NYC – The Six-Month Slump

A local homeless man sleeping standing up outside Zabar's.

A local homeless man sleeping standing up outside Zabar’s.

Dear reader. It’s been a while since my last post. The reason being that, for the last month I’ve been HATING New York City. And who wants to own up to their big adventure going sour? And who the Hell ever says they HATE New York. But, as the thrill of the new began to give way to the humdrum of the everyday, I started to become increasingly aware of the fact that we were living inside a giant market – a market in which we as a family were only worth the money people could make out of us. It soon became apparent that, if we needed real help we would have to pay for it. Otherwise, no-one was going to care. Yes, we were well aware we were moving to the centre of capitalism when we got on the Queen Mary, but it is hard to appreciate what that really means until you are knitted into the fiscal fabric.

Here’s an example: I went to the doctor. I went to register (not necessary, I was told) and while I was there I had a quick check-up (blood pressure, a cholesterol test, weighed etc). I paid $250 (of which not all is reimbursable by my insurer) and left with referrals to a dermatologist, an OBgyn, and to some bloke for a colonoscopy. A visit to the opticians brought a referral to an opthalmologist. Visiting schools brought recommendations from headmasters that my son have expensive neuropsychological testing for possible learning impairment (everyone does it here in the hope of finding something which will get their kid extra time in exams) and references to tutors who would prep him for the SAT tests (these tutors charge $150 for 45 mins). I don’t dare go to the dentist. I have Scottish teeth… I could spend the next year in the chair.

This background tring of cash registers fed by those of us lucky enough to be able to pay for people to ‘care’ about us is contrasted starkly every day with the very evident needy and neglected. On the streets of the Upper West Side where I live there’s a busy subculture of begging, homeless, hungry, mentally ill and downright desperate individuals. Some spend their days going through the trash for plastic bottles they can sell for a few dollars. Some go through the trash for food. There’s a man living on the pavement opposite my building under a canopy of scaffolding. His home is unpacked each day from a supermarket cart. When I pass him with the dogs in the morning he’s still sleeping on his inflatable mattress, his open book, ashtray and alarm clock on the pavement beside him. One of the local alcoholics, a woman of about 40, had some kind of a fit on Broadway the other day. People gathered around but no-one phoned the ambulance. They, we, all knew it wouldn’t come. She is one of those Americans who is so far outside of the system she doesn’t qualify for Medicare.

These contrasts are what breeds a callousness in New Yorkers and are behind New York’s reputation as a tough city. For NHS and welfare-coddled Brits it’s hard to stomach this sink-or-swim approach to life. In place of welfare, New York has charity and the much-vaunted community service which is a requirement for credit in all high schools. The former is often impressive. Without The Food Bank for example, many breadline families would starve. There are heroic individuals who work tirelessly to divert cash to forgotten elements of society: autistic children, foster kids, teenage mums… The latter, however, is inconsistent to say the least. It’s well-intentioned enough but, like so much of the do-gooding here it benefits the giver more than the receiver. High school students earn their college credits through tokenistic gestures – my son fed homeless people tortilla chips and hummus the other day – which deflect attention away from the far greater and deeper needs of the people they help. It’s so much easier to slip through the gap here, because the gap is the size of a canyon.

I’m aware, with my limited experience, that this is a very superficial reading of the situation. Six months is not long enough to understand the nuances of a complex system. But from conversations with my US friends, it’s not that far off the mark. We’ve had our own struggles to keep our heads above water: issues with schools (of which more later); migraine-inducing entanglements with medical insurance; disheartening meetings with a mortgage broker where we learned that, in order to qualify for a mortgage we have to rack up a trail of credit (no rewards for responsible saving in NYC)… Success is everything here and it’s measured by your ability to exploit a system that’s out to exploit you: This means 70% of Manhattan high school kids on meds to meet the ridiculous targets set by the schools; gyms full of fitness obsessives trying to circumvent the need for health care; people trapped in jobs they can’t leave because they’d lose their medical insurance; families living on mountains of credit because debt is encouraged – everyone, us included, just an accident or a serious illness away from collecting plastic bottles on the street for dollars.

