Friday, January 25, 2013

Scenes from My So-Called Unemployed Life


I had a crisis this morning. Looking at my checking account, I discovered that I had accidentally paid my electric bill with the funds I had set aside for my cable bill. Since both bills simply said “Payment Express” on the back, and I had just gotten out of bed, was stressed-out and had a cold, I made what for most people would be a slight accounting error. But when you’re trying to survive on $405 a week in the most expensive city in the United States, the smallest of errors can trigger a catastrophe.
My first indication that something might be amiss came when the voice on the other end of the automated payment system said that I had a credit of $54.91 when I was done making my payment. “That’s odd,” I thought and thought nothing further of it until a few days later, when I was trying to check my email and discovered that my Internet and email weren’t working. I called Time Warner Cable and was told not only that they had no record of my payment, but that my confirmation number was wrong! I wound up having to make another payment to Time Warner Cable and it wasn’t until a few days after that, when I was attempting to pay another bill, that I noticed the error. Thankfully, my bank was able to claw back my money so I could pay my other bills that were due that day. (I never thought I’d be grateful to a bank!)
These are the kinds of situations one has to deal with in our Winner-Take-All Economy.
Which is funny, because I had just been contemplating writing another blog post, tentatively titled Obama’s Wasted First Term and Our Winner-Take-All Economy.
I did not watch President Obama’s inauguration. I was too busy looking for a job and lamenting the missed opportunities of his first term in office. Remember those? We really thought he was gonna change things, didn’t we?
First on his list of failures was healthcare, where he started compromising before the debate had even begun. Rather than instituting a single-payer system, like most of the rest of the civilized world, he caved in to the insurance industry and basically handed them 315 million new customers.
Thanks a lot, Obama! Now I have another bill I can’t pay!
And now we’re witnessing his most recent failure where, in spite of the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Connecticut, he’s prepared to cave on an assault weapons ban.
How many assault weapons-related bloodbaths have we witnessed just since his first term in office? I literally can’t keep track. And yet we haven’t managed to move the debate on this issue one hair.
But his biggest failure has to be the economy, where he renewed the Bush tax cuts for the rich and, rather than spending money to create jobs by, say, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, chose instead to bail out the big banks that got us into this mess (and then failed to prosecute a single perpetrator).
We are now witnessing the end result of this disaster, which is what I call the Winner-Take-All Economy, where the top 1% enjoys all the economic benefits of the last 30 years and the rest of us are left scrambling for crumbs.
This situation is made worse, ironically, by Obamacare. Now people are tied to their jobs because of health insurance (unless they can afford to buy their own), so they can’t afford to look for another job even assuming one exists.
The role of government is precisely to step in where the private sector can’t. Health care should not be for profit, it should be a right of every citizen. And, by that measure, Obamacare is a failure.
Well, the gloves are off now. It’s time to hold Obama’s feet to the fire. It’s time for Obama to put up or shut up.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Joke of Unemployment Insurance in a Shrinking Economy


I got laid off from my job two weeks ago. The first thing I did, on the first day after my contract ended—right after I got out of bed, before I showered, got dressed or had breakfast—was file for unemployment insurance, because I knew that it takes two weeks to receive your first check and, like 40% of the country (according to Time magazine http://business.time.com/2012/08/22/a-huge-number-of-us-have-no-financial-safety-net/, but I still think that number is too low), I live from paycheck to paycheck.
When I didn’t receive my first check this week, I called the New York State Department of Labor and was told that there was no record of my claim. Apparently, I had made a mistake when applying for a new claim on their Web site, but since there are so many people unemployed right now, it took me two days just to get someone on the phone to ask a question.
All of this is just a tempest in a teapot, however.
The larger issue is, How is anyone in New York supposed to survive on a maximum of $405 a week?
The last time I was laid off, a former boss of mine emailed me three days later with a job offer. Due to the incompetence of that company’s HR department (and the Christmas holidays), however, it still took four weeks for me to actually be hired. Even though I found another job almost immediately, I still had to borrow $900 in order to pay my rent.
This is why I go crazy when Republicans start talking about people “living on unemployment.” As if that was even possible!
The other thing that drives me crazy is how companies define “immediately.”
When I say I’m looking to start work immediately, I mean, right now. Corporations have another idea of what that means. I just had an interview where the company told me it takes them two months to hire someone. What position am I applying for? Keeper of the Nuclear Code? Do I need a security clearance from the C.I.A. just to be a proofreader?
The system has become so rigged in favor of the top 1%, it’s reached a point of no return. Companies are now routinely rewarded for destroying jobs. These same companies then pay off politicians (in the form of campaign contributions) to create tax breaks for them so they can make even more money. And then the banks (and other, more dubious “financial institutions”) swoop in to make even more money as people left scrambling for any means of support resort to credit cards and payday loans in order to put food on the table.
They say that it takes one month for every $10,000 of salary in order to find a job. And that, I presume, is during a good economy. Right now I have two friends who have been unemployed for over a year. And neither of them were hedge fund managers.
When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, being out of work for even one week can be catastrophic.
I would even be OK with unemployment insurance providing more money for a shorter period of time. That would at least allow people to get back on their feet. The current system barely provides enough money to eat and pay a few bills. It’s not enough to also be able to pay one’s rent. (And God forbid you have a car.)
As far as I’m concerned, “living on unemployment” isn’t even an option.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

