. Progress. Visible progress. As one issue gets addressed, another comes, and another; the admixture being what we call society.

Our illustrious mayor is reduced to applying palliative care with our ongoing job prospects and housing problems thanks to the callous indifference of the governor and the inability for the president to intervene in any meaningful way, but we all yet try to make do, and there is movement here and there, around the edges. Last month Muslim holidays got put on public calendars. Last week Chinese holidays got the same. Two days ago the Supreme Court confirmed the Affordable Care Act. Yesterday, Gay Marriage. I go home to shower and change and prepare for the night’s drinking. I drink to commiserate. I drink to celebrate. I drink.

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