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The Commute to Work: A Reflection on Mortality

It’s 7:03 AM, and I’m out the door of my Midtown apartment.  I wave at the doorman, bound down the steps, and start my journey to the wonderful land of work, work, work.  Unlike many New Yorkers, I don’t wear headphones on my morning walk.  My walk is an excuse to travel with my thoughts, sans the distraction of Lady Gaga imploring me to dance.  I think about my job, my personal life, and the latest news… but mostly, I think about what I want to get for breakfast.  Thus, my career anxiety is often interrupted by the everlasting muffin vs. bagel debate.  By the 9th avenue intersection, muffin usually wins. 

pigeonAlong my usual route, I sidestep many of the treasures of New York City.  Outside of 53rd street, there is always at least one food product that has made its way into the road.  One day it looked like a tub of mac and cheese.  Another day, it appeared to be some kind of chili.  My curiosity never gets me too close to the mystery slop though, mostly because a pack of pigeons is constantly steeped in the mess, devouring its breakfast.  The sight of winged rats picking at day-old mashed potatoes is both horrifying and humanizing: horrifying because it’s gross, but humanizing because it makes me glad I’m not a pigeon.  (I did some research, and my pigeon aversion is justified: urban pigeons only live for 3-5 years on average.  I’d guess that obesity contributes to their short life span as much as reckless taxi drivers.)

Unfortunately, my encounters with pigeon folk don’t end on the mashed potatoes corner.  Across the street from the Midtown North Precinct of the NYPD, there is a flock of pigeons that sit along a row of fire escapes above the sidewalk.  Because cop cars are parked outside the precinct, the walkable sidewalk space is very narrow.  There are always a few unknowing pedestrians who walk directly underneath the pigeon latrines.  I narrowly missed becoming a target when a dazzling white drop splattered a few feet in front of my shoes.  So now, I just walk through the middle of the street, instead of risking it on the brightest sidewalk in New York.

gwbridgeBy 7:09 AM, I reach my shuttle stop on a corner outside of a McDonald’s.  The shuttle picks up every day at this corner, to drive all us Manhattan-based employees into New Jersey for work.  So at 7:10 AM, I climb into an unmarked white van and sit uncomfortably close to co-workers.  The shuttle driver weaves through West Side highway traffic, honking, cursing, and checking text messages.  One shuttle driver managed to swill a gulp of Listerine and spit it out while still navigating the road.  The passengers hide our fear by making small talk about the weather and swine flu, although more than a few can be seen with their eyes closed tightly, just hoping that it’ll all be over soon.  

 Around 7:30 AM, we turn onto the George Washington bridge, the gateway between Manhattan and the dirty Jerz.  At this time, our shuttle driver reaches for his Bible, which he keeps in a cupholder.  He holds onto the Bible for the entire length of the bridge, then puts it away once we reach the other side… about two minutes later.  Apparently divine intervention is not needed for Jersey.  But the rickety shuttle keeps us all praying.  With every lane change, I reflect on my mortality as if I were a potato-fattened pigeon: Well, I’ve lived a happy life (shuttle swerves).  My parents would be proud (car honks).  I hope they use my latest Facebook photo at my funeral (obscenities hurled).

Our shuttle finally turns into the office parking lot at 7:40 AM, discharging a group of relieved passengers and a shuttle driver with minty fresh breath.  One might question why I, along with so many others, put up with a commute filled with pigeon poo and pious shuttle drivers.  Well, having such a harrowing commute is like flying on a turbulent flight, or hanging out with Ahmadinejad.  There’s the stress once you’re there, but then the extreme exhilaration once you’ve gotten the F out.  So, once I get into the office, work is easy by comparison.  And plus, I have a muffin to look forward to.

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The Working Poor

I recently finished The Working Poor by David Shipler.  This was a monumental occasion on many fronts, since it’s been at least three or four months since I read a book in its entirety.   It was also an incredibly educational, enlightening read:

(From Amazon.com) The Working Poor examines the “forgotten America” where “millions live in the shadow of prosperity, in the twilight between poverty and well-being.”  These are citizens for whom the American Dream is out of reach despite their willingness to work hard.

workingpoorWe always think that if we work hard enough, we should be able to live a comfortable existence.  We may not be rich, but we won’t be living in destitution, either.  But Shipler points out that any one of the following factors can obstruct our socioeconomic mobility upward: poor health and health care, bad decisions (drugs, alcohol), environment (inadequate housing, violence in the community), race and ethnicity, and lack of educational opportunities, just to name a few.  Some of these derailing factors are self-inflicted, some are the results of traumatic events or abuse, some are perpetuated by our institutions, and some are just the results of bad luck.

So what can we do about the working poor?  Should we even care?  After all, we’re already paying taxes to support welfare, Medicaid, and various other anti-poverty initiatives.  But clearly, it’s not enough.  America still lacks several institutions of other developed countries, with universal healthcare being the most cited example.

Issues like universal healthcare and welfare reform are inherently political, and oftentimes the debate will focus on money–how are we paying for this?  But outside of an economic discussion about the inequities of a free market, consider your daily interaction with people who may be struggling near the poverty line.  These are taxi drivers and Wal-Mart greeters, crop pickers and factory workers, men, women, and families who are stuck in a perpetual cycle of anxiety over putting food on the table.

Even if we abide by the utmost conservative principles and say, “Well, they didn’t study hard enough in school”… or, “They made bad decisions to put themselves in their situation”, I believe we still have a self-interest in making sure that these people are decently fed, clothed, and healthy.

Every morning at 8 AM, I take a van to work, as do many of my co-workers who live in New York but work in New Jersey.  The van picks me up in Midtown, drives up along the west side highway, crosses the George Washington bridge into the Jerz, and drops me off at work so that I can pay my rent, buy my groceries, and save some money for the future.  But my future depends daily on the van driver: when we’re speeding over the GW bridge, I am at his mercy.  His mood, his health, his attentiveness: they all affect me.  This is a man who most likely makes less than $12/hour, with minimal or no benefits from his employer.  He probably hears people bitch and moan about their well-paying jobs every day.  Do I want him to be well-fed, to feel like he has something to live for, to keep his job for?  Of course.

gwbridgeAnd if it’s in my self-interest that this man deserves something like healthcare, then what about people who I never see?  What about the people who sew my clothes, pick my vegetables, and fix the roads over which I drive?

So when I pay taxes, I consider it an investment in society, in my security.  I wouldn’t mind paying more in taxes so that my van driver can get adequate healthcare; I don’t see anything wrong with taking a little from the top to make sure that the bottom can have basic needs met.   It may mean that our economic growth shrinks a bit, but I’m willing to sacrifice that for a more stable, less anxious society.  Because Shipler is right: no one who works hard in America deserves to go hungry.

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