by Patricia Spears Jones, September/October 2007
I love writing for Calabar Magazine. Her themes take me out of my own comfort zone and this one is on business and finance. Hey I have a full time job; my passion and work as a poet and cultural critic, this column. I make okay dollars, i. e. I can pay my rent, but the really big bank, far from it. And I have no problems with people especially folks of color working their butts off making big bank. But when I see well paid, super entitled nasty acting people, I am reminded of how corrosive having lots of money can be. How it makes everything else seem unimportant.
When I was teaching a creative writing course at Parsons a few years ago, I had a terrific student who was getting his degree in advertising which they call something else, but it was advertising. He was a very bright young man and I am sure that by now he’s running his own company marketing something other than overpriced denim and message tees. However, in my class he had to write poems and since he was clever, he did a good job until the poem’s closure which was often trite and cute and well his “tag line.” At some point, I asked do you want your life to be just about tag lines. Do we want our lives to be just about business and finance?
Of course “living well”and financial security are appropriate goals; no one wants to be or frankly should live in deep poverty. But most of us do not live in deep poverty. We are living in a kind of credit card controlled world where the basics of life: shelter, clothing, food are at risk because the little or big luxuries (hair cuts, shoes, travel, concerts, books, jewelry) all cost just a little bit more than we budgeted. And we want to travel; to read; to see great actors act; hear great musicians perform; wear stylish clothes, sleep on a comfortable bed in a safe and nicely designed dwelling. And if you’re like me, you work hard at your day job; you work hard for your art; you try to keep up with your colleagues and their work. And if you have family, well all bets are off. You have to get children their toys, their school supplies, their chance to thrive and get them into a good college and on their way. But you and I know that in New York City: NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING IN IS CHEAP except, alas our lives.
The foundations for living a middle class life here and having the ability to move up the economic ladder have been crumbling for years. Anti-labor politics means that unions are loosing membership, and when that happens wages go down. The loss of subsidized middle income housing—Mitchell-Lama– means that landlords make lots of money, but firefighters, teachers, artists have a hard time finding or keeping housing in the city—even when they try to buy. And really poor people are pushed to the margins, to substandard and sometimes dangerous buildings; and if they are illegal are they either demonized for living so shabbily or praised for their pluck.
You know, not everyone is a “homeowner” an “entrepreneur” or the child of people who already have money. People who make their way in this city have many kinds of temperaments and ideas about success and until recently, they could indeed live here and sometimes quite well—their bank was their abilities, their knowledge, and their creativity. But now it seems that this is a city of people who acquire things, but do not necessarily create them—the hedge fund investors as opposed to the artists or academics.. Case in point, DUMBO which once housed sculptors, furniture makers, filmmakers, musicians and puppeteers, but is now the province of the wealthy is now very bland, quiet—it could be the suburbs.
Grit and edge and ideas come with struggle and drama and trying to advance, make it, etc. Financial security is an excellent goal to in your life. But it is not the only one and yet everything about our City and this culture says that’s it.
So call me a romantic for saying the culture is wrong or at least needs to be corrected. Make your bank, gain some financial peace of mind, but look around at other aspects of your life. What about your spiritual and/or ethical path? Your love life? What can you make or what can you play? Who needs your help: young people, the elderly; your neighbor next door? Sometimes writing that check is a big help, but sometimes, your voice, you signature on a petition; your presence at a community board meeting, your time with your children are much more important than any check.
I know that this has been said before and I hope said again. If our only value is in dollars then when did slavery end? Also we have to ask ourselves, not only who is buying what, but if so, to who are we selling ourselves and why so damn cheap?