I found this online earlier this month. It was in the New York Times Jersey section one Sunday back in May 1987. It remains frighteningly relevant. Indeed, it’s been my life for years now and the overall social picture hasn’t changed very much, either.
NEW JERSEY OPINION: WHAT GOES UP CAN COME DOWN–AND WITH DISMAYING SPEED
I live in a community in northern New Jersey where it is all but impossible to buy a decent house for less than $200,000, and where rentals–when obtainable at all–command minimum prices of $1,000 a month.The town is sharing in the economic growth of New Jersey. The economy has never been so good, unemployment never so low.
This is not, then, a poor or even middle-class town. It is a place of considerable affluence, many of whose residents are ”young professionals” for whom the presence of a local K-Mart, with its plastic children’s shoes, represents the moral equivalent of a strip-mine disfiguring the landscape.
But we live only five miles from Paterson, an enclave of poverty that, like more famous Newark, conveys to the senses an aura of supreme hopelessness. Yet the sufferings of Calcutta’s poor are far better documented than those of Paterson’s indigent. Indeed, Paterson, N.J., could just as well be on Saturn, for all that my community knows of it.
For exactly one year–from April 19, 1982 until April 19, 1983–I was one of the white-collar unemployed, a statistical casualty of the economic winnowing-out called Reaganomics. The company for which I had worked had as its biggest client a Southwestern oil company forced to ”downsize.” I was caught in the undertow of the client corporation’s economic difficulties, and was swamped. Ultimately, I survived because I had a family out of whose marrow I could ruthlessly suck the funds to supplement what I got from Unemployment and a short-term interlude as the worst life-insurance salesman in the history of New Jersey.
I survived because I learned how to become hard enough to survive. And I survived afterward because I had not forgotten the pain of being a non-person in a world in which personhood all too often is defined by how much money you make and your zipcode.
One day during the summer of that awful year, I went for a job interview at a company with headquarters on Park Avenue in New York. Walking to my appointment, I saw a young man lying in a doorway at the corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and 47th Street.
No, he did not have my face. I am not Ingmar Bergman, and this is not a movie. But he frightened me. I felt not too many steps removed from the fate that had befallen this man. Where had he been before? What had he been?
What separated his fate from mine, except circumstance? What would happen to him? What, indeed, would happen to me?
In addition to my regular job, I am a part-time photographer for a local newspaper. A few months ago, I was on assignment in Morristown when I noticed a man sleeping on a bench on The Green. This is an exquisite park in the business center of town and where, the historical marker tells us, Washington had his headquarters at one point during the Revolutionary War.
The man on the bench looked ghastly. Was he drunk? I neither know nor care. It isn’t important. Drunk or sober, he was living in the streets of a prosperous commercial center in Northern New Jersey, a city where houses can sell for upward of $500,000.
The legendary Man on the Grate finds his equivalent in the favorite movie horror figure of the 1980’s, Freddy Krueger. Like Freddy, the Man on the Grate has long been a part of our urban nightmares. And, like Freddy, he has already left them for suburban daylight. He is getting closer.
In some ways, medieval Europe had the advantage when it came to grasping the nature of life as a precarious enterprise. The poets, artists and theologians, who were the primary interpreters of the so-called "Middle Ages,” saw how quickly a merciless yet evenhanded Death could seize the King, the priest, the prosperous merchant and his wife, even his small children; how a man of wealth could fall in a fortnight into abject poverty; how quickly a king’s favorite could lose both his patron’s favor and his own life.
Beneath the veneer of Christianity in a Europe only a few generations removed from outright paganism loomed the figure of Dame Fortune sitting at her wheel, overseeing the fates of all men and women.
If you were at the top of the wheel today, you were ill-advised to presume that you had merited or could retain your good fortune, for tomorrow you could descend precipitously to the bottom. If you were unprepared, physically or spiritually, for the humbling experience of your fall, you might never recover to rise again.
And your descent could come not because of some ”Judaeo-Christian” assumption that you had done something to deserve it, but for a far more sinister and terrifying non-reason: just because.
For all our talk of the need to Do Something, the hidden messages that we as a society send through our inactivity express ugly truths about our attitudes toward people we lump together under the rubric ”The Disadvantaged.”
During morning drive-time, radio entertainers joke about the ”white trash” down on the farms who get no more than they deserve in being forced off their land. We cluck our tongues over photos of starving African children, even as we dismiss with a shrug the homeless, bloated children living in our urban shelters and welfare hotels, or living with their ”New Underclass” families in cars.
Progress toward the eradication of AIDS moves with crushing slowness because the seats of power (and medical-research financing) tacitly regard it as a disease that afflicts people who have earned its ravages by their presumed ”immorality.”
We make soulful noises about the tragedy of obsolete smokestack industries, and we talk–because talk truly is cheap–about the need for retraining the same "white trash” at whose plight we laugh when a comedian jokes about them on the air.
And we join our President in his Article of the Conservative Faith that most people who are homeless, like most women who get raped and most people who get AIDS, somehow probably "asked for it.”
We do anything we want. We, after all, are the employed. We are the prosperous. Our children will not sleep in a car tonight. There are no K-Mart plastic shoes in their future. They will never know the deprivation and scorn that descend on those who are not numbered among the socially and economically privileged, unless:
- We lose our jobs.
- Our employer needs one less of what we do for a living.
- Enough people cannot afford to buy from us anymore because they are hurting financially.
- We can’t make our mortgage or rent payments.
No matter how cleverly we think we’ve managed our money, if we have to wait a bit too long for the wheel to make its upward turn, eventually it’s all going to disappear.
The massed complacencies of suburbia, of the "Yupper West Side,” of our presumptions of privilege all bow before the humbling recognition that all the clever investments in the world, all the tax dodges, all the assumptions of a "secure career” are no adequate shelter to protect any of us from what might happen in a volatile economy and in a world in which "homeowners” need only miss a few mortgage or tax payments to find out who really owns the roof over their heads.
Very little separates us from the Man on the Grate or the kid in the shelter, except a turn of Fortune’s wheel. It is still turning, and we are still tied to it.