June 2, 2009
Before American steel mills went silent, Lowry Graham’s dad labored in one for four decades. A high school graduate, he was more educated than most of his co-workers. He liked his job, became a foreman and was proud of it.
It was a dirty, backbreaking and sometimes lethal occupation. At the start of World War II, steel workers had to go on strike to demand, among other concessions, a ten-minute lunch break and a room to shower and change at the end of the day.
Lowry went to college and became a nurse, but his goal was to have more control over his life than his father did. To gain time, he was willing to make less money. “I wanted to be able to do laundry in the afternoon if I felt like it,” he told me. In the 80′s, Lowry bought cheap properties just beyond Center City, on a block considered iffy, if not suicidal. Neighbors tagged him the “pizza man,” as in, “Pizza man, can you give me some money for a slice?”
Lowry got a gun, tested it at a firing range. Got a bike, so muggers couldn’t tail him when he left his front door. He hired me and others to fix his investment. I scraped wallpaper in sub-freezing temperatures, sanded and painted, but even now, these houses are far from perfect. Where railing should be, there are hanging ropes, and some ceilings and walls are patchy, with the frame showing through. Burglars, prying the steel window frames, have broken into his home twice. But a decade ago, Lowry was able to quit his job to live off his rentals. Unlike most of us, he is no longer indentured. The banks won’t bother him. With more time, hence freedom, Lowry goes to operas, concerts and frequents neighborhood bars, not so much for the booze as the conversations.
Like Lowry, I hoard my time for what I need to do. Unlike him, I own next to nothing. At 45, I have neither house nor car, and I have never had a credit card or health insurance, which is very risky, I understand. The other day, one of my teeth simply fell out. Needless to say, I haven’t seen a dentist in ages. Economically, my life is one long depression, punctuated by rare episodes of relative affluence, which to me is the cash to buy any entrée costing more than 10 bucks. But am I unhappy?
To mingle and chat, experience each other face to face, is a basic human need, but in our culture, this necessity has been deformed into the virtual—Facebook, chat rooms, e-mailing, texting. Philadelphia is not immune from this or any other social malaise, but there is an upside to living in the city. I bet many people moved here, like I did, to avoid being marooned in an exurban home with 500-plus channels, a vast CD collection and a dozen porn flicks. Leaving a Philly bar, I can just stagger bedward without endangering anyone but my pickled self. Everyone I know here, I first met at a watering hole. Where else can one socialize? In America, a plaza is not a square where folks gather to mix with neighbors, but a strip mall—and don’t you loiter!
I had no television, by choice, until a few years ago, when I bought one so that my wife, a Vietnamese immigrant like me, could learn English more quickly. (She now speaks a fluent Jerry Springer.) When I came to the United States in 1975, Americans only had four TV channels to kill time, so each week, you could only watch three N.F.L. games, for example. Now, you can stare at six simultaneously. In Vietnam, there were two stations, one in Vietnamese, one English, each broadcasting for half a day. With little on screen, people entertained each other by conversing at home, in the café and in bed, where up to four bodies might lie together. Storytelling was a much appreciated skill, developed early. People didn’t read but recounted tales they’d heard, made up or modified. As a young child, I yearned to experience more so I’d have many more stories to tell.
When I was a housepainter for a decade, work would dry up each winter. Down to pennies, I’d run to Lee Goldston, whom I drank with regularly at McGlinchey’s, the cheapest bar downtown. Lee dubbed himself President of the Associated Philadelphia International Company, APIC, but all it was was Lee with a bucket, a squeegee, a bottle of dish washing detergent and some scrunched up newspaper. As a window washer, Lee was paid $5 for a typical job, but much more for a convenience store or a church. Although these were his hustles, Lee always gave me half of the day’s take whenever I accompanied him. Twenty dollars would keep me high on Spam for a few days. Once, I washed windows after appearing at a community college as a guest poet. It would have been a hoot had one of the admiring students saw me vigorously wiping water before it could freeze on the window pane. “Yo, isn’t that the poet who came to our class yesterday?!”
There are pluses to being close to those who could help you.
Confronted by a torrent of bad news from our capsized economy, many people anticipate at least the kind of unrest that has already broken out in many countries, but we are so docile, really. Some people I know speak of heading for the hills and stocking up on canned food, potable water, guns and slugs — the bunker mentality. But instead of fleeing one another, like we’ve already done for half a century or so, shouldn’t we figure out how to be closer in every sense? Why not shorten distances and trim all excess from our lives?
More Americans are experiencing poverty by the day, and I’m certainly not making light of destitution, but it doesn’t seem to me that increasing consumption—“growth”—is the answer. My ambition was to become an artist, before I switched to something even more practical, poetry, but one need not be a bohemian to value activities that reward the mind and spirit.
Smaller portions are in order. Simplicity is O.K. It’s time to slim down.