I live a double life. By day I’m a mild-mannered professor, writing very sober op-eds for the New York Times and, as it turns out, the Los Angeles Times, about pressing economic issues (10/26 and 11/25, for those of you who haven’t been keeping track). At night I rant about—also with—Occupy Wall Street and its post-political promise, here and elsewhere, on the blog and off.
One day I’m speaking to Tess Vigeland of “Marketplace” in an NPR studio way east, over on 3rd Ave and 47th Street—that interview, about how I save capitalism via consumerism, aired Friday and Saturday, 11/25 and 26—and the next day I’m downtown, getting beaten with a stick by a rabid plain-clothes cop across from Foley Square, where I’m trying to demonstrate my solidarity with OWS.
First the Wall Street Journal asks me to write an op-ed about the morality of consumer spending, in keeping with the ostensible purpose of Against Thrift, and then Russia Today, a cable news station, asks me to go on camera with Francis Fox Piven (Poor Peoples’ Movements) and Patrick Brennan (National Review) to debate the meanings of OWS, and this momentous occasion—the show’s called CrossTalk—is to take place over on 10th Ave and 57th Street, at the CBS Studios in Hell’s Kitchen, a half mile from the Hudson, the far West Side.
So I write the 1800 words the Journal asks for—a piece commissioned for the weekend edition, to run the day after Black Friday—and the editor there doesn’t bother to respond to me for 12 days, but when shocked into momentary sentience by my query, he says he’d prefer 900 words, and would I please lay off the economic argument because it’s kind of offensive.
I respond less than artfully, actually pointing out his etiquettal lapses, and that upsets everybody—editors, friends, girlfriend—but I cut that thing in half, doing my duty, and sure enough he responds in 24 hours with the stage-two complaint that Keynes remarked: there’s nothing new here. You remember the sequence our Maynard posited in explaining the reception of inconvenient theory: (1) you’re out of your mind, (2) you’ve said something too familiar, and (3) OK, you must be right after all.
But I have an Ace up my sleeve, I’ve been cheating all along on the Wall Street Journal—you see what I mean about the double life? I’ve been in correspondence with an editor at the LA Times, who had earlier asked for something at an angle from the NY Times op-ed. So I send her what Mr. Manners at the Journal had rejected, and she accepts it within hours, to run on Black Friday. That was two days ago, along with an interview at CBC TV prompted by the op-ed.
Meanwhile, I do the TV interview on OWS for CrossTalk. It’s hosted by Peter Lavelle, a very smart guy who seems to be something of a controversial figure due to his supposed affiliation with Vladimir Putin. He’s based in Moscow and has been hanging in Eastern Europe for 25 years—he started there with academic studies of Solidarity in the 1980s—and now hosts the “flagship” show of Russia Today.
Now me, a novice, I’m thinking the three of us will be talking inside, in a studio. But no, don’t be silly. They put me on a wooden platform (a soapbox!) on the roof, two flights of stairs above the 9th story—yes, outside, exposed to the elements—all boardwalks and satellite dishes, with a Midtown background for real. It’s cold, so I keep the sportcoat as well as the scarf on as I try to abide by the directions of the cameraman and the floater with the walkie-talkie (I will later be told by a niece that the scarf was a pretentious affectation), who are completely oblivious as to the content of the program they’re about to film.
This whole time I’m looking over my shoulder at the seven-story building below and to my right. That would be 500 West 57th Street, a drug-rehabilitation facility right on the corner of 10th Avenue. I can’t even see the roof, I just know it’s there, lodged in my memory as the place that forced me to grow up and get a new life.
I ran Alcoholics Anonymous meetings there every Tuesday night at 7:00 PM from October 2008 into May 2009. Almost every man in the room with me on those nights was a homeless addict looking for shelter, having been scolded, herded, or threatened into the fluorescent day room by the staff—no such thing as a free lunch—and almost every man had something to say that made sense to me, whether in public testimony or in conversation before and after the meetings, when I was laying out or collecting piles of AA literature.
On January 27, 2009, at precisely 6:50 PM, as I was hurrying down 57th on my way to that meeting, I saw a ghost. Without words, he convinced me that my old self had already died–my marriage could not be retrieved, nor could anything else from my previous life. It was gone. The ghost I saw was, of course, my very own self: when I turned to see who was trying to pass me, there I was, grinning at me. I scared myself that night, but I’m glad he did.
It’s a kind of consolation to be next door to all those addicts. As I stand on that soapbox on the roof of CBS studios, I’m thinking of them. I’m thinking of how nervous it made me to go into that place and tell homeless black men what to do with their ravaged lives. I’m thinking, “After that, what could be embarrassing here? How can you be nervous? Once upon a time you were just a derelict who saw a ghost, remember? This is your other life.”