December 13, 2011
If I’m off here, I’m not off by much. Two-thirds of our senators, and over 40 percent of our congressional representatives are millionaires. The family of the average member of the House of (Non-) Representatives has about five-and-a-half times the wealth of the average American family.
It is from that exalted perch that laws are handed down which tend to benefit. . . the 1 percent.
Surprise? Not really.
Politics has always been a rich man’s game. And I’m not being gender-neutral here, because for the most part what I’m writing about isn’t gender-neutral. Money as an access point to politics—and wealth as a consequence of wielding power—is nothing new or different: see Washington, George; real estate deals.
Nor should we reflexively smear anyone and everyone simply on the basis of income or origin:
Roosevelt in 2012!
But this severe economic skew in the makeup of our leadership class has serious consequences in terms of what our representatives think of as baseline normal. I am less concerned about the pernicious effects of “the Washington Bubble” and more concerned about the effects of “the Money Bubble.”
Congress decidedly does not feel our pain.
And they need to, if they are to properly diagnose and understand what ails us as a society.
We tinker with the Constitution at our peril. It has long been true that the Bill of Rights could not survive a popular vote: Americans are strongly in favor of free speech and freedom of religion, for example. . . except when people say things we don’t like, and excluding—you know—those weird UnAmerican religions. The Founders couldn’t possibly have really meant to permit them.
Having acknowledged the dangers, I would still propose three constitutional amendments to put the U.S. House and Senate back in touch with the day-to-day realities of “we the people.”
1. The mandatory medical plan for members of Congress and their families shall be Medicaid.
They think funding for Medicaid is adequate? Then they should get perfectly good care there.
2. Anyone serving in any public office—national, state, or local—shall have their children enrolled in public school.
We’re defunding kids? Fine. We’re defunding your kids, too.
3. There shall be created a Congressional Battalion, made up of the sons and daughters or grandsons and granddaughters of every person elected to Congress (no substitutions please; spouses or exes not accepted). In any American military action, the Congressional Battalion shall be the first unit put into service.
Congress seems indifferent to its constitutional responsibilities regarding declarations of war; presidents more or less get to do what they want. One suspects that substituting their own for the children of other people would make them a little less blithe about the exercise of U.S. power abroad.
I don’t believe that everyone is entitled to a Cadillac and a vacation condo; I do believe everyone is entitled to healthcare and education. That’s not just soft altruism: you build a strong society, a strong economy, on the foundation of a healthy and well educated population.
While I am often skeptical about military action, I’m not a pacifist. But I am disturbed by how freely our politicians spend the lives of other people’s children on causes to which they would be loathe to sacrifice their own.
We get the word “society” from the Latin word socius, meaning “companion.” We get “companion” from the Latin com and panis, “with bread,” meaning people with whom we break bread.
And when our leaders eat cake and the people get crusts. . . ?
That bodes well neither for the fate of our society nor for the fate of our leaders.
We decided I should buy a girdle in Brighton Beach. It became part of the plan. Drew’s Yorkshire accent had taken a hit after years in New York. He slid through the specifics with fast, slanted a’s and round Brooklyn o’s. How I would fly it in, how I would meet up with The Guy, how I would get the money, “Don’t tawk to no one, raht luff?” He said for the thousandth time while we walked along the Coney Island pier.
“No, I won’t. I can do this. Don’t worry,” I responded. He continued detailing how we’d call the fugazi travel agent, the I’m just a man with a computer, the guy who would get us a fourteen-day-advance fare for a same-day ticket. I’d heard about this agent, sure, but had never laid eyes on him. Drew saw him once, said he looked like Igor in Young Frankenstein. Abby Normal. We would drop off the cash, folded over and rubberbanded, with the agent’s doorman on the Upper West Side .
“No problem.” I said.
The Coney Island sun is mustard flavored. It’s hot sweep fades the signs advertising sword swallowers and Nathan’s hot dogs, and softens to a cold pastel those painted clowns with gaping holes for faces. Disembodiment photo ops. Splintered reds and blues ran right off the old wooden coasters and onto the boardwalk. Past the black haired Italian boys taking deep pulls off stolen cigarettes, past the Russian women, their calloused feet balanced precariously on tall Lucite shoes, and past the three elderly Jewish ladies in their wide-brimmed hats, unwrapping knish on towels in the sand. Coney Island is a diaspora-layered cake and I felt like I fit right in.