On the Death of Cities, Part 2


It’s been a bad week for New Yorkers of a certain age. On Monday, Big Apple Meat Market, a Hell’s Kitchen institution for 20 years and one of the last grocery stores in New York City that isn’t part of a chain, closed its doors. On Tuesday, Mxyplyzyk, a home design store in the Village for 20 years, shuttered. And today, Suzie’s Chinese Restaurant called it quits after 39 years on Bleecker Street.
In his invaluable blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (http://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com/), Jeremiah Moss has been chronicling the creeping gentrification and homogenization of New York City (and Manhattan in particular). Every day, it seems, brings news of another mom and pop business forced to close by rising rents brought upon by the dominance of national chains. Slowly but surely, New York is losing the very quality that attracted people here in the first place. If you want to see the quirky characters and unique businesses that used to populate the countless cultural depictions of New York City, whether on Seinfeld on TV, in Neil Simon’s plays or Martin Scorcese’s movies, you have to go elsewhere.
Mayor Bloomberg bought the last election and used it to remake New York in his image: greedy, rapacious, and indifferent towards the needs of others.
As the owner of Mxyplyzyk put it in Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, “It is quite clear the current city administration prefers chain stores over the 'mom and pops' with their tax abatements. This island is destined to have a very boring retail landscape.”
I’ve been talking about the disappearance of mom and pop stores in my comedy act for a while now and last night in my comedy class I made the remark that New York is now as boring as Cleveland but 10 times more expensive. My teacher pointed out—correctly, perhaps—that Cleveland is now actually more interesting than New York. And, I imagine, less expensive.
Many of my artistic friends have already fled the city and many more, including native New Yorkers like myself, are thinking of doing so.
Perhaps our mayor should have thought about that before he handed the keys of the city over to Starbucks, Duane Reade and the banks that now occupy the ground floor of every new building.
Gentrification is like global warming. Once the damage has been done, there’s no turning back. And the damage has already been done.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Poor Little Rich Girl or Why I Hate Sofia Coppola (’s Work)


Last night I watched the latest entry in Sofia Coppola’s “poor-little-rich-girl” oeuvre, “Somewhere.” Throughout the movie, we watch a presumably talented (although we are never given an example of that talent) movie star named Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff) as he traipses around the world, staying at trendy hotels like the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles (or a hotel suite in Italy with its own private swimming pool), having beautiful women throw themselves at him and hotel concierges and limousine drivers accede to his every command. The only source of conflict here is that Johnny’s daughter shows up in the middle of the movie and Johnny then has to drop her off at summer camp while he goes back to the Chateau Marmont. This makes Johnny very sad. Boo fucking hoo.
At the end of the movie, Johnny is seen driving off into the desert and then he gets out of his car and starts walking along the highway. Roll credits.
What?!
What is this love affair that film critics have for movies with no script? This isn’t a movie so much as a series of seemingly improvised vignettes.
If you recall, “Lost in Translation” was another variation on this theme, this time starring Bill Murray as the movie star that people throw themselves at and Scarlett Johannson as his love interest who is married to another man with a fashionable career (a fashion photographer). There is almost no dialogue in this movie and yet it won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. Has the Best Screenplay Oscar become the Best Independent Film Oscar? And, if so, why did it go to “Lost in Translation”?
“Marie Antoinette,” Coppola’s last “poor-little-rich-girl” story, actually did have some dialogue as well as some other things to recommend it: great costumes and locations (Versailles) and an anachronistic rock score. And, unlike the other two movies I mentioned, there are actually some consequences for this unsympathetic character’s behavior, although I suppose we’re supposed to feel sorry for her, too.
I suppose the die was cast when Coppola made her first movie, a segment in the omnibus “New York Stories” about a poor-little-rich-girl who lives at the Sherry Netherland hotel.
At this point you might say, “Wait a second. Wasn’t Sofia Coppola a poor-little-rich-girl herself? Wasn’t she the daughter of film director Francis Ford Coppola and didn’t she spend her childhood being chaperoned from one hotel to another and shouldn’t you write about what you know?”
Yes, but that doesn’t mean we should have to watch her home movies.