And yet, and partly because of all this, New York remains the most exciting city in the world. In this pressure cooker environment each tiny triumph hits like a shot of adrenalin. We crawled out of our six-month slump by means of incremental  victories: Yay! Standby MD will take our insurance; Yay! the school won’t chuck our child out for getting a D; Yay! we’ve found a way of not having to pay for a tutor; Yay! the temperature has climbed above freezing… Gradually we re-emerged ready to fight again, not quite on top of the world, but not at the bottom either. Once again, I LOVE New York. Well, I like it. – Is this lawyer offering genuine help or has she spotted a gap in the market? This is what passes for ‘care’ in NYC. Trailer for Redemption, an Oscar-nominated documentary about New York’s ‘canners’, the people who collect bag-fulls of bottles and cans for a few measly dollars.

10 Responses to “NYC – The Six-Month Slump”

  1. Great blog. Always thought New York might be less fun to live in than to visit! I was also struck, when I visited last summer, by how all the musos and bohos had finally been driven out to the boroughs, leaving Manhattan like a moated fortress of yuppiedom.

    • Not that it’s not fun, it’s just not easy. And yes, the boroughs – and Harlem – is where it’s all going on now. And thank-you for the positive comment. It means a lot coming from Time Out’s best ever editor.

  2. There comes a point where you stop being a visitor and are suddenly a resident.
    Your 1000 words beautifully and exactly express exactly that point, encompassing the moment after you’d crossed the bridge that you thought was just called “The Triborough” or “The Brooklyn”. Most visitors either ignore the problem of poverty and inequality because they can afford not to see it and are going home at the end of their visa or, because Manhattan is a borough that welcomes large numbers of immigrants, it just becomes simpler to ignore in the few seconds while you’re hailing a cab en route to somewhere *civilised* for dinner..
    My moment came in a slightly different era, when a guy sleeping on the sidewalk outside a Movie Theater in Murray Hill turned out not be sleeping, but dead. Most of the people who stepped over him to buy their tickets didn’t know. Obviously.
    It’s a very sharp city, and I think the sums you have to do in everyday life – schools, medicare, work, rent – can add up well on balance. Plus you’ve got MOMA ,The Nueu Galerie and Bubby’s.

    But shit. Scottish teeth. Go home now.

    Derek G

    • Yep! There’s a lot to negotiate in NYC – dead bodies included (or, in my case, bullet cases under a tree!). But you’re right, it has its compensations of which MOMA and my discovery of today, that fried brussels sprouts are delicious, are a small part. I’m here for a while and we’ll see how my perspective shifts as time goes on. As to the teeth – they can wait for a Scottish dentist.

  3. It’s easy to think of New York entirely separately from America until you read something like this. Would love to know what your American friends think of your perspective. Life in the Asphalt Jungle is more Darwinian than ever.

    Still, at least now, according to Hannah Horvath, you’re ‘naturally interesting’ on account of where you live. I’m sure that must be a comfort.

    PS Big thanks to Arwa for the retweet – it’s fab to have found you again.

  4. I think if the world was a fairground then New York would be a roller coaster (like that big one in Blackpool that I was too feart to go on!) with lots of highs and lows and screaming. The UK would be the dodgems with everyone going round and round in circles but in a nice orderly fashion and an occasional bump to contend with…bump! ooops we got a another Tory government…bump! oops they just cut the NHS again…bump! oops there goes our credit rating. Anyway I’m off for a toffee apple, keep up the good work.

    • Hey Moira. Yes I think your analogy is spot on. Neither place is perfect, just that being new to NYC makes it the problems all the more vivid. x

  5. Hello Elaine. I’ve just seen a trailer for Redemption, a short documentary about NYC’s ‘canners’. It really struck a chord with what you wrote about so well last week. I thought you may be interested to see it. Astrid x PS: Their site is quite slow to load for some reason but worth a look.

    • Hi Astrid. Thanks for that. I definitely want to see it. I recognise our stretch of Broadway from one scene in the film. It is very sad to see people reduced to such horrible, tough work for just a few dollars. Thanks for sending the link. I will seek out the full doc. Elaine x

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