“Vatsa little ting like yous aneeda dees for?” asked the store clerk, as she folded the slick, skin-colored girdle and slid it into a plastic bag. I probably smiled and pretended not to understand. I absolutely didn’t say it was so Drew could tape thousands of ecstasy tablets around my waist, so I could subdue the plastic-wrapped pills underneath a loose shirt and trench coat. It was before the towers fell so you could still just walk right through security with coat, shoes, everything. All we really had to worry about was the dogs, but even then, not really. The odorless pills with their price per square inch made it a pretty easy act of espionage.
A week later, Drew walked me up to the metal detector, kissed me goodbye, saw that I made it past the badges and I descended, a few hours later into the agri-circles and low buildings of Springfield Missouri, my bladder bursting and my adrenaline on volume ten.
It wasn’t as easy as we planned it out on the boardwalk. It wasn’t just in and out, I had to wait. A lot of waiting. For This Guy and That Guy to come up with the cash because I couldn’t give it on the arm and someone was always out of pocket. I acted annoyed when I talked to Drew on the phone, told him I couldn’t wait to get back, but secretly, I loved the urgency. I possessed, or was possessed by, an unprecedented power. It was in me. Rather, it was in my backpack. But I felt it, all brilliant and scary and intoxicating.
I had something people really wanted. I sat still, I occupied a seat, I took up space in the world and they came to me.
In physics, power is the rate at which energy is converted. In politics, power is the ability to exert control. My perceived ability to exert control grew at the rate those tablets converted from tiny white circles, stamped with little stars, into stacks of cash. But power is problematic. Perceived power even more. This was a kind of gratification that eats through rather than inhabits. Like drinking acid. If I felt spare before…the dive into the world of buying and selling drugs pared me down even further, sucked the marrow.
I associated with a s/gr/n/eediness that manifested as a Hunger of insatiable proportions. I stayed up for days doing lines off the cover of a Roxy Music cd, and when I’d finished that, crushing the ecstasy tablets and cutting them up, while I waited for the money, the arm, the pocket; while I waited and wilted. Drew called daily screaming, “Where is my money?” and “Are you high? Don’t fucking lie to me, I know you’re high!”
I made sure I was horizontal when he called to make my voice sound sleepy.
“No, I swear I just woke up. I am not high.”
As if I could actually turn down that level of chemically induced adrenaline before answering the phone and then force my voice to sound tired. But you couldn’t have convinced me of invincibility’s fallibility for a million cocaine-covered dollar bills. I was on fire. I was an arrogant Secretariat with a heart the size of two, so full of pumping blood, I still thought I could outrun the demons pounding their hooves into the dust just twenty lengths behind me.
I was looking for a Klonopin or some Xanax bars when I found Jason lying on the floor of my rented room. Jason had originally introduced me to The Guy and was also my coke dealer. He was short and prematurely balding and he always wore these old green cargo pants full of drugs, full of money. I was on my way around the bed when I tripped over the soft mass of Jason’s leg.
His eyes were pressed wide open, squeezed open instead of shut. Like they were frozen in fear, popping out in cartoonish surprise. A string of clear drool trailed his mouth to the carpet. My knees disappeared and my liver rose up into my throat and lodged itself with a bilious fortitude. “OhmyGodOhmyGod,” I heaved. “OhmyGod.”
I knelt down.
I checked his breathing with my cheek.
I set my hand on his chest and felt the slow rhythm of a heart.
I stood up.
I kicked him a little in the ribcage.
Jasonwakethefuckup. I pushed his leg with my foot. Jasonwakethefuckup.
What I didn’t do was call 911. Aside from the rib kicking, I did absolutely nothing to help him. Even though I thought he was dying on the floor.
Instead, I grabbed my sunglasses with the red lenses, and because it was an emergency, and I was sure he would understand, I searched his pockets and stole what he was holding before I ran downstairs and vomited in the kitchen sink.
I didn’t want Jason to die.
But worse, I didn’t want to ruin this feeling, I didn’t want to admit defeat, I didn’t want to get caught, I didn’t want to disappoint Drew, myself, I didn’t want to stop.
When I stepped outside to sit on the concrete step that led to the parking lot of that low-rent, low-key-location apartment building, and I dipped my little finger into the baggie I’d lifted from Jason’s pocket, the air swelled. It became a swirling torrent of thick black dust and I was deafened by dissolution, by the malevolent thunder of forty-eight hooves.