Friday, July 29, 2005

another quick list of happy things (51 - 60)

51. a really good salmon skin hand roll. (if they’re done right, they’re addictive!)

52. running errands, housecleaning, grocery shopping and making lists in the middle of the night when there are no lines, no people, no traffic, no nothing. just a blue-black sky filled with stars and me at that 24 hour european market on the upper west side, scrounging for kumquats and parsnips and chatting in french with the african greengrocer.

53. my grandmother’s cooking (especially her red rice)

54. running into someone that i used to be crazy about that probably hurt my feelings, maybe—and realizing that they haven’t crossed my mind in ages, i feel absolutely nothing for them and i don’t want them anymore. and then i have an epiphany and i think, wow. i don’t even want to talk to them, to find out what they’re up to or if they’re happy with someone else because i just don’t freaking care. yippee! i’m free! i really am “over it”. what a great feeling! that’s almost as exciting as falling in love. gee. maybe more. (remember, kids: the opposite of love isn’t hate. it’s indifference.)

55. same scenario as #54 with an added bonus: i look absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, and he can feel true indifference emanating from me like a sunshower. (basic rule for modern urban living: one must always look beautiful in the presence of an ex.)

56. same scenario as #54 and #55 except whoever he’s seeing now is with him when he runs into me somewhere in the city and she’s not as cool as i am and she knows it and so does he. (and yeah, this has happened to me twice. it was like getting high or something. it was like winning the lotto. whenever i feel bad about anything, i think back to those situations. almmost immediately, everything brightens and all of a sudden, i’m a happier girl.)

57. having a black eye with heavy whipping cream slathered on top in the middle of the night when i have to meet a deadline. sort of an americanized viennese coffee—the best i can do with my international taste buds acting up and only the local bodega at my disposal.

58. movie night#1: going over to Carol’s place, ordering 2 cobb salads from EJ’s luncheonette and some rice pudding, and watching two or three movies back to back that we siezed from Blockbuster earlier that evening.

59. sipping tea and practicing the guitar in my frilliest bra and panties (i don’t know why i can’t wear an old filthy scrub t-shirt like everyone else, i really don’t) while watching stuff like aqua teen hunger force and sealab 2021 and that hilarious idiot show the venture brothers on adult swim in the middle of the night, and laughing my head off.

60. same scenario as #59 with an added bonus: somewhere in there, i stop laughing long enough to realize that i’ve learned two or three more chords or yet another beatles song.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

my "skinny clothes" story...

come on, now. you know what skinny clothes are—the ones that you shove in the back of your closet when you gain ten or fifteen poounds. they’re a little too tight on you, so you tell yourself, i’ll get back into these next season. and then “a little too tight” becomes “i can’t get my fat bum into this”—which of course brings on waves of self-pity, a strange sense of embarassment and endless pints of ben & jerry’s. “next season” becomes “next year” and that becomes “someday.” but you don’t throw out those skinny clothes, people! why? because you are keeping hope alive—the hope that you will get off your lard rump and get to the gym and get it all back, every single bit of it: the energy, the focus, the fun, the physical strength and leanness -- but most importantly, the skinny clothes.

well. i am here to announce to the world that i pulled out a semi-retired pencil skirt yesterday, one that i haven’t worn in so long, i forgot that i had it. i held it up and looked at it and i thought—i should give this away, i can’t fit into this thing. and then i thought, what the heck, try it on just this once. i stepped into it and lo and behold—it slid right over my hips like it never got stuck there EVER, fastened it without having to suck my stomach in or hold my breath, watched the fabric gather loosely where my belly was supposed to be sticking out, and fold in on itself. and here’s the kicker: i could walk around in it without feeling any kind of constriction whatsoever. i immediately took it off and did the snoopy happy dance in my bra and panties, which ended in me letting out a real live field holler, something akin to a rebel yell actually, the likes of which have never before been heard in these here yankee parts, because there are simply no cows or root hogs to call home in harlem. no, not one.

and that is the end of my “skinny clothes” story. or the beginning, depending on which way you look at it.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Vincent Chaney and myself, The Knitting Factory (Tap Bar)

i'm so happy that i'm finally capturing the kodak moments of my life! this was a few weeks ago at the knitting factory, outside the door of the tap bar. we were waiting for this pop organ trio from philly to finish up and i started playing with my camera again...hard to get me in the picture, but shell white happily obliged. blurry but worth it.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

you couldn't be black for a day

i was talking to a friend the other day at work who was having a bit of a meltdown. he had an "incident" with the security guard at the front desk. when my friend entered the building, the security guard made him sign in -- something he's never done before, probably because it isn't usually done on the evening shift. when he pointed out the people re-entering the building that weren't having to sign in or out, the security guard said that they were all taking smoke breaks. then my friend checks the book to see when the last person entered the building and it it was something like a full 20 minutes before he filled in his john hancock. this was odd because it was the time of day that required a shift change. right about then, everyone is coming and going through the rotating doors in a flurry. "what's your name?" he demanded to know. and then he was off to the races.

my friend had run to his desk and whipped up a letter that he intended to forward to management. he read it to me emphatically as he paced back and forth, quite frustrated. "why was i singled out?" he kept asking. "why me?"

all i could think was, if something this minor sets you off this much, you couldn't be black for a day. you wouldn't make it past noon! your head would pop off of your shoulders before lunchtime, you'd be so angry...

so i told him this. after he balked, i explained.

if i wrote a letter of complaint everytime i was harassed, singled out, picked on by some authoritative somebody or whatever, whether it's a toy cop or a real one; if i sent out some sort of missive whenever i recieved bad service or rude service or no service; if i got wound up every time somebody had an adverse reaction to me -- from clutching their purses and bags and leaning away from me when i step into the elevator or when i walk next to them on the sidewalk, to the wierd dirty looks i get sometimes, just because (and i'm a pretty girl, for crying out loud! i'm a dazzling young urbanite! imagine the vibe a black man gets...); if i flared up whenever i got that "what is she doing here?" fish-eyed stare they give you sometimes when they can't figure out why you're at their posh event when you're not entertaining them or serving them anything; if i got mad everytime an available cab locked it's doors and sped away or swerved around me to pick up some white somebody a few feet away from me; i tell you what -- i would be doing nothing but writing letters. i would have written my fingers down to the elbows. i would have killed at least one or two people by now. (seriously.) i would most definitely be the angry violent black woman they already assume that i am.

they treat me like this, and then when they get close enough to me, they want to fetishize me and treat me like an object and touch my hair! and then they don't understand why i won't let them!

i gave him scenario after incident after breakdown after illustration of things that happened on a regular basis to me and others like me. it was like he'd never heard of racial profiling. in the end, his "why me?" became "i never thought about it like that" which dissolved into "i see what you mean." how could he argue such a thing? i mean, it's been going on for so long and it's just so obvious. eventually, he was telling me about embarassing stupid things that happened to his black friends. and then he asked me an interesting thing: why aren't you bitter?

i've often wondered the same thing, myself.

i suppose i should be, especially when things keep happening the same way over and over and over again, sort of like in the bill murray movie Groundhog's Day. i get upset, sometimes. when i see things in the paper or on the news, it's like a strange warning shot: someone i know could be next. what am i saying? i could be next. i don't understand why city officials and others who supposedly know so much about such things say that there's no such thing as racial profiling when black folks know plenty of people who've gotten harassed and beaten up by everyone from the cops on the beat in their neighborhood to jersey troopers on the turnpike for driving while black. or stopped somewhere in the city and handcuffed and taken downtown because they "fit the description," only to be released a day later from central booking because "somebody made a mistake." now that we're in the age of terrorism, things will get especially dicey.

when the guns start going off by accident and killing people, that's when i kind of lose it.

over time, i've learned how to set boundaries and pick my battles and not let a lot of what is essentially crap get to me. but the bottom line is, i have to pray my way through every situation and surrender all of it to God -- because if i carried around that much anger, i don't think i could function very well as a person.

still and all, it's strange to think that in the blink of an eye, one's life could very easily be at stake, just because of the way you look.

my friend never did send that letter, by the way. i wonder why?

Saturday, July 23, 2005

they shot the wrong guy in london!

it's only a matter of time until this kind of idiocy and paranoia happens in nyc. the guy they shot was brazilian -- dark hair, dark eyes, brown skin -- an easy target. he probably thought they wouldn't shoot him. frankly, i would have assumed the same thing. i mean, wow, i didn't know that cops in london carried guns. at least, they didn't when i was there -- but clearly that was pre-9/11. maybe there was a language barrier and he didn't know what was going on. according to eyewitness accounts, they had him pinned down on the subway and one of the cops shot him five times, anyway.

why is it such a mystery that he ran away from them? i can't think of any black folk that run towards police when they're chasing you.

is anyone going to do some serious jail time for this? sue them for millions of pounds, perhaps? anything but another one of those sincere public apologies. he was a 27 year old electrician on his way to work. sorry is just not enough.

everytime i'm running around in the city and i pass some soldier decked out in full jungle camoflage with a machine gun at the ready, i'm thinking, who's next. the cops shoot the wrong black man all the time and they justify it. now the military can start doing it, too.

