Rick Paulas | Longreads | September 2017 | 7 minutes (1,856 words)
Unless you’re a fictional character boldly leaping from skyscraper to skyscraper in a stretch leotard, origin stories are fickle, slippery narratives, particularly when it comes to artistic endeavors. Maybe the idea came while you were taking a bath, but why’d you get into that bath? What were you thinking just before the eureka moment? How’d you get to those thoughts?
So, when I asked San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker Eugene Corr why he took nine youth baseball players from an impoverished section of West Oakland to Cuba back in 2010, I knew I’d get a distilled version of reality. In Corr’s documentary about the trip, Ghost Town to Havana, he mentions his own fractured relationship with his father, a former youth baseball instructor, so I figured that’d fit in somewhere. Along with the magic of the bat-and-ball sport that binds together the capitalist and socialist countries that have 103 miles of sea between them.
But what I didn’t expect was that the whole trip happened because Corr got mad at George W. Bush.
Eugene Corr in Havana. Photo credit: Ghost Town to Havana Staff Photographer.
“I still think the Iraq War was a historic mistake,” Corr says, over coffee near his Berkeley home. “So much that’s gone wrong with the world seems to stem from that. I was so angry about that, I did three things. I bought a headstone for my grandmother’s grave in a cemetery in Richmond, I started a screenwriting program at San Quentin, and I went to Cuba.” Read more…
Your brother has a hole on the inside of each arm that never quite closes. A blood tap, really, like an oil well for drilling. He is a tall, strong man in his early thirties—an ideal source for plasma.
A woman calls his name. She takes his temperature and blood pressure. He gets to skip the full-blown health screening since he’s been coming here twice a week, off and on, for almost ten years. She pricks his finger to make sure his blood is okay today.
When your brother finally graduated, the economy was in the tank. As a first-generation college student he had no connections in the professional world, and no one to tell him that communications and history degrees were bad bets to begin with. A good job never turned up. For years he has worked at call centers, leasing agencies, shipping companies. Those paychecks don’t cover basic living costs, though. Thus, his face has aged a decade going in and out of this place by necessity.
The materials around the place tout the life-saving service he’s providing others; the plasma stripped from his blood will be turned into pharmaceuticals. Very expensive pharmaceuticals, ones he could never afford were he diagnosed with hemophilia or an immune disorder. He doesn’t have health insurance and could use a trip to the doctor himself. The promotional pamphlets and websites call what he’s doing a donation, but it’s really a sale.
The buyers are corporations with names like BioLife, Biotest, Octapharma. Plasma brings thirty, fifty bucks a pop depending on how often you go and how much you weigh. Your brother is in the highest weight class, which means he gets twenty dollars for the first donation of the week, forty-five dollars for the second.
At CityLab, Henry Wismayer reports on the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. The worst fire disaster in London since the Blitz during World War II, the blaze claimed 80 lives. To outsiders, England may appear to be a “a paragon of functioning multiculturalism,” but the Grenfell fire has become the country’s “Katrina moment” — the catastrophic event which exposes society’s egregious treatment of and contempt for its poor.
Grenfell has become a grisly metaphor for all that is squalid about the British capital, unfettered free-market capitalism, and society at large.
Against a backdrop of economic anxiety that has defined global politics for the last decade, these attitudes have insinuated themselves into the national consciousness. Britain’s right-wing press has spent years pumping out a steady ooze of anomalous stories about welfare scroungers. This project has portrayed social housing as a repository for the idle and shiftless, meaning that the grievances of tenants, like those in Grenfell Tower, can be dismissed as grumbles of entitlement. The truth, painful to admit, is that most Londoners didn’t care about the welfare of Grenfell residents until the fire betrayed the extent of their neglect. It was this prevailing atmosphere, as much as any individual political decision, which permitted someone in a boardroom, thumbing through cost projections of a proposed tower-block refurbishment, to think, “Let’s use the cheaper, flammable stuff.”
Details of the Grenfell fire victims belie such lazy stereotypes. Among the dead were Khadija Saye, a promising photographer whose work was recently feature at the Venice Biennale, and Mohammad Alhajali, a Syrian refugee who was studying civil engineering in the hope of eventually returning home to help rebuild his war-torn country. Young people with talent and dreams. But before we read their obituaries, they were anonymous shadows from the demimonde, pre-judged by dint of where they live and how much they earn.
