At sixteen years old, I hustled to snag my first job. Known officially as a wrapper in the now defunct New York City department store, Alexander’s, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, I removed the price tag after the cashier rang up the merchandise, stuffed the purchases into a paper bag (no plastic back then) and said thank you, with a smile of course, for shopping at Alexander’s. That was 1970, when the Viet Nam War raged, Richard Nixon was president, and the landmark TV series, All in the Family, premiered on CBS. Now it’s 2017 and life didn’t turn out as I’d hoped or planned. Does it ever for anyone? I didn’t become rich or famous, write a best-selling novel, or develop a cure for idiocy. Instead, a pedestrian car accident upended my life in 1994 and now I’m a disabled senior scraping by on a fixed income in a subsidized apartment in a building with neighbors who are often noisy, dirty, and selfish. Instead of depositing a crumpled tissue in the trash, they’ll leave it on the elevator floor. Disgusting. Many of them voted for Trump. Need I say more. Ugh. They rant over my feeding homeless cats in a nearby park, sometimes throwing away food I purchased. One old biddy lets her dog chase the cats. Nice people, aren’t they?
My roots are in a segregated White working class neighborhood. Neighbors didn’t welcome diversity although I did. That was too bad for me. No one in our community had money. We didn’t either. Sometimes, we ate sandwiches for dinner but there was always food on the table, even if it was unappealing or unhealthy like Spam or Vienna Sausages. Oh, how I despised dinners with canned salty meat. I wonder if that’s what led me to become a vegetarian? I thought everyone had pesky cockroaches and crooked ceilings. In the summertime, the apartment felt like a steam bath because there was no air conditioning. The old walk-up buildings lacked proper wiring so we sweated through hot summers by spending time outside on the front stoop talking to neighbors. If we were lucky our parents took us to the public pool. Families with cars headed to Rockaway Beach and came home with sandy clothes and sunburns. I grew up, got a full-time job and earned two college degrees part-time. I became a volunteer in a child abuse program and then a social worker. My eyes opened wide to class, race and age inequality among people I worked with. I never imagined that at age of 39 I’d be on government assistance too. Even though I am considered “worthy” because of my disability, collecting government assistance is still a blow. I hate it. You might too if you worked since the age of 16.
There were countless times I waited on lines at job fairs only to be told by prospective employers “we’ll call you” as they looked at my motorized scooter with dubious eyes. I never once got a call back so I stopped attending. Why get all dressed up only to end up at a Starbucks table lamenting over my losses? I had marginal success as a writer but literary agents and editors reacted in much the same way. We’ll call but few ever did. Apparently, they judged me by the presence of my scooter and not the quality of my writing. Most people on public assistance would rather work than to be subject to the sometimes unreasonable, inane and downright ridiculous demands of public agencies. Take housing for instance. I live in subsidized housing, not by choice but out of necessity. The building manager had to verify my meager bank account. The bank didn’t respond so instead of calling me they contacted their attorney who sent me a 10-day notice of eviction. If I had a heart condition, I could have gone into cardiac arrest. I questioned the building manager about taking such a drastic step and she said my boss made me do it. I brought the required copies the next day. Earlier, I asked the power company for assistance in paying my large air-conditioning bill when I lived in a trailer park. They rejected me. Why? They counted as income the amount I pay for Medicare, or government sponsored health insurance, that is deducted from my monthly check. I balked and said I don’t even see that money. That’s their policy. I did not qualify for assistance. To make ends meet when I paid a higher rent, I fished through public trash receptacles for aluminum cans to redeem for cash. In a good month, I’d make $30. Food stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods throw out decent food in the trash. I could never bring myself to eat flimsy produce from the garbage but I watched other people pack their bags with discarded apples, celery and potatoes. I did pick out dented cans, however. Chompie’s sells day old bagels for a great price. I water down shampoo, dish soap and laundry detergent to make them last longer. I buy nearly all my clothes in thrift shops. I am far from alone. There are millions of people like me. Single adults, veterans, and families who struggle to get by. Market rate rents are beyond the reach of a lot of Americans. Many pay more than half their incomes in rent. I did at one point. Food banks are stretched to meet demand. Even though unemployment is low, available jobs do not pay decent wages or benefits. Many of these jobs are temporary. The USA is shameless because the response is always tax cuts to corporations and the affluent. We’ll gladly build a new stadium for a football team but resist building housing for the poor or homeless, even veterans. Only in the USA is it a sin to be poor, sick, old or disabled. With the impending GOP plan for health insurance, millions will be without healthcare. I’ve been there too but that’s for another story. Have we lost our souls to let this happen? Donald Trump made promises for change but the only change I see is further deterioration of our social safety net, degradation of civil rights, attacks on free press, a steep increase in military spending, significant damage to the environment, no protection for animals or wildlife and hurtful lashing out against Muslims, Jews, immigrants, Latinos, Blacks, gays and anyone who disagrees with the Trump agenda. Fools believed he’d make a difference. I’m glad I wasn’t one of them.