Friday, July 22, 2005

congratulations, nyc! you have now legitimized racial profiling...

now the cops will be able to legally harass people of color -- and boy are they going to have a field day in my west harlem neighborhood! i love it the way they talk as if we (as people of color, whether we live in the ghetto or not) weren't getting searched randomly already, anyway. we've always gotten searched randomly. they've been doing that to us since we got here, with no legal recourse in sight. the question is, will other cities follow suit? i'll bet they're watching us to see how it works out. they're doing this so white people can feel comfortable about living and working in the city, because obviouisly no one else will. what about my safety? what about everyone else?

it's not fascism when we do it. it's "random searches." what's next? are you going to come into my apartment whenever you feel like it?

black men and women are treated like criminals for the most part, and are presumed to be ignorant and violent and a basic fundamental threat to the status quo, no matter what they look like or how well dressed they are. the vibe they assume is fear, because the guy they're eyeballing is dangerous and angry -- and the person in question just wants a cheeseburger to go, so he can put his feet up at home and watch the game.

who's suspicious-looking, anyway? not timothy mc veigh. they'd never search his bags -- and clearly, somebody needed to.


NY Police Begin Random Bag Searches on Subways

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York authorities began randomly searching bags of subway passengers on Friday in the aftermath of a second set of London bombings and planned to extend the practice to buses, airport trains and suburban commuter lines.

Riders on the nation's largest subway system waited patiently while officers at various stations around the city combed through their briefcases and knapsacks on the first day of what Mayor Michael Bloomberg said would be a practice that would go on indefinitely.

``Clearly we'll do it for a little while. It's partially designed to make people feel comfortable ... and keep the potential threat away,'' Bloomberg said in his weekly radio show, adding that there were no new threats to New York.

In Washington, D.C., officials said they were not instituting a similar system of random searches on subways, but were still considering it.

Neither were random searches launched in Boston or Los Angeles, although security was stepped up with officers and bomb-sniffing dogs. And in Chicago, police spokesman David Bayless said, ``Nothing has changed for the last two weeks,'' when security was stepped up on train and bus stations after first London bombings on July 7.

Authorities announced plans to begin searching passengers' luggage and packages beginning on Monday on some buses and trains and travelers who refuse the searches will be asked to leave the terminals.

Police also will start randomly searching passengers' bags on suburban commuter trains in New Jersey as of Monday.

The subway searches, announced on Thursday, prompted criticism from the New York Civil Liberties Union that it could invite the targeting of certain people for racial, ethnic or religious reasons.

Police promised there would be no racial profiling, and Bloomberg too said the practice would not be allowed.

``If you think everybody with blue eyes is a terrorist, you can't just stop everybody with blue eyes,'' the mayor said.

``I think if we've learned anything, it's that you can't predict what a terrorist looks like. Terrorists come in all sizes and forms,'' he said.

Searches at a subway station near the city's bustling Port Authority bus station certainly appeared random, as police stopped white tourists, a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke, an Asian man, a young black woman and a man wearing a turban.

``I think it's necessary, especially at this time, as a precaution. I think it should have been in place even before the London attacks,'' said subway passenger Tony Decal at the Columbus Circle subway station.

In one Brooklyn neighborhood where many Muslims live, however, one man who did not give his full name said he opposed the practice. ``I don't think it's right,'' he said as he left a subway station at Atlantic Avenue. ``It is going to be harassment.''


Security on New York's transit system had already been stepped up since the July 7 bombings in London, when three subway trains and a bus were targeted by suicide bombers.

New York has been on high alert for another attack since Sept. 11, 2001, when hijacked planes destroyed the World Trade Center's twin towers killing almost 3,000 people.

However, city transit officials have been criticized recently for only spending a fraction of the funds set aside for security.

A recent New York Times report showed that more than two years after the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it was committing nearly $600 million to improving security, only about $30 million had been spent as of March.

Almost all the money spent went toward consultants and study, the Times story said.

Subway workers, meanwhile, protested on Friday a lack of adequate training for train operators and conductors in emergencies.

If attacks similar to those that occurred in London were to happen in New York, ``We'd be messed up,'' subway train operator Joseph Irizarry, said.

``We don't have the training for that situation,'' he said.

Meanwhile, shares of video surveillance system manufacturer Global ePoint Inc. jumped more than 50 percent after it unveiled a new product that can monitor passengers on any form of mass transport and provide live video and archive 720 hours of recorded data.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

my neighborhood doesn't make ME sick...

i don't know why i don't have ghetto miasma. i've lived up here for years. my apparent immunity to the world that's flourishing in my immediate surroundings is a strong argument for "being in it but not of it." hm. then again -- i eat healthy, work out daily, see a doctor regularly, pop vitamins consistently and i love God. so there you have it.

what with a mc donald's or a greasy fried chicken joint on every corner, and rotting overpriced fruit and vegetables in the grocery store (if there even is one in the neighborhood), it's impossible to eat well in the ghetto. east harlem just got a gigantic pathmark about 4 years ago. and we got a huuuuge fairway on the west side, but it really hasn't been there that long. and when i go in there, i don't see that many black people. ghettos would change if we had healthy things to eat. how about a jamba juice above 125th St?

makes you wonder how folks in the 'hood made it before these recent additions. heck. i would just go to the fairway on 74th and Broadway and make it happen. i'm not going a week without broccoli-rabe or my favorite baked salmon, not me!


GHETTO MIASMA; Enough To Make You Sick?
By Helen Epstein

Beverly Blagmon lives in the School Street housing projects in southwest Yonkers, a once-vibrant manufacturing area just north of New York City long mired in unemployment and poverty. Beverly has asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, gout and an enlarged heart, and her blood has a dangerous tendency to clot spontaneously. She is 48, and she had her first heart attack in her late 20's. One of her brothers died of heart failure at 50, and another died of kidney failure at 45, as did a sister who was 35. A young cousin recently died of cancer. In the past three years, at least 11 young people she knows have died, most of them not from gunshot wounds or drug overdoses, but from disease.

Monica, who asked that her last name not be used, moved to the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn from School Street a year ago. She has diabetes, arthritis and asthma. She is overweight, and the pain from a back injury that occurred four years ago makes it hard for her to walk or even bend over a stove. Her elaborately braided hair is tinged with gray. In the past year, six of her friends have died, all of them younger than she is. When asked simple questions about her life -- when she was born, where she grew up, when her three children were born -- Monica answers in short phrases, wiping tears from her eyes. She is 36.

Ebony Fasion, 22, and her friend Dominique Faulk, 17, both former residents of School Street, have asthma. Dominique's cousin Jo-Scama Wontong, 19, still lives in the School Street projects. Jo-Scama has lost so many people she loved to disease and accident recently that whenever she thinks about it, she is stricken with panic. ''My heart beats so fast, and I can't breathe, and there's just death going through my mind the whole time.''

Something is killing America's urban poor, but this is no ordinary epidemic. When diseases like AIDS, measles and polio strike, everyone's symptoms look more or less the same, but not in this case. It is as if the aging process in people like Beverly and Monica were accelerated. Even teenagers are afflicted with numerous health problems, including asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure. Poor urban blacks have the worst health of any ethnic group in America, with the possible exception of Native Americans. Some poor urban Hispanics suffer disproportionately from many health problems, too, although the groups that arrived most recently, like Dominicans, seem to be healthier, on average, than Puerto Ricans who have lived in the United States for many years. It makes you wonder whether there is something deadly in the American experience of urban poverty itself.

The neighborhoods where Beverly, Monica, Ebony, Dominique and Jo-Scama live look like poor urban areas all across the country, with bricked-up abandoned buildings, vacant storefronts, broken sidewalks and empty lots with mangy grass overgrowing the ruins of old cars, machine parts and heaps of garbage. Young men in black nylon skullcaps lurk around the pay-phones on street corners. These neighborhoods are as segregated from the more affluent, white sections of metropolitan New York as any township in South Africa under apartheid. Living in such neighborhoods as southwest Yonkers, central and East Harlem, central Brooklyn and the South Bronx is assumed to predispose the poor to a number of social ills, including drug abuse, truancy and the persistent joblessness that draws young people into a long cycle of crime and incarceration. Now it turns out these neighborhoods could be destroying people's health as well.

There are many different types of disadvantaged neighborhoods in America, but poor urban minority neighborhoods seem to be especially unhealthy. Some of these neighborhoods have the highest mortality rates in the country, but this is not, as many believe, mainly because of drug overdoses and gunshot wounds. It is because of chronic diseases -- mainly diseases of adulthood that are probably not caused by viruses, bacteria or other infections and that include stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer.

The problems start at birth. The black infant death rate in Westchester County is almost three times as high as the rate for the county as a whole. Black youths in Harlem, central Detroit, the South Side of Chicago and Watts have about the same probability of dying by age 45 as whites nationwide do by age 65, and most of this premature death is due not to violence, but to illness. A third of poor black 16-year-old girls in urban areas will not reach their 65th birthdays. Four times as many people die of diabetes in the largely black area of central Brooklyn as on the predominantly white Upper East Side of Manhattan, and one in three adults in Harlem report having high blood pressure. In 1990, two New York doctors found that so many poor African-Americans in Harlem were dying young from heart disease, cancer and cirrhosis of the liver that men there were less likely to reach age 65 than men in Bangladesh.

Since the time of slavery, physicians have noted that the health of impoverished blacks is, in general, worse than that of whites. Racist doctors proposed that the reasons were genetic, and that blacks were intrinsically inferior and physically weaker than whites. But there is very little evidence that poor blacks or Hispanics are genetically predisposed to the vast majority of the afflictions from which they disproportionately suffer. As the living conditions of blacks have improved over the past century, their health improved in step; when conditions deteriorated, health deteriorated, too. This has helped support the contention among researchers that much chronic disease among minority groups is caused not by genes, but by something else.

That something else may come down to geography. Ana Diez-Roux, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, has shown that people who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods are more likely to have heart attacks than people who live in middle-class neighborhoods, even taking income differences into account. Researchers from the Rand Corporation found that neighborhoods where many buildings are boarded up and abandoned have higher rates of early death from cancer and diabetes than neighborhoods with similar poverty rates and similar proportions of uninsured people, but intact housing. Abandoned buildings do not in themselves cause disease, of course, but they are an indicator of neighborhood deprivation and neglect -- and this does seem to be associated with poor health, though we don't know why.

In some ways, our public health institutions are in the same position they were in 150 years ago. In the mid-19th century, public health boards were established to fight the great killers of the day -- cholera and tuberculosis. The poor were more susceptible to these diseases then, just as they are more susceptible to chronic diseases now. And then, as now, the reasons were unknown. Some believed diseases were acts of God and the poor got what they deserved. If they would only drink less, go to church and stay out of brothels, they wouldn't get sick. Others maintained that the afflictions of poverty were environmental. A stinking mass of invisible vapor, referred to as ''miasma,'' hung in the air over the slums, they claimed, and sickened those who inhaled it.

It was not until the early 1880's, when the German scientist Robert Koch looked down his microscope at swirling cholera and tuberculosis bacteria, that everyone finally agreed about what was going on. The water the poor drank was full of sewage and contained deadly cholera germs; in overcrowded tenements, the poor breathed clouds of tuberculosis bacteria. Malnourished alcoholics tended to be more susceptible to these diseases, but immoral behavior was not their primary cause. Nor was miasma. The primary cause was germs.

We don't have a germ theory for chronic diseases like stroke, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. We know something about what can aggravate these diseases -- diet, smoking and so on -- but not enough about why they are so much more common among people who live in certain neighborhoods, or what makes, for example, a poor person who smokes the same number of cigarettes a day as a rich person more likely to get lung cancer. Or why several research studies show that smoking, eating, drinking and exercise habits do not fully account for why rich people are healthier than poor people. Even lack of health care cannot entirely explain the afflictions of the poor. Many poor people lack health insurance, and those who have it are often at the mercy of overworked doctors and nurses who provide indifferent care, but inadequate health care cannot explain why so many of them get so sick in the first place.

Most poor minority neighborhoods ''are less healthy,'' says Adam M. Karpati, who works in the Brooklyn office of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. ''You walk down the street and you know it. But what is that thing that you know is going on? What's at play there? That thing you can't name? We don't know that.''

Clearly we need to examine this miasma with a different kind of microscope. The best we have at the moment are theories that fall into two main schools of thought. One school holds that the problem has mainly to do with stress; the other holds actual deprivation responsible. These two factors are often intertwined, but the emphasis is important. ''There are so many fists in the face of poor African-Americans,'' says Arline Geronimus, a professor of public health at the University of Michigan who leans toward the stress school, and she proceeded to list them for me. They have enormous family obligations, she explained, and while the middle class are able to purchase child care and care for elderly relatives, the poor cannot. The experience of racism and discrimination in everyday life is also still very real, and very stressful. She says that blacks are faced with a society that institutionalizes the idea ''that you are a menace -- and that demeans you,'' she says. Nancy Krieger, a Harvard researcher, found that working-class African-Americans who said they accepted unfair treatment as a fact of life had higher blood pressure than those who challenged it.

Geronimus calls the grinding everyday stress of being poor and marginalized in America ''weathering,'' a condition not unlike the effect of exposure to wind and rain on houses. Listening to Geronimus describe ''weathering,'' I found it hard not to wonder whether anyone really knows what it is. Stress is subjective, a feeling, and it means different things to different people. Philip Alcabes, associate professor of urban public health at Hunter College, says that stress is like the miasma that was once thought to cause cholera in 19th-century slums. ''You can't see it, you can't really measure it, but it floats over certain people, especially the poor, and makes them sick.''

If ''weathering'' and stress have their modern day Robert Koch, he is probably Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist at Rockefeller University in New York. McEwen argues that stress hormones threaten the health of poor people, especially blacks and the Hispanic poor. Stress hormones are produced by the adrenal glands in response to signals from the brain. When people feel frustrated, frightened or angry, stress hormones travel through the bloodstream and instruct different parts of the body to prepare for an emergency. They speed up the heart rate and narrow the arteries so that blood gets to the tissues faster; blood sugar rises, so that energy rushes to the muscles and other organs; and some bodily functions, like digestion and the mechanisms that maintain the strength of the bones and other tissues, are inhibited. But not all stress is the same. Occasional periods of intense stress, like what you feel during a near miss in a car, do no harm. However, McEwen's research suggests that constant exposure to stress hormones impairs the immune system and damages the brain and other organs.

Chronic stress also signals the body to accumulate abdominal fat around the waistline, which is more dangerous than fat that lies under the skin, or subcutaneous fat. Abdominal fat worsens many chronic health problems, including diabetes and heart disease, whereas subcutaneous fat does not. It's as if stress hormones were like lye, powerful stuff that in small amounts is useful for cleaning the stove, but that in large amounts will eat right through the floor.

Not everyone believes that stress is a major contributor to the health crisis among the poor. George Davey Smith, a professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Bristol in England, agrees that the poor live very stressful lives, and that racism is an everyday reality for many people. However, in his view -- the second school of thought on the matter -- the health crisis among the poor has more to do with living in a deprived environment.

The experience of poverty in America has changed a great deal since the 19th century; the poor now have safe drinking water and live in less crowded dwellings, and many have cars and TV's. However, it's also true that many poor people eat unhealthful food, smoke and abuse drugs. Americans hear a great deal about the importance of making healthy choices in their lives; warnings about cigarettes and high-fat foods issue frequently from the surgeon general's office and fill the pages of magazines and best-selling advice books. There are plenty of people who feel little sympathy for overweight diabetic people, poor or not, who eat regularly at McDonald's. But while there is considerable controversy about the ideal lifestyle regimen, you don't need to know much about impoverished neighborhoods to see the absurdity of choosing to go Atkins or macrobiotic for a person like Beverly Blagmon, who subsists on disability payments. Poor people are more likely to have unhealthy habits because fast food and cigarettes are abundant and cheap in their neighborhoods, and healthy alternatives tend to be limited.

A recent survey conducted in four regions of the United States found that there were three times as many bars in poor neighborhoods as in rich ones, and four times as many supermarkets in white neighborhoods as in black ones. There are fewer parks in poor neighborhoods as well, so it is more difficult to find open spaces in which to exercise, and many of them are dangerous. Forty-one percent of New York's public elementary schools have no consistent physical education program. As Mary T. Bassett, a New York City deputy health commissioner, said to me, public health campaigns that tell people to ''just say no'' to smoking, or to change their diets and start exercising, can be cruel if they are indifferent to neighborhood circumstances.

Davey Smith also points out that many of the poor black people who are sick today grew up in the 40's, 50's and 60's, when many black people lived in overcrowded dwellings, and were more prone than affluent whites to childhood infections. Some of these infections may have long-term effects on health. Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that has been associated with both ulcers and stomach cancer in adulthood, is most often acquired in childhood, and this may explain why poor blacks in particular have relatively high rates of both diseases. Adults who were poor as children, even if they are not poor now, are also more prone to stroke, kidney disease and hypertensive heart disease.

I wondered about these alternatives. Presumably both stress and material disadvantage are important causes of ill health among the poor. But which is more important? And what would be the best way to address these problems? If stress is a major cause of ill health, interventions to alleviate it -- counseling, antidepressants, even yoga -- might be beneficial. A recent article in The British Medical Journal suggested that building self-esteem actually helped a group of Native Americans manage their obesity and diabetes better than did conventional counseling about diet and exercise. On the other hand, if material disadvantage is a major cause of ill health among the poor, then extensive changes in the environment in which the poor live -- for example, cleaner buildings and more parks -- are needed.

Perhaps Beverly Blagmon, who lives in the midst of such problems, could help resolve this matter. I asked her what she thought the health crisis in southwest Yonkers was caused by, and she answered without missing a beat. ''Racism.'' We went on to talk about the lack of jobs in the area and the dilapidated state of the housing. I also learned that if stress is a killer, there is plenty of it on School Street, but yoga classes and motivational seminars are not likely to be of much help.

Beverly raised 10 children, eight orphaned nieces and nephews in addition to her own son and daughter. The kids were desperate for attention from the overextended Beverly. ''It was hard,'' she said. ''You had to deal with 10 different personalities.'' All the kids are grown now, and all but two have left home. Now she worries because some of them can't find jobs. When she was young, Yonkers was full of factories that hired many young people. But not anymore.

Then last year, disaster struck. Beverly's 21-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident; shortly thereafter, her nephew was shot and killed right outside her building. ''I was totally out of it,'' she said. ''People don't know how much a death can take from you. I went into the hospital right after my daughter's funeral. They didn't know if I'd had a mild stroke or not.''

''Life is taken stupidly'' all the time around School Street, Beverly said, but this doesn't make it easier to handle. Beverly struggles with these losses, and said her family, friends and even officials from the local Housing Authority have been supportive. But when Beverly talked about life on School Street, what she said is underscored with tension -- the constant strain of ''us versus them.'' She sees the police in particular as a constant source of grief. ''Some of them are very prejudiced, even now,'' she told me. She claimed that a few officers harassed children and teenagers, and have even been known to swear at kids and shove them. She recalled, as if it were yesterday, a 1997 fight at School Street. Someone called Beverly to come outside, which she did, along with a visiting friend. Police officers were on the street, some of them shouting, and in the chaos that ensued, she said, a policeman knocked down Beverly's friend, a older woman who is legally blind. ''I was freaked out,'' Beverly said. ''The main witnesses were drug dealers, and they couldn't say anything.'' (The Yonkers police confirmed that the woman later filed a complaint, but said an internal investigation found no wrongdoing.) Beverly said she was infuriated when, shortly after the incident, she saw the mayor of Yonkers praise the police in a televised speech.

People who are not poor often casually ascribe their aches, pains and even more serious afflictions to ''stress,'' but stress, if it is a killer, is a far more serious problem for people like Beverly. When middle-class people feel the police or other authorities treat them unfairly, they often have the resources to hire a lawyer and even effect change. But all too often poor blacks feel ignored when they complain about discrimination and abuse.

How might painful experiences like Beverly's be imprinted on the body? Laboratory animals suffer when stressed with electric shocks or when kept in isolated cages away from their peers, and they sometimes do develop symptoms that resemble human chronic diseases. But how does mouse stress compare to Beverly's stress? Or mine? Or yours? George Davey Smith would argue that it is entirely possible that the afflictions of poor people like Beverly are not due to stress, at all, but to old-fashioned deprivation: crowding, poor nutrition, lack of exercise and exposure to dirty air, germs and vermin. For a while, Beverly's family of 11 crowded into a two-bedroom apartment, until they were eventually moved into a six-room place. Once, money was so short that she begged the welfare office for food stamps. There is nowhere around School Street for kids to run around, Beverly says, except a concrete playground with a set of monkey bars. ''Why can't they put up some swings or build a basketball court? You see kids using garbage cans as basketball nets around here.'' Until two years ago, an incinerator in the building spewed forth horrible fumes that may have contributed to the high rates of asthma on School Street. ''When you got ready to polish the furniture, it was black with dust,'' Beverly recalled. ''Every day. Now, how much of that was getting in our lungs? I've been in the hospital every year with acute asthma.'' The incinerator has been replaced by a compactor, but as a result, life is a constant battle against roaches and mice, whose droppings also worsen asthma. Beverly told me that she recently caught three mice in one day. ''I put them on the maintenance people's desk,'' she said. The elevators are always breaking down, which is hard on the elderly. Once she saw human feces in the hallway.

After talking to Beverly, I could only conclude that her life was full of many sorts of trouble, any or all of which might be harmful to health. If only it were possible to devise an experiment that would examine the effects of stress and deprived living conditions on the health of the poor. For nearly 10 years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been conducting an experiment called Moving to Opportunity that seems to be doing just that. HUD researchers wanted to see what happens to poor urban families who move out of neighborhoods like Harlem in New York, Roxbury in Boston or the South Side of Chicago and settle in better neighborhoods. They wanted to know whether moving would help children do better in school, and escape being drawn into crime when they reached adolescence. They also wanted to know whether their parents would climb out of poverty.

HUD did find that people's lives improved in some ways. For example, the children who moved to better neighborhoods in Baltimore did better on standardized tests, and adults there were more likely to get off welfare. But HUD's most remarkable early findings had to do with health. In Boston, poor children who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods were less likely to experience severe asthma attacks. Adults in New York who moved were less likely to suffer from symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who stayed behind, and adults in Boston were more likely to report that they felt ''calm and peaceful.'' The HUD researchers who devised the experiment had not set out to study health, but their findings were so striking that they decided to expand their study to determine whether moving out of poor neighborhoods affected other aspects of health that they did not measure in the first round, including blood pressure, obesity and other factors associated with such chronic afflictions as heart disease, cancer and stroke, like smoking. Those results aren't available yet, but when I heard about the earlier study, I decided to conduct a small experiment of my own.

I wanted to talk to families, like those who had participated in the HUD program, who had recently moved out of the slums. Did the move affect their health? And if so, why? Did people experience less stress? Did they eat better food? Breathe better air? What might their experiences tell me about the mysterious miasma of contemporary poverty?

My investigation led me to Jerrold M. Levy, the general counsel of the Enhanced Section 8 Outreach Program, or ESOP, which helps low-income families move out of depressed, dangerous inner-city neighborhoods in Yonkers into middle-class areas. ESOP wasn't conducting any studies of these people, of course, but Levy was willing to put me in touch with 10 of the families he'd helped move. He had noticed that the people who moved out of dangerous neighborhoods seemed happier. ''A few weeks after they've moved,'' he says of his clients, who are mostly single mothers, ''they come into my office, and it's like one of those programs on late-night TV where they do the makeovers, you know? They have their hair done nicely, they're wearing high heels and makeup, it's like they're transformed. They have a new sense of self-worth and dignity. But will you see changes in their health? I don't think so.'' Depression and anxiety are major health problems that affect large numbers of poor people, so I thought I would be satisfied just to find people whose mental health improved. And I did find such people. But I also found that most people who moved gained far more than high spirits.

Of the 10 families I met, 9 had at least one member who suffered from a serious health problem before the move that required either medication or hospitalization. Of the 16 people in these families who had health problems, 12 told me that they felt better in significant ways -- either their symptoms were less severe so that they no longer required hospitalization, or they were taking less medication. Their health problems included severe asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, liver cirrhosis and eczema. Emergency-room visits for the asthmatic kids virtually stopped, and some adults with high blood pressure or diabetes reduced the doses of their medications. This was hardly a rigorous scientific experiment. There was no control group, and I was not able to check medical records. Nevertheless, I was stunned by what people told me. These people felt better, and moving appeared to have made all the difference. If moving out of southwest Yonkers were a drug, I would bottle it, patent it and go on cable TV and sell it.

Juanita Moody is now 52. In the summer of 2001, she and her husband, William, moved to a middle-class section of Yonkers from a low-income housing complex on Nepperhan Avenue, where they lived for nearly 30 years. Juanita was crippled by polio when she was a teenager, and during an operation to adjust her spine, she was given a blood transfusion that contained hepatitis C. The virus lay dormant for many years. But two and a half years ago, Juanita's doctor told her that her liver was showing signs of damage and advised her to take interferon, a prescription drug for viral infections. When Juanita found out about the possible side effects, however, she refused. Today Juanita's liver tests are almost normal, suggesting that her hepatitis is not progressing rapidly. ''The doctor said I was fantastic, in terms of enzymes,'' Juanita told me. I did not speak to Juanita's doctor myself, so I could not confirm her diagnosis, but Juanita seemed energetic, and other doctors confirmed that it is possible for hepatitis to slow its progression. In addition, Juanita says that since she moved, her blood pressure has fallen from 140/90, which is considered high, to 130/78, which is almost normal, and the dose of blood-pressure pills she takes has been reduced by half.

Juanita, a born-again Christian, attributes her improved health to prayer and to the new regimen she has maintained since she moved. She has become a health-food nut. Before she moved, her daughter told me, ''everything was fried, fried, fried. Before she'd eat at McDonald's and stuff, but not now.'' Now she drinks fruit and vegetable juices, and her kitchen cabinets are full of natural remedies: vitamins C and E, zinc, magnesium, calcium, alpha lipoic acid and milk thistle, which she says is excellent for the liver.

Juanita says she began focusing more on her health after she moved. When she lived on Nepperhan, there were too many other things to worry about, including frequent robberies and killings in and around the complex itself. The building managers put up a fence to keep drug dealers out, ''but the crackheads living inside the building gave the dealers the keys.'' The elevators were often broken, which meant that someone would have to carry Juanita and her wheelchair up and down three flights of stairs.

Juanita's new apartment is not in a luxury building. It's on a busy road, near two gas stations and a shopping mall, and has few amenities. But it is safe and has nice, leafy views. On Nepperhan, ''it was stressful just to walk out of that place. You were always scared for the kids. . . . You wake up stressed, go to sleep stressed, you see all the garbage and the dealers. That is depressing. In a bad environment like that you say, 'What's the use of doing anything?' '' Living in her new apartment building gives her a very different feeling. ''It inspires you to do all you can -- spiritually, health-wise, any kind of way.''

It is well known that junk food can make anxious people feel better. Researchers from the University of California recently discovered one possible reason. In response to constant stress, the brain makes a hormone called corticotropin-releasing factor, which instructs the adrenal glands to manufacture stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause a range of physiological changes that over long periods can be harmful. When people with high levels of cortisol eat sugary, fatty foods, fat is deposited in the abdomen. The researchers theorize that these abdominal fat cells can temporarily inhibit the brain from making corticotropin-releasing factor, reducing feelings of stress and anxiety. If this theory is correct, it could explain how the stress of poverty creates a biological urge to overeat, thus putting poor people at greater risk of obesity and its consequences -- diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer. Perhaps this explained why Juanita found it easier to change her diet once she moved out of the stressful atmosphere of Nepperhan Avenue. She admitted that doctors had been telling her over the years that she should consume less fattening food. ''But they can tell you, and you don't do it,'' Juanita said.

Noemi, 31, moved with her two teenage children and her 76-year-old aunt, Raimunda, from Burnham Street in Yonkers to a better neighborhood in northwest Yonkers only three months before I met her in August. Noemi, who asked that her last name not be used, has had diabetes since childhood. Shortly after she moved, her doctor reduced her dose of insulin by three units. Noemi thinks it's because she feels less stressed in the new neighborhood. ''Stress affects your blood sugar,'' she explained. ''It makes your sugar go up so you need more insulin.'' She drove me from her new neighborhood of neatly mowed lawns, bushy trees and two-car garages to the place she used to live. ''Look at the neighborhood here,'' she said, as we drove by industrial garages, boarded-up buildings and vacant lots. An enormous, dented, wheezing Lincoln car screeched by. ''I had to be worried all the time, you know. Are the children gonna get hit by a car? Is something gonna happen? We've lived in neighborhoods with a lot of drugs, a lot of people getting killed. You'd read about it in the paper the next day and think: Oh, God! That's only two blocks from here.''

Noemi's aunt Raimunda speaks no English, although she has lived in the United States for more than 15 years. She has high blood pressure and heart disease. I asked Noemi to ask Raimunda how she was feeling these days. ''She says her thing with the head is gone,'' Noemi translated. ''Before she used to get dizzy, but not anymore. Not for the past couple of months.'' When I asked Raimunda why she thought the dizzy spells went away, she, unlike Noemi and Juanita, did not mention stress. Instead, she said she thought the improvement had something to do with diet. ''She thinks the chicken is better here -- easier to digest,'' Noemi said. ''But what she doesn't know is that since we moved, I still buy the chicken in the same place.''

After meeting Noemi, Raimunda and Juanita, I began to see more clearly what Arline Geronimus, the University of Michigan researcher, was talking about. Perhaps the miasma that is killing the poor really is stress after all. Then I spoke to the mothers of six children who had severe asthma. Every one of them had significantly fewer and less severe attacks after the families moved out of southwest Yonkers. Reduced stress could be partly responsible -- stress can worsen asthma -- but it seemed clear to me a cleaner environment was also responsible. The children ranged in age from 3 to 16; they all moved out of southwest Yonkers and settled in different parts of Westchester. The mothers, who asked that their last names not be used, saw astonishing changes, and hearing their stories convinced me that the only way to deal with the staggering epidemic of asthma that afflicts 30 percent of children in some New York City neighborhoods is to clean up the rundown, roach-infested buildings where so many of these children live.

Carmen and her 4-year-old son moved to a middle-class section of Westchester in the spring of 2002. In Yonkers, her son would have severe asthma attacks every month and would have to sit for hours every day breathing through a nebulizer. Since they moved, she says he has needed the nebulizer only twice. Two years ago, Monique, her 3-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter moved from Cedar Street in Yonkers to Peekskill. When they lived on Cedar Street, her son's severe asthma came complete with projectile vomiting. The attacks started just a few months after he was born, and they terrified Monique. She blames her former landlord. ''There was no hot water for two weeks once, there were leaks in the roof, so it was damp all the time. Sometimes there was water coming through the roof, and mice playing in the living room,'' she says. ''There were cockroaches everywhere, even in the refrigerator. The landlord did nothing until I called the health department. It was stressful having all those roaches around. You didn't know if they were crawling all over you at night.'' As soon as the family moved up to Peekskill, the boy's attacks became less severe. Although he is still on medication, the violent attacks and the vomiting have stopped.

Cockroaches and vermin do worsen asthma, and this might explain why Monique's son was so sick. But there could be another reason that so many children in poor neighborhoods have asthma, and why they get better when they move. In the past decade, rates of childhood asthma, as well as obesity and diabetes, have soared in the very neighborhoods that were worst affected by the crime waves of the 70's, 80's and 90's. One possible explanation, says Daniel Kass, a research scientist for the New York City health department, ''is that asthma follows the crime epidemic, because it goes wherever people spend a lot of time indoors.''

Poor parents, terrified that their kids will be killed on the street, tend to keep them inside, with the windows shut and the TV on, where they are constantly exposed to contaminants in indoor air, which some researchers believe can be as damaging as industrial pollution. Not only are sedentary, overweight kids more at risk for asthma, but kids with severe asthma tend to exercise less and are thus prone to obesity. Mothers trying to protect their kids from crime may not realize they are putting their future health at risk. As Mindy Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University explained, ''The best parents -- the people who are the most upright, the churchgoers, the most protective mothers -- keep their kids inside, and they are at the intersection of the asthma and obesity epidemics.''

I thought of Trevor Jackson Jr., a 14-year-old boy with serious eczema who moved from southwest Yonkers up to Cortland Manor in northern Westchester two years ago. ''This is a much better atmosphere,'' his mother, Dawn, told me. Their new apartment is in a large house with a wide sloping lawn surrounded by trees. ''The kids can just go outside anytime. The little one wouldn't go to sleep when we first got here.'' He wanted to be outside all the time. In Cortland Manor, ''kids have a better chance to grow,'' Trevor's father, Trevor Sr., says. ''We see deer in the yard, woodchucks, otters, frogs. There's just life up here.''

I was beginning to see that the problems of stress and material deprivation were inseparable parts of the contemporary miasma of poverty. But how did these neighborhoods become so unhealthy? New York City is one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country. Blacks, whites and other ethnic groups interact every day, but to a large extent they live separately. At the same time, the city has also become more segregated by wealth, so that many black and Hispanic neighborhoods are also the poorest.

The Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has described how, thanks to the civil rights movement of the 60's, many middle-class blacks have been able to find jobs and housing outside traditional black areas, leaving behind the most impoverished, poorly educated people. This concentration of disadvantage -- racial, social and economic -- combined with the loss of many unskilled manufacturing jobs, is what Wilson says contributed to the many social problems associated with poverty today, including drug abuse, crime and single motherhood. Mindy Fullilove says that these trends contributed to widening health inequalities as well. As racial and economic segregation increased, health problems became concentrated in the most deprived areas, as if the miasma were condensing over them. Indeed, I wondered if the miasma might not turn out to be segregation itself.

In order to understand the health crisis among America's urban poor, Fullilove explains, you can't just consider what's going on now. ''You have to look at the history of these neighborhoods'' and think about the people who live there and what has happened to them in the past. ''The history of each neighborhood will determine its pattern of disease. A city like New York suffers from an overlay of epidemics.''

In the 70's, 80's and 90's, poor minority neighborhoods throughout the country experienced a protean health crisis. Rates of some chronic and infectious diseases began increasing for the first time since World War II. Even older blacks who made it into their 60's, and who once had as good a chance of reaching their 75th birthdays as 60-year-old whites, began dying at higher rates.

Fullilove says that urban-renewal projects that helped create concentrated poverty, along with redlining -- discrimination by banks and insurance companies -- and public- service cuts in poor neighborhoods led to catastrophic changes in the way the poor lived, and destroyed the foundation that made poverty endurable. The migrancy of poor people, displaced by fires, evictions and other calamities, destroyed informal community mechanisms for caring for children and controlling the behavior of adolescents and young adults, and this made it harder than ever for the poor to cope. ''It was like a massive refugee situation,'' Fullilove says.

At the same time, as the middle class increasingly campaigned for restrictions on cigarette and alcohol advertising, those companies spent more of their marketing dollars in poor neighborhoods. As Rodrick and Deborah Wallace wrote in their book ''A Plague on Your Houses,'' politicians looked the other way when companies posted huge, colorful billboards -- depicting exuberant black people smoking cigarettes and drinking beer -- outside schools and churches in Harlem, Brooklyn and the South Bronx. Construction on central Harlem's first full-size supermarket did not begin until 2002, but in the 90's there were more than a hundred places where a child under 18 could buy cigarettes, including individual ''loosies,'' which are cheap but illegal.

The wave of crime and drugs of the 80's and 90's has subsided considerably, and some once-grim urban neighborhoods are even prospering. But poverty has risen in many suburban minority enclaves, and the health problems of the poor have not gone away.

Much has been written about how such social problems as joblessness and drug abuse worsen health problems, but it is also possible that the converse is true. Both Beverly and Monica have lost jobs as a result of illness, and many sick people fall into poverty. Anne Case, a Princeton University economist, has shown that unhealthy young people are far less likely to succeed in school and find good jobs later on. Thus, illness can trap poor families in cycles of disease, death and poverty for generations.

Adam Karpati of the New York City health department says that even though we don't know what the miasma is, there is still a great deal we can do to improve the well-being of the poor. In the 19th century, it was not the discovery of germs that led to the greatest advances in public health, but a series of profound changes in the way the poor lived -- a virtual social revolution. Then, as now, health and poverty were inseparable from each other, and better housing, sewers, decent wages, better working conditions and improved nutrition saved millions of lives. Today much could be done to improve the environment and make life less stressful for the poor. The health department is working to reduce mold and roach infestation in public housing, as well as encouraging doctors and community organizations to address such problems as obesity, asthma and diabetes. These admirable programs, however, are modest in scale, and in the current fiscal climate, their financing is far from secure.

More ambitious changes are needed, but at present, our government is permitting matters to get even worse. Since 2000, millions of jobs have been lost, and nearly three million people have joined the ranks of the poor, who now account for more than 12 percent of the U.S. population and 24 percent of African-Americans. This means fewer families will be able to move out of poor neighborhoods on their own. For now, the federal Section 8 program -- which provides subsidies for people to pay for private housing -- is the only hope most people have of getting out of these neighborhoods, but even its future is in doubt. Possible budget cuts could mean thousands of Section 8 recipients will lose their vouchers next year, and in the longer term, Republicans in Congress hope to devolve the program to the states. This will almost certainly mean the program will shrink. Last month, moreover, HUD also suspended rental supplements that Jerrold Levy says have made programs like ESOP possible. ''This will reinforce the ghettoization of poor people,'' Levy says.

Rising unemployment and budget cuts will not only harm people's health. They will also cost Americans money. Take diabetes and asthma as examples. Around one million people succumb to Type 2 diabetes each year, with African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans most at risk. The bill for treating the nation's 11 million known diabetics comes to $92 billion for medications and doctors' visits plus $40 billion in lost productivity due to absences from work and premature death. The yearly bill for the nation's asthma epidemic is $14 billion. As Beverly pointed out to me, shortsighted cuts, amounting to a few hundred million dollars, from the HUD budget mean programs to refurbish public housing, organize recreation for children and build playgrounds have been halted. The exterminator teams that used to come every month now come once every two months, and the roaches are flourishing as never before.

Whatever the miasma is that afflicts America's minority poor, it is at least partly a legacy of the segregation of America's cities. These neighborhoods, by concentrating the poor, also concentrate the mysterious, as yet poorly understood, factors that make them sick. You'd almost think this new miasma was caused by some sort of infection, because of the way it seems to strike certain neighborhoods and certain types of people. I recently came across a research article by Angus Deaton of Princeton University, reporting that white people who live in cities with large black populations have higher death rates than whites with the same income who live in cities with smaller black populations. It made me wonder whether the deprived, polluted, roach-infested, stressful conditions in which poor blacks live aren't affecting all of us, to some degree. And even if we never find out what the miasma is, this possibility should scare us into treating this as the health emergency it is -- if nothing else will.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

my secret fantasy...

it has always been my secret fantasy to be a cartoonist/animator. something in me keeps one eye in a comic book of some kind. when i was in austin, i got into r. crumb and stuff like american splendor and cherry pop tart, thanks to oat willie's. and then when i protested against apartheid, i got into political stuff, like sue coe. japanese anime never interested me all that much, though i've seen some movies that i really like, and some prints. neither did sci-fi, per se. but every once in awhile, i see some cool trippy stuff. my friend john f. knows about my secret fantasy and he's really great about sticking some comic book in my face and going, you should read this. (little does he know, i've started sketching again...)

needless to say, anything black and strong stays on my radar -- everything from Brotherman and Spawn to (of course) Boondocks (are those some pissed-off politically aware little children or what!. my favorites are all in the museum of black superheroes. i go there often for a little inspiration here and there because -- while we all love superman and batman and and spiderman and all that the other "man" spin-offs have to offer -- frankly, i'm sick of watching white men (and occasionally white women) save the world -- especially when we all know that they make up less than 15% of the globe's population. actually, i was kind of over it when i was a little kid. i wanted to see something of myself beating up the bad guys and fighting injustice. but i guess that's what pam grier was for -- little black girls like me that wanted to be in on the action (tomboys? wierdoes?) instead of watching demurely from the sidelines could do so vicariously through her. she wasn't a comic book superhero but she may as well have been. *sigh*

fortunately, i lived in atlanta, a black mecca. and my childhood was somewhere in the 70's. everything was still black and beautiful. everyone had an Afro with a pick stuck in it. everyone wore a dashiki. everybody wanted to go to africa or get an african name or hang out with some africans. actually, i used to babysit for some nigerian graduate students when i was in middle school. i looked so nigerian that their friends would become deadlocked in these long drawn out discussions over my features to determine which tribe i probably belonged to. i think ibo was the popular assumption, but when most nigerians meet me, they vacillate: ibo or yoruba? tastes great, less filling! i remember thinking, what the heck do they know? i'm from the low country. my people are probably from the sierra leone.

that's when i experienced fela kuti for the first time, via music and video clips. i was mesmerized. i thought that he was just stunning. one of the biggest compliments i think anyone has ever given me in my whole life was from this nigerian student i knew in austin who used to greet me with a stiff ceremonial bow whenever he saw me on campus and introduce me to his friends as one of fela's wives, in exile. all of his friends would unanimously agree. his wives -- there must have been 20 of them, at least -- were singer/dancers in his collective, and they were all quite beautiful.

but i digress.

i wish that i could make a black female superhero comix. or just blackgrrl's comix, period. some vehicle for me to put all these stories and all these bizarre things that keep happening to me...

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

hey, what's in the suitcase-purse?

i carry a suitcase instead of a purse. it's a label knockoff. i have no idea which one. i fast-talked some African in the street into selling it to me for $40 and then i saw it in a store for almost $200 and i thought, yipes! i'd have to be loaded and some new kind of stupid to buy retail! it looks really cool but it can get heavy sometimes, depending on what i have to do all day. but it's leather so the more i wring on it and wear it out, the better it looks.

okay -- so basically, i'm sick of people asking me what's in my suitcase purse. so here's a content listing for today -- and remember, i'm usually gone all day long (and no, i'm not making any of this up):

  1. raw almonds (in a tightly sealed tupperware container)
  2. a pint of blueberries (ditto)
  3. a banana
  4. one liter of water (i always refill it when i run in and out of offices)
  5. Nextel cell phone (free incoming minutes!)
  6. palm pilot (with Vindigo for nyc and brooklyn)
  7. make up (very basic, very matte)
  8. a flashlight (somehow this thing always comes in handy...)
  9. a book idea that i'm fleshing out
  10. a small Bible with a snap front closure
  11. an excellent Swiss Army knife (this thing has everything i need...)
  12. my tiny Casio digital camera (i am totally in love with this thing and no, i haven't named it yet)
  13. my Wonder Woman journal (it's usually by my bed for my morning pages ritual but for some reason, it jumped in my bag on the way out the door. go figure.)
  14. clear zipped packet containing: kleenex, shea butter, purell hand sanitizer, khiel's lip balm, Lubriderm hand lotion, altoids, alleve, a fingernail file, a small mirror and an embroidered handkerchief. all the stuff that i don't want to dig for (or get soiled at the bottom of the bag) when i really need it.
  15. my passport (actually, i need a new one -- it's my only photo id)
  16. MoMA July/August calendar
  17. EBONY magazine/August issue (just for the record: it was the picture of Emmett Till in the back that grabbed me, not Toni Braxton on the cover)
  18. a good pen and a blank book for stringing words together on the fly
  19. lots and lots of reciepts
  20. housekeys
  21. nail polish
  22. a light sweater (air conditioned buildings feel like they're trying to refrigerate me, and sometimes there's a chill in the air after dark, even during the summertime)
  23. the book "101 Things To Do Before You Die" (i can't believe how much of this stuff i've actually done already! whenever i'm bored, i sit and scheme about how i'm going to do the rest of the things on the list.)
  24. letters/packages to mail
  25. letters that i've recieved
  26. a compact subway map that folds down to the size of a Metrocard
  27. a monthly Metrocard

    and last but not least...

  28. my wallet -- and that's got museum memberships, a library card, my sag card, my equity card, dry cleaners stubs, postage stamps, a calling card for any pay phone in the netherlands, lots of loose change and of course no credit cards and no cash money. that's simply not where i keep it...

Sunday, July 17, 2005

lost at sea

all day long there was the threat of rain but not a drop fell from the sky. the push and the pull of a perpetual maybe set something off inside of everyone's plans that made them disintegrate. that is, except for renee and i. we met up by the big eagle war memorial in battery park early in the evening under a sunny blue sky with nary a cloud in it. after looking over our goodies (she had those chocolate chip cookies from whole foods again and i brought a bucket but i should have gotten a box), we headed to the govenor's island ferry, which was tucked neatly in the armpit of that big lettered hyper modern looking staten island glass colossus that overwhelms that section of the battery. it was cosy little nook, under renovation, somehow elegant in its deconstructed state. i would never have noticed it. when i step out of the subway, i'm usually headed in the other direction. and the way the traffic swings whenever i look this way, it feels as though there's nothing coming at me but road. i stepped into the wide arched walkway and felt a blast of cool moist air go all the way through me, like an ice cube that drops to the bottom of a glass of warm water, then floats back up to the top. all of a sudden, i was no longer in nyc. the grime, the filth, the congestion, the heat -- it was as far away as a memory. i was about to depart on some grand seafaring trip of some sort. it didn't matter that the ride was only about 15 minutes long.

as we sat in this breezy area and waited, aj appeared. what a coincidence -- if there really is such a thing as coincidence. aj is the negro in the know. he's got his ear to the tracks about most things in general, but he's very much aware of what's happening in the city creatively, on the black hand side. he's the one that sent me an email about this particular event. we bat emails back and forth often enough but here was a chance to hang out and really talk.

nothing like letting your mind wander and allowing yourself to get lost in your thoughts with other creative like minded sorts. such a free and open exchange always shakes something loose. on the boatride there i came up with a really cool idea for renee and i. we talked aobut it in bits and pieces for the rest of the night. it was the salt that seasoned our day.

as the boat let us out on the island, we walked up a hill and past a gate to a lush green wide open space, a veritable sea of grassyness, sprinkled with people on blankets and such. there were markers and an area set aside for a band and short movies that would be shown, courtesy of rooftop films. we ate and lolled around, watching the sky vacillate from a faint mona lisa smile to the verge of tears and back again. as the sun went down, a band played trippy pop tunes as the fireflies lit up the grassyness like fallen and wayward stars. it was magical. i felt as though i had wandered into someone else's liquid acid fantasy. as the music played, a helium filled screen began to expand and float behind them, as though slightly tipsy. i almost wished that we could camp out and stay all night long.

and then it was over. the spell was broken. we drifted onto the boat en masse, like children coming in after dark. the 1 train carried us to harlem and beyond. my new idea carried me to bed.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

okay, this sounds fun...

i got an invitation to go to governor's island on saturday night for something called set and drift, sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Community Council. food, drinks, art -- and of course, an amazing view. sounds like fun, with the right group of people. and i could use some fun...

one down, two to go...

i said i'd get three vintage diane von furstenberg wrap dresses for my birthday. here's the first one. ain't it a beaut? and its a size 4, so i'm officially a slim jim. but i still can't run a mile in ten minutes. i think i've lost about twenty pounds so far. (to celebrate my emminent weight loss, i ate an entire cuban sandwich for dinner. it was as big as me. well done!)

i love these dresses because they're so unusual and effortless and feminine and they transition well into every season. and i love it that it's silk, which is so durable and luxurious. but the kicker is that it looks great on every figure, no matter what the flaws. it makes every female form look lovely, no matter the size or shape.

i should have had these dresses years ago but i didn't know about them and even if i had i probably would have hated myself too much to understand in a basic fundamental way that i truly deserved to wear them.

this vintage wrap dress thing is like only eating one potato chip. i'm already stalking another one on ebay. if my money holds out, i'll bet i have ten of them before the end of the summer...

how is it possible that a dress could make me this happy?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


my roommate is out of town for ten days. wheeeee!!!!!!! i'm running around in my apartment half-naked, throwing lots of things away (like stacks of newspapers that i never look at any more), playing my music really loud, taking nice long hot bubble baths and having friends over in the middle of the night. i clean things and *gasp* they stay clean! i come home and the place is dark and empty and everything is in order. it feels so good, i'm giggling as i tiptoe in the darkness and reach for the lights. it feels like a little miracle. the roses on my piano are still fresh from the last wedding and it's making my living room smell so lovely that everytime i walk through there, i feel a little twitch of happiness.

i want to live by myself all the time. even if i ever get married. especially if i get married. well. if i can't live by myself, i definitely want my own room...

Monday, July 11, 2005

the flow of the day

slept in. worked out. ate a piece of nuked roasted chicken, sipped tea from my sam (adams) jackson beer glass and practiced guitar scales while chasing down a mint condition vintage diane von furstenberg wrap dress on ebay with one eye and watching foster's home for imaginary friends on cartoon network with the other. got the dress, thank God -- and in the last 10 minutes of bidding! put down my guitar, got up and did a happy dance in my underwear. i promised myself three for my birthday. one down, two to go.

made and recieved a flurry of business phone calls, emails and letters/bills/packages, one of which was the contract for jc hopkins biggish band -- for some reason, i've been too out of it to sign on the dotted line. checked in with my manager (for the acting stuff), to see if anything was coming down the pike. it is?! yet another happy dance was clearly in order.

paid a few bills and balanced my checkbook. seriously considered losing my negrovision. wondered if my future sister-in-law was serious when she said that i could come with her and emmett when they went to fiji on their honeymoon in october. my mother calls and says that i'm in ebony magazine for the month of august, for the jc hopkins cd. we talk for a spell. she wants me to start dating again. get back out there, she says, with real gusto. (fat chance.)

renee wants to go to a reading tonight. i can't do it.

made cd packages with the prerequesite radio one sheets for several djs, as requested, to be mailed out later that day. prepped packages for several band/songwritng contests, including the International Songwriting Competition, The Independent Music World Series, The John Lennon Songwriting Contest, and the Independent Music Awards. there's a bunch of other ones, too. i make a calendar that shows deadlines, fees and any other pertinent details i can think of. as i do this, i'm thinking, how else am i supposed to get anyone's attention in this industry?

everything seems to be in order for the rest of the year: beauty day on wednesdays, piano lessons/music theory lessons on tuesdays, guitar lessons on thursdays, housecleaning on saturday mornings, museum visits on sundays. where in the wide world of sports is my voice teacher, the opera singer that i love so much? off i go, to run errands before i disappear into the bowels of midtown for 8 hours and return home at 3:30am or thereabouts, victorious. it is then that i will put on the frilliest nightie i own, prop myself up in bed at the just right angle so i can admire my lovely pedicure, and play guitar and watck adult swim. (it's either that or drawn together. i totally love that show...)

tomorrow, the swing band is at the knitting factory, in the tap bar. i have a closet full of clothes and nothing to wear. suddenly i realize that the vintage wrap dress will get to me in time for the early evening show at joe's pub on friday. (neat-o.) when is soundcheck, anyway? and what time do we start?

Saturday, July 09, 2005

a day in the life of...

right now, i'm averaging about 3 to 5 commercial auditions a week and something like 3 to 5 film/tv auditions a month. i won't be happy until i'm doing those numbers every week but i'm not sure that the demand is there for black females in my age range that have my look. i'm going to do what i have to do to turn the crank-handle. and of course, these auditions happen in the mid to late afternoons, so i can work out and do business as a record label of one in the mid to late morning. in the meantime, here's what happened on monday.

i had an audition for a part on a new tv show on comedy central called "stella" -- the character breakdown said older black female, fifty-something but they wanted to see "what else was out there," so there i was, sitting in their lobby in midtown on the west side, surrounded by swirling staircases and colorful goofy posters of their shows and monitor feeds that constantly ran whatever was on the channel at that moment. i needed the distraction. they didn't come out for more than a half-hour.

across from me sat a very pretty dark skinned older woman with long dreads, dressed in an orange tank top and one of those peasant skirts that everyone is wearing except me, the one with mirrors on them and stuff, in orange and black. we spoke politely. she looked lovely, i thought...and very familiar. hm. as i caught up on my stupid magazine reading (what's jessica alba doing on the cover of rolling stone?), my mind ran through all the visuals in my database like the terminator in an attempt to figure out who the lady was. only when the door swung open and they said her name that i realized: it was hazelle goodman, known amongst black theater folk in new york city as a wonderful solo performer but also as the first black woman to recieve a sizeable role in a woody allen movie. (and yes, she was a prostitute.)

another familiar face replaced her. she was older, with long salt and pepper dreads and sort of heavy set. i complimented her hair. she smiled. we chatted. she looked perfect for the role, i thought. they called me in. i stopped reading about what a nice girl jessica is and meandered down a busy hallway until i came upon a small white room with a white guy in a cowboy shirt at one end. the line on the floor opposite him was my mark. the white girl that led me inside was breezy and pleasant enough. both of them seemed squeamishly young to be doing what they were doing. i had enough time to memorize my lines and they let me redo it until we were all satisfied with the results. when i made my exit, the lobby was empty. i had just enough time to beat it down to canal st. for my next audition: a lasse halstrom movie called "the hoax."

i wasn't sure that i was in the right place at first because i was the only one there and it was such a small office. but there were movie posters everywhere. and then i remembered auditioning for something else there awhile back. no one was at the front desk. i refilled my water bottle at their office urn and pilfered a peanut butter cookie they had in an open tin. genuinely surprised at how good they were, i took another one. then i realized that was almost all i'd had all day to eat. what is it that makes me forget to eat nowadays? am i going through some kind of a wierd depression? i only seem to eat when it's absolutely necessary. i used to enjoy eating. i used to like food... someone said my name. i responded. she led me into the room, where there was a pleasant looking woman adjusting a video camera. we chatted for a minute or so. long enough for me to lose whatever nervousness i had. what did we talk about? cool stuff. her cool marriage. how cool her husband is. how cool billy crudup is. (his poster was hovering over us attentively from the movie jesus' son.) how cool nyc is. my cool hair. whatever. by the time she turned the camera on, i was at ease and as "natural" and small as i could be. she had me improvise, which always makes me happy. and then all of a sudden, i was out on the street, wandering through soho, headed uptown.

i called blood but then i realized that he was probably out of the country or out in the country, down south. i tripped up over a beautiful place that was going out of business, filled with victorian furniture. the owner led me around like a princess, amongst glittering chandeliers and oversized mirrors, until i saw a a beautiful queen-sized iron bed and fell in love with it. i simply had to have it. but how? one of the things on my 101 things list was "make a purchase you can't afford" -- this victorian bed would have to be it.

okay. now i have to get work in the movies...

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

help! i need more sleep!

i need more sleep and my life won't give it to me.

my little brother emmett's fiance melinda went back to atlanta on monday morning and i still haven't recovered from her visit. the reason why is because i didn't get more than two hours of sleep on any given night for the entire fourth of july weekend. don't get me wrong: she's a nice girl and i like her a lot but basically, she snores like a man. and after doing two gigs in one night on my birthday, the lack of sleep left me with no healing time for my voice to fully recover, so i was talking like a man for days on end, which always frazzles me because it sounds problematic.

here's why sleep is so important to a vocalist.

the vocal cords heal when they are apart. they are apart when you aren't speaking and when you are asleep. a lot of opera singers i know don't speak until a certain hour of the day. i try to either sleep or not speak (or eat anything) until at least noon. i have had my share of vocal injuries in the past and i have fully recovered from them, so i am extremely grateful for every clear note that goes sailing out of my mouth whenever i sing. and i do what i have to do to make sure that those notes stay clear and resonant.

i have acid reflux, so this means that generally, i can't eat at night and that there are a grocery list of things that i can't eat at all. of course, there are no hard and fast rules. it's all about the individual, their body, what works for them. i have a friend that's a tenor who can lose his upper register if he eats any kind of cheese. i have another musical theater pal who could eat his way through a block of cheddar and be completely unaffected. so it depends. i'm fine with cheese. i'm even fine with spicy foods, as long as i eat it in the middle of the day. it's all about moisture and sleep for me. i've experimented enough to know that if i don't humidify my surroundings, get the optimum amount of sleep, drink plenty of water and stop eating after 9pm, i'm not going to have much of a voice. if i have to do 8 shows a week, there's going to be prevacid and humibid involved but generally i like to steer clear of those drugs because they're so expensive. and besides i don't like the idea of having to pop pills to get my throat together. (now i sound like a black hippie...)

last night, i got home at 4:30am, took out my contacts, gulped down a quart of water, threw myself onto my fluffy bed and slept soundly until 1pm. as soon as i was conscious, i tried to sing a clear tone, to see where my vocal cords were. (hm...not 100% yet. more like 75%. but hey, at least i don't sound like a drag queen anymore...) i was so grateful to God for a good night's sleep, i actually woke up thanking Jesus.

i think i need another two days of this 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep time before everything heals and snaps back to normal. okay, three days. that'll put me right at my next gig: a private party with ron sunshine's smoking section on water street.

another list

here's the list of 30 things from the book 30 Things Everyone Should Know How To Do Before Turning 30. always interesting to breeze through stuff like this, to gage where you are and how you're doing on some level. if you don't know how, this book will teach you to:

1. wrap a present
2. start a successful fire in a fireplace, at a campsite, and in a barbecue
3. finish a piece of furniture
4. get a raise
5. order wine at a restaurant without getting stiffed
6. parallel park in three breathtakingly beautiful movements
7. dance a “slow dance” without looking like an idiot
8. use a full place setting properly, including chopsticks and Asian soup spoons
9. clean your place in under 45 minutes, when friends, relatives, or prospective lovers are coming by unexpectedly, and soon
10. hold your liquor
11. cure a hangover
12. do the Heimlich Maneuver
13. use a compass
14. change a flat
15. jump start a car
16. open a champagne bottle
17. send a drink to someone’s table
18. cook one “signature meal”
19. whistle with your fingers
20. take good pictures
21. fold a fitted sheet
22. remove common stains
23. sew a button
24. carve turkey, lasagna, and birthday cake
25. hold a baby
26. change a diaper
27. keep a plant alive for more than a year
28. make dogs and cats love you
29. help someone (an older or ill person, a woman you’re trying to impress, your mother) out of a car
30. write superior thank you notes

i know how to do all of this stuff, except for #10 (i don't drink) and #6 (i don't drive).

Saturday, July 02, 2005

101 Things To Do Before You Die

my friend laura gave me a book of lists for my birthday called "101 Things To Do Before You Die." being a constant listmaker, i was fascinated. you mark things off with star stickies, descriptions and photos when you accomplish them. it makes for colorful and interesting city reading on the subway or while i'm waiting in line for something, or whatever. today i realized that i'd done something like one-fourth of those things already and i'm well on my way to at least half of it in another year or so. like the "travel to other countries" sections. heck, i'm a musician. that's covered. "milk a cow"? i did that as a child. hey, wait a minute. "ride the world's greatest roller coasters"? actually, that would be bizarre that two of them are in ohio. it'll be interesting when she gets the book and we start doing some of this stuff together. maybe we could make it a group effort!

i think this book is for people who are stuck in their day job routines or they're in some kind of a life rut or something. i'm so used to flying by the seat of my pants and doing new things and taking risks in the most ordinary mundane moments of my life that at this juncture, i would find it very difficult to live any other way.