Slices of the American Dream

The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.
                                                                                                                — George Carlin

I. On the C Train in Brooklyn, late morning, 2017

It is one of those subway moments where you’re glad you have a book. Glad might not be the right word. Some combination of relieved and protected captures it better.

A thirty something dark skinned Black woman with a short cropped Afro is haranguing an almost empty car. She is pacing back and forth. Her voice is intense. She is not screaming, but it seems inevitable that she’ll get there. Her two girls and a boy, age six to nine, sit semi-frozen next to each other. She periodically throws a discipline glance at them.

She is making an almost reasoned argument. The authorities expect her to control her boy, but they won’t give him the right meds to keep him calm. She pleads with no one in particular to understand her plight.

Her boy, who seems the youngest of the kids, is sitting still, eyes shifting. Every time she gets near him, he raises his arms above his head. I’m thinking: this is not a good situation. I feel powerless.

Now she’s pointing at him and raising her voice. He starts to cry. She shouts: see what I mean? She continues her diatribe about the meds. He is wailing now. As she approaches him, her girls slink away down the long plastic seat. She’s on him now, shaking his shoulders.

All of us in the car are now watching. His shrieks are almost drowning out her voice, as she proclaims: they’re going to take my children away. She starts to bang his head against the seat. I exhale an involuntary groan and shout: Stop!

She doesn’t. She’s in her own family world. They get off at the next stop.

II. Affordable Housing, 2011

Joe will not give up his place in the north Bronx. He was evicted a year ago after over twenty years of living there. He still has the mailbox key. He insists that his disability check be sent there each month.

I’m accompanying him to housing court. It’s his fourth or fifth appearance before the same judge. As I sit in the court pews, the judge tells Joe that he doesn’t hear any new arguments. But Joe’s argument is his lumbering self and his homelessness. Logically, this is new every day. The judge doesn’t see it that way. He says this is the last time he will hear Joe’s case. He tells Joe: go to Housing and apply for a new apartment. It’s clearly not the first time he’s said this to Joe.

I’ve known Joe since the 1980s when we both organized for the New Alliance Party. He’s a quite intelligent gay Black man. He understood the post-civil rights movement hustle. Got a few degrees from Columbia University. He’s also crazy. Got AIDS dementia, a common strain of poverty madness.

We go to Housing. They’ve got special social workers for people with AIDS. A Latino man in his mid-40s remembers Joe. He is glad that Joe has a middle class white guy with him. He addresses Joe, looking at me the whole time.

He hands us a listing of possible apartments. It’s a photocopy of ads cut out of newspapers randomly laid out on a sheet of paper. I say: do people really get apartments this way? He says: sometimes.

III. On Broadway

There’s a man who lives
in my immediate
subway station
except during the winter

He’s got dark skin
and a perfect
elliptically shaped
bald head

His shopping cart
is always in order

his sleeping bag
immaculate

He uses
a wide mouthed
plastic jar
for an ashtray

The cops
let him smoke

Seen him
sweeping the floor
with a
familiar dustpan

makes me think
he’s among
the working
homeless

maybe even
for the MTA

Lying on the ground
propped up
on one arm
he flicks an ash
into the jar

listening to
a transistor
radio

It’s the middle of the
goddamn 2nd decade
of the 21st century

and he’s got
a transistor
radio

Haven’t seen
one of those
since the early 80s

when the
boom boxes
took over

Reminds me
of this guy Freddie
who I’d run into
back then

he was for sure
among the
unemployed
homeless

Asking for change
from passersby
on Broadway

I liked him
he was probably
about my age

with an awkward
kind of spirit

One time I asked Freddie
to help me carry
an air conditioner
to a friend’s apartment

we somehow made it
the 2 blocks
to 97th and Riverside
without dropping it
once

Proof that
there is a god
some say

I gave him 20 bucks
he was overjoyed

When he’d see me after that
he’d come running over

even through traffic

hoping for more
than the dollar

that was the high end
of what you gave
on Broadway

I’d give him a 20
we were friends now

and friends get more
than the standard fare
on Broadway

One day Freddie told me
he was moving to the Bronx

got into
a fancy shelter

was wait listed
for some
subsidized housing

I never saw him again

He’s probably
dead now

because guys like that
don’t last too long
on Broadway

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3 thoughts on “Slices of the American Dream”

  1. Found it to be so much more than a good read. It raises social consciousness and inspires charitable actions and involvement. Thank you!

    Like

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