There is, then, in the shape of Grenfell, in the tragedy of its victims and the fury of its survivors, an indelible message for the wider world. It is simply that the depredations wrought by breakneck gentrification—the yawning inequality, the dispossession, the growing cultural sterility—can only be justified through subscription to the idea that a person’s value to a city is commensurate to how much profit they generate, which is to say that people like those who died in Grenfell were worth nothing at all.
I entered my daughter’s kindergarten classroom and walked behind her with enough distance to accommodate the swinging of her backpack and the unpredictable steps taken by a five-year-old wearing wet snow boots on a linoleum floor. We squeezed through the door and by her classmates who, with barely combed hair and missing baby teeth, are practically carbon copies of her. She shuffled over to her friends, and I placed onto a table the well-labeled Ziploc bag containing the exact amount of money she needed for the school’s pre-Christmas sale, in the exact denominations requested.
One of my daughter’s classmates placed his sack of coins on the same table, but it was not over-prepared in the way my daughter’s was. There was no label or even a seal to keep his change from spilling onto the table or floor. His money was seemingly grabbed from what could be found in pockets or the car on the way to school and was stuffed into the clear cellophane wrapper pulled off of a pack of cigarettes. It was clearly an afterthought on a morning that placed other things more stressful or pertinent above a kindergarten teacher’s reminder to send a dollar’s worth of dimes into school for a holiday tag sale.
Even with their different backgrounds hidden beneath the surface of similar physical features, each child is measured against the same school motto: Be Kind, Be Safe, and Be Your Best. The expectations are reasonable, but the ability of each child to exhibit these qualities is variable. One’s best may be viewed as far below another’s. Sometimes one’s best is only as good as what is provided at home, by what is held in one’s hands.
I don’t know this boy’s circumstances, and the similarities in our childhood experiences may start and end with this isolated detail provided by a cigarette-smoking caretaker. But his bag of tobacco-greased pennies and nickels could have been pulled from my childhood home, if my parents had been so clever or resourceful. The coins and their presentation quickly conjured memories from my childhood.
Ground zero in the AIDS crisis happened on June 5th, 1981, when the C.D.C.’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report identified five cases of pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) in previously healthy white men in Los Angeles. The sixth case — a gay African-American man who had contracted PCP and cytomegalovirus — went undocumented. That critical omission has had a horrific ripple effect in the southern United States where the “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…predicted that if current rates continue, one in two African-American gay and bisexual men will be infected with the virus.”
As he stepped into Jordon’s stuffy bedroom, Sturdevant’s eyes scanned from a wheelchair leaning against the wall to a can of Ensure on the bedside table before settling on the young man. He was rubbing his feet, wincing from H.I.V.-related neuropathy that caused what he described as “ungodly pain.” Jordon’s round, hooded eyes were sunk deep into his face. Gray sweatpants pooled around his stick-thin legs, so fragile they looked as if you could snap them in two. His arms were marked with scars from hospital visits and IVs. Over six feet tall, he weighed barely 100 pounds. He smiled slightly when he saw Sturdevant, dimples folding into his hollow cheeks. “Hey, Mr. Ced,” he said, his voice raspy.
“Are you taking your medicine?” Sturdevant asked. For many young men, the H.I.V. diagnosis and the illness are so overwhelming that maintaining a new and unfamiliar regimen of medication can be difficult. Jordon looked down. “Not as often as I should.” When he saw Sturdevant’s glare, he continued, sounding like a little boy. “I hate taking medicine; I hate it. I have to take six pills, now seven, eight, plus a shot —”
Sturdevant cut him off. “We all have to do this, Jordon. Don’t you want to get better?”
Jordon let his head fall back on the pillow. “I know I can get better, Mr. Ced,” he said, massaging his feet. “I just don’t know how everything got so bad.”
She means well, but I dread the dental hygienist. The judgmental tone in her voice is probably just exhaustion; the only dentist I can afford to see has an office that’s a in perpetual spin of budget-seeking patients. I’m one of scores of people who’ll sit her the chair today, and whenever I leave, I hear someone standing at the dreaded reception desk trying to argue their way out of a bill in an embarrassed tone.
Sometimes I’m in that corner too, wheeling and dealing for a way to swing basic treatments with money I don’t have. To my shame, I often go months or even years between routine cleanings, opting to spend money on debt or bills or food instead. Read more…
And then define, what is your own unique story? It’s a struggle for every writer. And to value your story is a struggle for every writer. The problem is, of course, that if you live in a culture that inherently devalues the poor, the working class, the darks, the queer, the other, and you are all those categories, then you are fighting the voice of your culture at the same time that you are fighting all of the other difficulties of developing a voice and telling a story.
It’s a miracle that we ever manage, but my conviction — and I’m old enough to have evidence to support my convictions — is that the best American literature is working-class literature. The strongest voices are those voices, those people who have come out of the poor and the disadvantaged circumstances to claim their right to tell a story. And they tell stories with such passion and brilliance. You don’t have to read far to realize the power of those outlaw voices and how they dominate American literature.
Christian H. Cooper made his way from Appalachia to Wall Street, and from poverty to wealth. But is it because he worked harder than the family and friends still struggling in East Tennessee, or was it luck? In Nautilus, he digs into the emerging science of epigenetics to look at the way poverty actually changes our genetic expression, and therefore our physiology. If poverty has treatable physical aspects, what does that mean for economic policy, social policy, and politics? What does it mean for the American ideal of meritocracy?
Now, new evidence is emerging suggesting the changes can go even deeper—to how our bodies assemble themselves, shifting the types of cells that they are made from, and maybe even how our genetic code is expressed, playing with it like a Rubik’s cube thrown into a running washing machine. If this science holds up, it means that poverty is more than just a socioeconomic condition. It is a collection of related symptoms that are preventable, treatable—and even inheritable. In other words, the effects of poverty begin to look very much like the symptoms of a disease.
That word—disease—carries a stigma with it. By using it here, I don’t mean that the poor are (that I am) inferior or compromised. I mean that the poor are afflicted, and told by the rest of the world that their condition is a necessary, temporary, and even positive part of modern capitalism. We tell the poor that they have the chance to escape if they just work hard enough; that we are all equally invested in a system that doles out rewards and punishments in equal measure. We point at the rare rags-to-riches stories like my own, which seem to play into the standard meritocracy template.
Patterson stepped out the back door onto a sunny patio where three neighborhood men worked as “ambassadors” — greeters, really, but also unofficial security guards and community liaisons tasked with convincing neighbors that Locol really was for them. Watts has such a deep history of economic betrayal and abandonment, such pervasive skepticism about outsiders making big promises, and such well-founded fear of gentrification — a billion-dollar “urban transformation” plan has the support of Mayor Eric Garcetti — that acceptance of a splashy new restaurant created by two famous outsider chefs who are not African American was not a given.
Patterson embraced an ambassador named Anthony “Ant” Adams, a 44-year-old poet who was in the middle of telling a visitor about getting shot five times with an AK-47 during a 2007 attempt on his life a few yards from where he was currently standing. Patterson then walked past an ATM/lottery/tobacco shop where floor-to-ceiling bulletproof Plexiglas separated customers from the cashier and inventory. He entered a store called Donut Town & Water, where a young man sold doughnuts, water, and other convenience foods, also from behind Plexiglas. Patterson ordered coffee to go and said, as if exhilarated by the speed and audacity of his own thoughts, “I can’t remember if I told you that Roy and I might start a coffee company, too. We’re bringing back the great $1 cup. The fancy coffee industry is not going to be happy with us. We’re going into institutional food, too. We’re already talking about prisons and hospitals and schools. It all comes back to this question of ‘Why does our society always serve the worst food to the neediest people?’ It makes no sense. And everybody always says, ‘That’s just the way it is, there’s no other way,’ but we are going to prove that whole paradigm is fundamentally false.”
Brett Scott explores the emerging cashless economy in Aeon magazine. Is ubiquitous digital payment the harbinger of a glorious future, or a smokescreen for powerful interests that want to control (and undermine) choice and capitalism?
This is no longer a deal between me and the seller. I am now dealing with a complex of unknown third parties, profit-seeking money-passers who stand between us to act as facilitators of the money flow, but also as potential gatekeepers. If a gatekeeper doesn’t want to do business with me, I can’t do business with the seller. They have the ability to jam, monitor or place conditions upon that glorious core ritual of capitalism – the transfer of money for the transfer of goods. This innocuous device exudes mechanical indifference, reporting only to invisible bosses far away, running invisible algorithms in invisible black boxes that don’t like me.
If we are going to refer to bank payments as ‘cashless’, we should then refer to cash payments as ‘bankless’. Because that’s what cash is, and right now it is the only thing standing between us and a completely privatised money system.