Faces of desperation in Manhattan


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Category: International 02 Nov 08


A month in America was more than enough. The longer I stayed, the more layers of sheen peeled off to reveal the rot.

It’s surreal to watch a country unravel the way America has. The land of opportunity, technology, the nuclear power, the forays to the moon, the medical research, the protestant work ethic, the meritocracy that has been held up like a glittering prize on the world stage.

I saw the unravelling in the face of the woman who was selling jewelry in a tiny shop in New York.

I stopped to look (as women do at everything, driving men mad) and the woman surprised me by pulling everything out from underneath the counter and insisting that I try it on.

I took it off and made to leave when she shouted out: “For you, I will give you 20 per cent off.”

She got more desperate: “40 per cent off, 60 per cent off. Just look, just try, just see you won’t get anything like this anywhere in New York.”

Looking for quality

I felt profoundly sad for her. The last time I heard entireties like that was in India, where vendors hassle you and follow you around in busy markets, in the outskirts of cities, in tourist spots.

Not the India of the malls and high streets where prices are now fixed. You don’t expect this in Manhattan.

In that jeweller’s face I saw the desperation of people who have to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads.

She knows when there’s a credit crunch the first thing to go are the luxuries.

It felt like walking around some sci-fi film Speilberg set. Daily, we saw more and more shops having “closing down” sales, restaurants and hotels offering unbelievable deals, counselling for people who had lost their homes in department stores.

The very rich, of course, are still immune as they are in Nigeria, Bombay, Lahore, Zimbabwe. People dressed in furs still walked out of Trump Towers with past obsequious, liveried doormen into their waiting limos.

An exhibition of antique art, which I went to just to look, as that was all I could do, (who pays US$ 250,000 for a deep green emerald ring?) still drew in the hoi polloi.

The very snooty rep standing handling a silver cigarette case owned by Napoleon looked down his nose at me and my question of “are sales dropping after the Wall Street crash with “the people who buy antiques aren’t looking for bargains. They are looking for quality and one Wall Street crash won’t affect them.”

Naturally it won’t. Especially if they were Wall Street CEOs with their $US 300 million pound bonuses and golden parachutes. They were safe, as the greedy and corrupt tend to be.

The masses that the Statue of Liberty promised protection were the ones who were huddling now.

The people lost thousands in retirement savings, their homes, the families who live in their cars, and the ones who are living in $150 boxes, the ones who lost their jobs and will continue to lose their jobs are huddling in what Barack Obama has called the worst recession since the great depression.

What caused it? Greed, yes, but anyone and everyone can be greedy. Really what caused it was lack of accountability, transparency and a conscience.

The boys club who drank champagne in one another’s private planes and yachts and colluded to cream off the money belonging to thousands of ordinary folk.

There are parallels at home in Trinidad. Except most of our lack of accountability comes from the Government. And when the oil prices drop, the shake-up will leave just those in power standing while the Cepep workers, the people who should be educated for the jobs now being done by foreigners will be huddling.

Proper jobs

In the hospital where I had a procedure, a health worker called Eva told me she earned US$30,000 a year. Her rent alone in a tiny apartment in a rundown area of New Jersey is US $1,500 a month which puts less than US$13,000 in her hand (she is taxed on that) a year. 

She is a single mother with two grown sons to house and feed. Neither of them has proper jobs. She could barely make ends meet and started a degree that put her in the red even more.

She works in the day, takes an hour-and-a-half to get home, has classes or studies in the evening and weekends, and lives on fast food. She has put on 30 pounds in the past year.

She says she learned in her health education course that American health insurance is a scam, that America ranks the 36th worst in the world for health care out of 100 countries.

We see that at home when young healthy people emerge from Mount Hope in body bags, with no one investigating or held accountable.

When Eva told me she was 37 years old and felt her life was over, I didn’t know what to say. She said it. She is originally from Cuba (where the health care is among the best worldwide), and says the American Dream doesn’t exist any more.

We in Trinidad and Tobago, like the rest of the world, have aped America so long and so consistently, that even if our fundamentals were weak like America we wouldn’t know it.

Out in the country, in Vermont, I encountered racists, some of whom crossed the road when they saw my husband out on a run, and one who told me to my face that there was a time he would not be seen talking to me, that he will be voting for the “N…” Even trailer trash recognise they can’t afford to be racist.

At least the Americans had a solid foundation—a work ethic to start with, invention, opportunity when their bubble burst.

Now they need a strong leader to guide them back. Barack Obama, with his focus on the ordinary people, on struggling American families, with his steady, intellectual, non-partisan, humane grip on America is that hope.

What’s ours when our oil bubble bursts? And what do we go back to?


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur